UK: Exploring the Jurassic Coast on the South West Coastal Path
Updated: Dec 2, 2022
The Jurassic Coast is a fabulous UK vacation destination, with beach towns, water sports, nature walks and outstanding natural beauty. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. The South West Coastal Path is the largest continuous national trail in England and the perfect hiking holiday.
In 2013, Raynor Winn and her husband, Moth, lost their farm and subsequently became homeless. With few resources apart from an insufficient tax credit income, they took rucksacks and a tent and traversed the 630-mile South West Coastal Path, wild camping and sharing tea bags along the way. The resulting book, the Salt Path, was a bestseller and shortlisted for several major awards. Since reading the book, I have been desperate to channel just a small amount of such resilience, walk the path and experience the natural beauty of England’s south-western counties.
The South West Coastal Path traces the coastlines of Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, and Dorset, and is the longest national trail in England. An experienced long- distance walker should be able to complete the path in 52 days, or 8 weeks. Consulting southwestcoastpath.org.uk, you will find various itineraries to help you plan your walking route. Instead of walking the whole path in one go, many walkers choose to do small chunks at a time. As I am a laid-back hiker, this is what I plan to do; possibly at a speed of 9 miles (ca. 14 km) per year. I will finish when I am 132 years old. Itineraries usually begin at Minehead in North Devon, and follow the coast counter-clockwise until ending in Poole. I am most interested in the Jurassic Coast, so I will begin my walk and the end.
THE JURASSIC COAST
The Jurassic Coast is a 95-mile stretch of coastline that impresses with a diverse and beautiful landscape underpinned by incredible geological importance. In 2001, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the outstanding universal value of its rocks, fossils, and landforms. It remains England’s only natural World Heritage Site. The coast’s geography is unique in that it contains, within its chalky and rocky cliffs, evidence of all three periods of the Mesozoic Era; the Triassic, the Jurassic, and the Cretaceous, beginning from around 250 to 65 million years ago.
252 million years ago: During this time, the Earth’s crust was stretching and sinking. As it sank, layers of sediment piled one on top of the other to form rocks. There was only one land mass, Pangea, and was dominated by large conifers, and mammal-like reptiles, the Psuedosuchians.
The Jurassic: 201-145 million years ago: Sea levels rose and changed the desert into a tropical sea, and an extinction event gave rise to large water mammals, winged predators, and the dinosaurs.
The Cretaceous: 145-66 million years ago. At the close of the Jurassic sea levels fell, a forest grew then died and was buried beneath the sediments of lagoons swamps and rivers. At this time, carnivorous dinosaurs, such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex, ruled the land, along with large herds of omnivorous reptiles. Soon, the sea rose again and sandstone and chalk were laid down across the region, burying tilted layers of older rock and the remains of animal and plant life.
Since the end of the Late Cretaceous, erosion has carved a rock-record into the landscape, resulting in the coastline that exhibits the profound environmental changes occurring over these periods. Fossils of strange and extinct animals continue to tumble from the cliffs, providing archeologists, palaeontologist, and ama- teur dinosaur hunters, clues to the history of the earth itself.
My plan for this trip to Dorset was to discover the Jurassic Coastline between Poole and Lyme Regis, and walk the nine-mile stretch of the South West Coast Path from Weymouth to Durdle Door. No, not the man from Harry Potter. That would be the fictional character Dumbledore. I would explore Poole and Lyme Regis by car. Cheating, yes, but let's face it, I am not going to hike those cliffs at 132 years of age and I must make up some time!
I stayed in a less-than-desirable hotel called the Riveria, which was quite a mis- nomer. The Riv was the only hotel with a room available, so I knew I was doomed from the start. Let’s just say that the Riv was worth a thousand hotel nightmare stories, some of them including discarded needles. The hotel's only redeeming feature was that it had direct access on to the path. I had no trouble at all getting up and out of that place by 6am.
I was in Dorset over the summer holidays, and the camp grounds around Weymouth were filled with families and campers, just waking up and queuing for the loos as I passed them by. This was an idyllic and bucolic start to my trip, and I could not imagine a nicer way to spend the day. Not having to queue for an outhouse at 6 am was also ideal. Just enough people were on the hills walking dogs, jogging, or queuing, that it was quiet and comfortable morning, though the further I walked away from Weymouth, the little villages that dotted the landscape seemed less than inhabited. In fact, I barely saw another person for the remainder of my walk. When I got to Osmington Mills, three miles into my walk, I was distracted by the lovely seaside houses, and tripped on a rock, ass over tits, as they say. It wouldn’t be me on a hike without falling over somewhere, and luckily for me, there was no one around to witness. When I passed the sign for Scratchy Bottom, I relaxed, and allowed myself a laugh.
Eventually, I found myself sandwiched between the desolate, white chalk cliffs of White Nothe, and the barbed wire fences of endless farmland. At this point, I developed two fears; the first was that I would fall again and have to drag myself across the endless farmland to find help. The second, was that I would never find a way off the cliffs and down to the beach and would have to continue walking until I reached London. The final two hills, because of the direction I was walking which was opposite to most recommended routes, murdered my toes. Slow gradation up the meandering hills led to steep declines, and what I have no other description for than ‘goat walking’, down. I recalled some years back, a clairvoyant told me, in the nicest possible way, that I was a goat. Not the greatest of all time (GOAT), as the kids say now, but an actual goat. By this, she meant that I was slow, steady, and though it would take me a long time, I would get up that metaphoric hill towards goal achievement. After walking backwards down a cliffside very slowly because my toes hurt, I began to think that she had misread my future. Could it be that in my future I would take a really long time to do something, like walking nine miles on the South West Coastal Path, and then die walking like a goat?
When I finally caught sight of my destination, and the path leading down to the beach, I sat down and wept in relief. Overall, it took me four hours to walk nine miles to Durdle Door, another hour to fight off the tourists and descend to the beach and a 30-minute wait for a taxi to take me back to the crap hotel. Five minutes more, and I was packed and out of that hotel.
THE MODERN COASTLINE The Jurassic Coast begins at Orcombe Point in Exmouth, Devon, and continues for 95 miles (ca. 153 km) to Old Harry Rocks, near Swanage, Dorset. This span takes in four distinct geographic regions – East Devon, West Dorset, Weymouth & Port- land and Purbeck – each containing their own iconic towns, villages and natural landscapes.
POOLE Poole is a bustling resort town in the east of Dorset, known for having the second-largest natural harbour in the world. Human settlements in Poole date back to the Iron Age, and the use of the name Poole began as early as the 12th century, when it became an important port for the wool trade. During WW11, Poole was the third-largest embarkation point for the
Swanage began as a fishing village and grew in significance during the Victorian Era, when it became a popular seaside resort town for the rich and fabulous. It remains a popular summer destination.
OLD HARRY ROCKS These are chalk formation stacks that are part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. Old Harry is the singular stack that sits the furthest out into the sea. Until 1896, Harry had a wife known as Old Harry’s Wife, but she eroded, eventually worn away, leaving only a stump. Typical.
MUPE BAY Inaccessible by car, this bay presents a slightly challenging walk with steep climbs and countless steps. There are no facilities here and the landscape is very wild.
MAN O’ WAR BAY Features a line of pronounced rock formations at the centre of the bay. And it is super-pretty.
DURDLE DOOR Durdle Door is one of Dorset’s most photographed landmarks and is probably the world’s most famous stone arch. It was created when the sea eroded the limestone coastline 10,000 years ago. Today, the arch and the pebble beach are popular tourist attractions. There is a bus service from North Lulworth, parking, refreshments, and facilities.
LULWORTH COVE Lulworth Cove was formed by a combination of the sea and a river swollen by the melting ice of the last ice age. This is a great place for rock pooling and water sports. And it is also super-pretty.
WHITE NOTHE This is a chalk headland known for its geology and fossils. These cliffs and the under-cliffs have a long history of harbouring smugglers, which I am happy to have met none of while I was up there walking alone. There is also a WW2 ‘pillbox’, or blockhouse, which I did not see in the fog, and a row of coastguard cottages, which I was happy to see while up there alone in the fog where untoward smugglers abound.
WEYMOUTH Weymouth is a port city on the Jurassic Coast, with a history dates back to the 12th century. The Black Death first disembarked into England, in Weymouth, and 100 emigrants immigrated from here to settle in Massachusetts in 1635. The town was a convalescent community for the Australian and New Zealand military during WW1, and also was the departure town for tens of thousands of allied troops during the D-Day and operations of WW2.
PORTLAND HARBOUR & LIGHTHOUSE Henry V111 built two castles in Portland harbour to help shore up defences against French troops stationed at the expanding naval port of Cherbourg. It is also the home town of Olympic champion diver, Tom Daley.
CHESIL BEACH Chesil Beach one of three major shingle, or pebble, structures in Britain. It is long, rocky, desolate, and difficult to walk on, and the cause of many shipwrecks. It is also the setting of On Chisel Beach, a book by Ian McEwan, which chronicles the shipwreck of a rocky, desolate marriage.
GOLDEN CAP The Golden Cap a big hill, rising 627 feet (0.19 km), making it the highest point on the South West coastline. The hill top provides amazing views from Portland to Dartmoor.
LYME REGIS Mary Anning was an English fossil hunter and palaeontologist, well-known for the discoveries she made in the Jurassic marine fossil beds of Lyme Regis. Her findings helped to redefine scientific thinking of prehistoric life and of Earth’s geological history. As a woman, her education was limited, and she was denied mem- bership into the National Geographical Society, resulting in financial struggles and poverty for most of her life. She died at age 47.
Lyme Regis is the seaside town made famous by Mary Anning for its abundance of fossils. A visit from William Pitt the younger established it as a fashionable Regency bathing area, known then, but I very much doubt now, as the Naples of England. There are shingle and sandy beaches, a promenade, shops, a dinosaur museum, and a museum dedicated to fossils and ammonites built on the site of Mary Anning’s home
There are places in this world that, as an armchair traveller, I tend to romanti- cise. Marrakesh, Zanzibar, Kyoto, Petra, to name a few. For years, I had Lyme Regis on my ‘travel ideas’ mood board, but had forgotten why. It wasn’t I returned home that I remembered my reasoning for a romanticised trip to Lyme Regis, and it wasn’t to buy a fossil. In 1981, I was enthralled by the Victorian romanticism so deftly captured in the film, The French Lieutenants Woman. Meryl Streep in a cape with crazy red hair, and rocking a serious 80s lip, stands vigil on the sea wall of Lyme Regis, braving the crashing waves under thick grey skies as she stares at the ocean, mourning the loss of her beloved French sea captain. It was doomed romance I wanted from Lyme Regis! I bought a fossil, but forgot to go to the sea wall and look, melancholically, into the vast abyss of the English Channel! I’ve since rewatched the film and found that Meryl is less a melancholic and more of an obsessive, but I will still have to return to the Jurassic Coast someday, most likely wearing a cape and a dewy lip, to fulfil that fantasy.
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