From Swanage to Weymouth, the Jurassic Coast is one of the most varied and beautiful in England, and is now a World Heritage Site
Dorset, for me, has an appeal different to anywhere else in England. Its gently rolling hills, pretty stone-built villages and, most of all, the dramatic coastline, are captivating and enticing. I love to wander along the cliff tops, hunt for fossils at Lulworth, or stand high on the headland at Portland Bill.
The Purbeck headland is the beginning of the so-called Jurassic coastline, where there have been numerous important discoveries of creatures from the time when dinosaurs were the principal tourists here. Swanage, just below the headland, is a lovely seaside town, and a place I often stay when coming to this area. I enjoy walking around the bay, and especially up onto the Studland cliffs at sunset.
Another favourite day out is the short trip on the preserved steam train to Corfe Castle. The picture postcard main street, with the tea rooms, colourful window boxes, and the wonderful Fox pub, is a good place to get a cup of tea before climbing the steep hill behind it. But climb it I always do, as at the top are not only the haunting and impressive ruins of the castle, but also some wonderful views across the surrounding area.
A large chunk of the coast is now given over to the military as a training area, so the next place you encounter it is usually Lulworth. The cove is famous the world over amongst fossil hunters and geologists. The soft rock cliffs form an almost complete circle, with just a narrow outlet to the sea. I always enjoy my visits here, but beware if you are coming in the sunny summer months, as you’ll join the queues of others who have the same idea. If possible, try to stay in the village, as the best time to see the cove relatively unhindered is early in the morning. The sun plays wonderful tricks on the cliffs as it slowly rises, and then, when the hordes of tourists begin to arrive, I leave, and head off for a glorious day exploring the coastal paths.
The best places to stay are near the castle, which itself demands a visit. My favourite is the Cromwell House Hotel
- but not in the hotel itself. They also have beautiful rooms in the neighbouring Rose Cottage, and you still get to use all the hotel's facilities. Truly, the best of both worlds.
The walk from the big car park westwards takes you over the cliffs, past the mysterious Stair Hole (a huge, roofless, flooded cave that will one day collapse to create another cove like Lulworth), to probably Dorset’s most recognised symbol – Durdle Door. The rocky arch juts out into the sea, and features in almost every postcard and guidebook of the area. It’s an impressive sight with the waves crashing against it, but if the opportunity is there I much prefer the far less popular route to the east of Lulworth.
I say 'if the opportunity is there', since the eastbound path is open only when the military firing range is not in use, so look out for the red flags and never ignore them! What do I so enjoy about this route? Well, in 1943 the Army evacuated a tiny village called Tyneham, so that military invasion exercises could take place ahead of the D-Day landings. The residents never returned, but the deserted village is still preserved by the Army. I always get a fascinating, eerie feeling walking around, looking in the windows of long-abandoned cottages, and imagining the church to still be full of people. I also enjoy it for the wildlife, as so much that is difficult to find elsewhere has been allowed to grow unhindered here.
The biggest town on this section of the coast is Weymouth, an unpretentious tourist town, with caravan parks, a multitude of B&Bs, and some reasonable hotels. It’s great for families, but there are much nicer places to stay in nearby villages. It does, however, create a land bridge across to the Isle of Portland, where the many quarries produce the famous white stone used for St Paul’s Cathedral. The lighthouse on the southern tip allows you to climb to the top and enjoy the panoramic views. But the thing that always amazes me here is how you can actually see the sea change, with the strong waves of the Atlantic coming from the west, and meeting the calmer, greyer waters of the English Channel to the east.
Finally, west of Portland, is the magnificent Chesil Beach. An 18-mile-long shingle bank, beaten by the waves of the sea on one side, and lapped gently by a long thin lagoon on the other, it’s the haunt of fishermen, determined walkers, and those, like myself, who just enjoy the splendid solitude and the song of the ocean. It’s a magic place for me and, like the Dorset coast as a whole, keeps me wanting to return time after time.
Where to eat
The Fox Inn, Corfe Castle
The Castle Inn, West Lulworth
The Riverside Restaurant, West Bay, near Abbotsbury