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. 

Kayakers at Old Harry Rocks Lulworth Cove with boats and person

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.

Fossils at Lulworth visitor centre

Fossils on display at Lulworth visitor centre

Planet Earth’s history is beneath your feet as you walk along paths or over rocks, and among the breathtaking cliffs with each step on the Jurassic Coast. 

Triassic Period (252 to 201 million years ago)

Pangea at 200 Ma (Picture credit: Fama Clamosa, Creative Commons License)

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 has a more red 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.

Picture credit: The Wellcome Collection

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 as the land masses separated further apart, evolving independently. 

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 – and 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.’

Old Harry Rocks and sea at Studland

The chalk stacks of Old Harry Rocks

Walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs

Over 100 fossilised dinosaur footprints have been uncovered at Keate’s Quarry near the village of Acton (between Worth Matravers and Langton Matravers.)

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…

An hour

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, there are numerous starting points to walks offering panoramic views of the Jurassic Coast. For a short walk encompassing the imposing Obelisk, park at Victoria Avenue car park, or for a longer, more strenuous stroll park at Challow Walkers car park in Corfe Castle – or take the steam train from Swanage – walk up the hill and across to Nine Barrow Down. You can walk all the way back 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 (though 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
  • Peveril Point – Parking at Broad Road car park, take the path above or alongside the water’s edge; 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 cafe. Alternatively, for a longer ramble, there is a circular walk from Peveril Point to Anvil Point, encompassing Durlston Head

Looking across to Durlston Head from Peveril Point

Three hours

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 small car park at the end of West Street for this, 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; back to the Scott Arms in Kingston for a meal or a pint
  • 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
  • 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
Winspit cliff central quarry chamber cliff

The disused quarry caves at Winspit

All day

Make a day of it with these family friendly days out in nature:

  • Durlston Country Park – woodland trails, clifftop walks and hay meadows await. Break the exploring up with a stop at the cafe and exhibition space in Durlston Castle
  • Studland – spend the day on the beach or do a bit of everything Studland offers – run down the sand dunes, swim in the shallow water, hire a kayak, go for a horse ride or take a trip on the Sandbanks Ferry
  • 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
Ruined house in Tyneham village

Ruined house in Tyneham village

A week or more

Why not check out the South West Coast Path trail, Britain’s longest and oldest National Trail?

Being spoilt for choice is never a bad thing, but – no matter how much we want to – we can’t explore everything at once. Why not take on the challenge of completing it from start to finish, stopping at the main attractions along the way.

Lulworth Cove coast path signs

There are plenty of coastal paths to walk from Lulworth Cove

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.

Rainy day? 

How to explore the Jurassic Coast on a rainy day

Red wellington boots splashing in puddle

Whilst Dorset and the South West coast is renowned for its climate, 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
  • Square and Compass museum in Worth Matravers
  • Etches Collection in Kimmeridge
  • Dorset County Museum in Dorchester

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 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 cafes, bookshops and a thriving Arts scene
  • 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 recent Ian McEwan with his On Chesil Beach
  • 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