Thursday, 16 July 2020

Legends of Old Harry Rock

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Old Harry Rock (or, Old Harry Rocks) near Studland is/are an iconic landmark in Dorset, although perhaps a little less famous (if postcards are anything to go by) than Durdle Door in Lulworth. The chalk outcrop looms as a geographic phantom throughout my novel, A Dorset Summer.

Just as people don't agree on exactly how to name them (just counting the main rock, or those surrounding him), how they got their name is also in dispute. Some say they are named after the fourteenth-century Poole pirate, Harry Paye. Explanations include that his ships hid near here as a launch point for his raid on merchant ships, or that his treasure was stashed in the cliff's caves. History suggests that Harry ferried pilgrims across the sea to Spain, and, in an admirable display of business acumen, filled his empty holds on the return journey by indulging in piracy along the Spanish coastline, as well as accepting money from Spanish nobility to aid them in their feuds.

The main reason he is celebrated comes a little later - and I've seen slightly different versions of that story. Either in payback for the piratical antics of the man they called Arripaye, or in a run-of-the-mill act of aggression,  A Spanish-French alliance raided the coastline along Dorset, launching an attack on Harry's home town. The people of Poole beat the invaders off in a desperate fight, even ripping doors from their hinges to use as shields. Apparently Harry was absent, but in revenge, he gathered a small fleet and captured 120 French ships, giving their cargo to Poole. It is said the people were drunk for a month afterwards on the claret. I'm surprised they even remembered his name after that, but they (maybe) named the rocks for him, and commemorate him on Harry Paye Day - Pirate Day - in Poole.

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The other most popular legend links the rocks to "Old Harry", the devil, joining with many other geographic oddities in the British Isles, which are said to be places visited by the devil. The Dorset legend says he slept on the rock one night. The expression "to play Old Harry" means to ruin or destroy, and it's linked here to the idea that it's a warning to ships to steer clear of the rocks. By the way, other places in Dorset with satanic etymology include Agglestone (meaning "Prince's Stone") and the village of Dewlish (devilish).

Another legend, one that I only found out about when I delved a little deeper into Old Harry legends, is that the rock is a drowned Viking, Earl Harold, turned into a pillar of chalk after his raid on the English coast was thwarted. I tried to investigate that tale further, but only got broken links, so maybe it's a legend about a legend :)

Geography says the rocks were once part of a chalk cliff line that stretched out to what is now the Isle of Wight. Erosion over thousands of years left us the Needles at the Isle of Wight and Old Harry by the mainland. Old Harry used to have a wife, but she collapsed into the sea at the end of the nineteenth century, and her title was transferred to the next rock along, so I suppose Old Harry is not that doting a husband.

By the way, H.G. Wells' ashes were scattered here by his son.

Painting copyright Beatrice Dobson 2020 (aka my talented daughter!)

Whatever the origins, Old Harry is an impressive focal point for your walks along the Jurassic coastline. I like to do the walk from Swanage, the town where my parents now live. You can start from the town itself, picking up the path to the cliff near the Grand Hotel, but I prefer to begin at Swanage beach, walking along almost to the point where it turns the corner of the coastline, to pick up the stairs that wind up the cliff and meet the coastal path. From there it's a clearly-marked path along the cliff edge and through fields to Old Harry. After you've rested on the cliffs, a short walk will bring you down into Studland and the Bankes Arms for a very well-deserved pint, and the bus back to Swanage. As far as I can recall, that's less than a couple of hours of walking.

The easiest and more popular route, especially in summer, is to pick up the path in Studland itself, down the road from the Bankes Arms, where you start on a wooded, shaded route and break out into sunshine near the cliff edge. We used to do that quite a lot when I was a child, as a break from sitting on the beach below. Whichever route you choose, you'll be well rewarded at the end.

I chose to put the legends of Old Harry into the prologue of my novel, setting the tone of something vaguely supernatural lying beneath the surface. Here it is in full:

Photo credit: all my own work :)

A Dorset Summer: Prologue 
I lean against the windowsill, my face so close to the pane that my breath dissolves a little circle in the frost clinging to the glass. In the fading light, an unfamiliar landscape meets my eye. Snow: shovelled into grey heaps three feet high on either side of the pathways, drifting pristine against the fences, melding gardens and fields into one expanse.
On a whim, I fling open the casement. An avalanche of hardened snow cascades from the roof above. A gull, hunkered down by the chimney, takes flight, startled and angry, and screeches off into the dusk.
Little clumps of snowflakes waft into the room and settle on my cheeks, melting down my face in icy tears. Water trickles to my collar as I trace the dark outline of the bird, headed towards the coast. My head tells me he will make for the nearest barn or house, to take shelter where he can until the darkness lifts. In my heart, I follow him to the sea.
I close my eyes and visualise his imaginary flight, sweeping the miles to the cliffs, to Old Harry Rocks. Foolish, I know. What would drive him all that way, cold and blind and weary?
What drove me?
Old Harry. Not even here in Dorset, where memory is long, can they agree on how the rocks came to be named. Many swear it is for Harry Paye, a pirate in the days of the Plantagenets. Harry pillaged his way along the coast of Normandy to the Bay of Biscay, until the French and Spanish fleets united to raid his home town, Poole, in revenge. But like the land, the people here are resilient. They fought off the foreign invaders, using only doors for shields, then immortalised the man who brought destruction on their heads by christening these rocks after him.
I take a long breath, drawing the chill air deep into my lungs, as if testing my own resilience against the outside world. In these twilight hours, it is easier to believe the folklore that the rocks take their name from a destroyer of souls far older than Harry Paye. They say the devil slept there one night, tired out from making mischief perhaps, or from carousing with his pagan comrades at nearby Stonehenge.
I lean out to swing the casement shut. A final blast of frigid air envelops me. I step back, arms wrapped around myself, watching the view fade from my sight as the window pane fogs up.
The land outside my window tells its own silent story about Old Harry Rocks; in the end, I think, more true than either legend. Any guide to Dorset will inform you these stone outcrops are part of the flint and chalk downs that spread through the county and out across the sea. The rocks have stood, outwardly impregnable, for tens upon millions of years, but the elements assault them mercilessly. Air and water work their way into each little fissure, eroding caves, which in turn become open hollows. Eventually, the archways gape so wide, the rock cannot support itself and collapses into the waiting arms of the ocean.
Such are we. We hide our inmost selves from those around us, standing tall and hard as rocks. But little by little, the world works its way into our cracks, exposing our frailties, until we can no longer sustain the façade of our outward lives and plunge headlong into the abyss of our own making.

And who is there to catch us when we fall?

A Dorset Summer is available via Amazon: here's the link to the blurb and other info. Meanwhile, if you are interested in Old Harry Rocks, here's a couple of online sources to get you started:

A short article on Dorset place names in general is found at

And here are some walks that take in Old Harry Rocks:

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