England’s only natural World Heritage Site
The Jurassic Coast needs no introduction: renowned worldwide for its breathtaking scenery and geological importance, this 95-mile stretch of coastline dominates Dorset’s landscape, history and character.
With its countless unspoilt beaches, magnificent panoramic views and endless opportunities for exploration, the Jurassic Coast will take you on a literal walk through time, leaving you planning your next trip before this one’s ended. But where to start?
The Isle of Purbeck’s Jurassic Coast
Easily explored from Swanage and its surrounding areas, the Purbeck stretch of the Jurassic coastline boasts some of Britain’s most well-loved landmarks and offers a multitude of memories in the making.
The epic evolutionary history of the Jurassic Coast
Designated a World Heritage Site in 2001 by UNESCO for its ‘Outstanding universal value’ to the study of earth science, The Jurassic Coast is rich with important fossil sites and geological landforms of global significance that span 185 million years – or the Mesozoic Era.
The Mesozoic Era is made up of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, but as that was a bit of a mouthful, the Jurassic Coast gained its name from the most well-known of these.
Planet Earth’s history is beneath your feet with each step on the Jurassic Coast as you walk along paths, over rocks, and among the breathtaking cliffs.
Triassic Period (252 to 201 million years ago)
Dinosaurs evolved and roamed across the single land mass, Pangaea.
Evidence of this period on the Jurassic Coast can be found further west and into Devon – where the rock is more red in colour due to the deserts formed in the hot, dry climate at this time. Although rare, fossils from the Triassic period can be found on the Jurassic Coast.
Then huge volcanic eruptions and earthquakes began to shake the land, causing the ‘supercontinent’ Pangaea to break into two.
Jurassic Period (201 to 145 million years ago)
Following a mass extinction of many land animals, dinosaurs survived, adapted and grew in number.
A slightly cooler and precipitous climate gave way to trees and plant life thriving, meaning that herbivorous dinosaurs could evolve and develop into herds that roamed the land.
The yellow sand and limestone cliffs of the famous ’Broadchurch’ cliffs of West Bay in West Dorset, along with Portland Limestone, were formed in the Jurassic period and provide some stunning scenery.
Cretaceous Period (145 to 66 million years ago)
Dinosaurs began diversifying and evolving independently as the land masses separated further apart.
Other flora and fauna were evolving now too – such as flowers, snakes and insects.
The striking white chalk of iconic landforms such as Old Harry Rocks here in Purbeck reveal the most recent ‘layer’ of Mesozoic rock. Old Harry Rocks is are made up of many millions of calcium deposits from tiny, fossilised single-cell creatures. In fact, this period – ‘Cretaceous’ – derives from the Latin ‘creta’, meaning ‘chalk.’
Walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs
It’s believed the area was once a watering-hole for brachiosaurs – some of the largest animals to ever have lived on Earth.
Quick itinerary for exploring the Jurassic Coast in…
For a quick park-up and scamper with the kids or the dog:
- Ballard Down (and Nine Barrow Down) – Skirting the cliffs of the Purbeck Hills are numerous starting points to walks offering panoramic views of the Jurassic Coast. For a short walk encompassing the imposing Obelisk, park on Ulwell Road in Swanage near to the Ulwell Caravan Park, or for a longer, more energetic stroll park at Challow Walkers car park (BH20 5JF) in Corfe Castle – or take the steam train from Swanage – and walk up the hill and across to Nine Barrow Down. You can walk all the way to Swanage from here
- Lulworth Range walks – For some impressive vistas and access to some of the Jurassic Coast’s most unique history, the Lulworth Range walks offer a variety of short and longer walks. A favourite for many (and generally quieter than some other more well-known spots on the Jurassic Coast) is Worbarrow Bay – a short walk from the must-visit ‘ghost’ village of Tyneham, with its poignant history BH20 5QN
- Peveril Point – Parking at Broad Road car park, take the path above the bay, or walk alongside the water’s edge to Peveril Point; go crabbing or explore rockpools along the way and have a scamper over the rocks. Depending on the tide, take a stride out along the spit that reaches into a vanishing point in the sea (be careful at Peveril Point at all times for slippery seaweed-covered rocks). On your way back, stroll along the restored Victorian pier and stop for an ice cream or snack at the 1859 café. Alternatively, for a longer ramble, there is a circular walk from Peveril Point to Anvil Point, encompassing Durlston Head BH19 2AP
Explore further and stop for a picnic, or look forward to a well-earned refuel at a nearby pub or cafe after your walk:
- Swyre Head – Park at the car park at the end of West Street in Kingston for Swyre Head – the highest point of the Purbeck Hills; a track will lead you around stunning views of the valley which cradles the historic Encombe Estate. Enjoy panoramic views that reach across to Portland and Kimmeridge Bay; head back to the Scott Arms in the village for a meal or a pint. (There is an even closer car park for Swyre Head called Sheep’s Pen – follow the road on from Houns-Tout and you’ll eventually come across it on your left, however capacity is limited) BH20 5LN
- Dancing Ledge – Park at Spyway car park on Durnford Drove in Langton Matravers; walk the gentle incline taking in views across Swanage as you go; stop for a picnic before exploring this special area – be aware, though, that the descent to the tidal pool requires some scrambling so is unsuitable for children BH19 3HG
- Winspit – park at the Square and Compass pub in Worth Matravers; follow the signs down to Winspit, quietly checking the caves for resident mouse-eared and greater horseshoe bats as you go; picnic at the unique disused quarry; head back up to the pub for a local cider and pasty BH19 3LE
Make a day of it with these family-friendly days out in nature:
- Durlston Country Park – Woodland trails, clifftop walks and hay meadows await at Durlston. Break the exploring up with a stop at the café and exhibition space in Durlston Castle BH19 2JL
- Studland – Spend the day on the beach or do a bit of everything Studland offers: walk through the sand dunes; swim in the shallow water; hire a kayak; go for a horse ride; or take a trip on the Sandbanks Ferry BH19 3AX
- Worbarrow Bay & Tyneham village – Many visitors to the ‘ghost’ village of Tyneham don’t know there’s a quiet, unspoilt bay with fantastic views and walking paths just a short walk away. It’s fairly remote so pack a picnic and soak in the secret atmosphere in this special place BH20 5QN
A week or more
Why not check out the South West Coast Path trail, Britain’s longest and oldest National Trail?
Many people take on the challenge of completing it from start to finish, stopping at the main attractions along the way.
There are so many wonderful walks to explore and stunning seascapes to photograph we had to commit a whole page to them – along with where to stop and refuel with a cake or a light bite, sample a locally-produced ale or stay the night along the way.
How to explore the Jurassic Coast on a rainy day
Whilst Dorset is renowned for its milder climate, being on the South West coast of England, it does occasionally rain, but that doesn’t need to dampen your adventurous spirit. If you’re anything like most Purbeck and Swanage locals you own a pair of wellies and even relish a wild, windswept, wintry walk on a beach or clifftop, but what about the inevitable stormy day?
You can still explore the stories behind the Jurassic Coastline and its history in the local museums, and learn all about the historical and geological significance of the land that is under your feet once you can get your exploring boots on again.
- Swanage Museum – Showcasing the history of Swanage town from its Victorian beginnings, alongside the area’s Jurassic Coast geology. Situated in Swanage Square: BH19 2LJ
- Square and Compass museum – Discover over 60 years-worth of local fossil finds at this tiny museum in Worth Matravers: BH193LF
- Etches Collection – Explore the fossil collection of Dr Steve Etches in Kimmeridge. The museum runs children’s activities and its shop sells all things dinosaur and fossil-related. Located in the heart of the village: BH20 5PE
- Dorset County Museum – Originally founded in 1845, Dorset County Museum has grown to become the place to visit to learn all about Dorset’s Jurassic heritage, literary connections and social history. A full programme of events and exhibitions can be found on the museum’s website: dorsetcountymuseum.org. A little further afield in Dorchester, the museum is located on High West Street: DT1 1XA
Nearby Jurassic attractions
If you’re staying in Swanage a while and want to explore more of the Jurassic Coast beyond Purbeck, here are some of the highlights around an hour’s drive from Swanage:
- West Bay – Famously home to the TV series Broadchurch, the striking golden cliffs of West Bay and East cliff are located near Bridport – a bustling market town with several cafés, bookshops and a thriving Arts scene DT6 4EW (East Beach car park)
- Chesil Beach – This intriguing 18-mile shingle ridge reaching out into the sea between West Bay and Portland has been the inspiration for authors for generations – most recently Ian McEwan with his On Chesil Beach DT4 9XE
- Golden Cap – The highest point on the South Coast (at 190m above sea level) is a hearty walk, but you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views. And if you’ve been inspired by a visit to Tyneham while in Purbeck, there is another ‘lost’ village on the Golden Cap Estate called Stanton St Gabriel DT6 6EP (Langdon Hill car park) or DT6 6RA (Stonebarrow Hill car park), both are National Trust