Tilly Whim Caves

Useful Information

Engraving by Thomas Webster from Picturesque Beauties of the Isle of Wight (1816) of the quarry works at Tilly Whim Caves.
Location: Swanage, Dorset.
On the cliffs west of Swanage. Cars should be parked near the hotel, signposted footpath to the cave entrance.
(50.592446, -1.957455)
Open: for safety reasons not accessible to the public at the present time
Fee: closed.
Classification: artificial, quarries, Purbeck-Portland Freestone.
Light: none, bring electric torch.
Guided tours: L=150 m, D=15 min.
Bibliography: Grabau (1920): Text Book of Geology,
Keith Jones (1992): Tilly Whim Caves, Isca Caving Club Jl 15 26-31 + survey
Address: Tilly Whim Caves, W. Tanner, Durlston Castle, Durlston Head, Swanage, BHl9 2JL, Dorset (tel. Swanage 2713)
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.


1805 Tilly Whim first mentioned.
1820 quarrying finished.
1970s staircase closed after rockfall for security reasons.
02-NOV-2013 a teacher and Royal Navy reservist dies swimming in fron of Tilly Whim.


Tilly Whim Caves are old quarries of the Napoleonic War. The area around Anvil Point and Durlston Head consists of Portland limestone. The whole area shows multiple karst features like dry valleys, but the caves are definitely quarries. The caves are two square holes in the rock, of about the same size. From one of the caves a tunnel with steep steps leads up to the plateau. In front of the caves is a flat ledge, about 4 m wide.

The techniques of quarrying were rather unusual. No stone was ever removed inland because there was formerly no road. The stone was loaded into barges in calm weather, using a winch and a type of derrick or whim. This may explain the name of the caves.

In 1920, Grabau made a strange mistake in his Text-book of Geology when reproducing two photographs of Tilly Whim with the inscription "Tilly Whim Caves: Elevated sea-caves cut by waves in horizontal (Jurassic) strata". Obviously he thought this were natural caves, probably tricked by the name of the site.

The site can be reached on a direct trail from the parking lot of Durlston Castle, or you can go to the castle and then follow the coastal path. A staircase leads down into the quarry, which was built in the 19th century and quite popular. In the 1970s, due to a rock fall the staircase was closed down with an iron gate for security reasons. Unfortunately this was the end of a quite popular tourist location. It was also a regular location of geological field trips.

It is actually quite simple to enter the site anyway, because if you follow the coastal path further it goes down into a dry valley. From here it is possible to reach the plateau in front of the caves by climbing a low wall. But of course this is forbidden by a quite important decree from the 1970s, ao you should definitely never do this!

A few years ago the place was actually the location of a deadly swimming accident. In December 2013 Charlotte "Buffy" Furness-Smith (30), a Royal Navy reservist, and her swimming companion Julian Jenesen were swimming in the sea. The sea was rough with gale force winds and high tide, when she became trapped in the caves at sea level. Her companion went for help but when they returned, she had died and her body could not be retrieved. It was washed into the sea and she was listed as a "missing person".

Immediately upon entering the cave, one descends a flight of steps in a steeply descending man-made tunnel. In the distance a glow of daylight can be seen, and the tunnel leads out on to a wide, boulder-strewn ledge overlooking the sea. Several further openings lead off this ledge, which are not illuminated, so the visitor is advised to bring a torch.

The great American speleologist, Dr. William R. Halliday, remarked of these caves: "someone ought to separate the artificial/solutional/fittoral features here". Certainly the rock has been removed for building stone, but there are also signs that at some previous period in geological history, the sea has played a part in the formation of the caves.

The proximity of the sea also makes them a supposedly favourite haunt of smugglers.

Text from: Tony and Anne Oldham (1972): Discovering Caves - A guide to the Show Caves of Britain. With kind permission by Tony Oldham.