All too often we overlook the amazing destinations close to our homes, as we search out the distant and the exotic. But when the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site is right on your doorstep, it’s got to be something to shout about. So that’s why I’ve pulled together my Insider’s Guide to the Jurassic Coast…
The Jurassic Coast
The Jurassic Coast, also known as the Dorset and East Devon World Heritage Site, covers an area of 2,550 hectares along dramatic coastline from Wareham in Dorset to Exmouth in East Devon.
The cliff exposures along this stretch of coast are like a huge natural time capsule with an almost continuous sequence of rock formations spanning the Mesozoic Era (some 185 million years of the earth’s history). Put simply, this is a geologists dream!
For many people in the UK, the first trip to the Jurassic Coast is for a geography field trip. The area includes many important fossil sites and some unique coastal geomorphology, which has been a focus for earth sciences study for 300 years.
Top 10 Jurassic Coast Attractions
1. Durdle Door
My favourite feature of the Jurassic Coast is Durdle Door (Durdle Dor) which has become an iconic symbol for both the county of Dorset and the Jurassic Coast world heritage site.
It is a natural limestone arch, at the end of a beautiful shingle beach that shelves steeply away. Every time I visit I am relieved to see the arch is still standing.
Nearby Man O’ War Bay encloses Man O’ War Cove, between the headlands of Durdle Door to the west and Man O’ War Head to the east. This is a more sheltered and quieter shingle beach than the more popular one at Durdle Door itself.
Accessing both involves a fairly steep walk, which will hurt far more on the way back up than it does on the way down.
2. Lulworth Cove
The village of Lulworth, with it’s iconic cove, attracts around 500,000 visitors each year. The cove itself is one of the best examples of this particular land form in the world, with a narrow entrance which forces the waves to bend into an arc shape.
It has become a cultural icon having featured as the stunning backdrop for television and film, including Seven Natural Wonders (2005), Nuts in May (1976), and the Doctor Who serial The Curse of Fenric (1989).
Lulworth also featured in the film adaptation of World War Z (2013) and is mentioned in the Thomas Hardy poem At Lulworth Cove a Century Back. During my last visit it was being used as a location for a wedding scene in a Bollywood Film.
3. Chapman’s Pool
I love a walk to Chapman’s Pool on the Isle Of Purbeck. This is probably one of the best kept secrets of the Jurassic Coast, with relatively few people bothering to make the steep walk down to this idyllic bay.
There are no facilities when you reach the beach, apart from some old fishing sheds that once housed a lifeboat, but this sheltered bay is one of my favourite places for a wild swim in summer.
4. St Aldhelm’s Head and Chapel
I like to coincide a visit to Chapman’s Pool with a walk along the south west coastal path to St Aldhelm’s Head, a large outcrop of Portland Stone which thrusts upwards to approximately 350 feet above sea level.
The location of St Aldhelm’s Chapel is quite unusual, as it is 1.5 miles from the nearest village on top of the cliff. It is thought this Norman chapel probably served as a warning to passing ships. It was a perilous stretch of coast, so the priest would have prayed, lit a candle and rang a bell to warn sailors about the cliffs. Nowadays it is just the cutest chapel you will ever visit.
Abbotsbury is an adorable village near Chesil Beach on the Jurassic Coast. It features an old tithe barn which dates back to the 1390s (pictured) and the ruins of St Peter’s Monastery, built in 1040 and destroyed in 1539 during the dissolution.
The highlight is a visit to the Abbotsbury Swannery, which is the world’s only managed colony of nesting mute swans and is particularly amazing if you time your visit to coincide with the Spring cygnets.
Nearby St Catherine’s Chapel is worth a visit. Set high above Abbotsbury and Chesil Beach, this 14th century chapel was built by monks from the local monastery. From its exposed and isolated position, it provides great views of the abbey ruins and across the Isle of Purbeck.
6. The Hell Stone
The Hell Stone on Portesham Hill is a restored Neolithic dolmen. It was rebuilt in 1866, although the original structure was probably more rectangular.
Deep in Thomas Hardy country, Hell Stone is not far from Hardy’s Monument, which was not actually constructed to honour the famous author (as many believe) but for Vice Admiral Hardy of the Royal Navy. It is also just one mile from the Valley of Stones, where the stones were likely to have originated from.
The Hell Stone (grid reference SY604868) is not easy to find, so do your research before setting out.
7. Chesil Beach
One of just three major shingle structures in the UK, this ‘barrier beach’ is 18 miles long, 200 metres (669 feet) wide and 15 metres (50 feet) high.
The waters here are known for their strong currents, so I would not recommend swimming from this steeply shelved beach. It was also historically the scene of many a ship-wreck, and Thomas Hardy named it ‘Dead Man’s Bay’.
Today it is a popular spot for local anglers, who will often be seen catching mackerel in season.
8. Burton Bradstock and West Bay
Fans of the ITV drama Broadchurch will recognise West Bay and Burton Bradstock as the stunning backdrop for filming this popular television series.
But for me it’s all about the food here. The beach cafe at Burton Bradstock, known as The Hive, serves great food in a relaxed atmosphere, right on the beach. Don’t be put off by it’s slightly tatty exterior, as the quality of the food and wonderful views are all that will matter.
West Bay itself is a charming fishing village but can be busy in high season. It is known for quality local food, including seafood, and there are a number of great restaurants to enjoy. Or you why not sample some fish and chips from one of the food huts by the harbour?
9. Corfe Castle and Kimmeridge
The village of Corfe is best known for it’s dramatic castle ruins, which dominate the horizon. In it’s day, the Castle would have guarded the principal route through the Purbeck Hills. The original buildings would have been wooden, but it was rebuilt in stone by William the Conqueror in the 11th century and served as an impressive royal fortress for over six hundred years.
The nearby beach at Kimmeridge is famous for it’s tidal rock pools and fossils, and is a great beach to explore with children.
10. Studland Beach and Old Harry’s Rock
Technically, Studland Beach is just outside the world heritage site, but it is one of the most beautiful beaches in Dorset and well worth a visit.
Managed by the National Trust, there are four miles of golden sand to enjoy, including a well-signed nudist section and rolling sand dunes.
Studland Bay is home to the rare spiny seahorse, which thrives in the seagrass meadows here.
From the beach you can see Old Harry Rocks, which is the first landmark within the world heritage site.
Things to Do at the Jurassic Coast
There is so much to do during a visit to the Jurassic Coast from kayaking and coasteering, to hiking and gliding. But no visit to the world heritage site would be complete without trying one of the following activities:
1. Fossil Hunting
The Jurassic Coast is world famous for its fossils which have been preserved in the geology of the coastline in abundance. They not only provide vital evidence of how animals and plants evolved during the Mesozoic Era, but can be extremely exciting to find.
There have been some particularly impressive discoveries along this stretch of coast, including the skeleton of a Scelidosaurus dinosaur, which is unique to Dorset, and the scull of a Pliosaur, once a mega-predator of the Jurassic seas.
You cannot come to the Jurassic Coast without enjoying a spot of responsible fossil hunting. Great places to look for fossils include the beaches at Charmouth, Lyme Regis and Kimmeridge.
But before you start, familiarise yourself with the rules of responsible fossil hunting and remember to stay away from recent landslips or unstable cliffs for your own safety.
Some great fossils can also be viewed at Dorset County Museum in Dorchester (including the Pliosaur skull), Lyme Regis Museum, Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre or at the Square and Compass in Worth Matravers.
2. Hiking the South West Coastal Path
With all this stunning scenery, far-reaching coastal views and many unique land forms, the Jurassic Coast is a great place for hiking.
The section of the South West Coastal Path, through the world heritage site, is 95 miles long from Old Harry Rocks to Exmouth. There are some steep climbs along the way, but you just know you will be treated to the most impressive of views as you reach the top of each one.
3. A Jurassic Coast Boat Trip
The best way to experience the stunning geology of the Jurassic Coast is by boat, and tours can be arranged from both Poole and Swanage.
There are so many wonderful attractions in Dorset and East Devon, that there is something for everyone to enjoy. Here are a few of my favourites…
You can find Monkey World a short drive from the Jurassic Coast.
This is a chimpanzee rescue centre, near Wareham, which rehabilitates primates from around the world.
The centre has rescued over 250 endangered primates over the years, including chimpanzees used in animal testing laboratories.
Monkey World is home to the largest group of chimpanzees outside Africa, living in four different groups. There are also five species of gibbon, three groups of orang-utan (including the only orang-utan nursery in Europe), and eight species of monkey and lemur.
Try to visit on a sunny day, when the chimps and other primates will be outside enjoying the weather.
Poole Harbour & Brownsea Island
Poole Harbour is the largest natural harbour in Europe and is relatively unspoiled, thanks to a whole raft of nature conservation designations and it’s relatively shallow waters.
The harbour was formed at the end of the last ice age and is the estuary of several rivers, including the River Frome. It is a great place for some gentle sailing, wildlife spotting, or visiting one of several islands, including the National Trust’s Brownsea Island.
RSPB Nature Reserve at Arne
The RSPB nature reserve at Arne is well worth a visit, whether you are interested in bird watching or not.
This is an unusual landscape where you can enjoy walks in open heathland and old oak woodland, as well as spotting some pretty special wildlife including Sika deer, water vole, Dartford warblers, nightjars and 22 species of dragonflies.
The reserve overlooks Poole Harbour where you can watch thousands of wading birds, ducks and geese including avocets, black-tailed godwits and brent geese. Ospreys are also seen in late summer and autumn.
Where to Stay
There are many great accommodation providers along the Jurassic Coast but here are two of my favourites:
Monkton Wyld Court
Monkton Wyld Court is a volunteer community and education centre for sustainable living, as well as a B&B, a camp site and a rural retreat where you can stay, either as a guest or volunteer.
Fern Down Farm
For a peaceful escape and a taste of farm life, consider Fern Down Farm in Wynford Eagle, where there are two holiday cottages (including a beautifully restored barn) and an arctic cabin.
Where to eat
Dorset and Devon are both known for their fantastic local and seasonal produce, including wonderful sea food, fresh organic produce, and some great vegetarian fare. I recommend the following:
The Hive Beach Café – it’s all about great local food and a sea view here.
The Ilchester Arms – a classic English village pub with a great lunch menu.
The Square and Compass – a quirky village pub with a great range of ciders and real ales, and serving two types of pasty only.
Tierra Kitchen – a great little vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Lyme Regis.
The Jurassic Coast is on the south coast of England, in Dorset and East Devon. It was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2001.