One of the most stunning parts of the UK’s coastline, the Jurassic Coast in Dorset and Devon is justifiable famous. With 185 million years of history – not to mention some jaw-dropping landscapes and rock formations, caused by aeons of relentless erosion – this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the prettiest areas of England. And I promise I’m not just saying that because I’m biased.
This post is a bit of a walk down memory lane for me; these spots were the backdrop to my childhood summers and feature in a lot of my happiest memories! I grew up in Weymouth, and spent most of my summers being dragged all along the Dorset coast by my parents. Those days out instilled a lot of random knowledge about geology in my head, but more importantly, a deep-seated love of my home county. Hopefully, I can share a bit of that love now by encouraging you to visit at least a few of these incredible Jurassic Coast highlights in Dorset…
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The Jurassic Coast is a UNESCO World Heritage Site stretching 95 miles from Exmouth in East Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset. Most of this stretch of coastline belongs to Dorset, including some of the best-known spots like Durdle Door.
This is a hugely diverse landscape of massive geological importance. Basically, the coastline is made up of rocks spanning some 185 million years of geological history, covering the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Most geographic areas only cover one period, so three is a big deal if you’re a geologist. It essentially means the area tells scientists a lot about the environmental changes that have taken place over the ages – literally across hundreds of millions of years.
That’s all interesting enough, but what’s in it for the average tourist who doesn’t have a degree in geology? How about a stunning coastline filled with dramatic rock formations, an abundance of fossils, and lots of lovely beaches tucked into quiet bays and coves? This is a seriously beautiful part of the world, and there are so many incredible places to discover…
Dorset’s star attraction, and the poster-child for the Jurassic Coast, is Durdle Door. The “door” is a natural limestone arch over the sea, caused by millions of years of erosion.
Just next door from Durdle Door is another popular site on the Dorset Jurassic Coast, Lulworth Cove. It’s easy to visit both: you can park in Lulworth and walk over the cliffs to Durdle Door in around an hour. Be warned – it’s a steep climb!
Backed by white chalk cliffs, the bay at Lulworth is almost circular. The area is considered one of the best examples in Europe of the interaction of marine erosion on an alternating sequence of hard and soft rocks. You can see all the different layers in the rocks where they’ve slid up over the ages. Visual proof of the earth’s constant motion!
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To the east of Lulworth Cove is the Fossil Forest: a cluster of fossilised tree stumps, as well as trunks and roots, all dating from the Jurassic period. It was formed around 150 million years ago, when a temporary drop in sea levels allowed plants and trees to grow in an area that had previously been underwater. When the climate changed, the water levels rose again and the forest died. But their remains were preserved by layers of calcareous sediment. So at the “forest”, you can walk amongst trees that are older than much of the surrounding rock. It’s pretty cool!
FYI – you can only visit the Fossil Forest when the surrounding army ranges are open. You can check the Range access times here.
Lyme Regis lies on the Dorset Devon border, so it’s one of our first coastal landmarks. It’s a pretty seaside town with a small harbour and a lovely beach. But what makes Lyme Regis such an important spot on the Jurassic Coast is the abundance of fossils found in this area, thanks to the local blue lias clay. The famous Georgian fossil hunter Mary Anning came from the town, and discovered the first ichthyosaur skeleton when she was 12 – right here on Lyme Regis beach! There’s a brilliant museum where you can see loads of fossils, and learn more about the history of the area.
WATCH: Attenborough and the Sea Dragon (a BBC Documentary about the Lyme Regis ichthyosaur.
West Bay (aka Broadchurch)
BBC viewers might recognise the towering golden cliffs of West Bay, which starred as the fictional town of Broadchurch in the series of the same name. The crumbling, orangey-coloured cliffs at East Cliff tower above the shingle beach. Their visible layers are significant geographically because they tell the story of falling sea levels from some 175 million years ago.
Insider Tip: East Cliff provides a perfect spot for a cliff walk. Follow the cliff path to neighbouring Burton Bradstock, pop into the Hive Beach Cafe for lunch, and walk back – enjoying the spectacular views of Chesil Beach as you go.
Just west of West Bay is the Golden Cap. This towering, rust-yellow cliff is the highest point on the South Coast of England. At 191 metres (627 ft), it’s a bit of a climb, but the views from the top are well worth it!
Chesil Beach and Fleet Lagoon
Starting on the Isle of Portland, Chesil Beach stretches 18 miles along the coast to West Bay. This is a barrier beach, disconnected from the land, so on its way it forms the Fleet Lagoon, a brackish-water lagoon tucked between the beach and the mainland. Geographically, the feature is pretty important – I can remember spotting it in my high school geography textbooks – but there’s also a lot of exciting local folklore and history to the area, too.
At the Portland end, the pebbles of Chesil Beach are almost fist size, but they get smaller as you move westward. By the time the beach reaches West Bay the pebbles are tiny. Legend has it that smugglers of old used to land on the beach in the dead of night, and judge where they were by the size of the shingle.
Old Harry Rocks
Old Harry Rocks mark the easternmost point of the Dorset Jurassic Coast. These are three chalk rock formations stretching out into the sea from the Isle of Purbeck. Local legend holds that the rocks are named after Harry Payne, a pirate from nearby Poole.
Interestingly, these are part of the same chalk band as The Needles on the Isle of Wight. Once upon a time, it was all connected, but the band eroded over time and now all that remains are a few stacks at either end. On clear days you can glimpse The Needles in the distance.
Topped by a castle and a rich nature reserve, Durlston Head is a headland in the south-east corner of the Isle of Purbeck. The dramatic cliffs offer amazing sea views, but the area is better known for wildlife. The 320-acre country park is home to hundreds of species of wildflowers, as well as butterflies, birds, and invertebrates.
Another spot well-known for wildlife is Kimmeridge Bay. This sweeping bay lies within a marine Special Area of Conservation. Not only is this one of the safest and best locations for snorkelling, but it’s also the best place for rock pooling in Dorset. The rocky layers of the beach from dozens of pools and puddles, so you can easily get an up-close glimpse of the underwater world.
Dancing Ledge is a flat rock ledge that lies at the base of a small cliff near Langton Matravers. It’s named, apparently, because the bobbing waves at certain tides make the ledge look like its dancing. It’s also pretty tricky to reach as you have to scramble a bit to get there!
A manmade swimming pool was blasted into the rock here in the late 19th century. It was made for pupils of local prep schools. Although most of the nearby schools have now closed, the swimming pool remains a popular feature of Dancing Ledge. Every high tide, the pool’s water is refreshed, and on summer days it slowly warms in the sunshine at low tide.
Joined to the mainland by the shingle arc of Chesil Beach, the Isle of Portland stretches out into the English Channel. Its southern tip, Portland Bill, features a dangerous and dramatic coastline.
Even if you’ve never heard of Portland, chances are you’ve seen its stone. Portland Limestone was used to build St Paul’s Cathedral in London, as well as countless other important buildings. At Portland Bill, the artificial stack Pulpit Rock stands as a testament to the quarry that once worked there. There are several others on the island, some still working. One, Tout Quarry, has now been made into a lovely sculpture park and nature reserve.
Speaking of quarries, over in Worth Matravers lies Winspit. This is a disused quarry just along the coast from Dancing Ledge. Although many of the caverns are closed for safety reasons, you can still enter some of them. It’s quite a bizarre feeling to wander into the caves with the whole weight of the cliffs above you!
A quaint little seaside village, Charmouth makes for a charming day out. (Excuse the terrible pun!). Think thatched-roofed cottages and pastel blue beach huts on the shingle beach. But, like nearby Lyme Regis, Charmouth is another hotspot for fossil hunting. Last time I visited I found a small ammonite! The Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre has loads more history and info. They also offer guided fossil hunting walks along the beach.
Seacombe is another disused stone quarry. It lies between Dancing Ledge and Winspit, and the wild beauty of the area is ideal for walking. At Seacombe, the quarries left behind a low-level platform from which they used to lower rocks to the waiting barges in the sea. Today, that platform has become a popular swimming spot. If you can brave the chilly waters of the English Channel, that is!
Undercliff National Reserve
Starting at Seaton in Devon, a challenging section of the South West Coast Path crosses the border and leads all the way to Lyme Regis. On the way, it passes through one of the highlights of the Jurassic Coast, the Axmouth to Lyme Regis Undercliffs National Nature Reserve. The reserve is one of the largest active coastal landslide systems in Western Europe, so you need to be careful walking here. Pay attention to signs and check for weather warnings before starting out.
Gad Cliff and Worbarrow Bay
Worbarrow Bay is a wide, sweeping bay on the Isle of Purbeck. At its eastern end, the slumping figure of Gad Cliff juts into the sea. It’s a short, but steep, climb to the top, and the resulting views along the coastline are well worth it.
The nearest parking is a mile away, at the village of Tyneham, which is also worth exploring. This small village was abandoned during WWII as the army needed the area for practice. Their ranges are still found all over the area. Today, several of the buildings have been lovingly restored in order to show what rural life was like in the 1940s.
Just around the corner from the more famous Lulworth Cove, Mupe Bay is something of a hidden gem. At one end of the bay, a string of tooth-like pointed rocks juts up from the sea. Low tide also uncovers Mupe Ledge, a flat expanse of rock that is often covered with rockpools.
Last, but no means least, we have Chapman’s Pool. This small cove near Worth Matravers is another highlight of the Purbeck section of the Jurassic Coast. It’s backed by high cliffs, which provide shelter to the cove, but also make it a bit of a challenge to reach. Around the area are limestone cliffs and dramatic caves. Like other local limestone areas, the rocks around the cove are full of fossils. The beach itself is wonderfully wild, broken by a small stream which plunges through a ravine in the cliffs to reach the sea.
Are there any other Dorset Jurassic Coast highlights that I’ve missed? Scroll down and leave a comment!