James Weld on what it's like to own Durdle Door
PUBLISHED: 10:31 13 April 2017
What is it like to own one of the most iconic geological features on the Jurassic Coast? James Weld talks to Faith Eckersall about the highs and lows of caring for this national landmark which is part of the Lulworth Estate
If it isn’t eccentric pensioners diving off it, swimmers getting into trouble underneath it, or businesses as far away as Dubai ‘borrowing’ its image, one thing’s for sure – Dorset’s Durdle Door is rarely out of the news.
Only last year the readers of the BBC’s Countryfile magazine nominated it as one of their Landmarks of 2016 – hardly surprising when you consider that around half a million of us make the trek to see it every year.
The Door – the Durdle bit comes from the old English ‘thirl’, meaning to bore or drill – made its movie debut in 1967’s Far From the Madding Crowd. It featured as the dramatic backdrop for the Tears For Fears video Shout in 1984; it was in scenes from Wilde in 1997, starring Stephen Fry, and in the Emma Thompson film, Nanny McPhee - the family is pictured picnicking on the beach with Durdle Door in the background.
So what is it like, then, to know that this geological celebrity really does belong to you?
James Weld, whose family purchased Lulworth Castle in 1641, is sanguine. “Although our family does own it, as part of the Lulworth Estate, I always say that Durdle Door is something I’ve borrowed from my children, rather than inherited from my father.”
Ever since he was a tiny child, James has known the layered arch of chalk, Portland and Purbeck limestone that is Durdle Door. It is just a small but important part of his family’s 12,000-acre (20 square miles) Lulworth Estate which also includes 5 miles of Jurassic Coast and that other favourite GCSE geography topic Lulworth Cove.
“I’ve always understood that we are responsible for it in, one way and another,” he says. “But the knowledge grows on you as you get older.”
Astonishingly, however, he has never been tempted to swim round it or venture onto its delicate arch.
“I used to swim off the beach quite a lot as a child, but not necessarily at Durdle Door because it was always busy there. And as for walking or climbing on it – no!”
There are, he explains, some excellent reasons for this. “Firstly, because it’s dangerous; ground could fall away and there are a lot of rocks just underneath the water, so it’s not something I’d happily jump off. Also to walk on the arch would damage the ecology up there which is quite fragile; you get nesting birds and rare insects.”
People have been visiting in earnest for around 100 years, he says, although one of the Door’s earliest recorded admirers was the Irish playwright, John O’Keefe, who praised it in 1792 as the ‘magnificent arch of Durdle-rock Door’, wrote: ‘Here I stood and contemplated with astonishment and pleasure this stupendous piece of nature’s work’.
According to James Weld the real visitor boom started around 30 years ago, and he suspects the recent surge in visitor numbers has something to do with social media. “People come here, take a picture of Durdle Door and share it on social media, and that encourages more people to come and see it too.”
The arch is checked every day by the Lulworth Rangers, to make sure there is no obvious hazard, such as falling or lose rock. “You don’t fuss over it as such, but there is always that danger,” adds James.
“We encourage people to be sensible where they go, and how to use the area safely,” he says. “You do get rock falls, fortunately not very often, which is why we advise people not to sit too close to the cliffs, but they don’t always heed the advice.”
And risking a rock on the head is not the only daft thing people get up to at Durdle Door. There have been some truly foolhardy members of the public.
In 2010 a retired Army major was airlifted to hospital, after his attempt to make a swallow dive from 30 foot up the arch went disastrously wrong.
Six years later beachgoers cheered when a teenager who’d attempted to scale the Door’s cliff was rescued after freezing with fear, halfway up.
According to James Weld, the public’s biggest faux pas is not to read the warning signs his team helpfully put up, and he is deeply unimpressed by the litter that coats the beach after a busy day.
“The amount of litter people leave is really quite tremendous,” he says. “You think of this beautiful place – and I know I’m biased but it really is one of the most beautiful places in the country - and people still leave their rubbish rather than take it home. So we have to employ people to clean the beaches.”
Another infuriation is some visitors’ propensity for making bonfires – and using anything flammable they can find to fuel them. “You have to be very careful what you leave around there, especially anything wooden, because they might burn it,” he says.
However, none of this stops James from providing the correct access for steps and ensuring that visitors can safely negotiate paths, but human users are not the only thing Lulworth Estate has to consider.
“Our rangers also have to ensure the habitat is suitable for maximum diversity,” James explains. “We recognised 20 or more years ago that this place is somewhere visitors would want to come and see – not just the beach, but the landscape itself.”
The mile either side of Durdle Door is the most visited of the entire Jurassic Coast, England’s only natural World Heritage Site, and most people arrive by car. “We have to provide parking spaces for them and also facilities such as loos. They also need somewhere to buy refreshment.”
Those who decide to not pay the parking fee and park on the road can cause an major issue, as happened last year when an ambulance was unable to negotiate the narrow route. “We are working on new ways to help with this,” adds James.
As with most other things they do, everything has to be accomplished alongside the concerns of a string of organisations and authorities, including UNESCO, the Ministry of Defence (which leases land close by), Natural England and Dorset County Council. “Everyone wants a say but our job is to conserve and protect, rather than preserve as it goes forwards,” explains James. “You try and balance all the demands without it costing animals’ lives and habitat.”
Their success with this is estimable - in the immediate area you can spot lizards, dolphins and even the occasional puffin. The estate is also home to 35 of Britain’s 59 species of butterfly, including the celebrated Lulworth Skipper.
“Durdle Door and the surrounding area are beautiful, and our job is to enhance it without losing it. My aim is to leave it better than I found it,” says James. Despite its fragility: “One day it will go,” he’s convinced it will be around for a long time yet. “It’ll see me out,” he declares, with some satisfaction.
For more details visit lulworth.com
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