Pitch up on the Jurassic Coast
There aren’t many bad things you can say about Dorset. In fact, there aren’t really any bad things you can say about Dorset, and anyone trying will receive a dirty look. It’s known as one of the most scenic areas in the country, has the highest proportion of conservation areas in England, and has almost half of it officially designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
And there are dinosaurs. Dorset (and east Devon) is probably best known for its Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, which covers 95 miles of coast, beaches and cliffs and which has geologists salivating over its 200 million years’ worth of history including the Jurassic, Triassic and Cretaceous years.
You can try your luck at fossil hunting here, look out for the dolphins and puffins, take a hike, take a bike or just wander dreamily along the beaches. Here are some tips on things to do on the Jurassic Coast:
Dorsetasaurus: If you want to go fossil hunting, head to Charmouth and Lyme Regis which are known to have the best finds. The cliffs at Charmouth have a distinctive dark colour caused by the muddy and stagnant sea bed during the Jurassic period, so conditions were ideal to preserve shells, bones and small critters millions of years ago. The best place to find fossils here is on the beach as there’ll be many there that have been washed up by the sea, and because the cliffs are too unstable to dig safely. Sadly, actual dinosaur fossils are rare in this area as almost all the Jurassic Coast fossils were formed in the sea, but don’t tell the kids (or yourself) that too vigorously. If you find something you think is significant, let the World Heritage Team know on 01305 225101. And if you want a guided fossil walk, contact the team at the Lyme Regis Museum.
Walking: There are over 300 miles of waymarked trails and paths in Dorset, including the South West Coast Path which follows the entire Jurassic coastline. It’s easy to follow on your own or you can take one of the many guided tours and walks available all year round which are run by local visitor centres and museums. There’s also the Purbeck Way, a trail of 15.5 miles starting opposite Wareham Quay and going past Corfe Castle south to Chapman’s Pool or east to Ballard Down – both finish at the Jurassic Coast and we hear there are pubs nearby.
Cycling: Cycle paths are also marked along the coastline and the National Cycle Network Route 2 runs through the area. The route covers 365 miles if you’re feeling particularly ambitious and have a really big cushion, but if not, try the Christchurch to Lyme Regis section continuing on to Dorchester, or the Lyme Regis to Dawlish route through Seaton and Sidmouth. There’s also a trail starting at Marine Way in Exmouth and going through Lympstone, Exton and Topsham before finishing at Exeter.
Boating and sailing: If you just want to lie back and enjoy the view, you can take one of the many boat trips around the Jurassic Coast, starting from the Dorset and east Devon towns of Exmouth, Beer, Lyme Regis, West Bay, Weymouth, Lulworth Cove, Swanage, Wareham, Poole and Bournemouth. Portland was the sailing venue for the 2012 Olympics so this is one of the best spots in the country to try a bit of sailing yourself, or some windsurfing, kayaking or diving.
Sightseeing: After you’ve clambered over the rock pools and hiked the Purbeck Way, take the bus at one of the many stops along the coast, or book a coach or minibus trip to see the coastline up close. There are loads of tour options covering all aspects of the Jurassic Coast from sea fishing to geology trips – ask at your campsite or caravan park for details or at one of the coast’s tourist information centres.
Day trips: There are enough tourist attractions along the Jurassic Coast to keep you busy for weeks, so book a fortnight off work and make the most of it. Twitchers can try the RSPB’s Radipole Lake and Lodmoor reserves, as well as Lorton Meadows run by the Dorset Wildlife Trust. There’s also Abbotsbury Gardens where you can see 600 swans being fed and wander around the subtropical gardens, the Sea Life Park at Weymouth, the Monkey World Chimp Rescue Centre at Wareham, Thomas Hardy’s Cottage at Dorchester, Lawrence of Arabia’s former home Cloud Hills, the ghost village of Tyneham, and blushing at the giant chalk man in the hillside at Cerne Abbas. Corfe Castle is also a must, as it has ‘murder holes’ to explore, costumes to try on, open-air theatre and Viking re-enactments. It was also apparently the inspiration for Kirrin Castle in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, which is a reason to go in itself.
Where to stay: We’ve plenty of Jurassic Coast holiday parks and campsites, covering tent and tourer pitches, static caravans, glamping and wild camping. If you’re pitching up near Poole, try Pear Tree Holiday Park which has pitches for tents, tourers and motorhomes from £15 per night, or Sandford Holiday Park from £15.50. For Dorset glamping, there’s Little Oak Yurts on a farm outside Dorchester, with luxury yurts sleeping five from £280 for two nights, and a shepherd's hut sleeping two from £60 a night.
In Weymouth, there's the Haven site Littlesea Holiday Park, crammed with things to do for the kids and with loads of food options (and a pub) too, or for more peaceful and less frills camping try Redlands Farm, both from £12. For Bridport, West Bay Holiday Park has an indoor pool, kids’ club and free evening entertainment, with pitches available from £19; there's also the toptastic Golden Cap Holiday Park from £16, at the highest point in the south of England and part of a huge National Trust estate. Or do a general search for sites in Dorset or Devon – then filter your search how you like, such as family-friendly parks or sites with dogs allowed.
Ready to try the Jurassic Coast? Grab your magnifying glass and your Famous Five book, and we’ll see you there.
first published July 2012, updated January 2013