Dorset’s Jurassic Coast in South-West England is one of outstanding natural beauty. The area has a truly spectacular coastline. It is also home to ruins of ancient castles, rural villages and quintessentially English thatched cottages. Attracting thousands of visitors annually, it’s an amazing playground for people of all ages, sizes and abilities from hikers and cyclists to geology buffs, history lovers, coasteering explorers, sailors, surfers and, of course, sightseeers.
For us, guided day hiking along the South West Coastal Path, the country’s longest national trail, was the mode of choice. We stayed in a comfortable Victorian-era guest house which stands on a knoll a short distance from Lulworth Cove. Our third-floor corner room offered splendid views of both the cove and the English Channel. At dinnertime, we met our three guides, Mike, Nick and Dave. That evening, Mike led a short walkabout. He told us a little about Lulworth Cove’s somewhat checkered past. It was once the most notorious place for smuggling in the whole of Dorset. In the 1920s and 30s it was the “Bloomsbury Set”, an influential group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists, who gathered here to lounge, laugh and exchange ideas. Still standing on the pedestrian-only street which leads to the water is an old coaching inn. Nearby are several centuries-old whitewashed coastguards’ cottages. Today, groups of carefree tourists happily wander about enjoying ice-cream cones or sipping cool drinks.
Mike explained that the cove is circled by a variety of sedimentary and fossil-rich rock strata which has eroded away at varying rates. This, together with never-ending wave action, formed the horseshoe-shaped bay. We looked down on the glittering blue water dotted with moored fishing and sailing craft. The setting was bucolic. Our next stop was at Stair Hole where, in foregone times, fisherman stared seaward to sense any incoming stormy weather. It’s a small cove which is slowly taking shape behind an array of geological formations: blow-holes, arches, stacks and stumps. This was perhaps how Lulworth Cove looked some 10,000 years ago.
Nick led our first guided walk on the Isle of Purbeck in the southwest corner of Dorset. We started in the pretty village of Worth Matravers whose limestone cottages cluster around a small duck pond. Firstly, we visited the Church of St. Nicholas, built in 1869. In the graveyard is the tomb of Benjamin Jesty, a local farmer, who was the first person to inoculate his family against smallpox in the 18th century. We climbed steadily upwards to a monument on the nearby cliffs commemorating radar development during World War II – a factor which proved decisive in the allied victory. En route we visited tiny St. Aldhelm’s Chapel, a square stone building constructed in Norman times, topped by a cross and supported by buttresses aligned with the points of the compass. In the dimly-lit interior, there were several well worn wooden pews, sufficient to seat just 20-30 parishioners.
Our footsteps next brought us to the Coastwatch Lookout Station at St. Aldhelm’s Head, perched about 300 ft. above the water. An Open House was in full swing. The volunteers, mostly retired coastguards, interpreted for us the information displayed on various computer screens. These provide data on seagoing craft some 30-40 miles along the coast and four miles or so out to sea. Leaving the Lookout, we joined the 630-mile long South West Coastal Path, way-marked by an acorn symbol. It was originally created by coastguards to watch out for smugglers. In single file, we followed every twist and turn of this undulating cliff-side trail and were rewarded with views of dramatic seascapes and hidden coves. It was a blustery day and sailboats were being tossed about on the waves like corks. Our walking group negotiated its way through innumerable kissing gates and wandered through flower-filled grasslands. By lunchtime, we had reached Dancing Ledge, a flat area of rock at the base of a small cliff where onshore waves shimmy and dance their way along the surface. In olden days, the renowned Purbeck limestone was quarried here and loaded directly onto waiting ships.
Refreshed and restored, we headed towards the Anvil Point Lighthouse whose bright light has flashed warnings to ships since 1887. Next, we peered into the dark depths of three disused limestone quarries known as the Tilly Whim Caves. Its once industrious quarrymen have now been replaced by roosts of bats and nesting seabirds. Passing the Victorian folly of Durlston Castle we made our way into Swanage, a popular tourist resort, at the eastern end of the Isle of Purbeck. In celebration, we treated ourselves to a taste of sunshine, a delicious pineapple sorbet.
Next day, we donned our hiking boots again. Following in Dave’s wake, we commenced our second guided hike on a windswept hilltop. We idled a while to take in the sweeping vistas of the undulating countryside and then strolled past grazing sheep and bushes of gorse in brilliant yellow flower. To our right, participants in the Tour de Dorset labored up a nearby slope pedal stroke by endless pedal stroke. We paused to cheer them on before approaching the deserted village of Tyneham, one of several English villages with a zero population. Over 70 years ago, the resident families were abruptly given notice by the Government to vacate their dwellings to allow for military training ahead of the D-Day landings. Believing this directive was only for the short-term, a notice was posted on the Church door requesting that good care be taken of the community’s homes and possessions. As it happened, the Ministry of Defence never left and the villagers were not able to return. Today the area is used as a firing range. All that remains of Tyneham are roofless buildings, a centuries-old farmhouse, a one-room schoolhouse and the Church of St. Mary’s. We were intrigued by the exhibits detailing the local history in both the church, now a museum, where the names of the villagers are displayed along its walls, and the schoolhouse with its old wooden desks and coat pegs. We wandered around and about absorbing the aura of mystery that exudes from these long-uninhabited buildings, the once well-used fireplaces and the glassless window frames, all of which summon up a way of life lost to time.
Leaving the village behind, we sauntered along a wide trail to peaceful Worbarrow Bay where once again we joined the South West Coastal Path. Suddenly in front of us was a steep climb. The path didn’t wind its way heaven-bound in a pleasant zigzag. Not at all; it simply rose almost vertically upwards for almost 500 ft. Atop the ridge, what a view we had. All that exertion had been worthwhile. Later on Dave pointed out an Iron Age hill fort. It had earth mounds on three sides and on the fourth a sheer rock face that fell abruptly to the sea. There were a couple more challenging ups and downs during the afternoon which gave everyone a good appetite for the evening’s special tasting dinner sourced from local produce.
Setting out from Osmington Mills, we enjoyed a third gloriously sunny day of hiking along the South West Coastal Path. All day we puffed up one grass-covered rise after another and then dropped steeply down again. Our leader pointed out the many chunks of flint on the trail but no-one discovered any ancient fossils, pottery shards or other relics. However, we spotted many wildflowers. There was sweet-smelling honeysuckle, pink dog roses, brilliantly purple viper’s bugloss, yellow sea kale, stinking iris, swathes of sea thrift, Dame’s Rocket and Mountain Bluets. Atop their favourite bushes beside the path, little stonechats twittered and chirped a happy tune and Six-spot Burnet Moths fed contentedly on the nectar of the colourful blooms.
Our roller-coaster journey just kept on going. And we simply loved the beauty of this rugged coastline. We passed many sights of interest: the small desanctified church of St. Catherine’s; Burning Cliff where an underground oil-shale fire smoldered in the early 1800s; prehistoric landslides; and White Nothe, a high headland jutting out to sea, which is home to several coastguard cottages and a WWII pillbox. Eventually, in the distance we glimpsed the famous Durdle Door. This natural archway is Dorset’s most remarkable landform. It was created when the sea cut through the limestone around 10,000 years ago. There was just one last uphill push before signposts directed our weary feet across a grassy cliff top path and then down some wide gravel steps into Lulworth Cove. We could now claim to be among over 200,000 people who walk this route every year.
Our landscape adventure along the chalk cliffs of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site, was awe-inspiring. We returned home with many memories of wonderfully scenic hiking in the great outdoors. There is something here for everyone to enjoy. It’s yours to discover.