Park up and go Jurassic

We unearth fossils, rock formations and a lot more history besides.

By Barbara Lantin, February 23, 2012
Durdle Door - a natural limestone arch created by the erosive power of the sea

Durdle Door - a natural limestone arch created by the erosive power of the sea

Firstly, a confession. I've been visiting Bournemouth regularly for more than 30 years and had no idea that for the past ten there has been a World Heritage Site on its doorstep. Just across the bay on the far side of the Sandbanks' 'floating bridge' is one end of the Jurassic Coast.

This 95-mile strip of land running from Dorset to East Devon embraces some of the UK's most spectacular coastal scenery and geological strata laid down over a period of around 200 million years. And some of the really interesting stuff is to be found within an hour of Anglo-Jewry's favourite south-coast town: the little circle of sapphire that is Lulworth Cove, the fossils underfoot at Kimmeridge, the extravagant rock formations of Durdle Door. Who knew?

The UNESCO citation that granted the area World Heritage Status in 2001 describes it as an "outstanding example representing major stages of the earth's history, including the record of life". That means plentiful walking, fossil hunting and all-round exploring along a coastal path that rewards you with gorgeous views at every turn and the occasional glimpse from above of some seriously impressive and secluded country piles.

A balmy autumn weekend offered an opportunity for me and my daughter to do some catching up in a sunlit landscape. Rachel was looking forward to reviving childhood memories of scrambling over the ruins of Corfe Castle, whilst I anticipated revisiting even older ones of a trip to the Swanage seaside at the age of eight.

The welcome at Sue Searle's A Great Escape Guest House was warm. Rooms and ensuites are small but perfectly formed with all the comforts of a good hotel scaled down to an Edwardian redbrick semi.

The Belveder and roof terrace of Durlston Castle

The Belveder and roof terrace of Durlston Castle

The town has winding side streets lined with cottages of mellow Purbeck stone, a lovely millpond and outbursts of Victorian-seaside stucco and ornamental ironwork.

The seafront tat - at its worst in high summer - is easily avoided. For those who, like me, prefer their English coastal resorts out of season, Swanage has various 'festivals' to lure tourists, including a walking week in early May - for which 56 guided walks are already planned - and others devoted to film, jazz and blues.

We met our guide, Andy Pedrick of Jurassic Jaunts, for a gentle stroll from Kingston village to Swyre Head, the highest point on the Isle of Purbeck (not in fact an island but a low-lying peninsula in the past often cut off from the rest of Dorset by floods).

The footpath runs across Encombe, a massive estate in a dip dubbed the golden bowl, in which Madonna, Richard Branson and the Beckhams all showed an interest before it changed hands three years ago for around £20 million.

The glorious 360-degree views sweep from Portland Bill and Weymouth in the west - shimmering like a string of pearls in the hazy sunlight - to St Aldhelm's Head and beyond it the Isle of Wight in the east and glittering to the north, Europe's biggest natural harbour, Poole.

From Durdle Door - a limestone arch that some say resembles a dinosaur dipping its head for a drink - the headlands stretch as far as the eye can see, green grass topping white chalk cliffs set against the sublime blue of sky and sea. We saw Lulworth Cove, a geological gem somewhat spoiled by the hordes flocking down from car park to shore via a shambling street of tourist shacks.

The afternoon ended with cream tea at the National Trust tearooms at Corfe and hiked up to the ruined castle, an astonishing landmark from any angle.We returned to base on the Swanage Railway, six miles of track run by a charitable trust which transports you back in time with its steam and diesel locomotives, 1950s carriages and old-world waiting rooms. The link to London was severed in 1972 but may be reinstated in the next few years, enabling passengers to travel to Swanage by train once more.

At present that option is open only to those who board one of the costly day charters that visit periodically, complete with fringed table lamps, white linen and bone china.

Day two brought a closer examination of the Jurassic Coast. Geologically, the rock is a mixture of Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic – but 'Jurassic' has the Hollywood ring.

You need to be steady on your feet at Kimmeridge, where the ancient seafloor, scoured smooth by currents, reveals its treasures. My moment of triumph came when I spotted a few ridges poking out of the sand at low tide. As I dusted away the silt and water a circular shape began to emerge - dense inner whorls and vague outer nodules. Unmistakably an ammonite, about 45cm across.

I suggested that our guide, geologist Bob Westwood of Jurassic Coast Walking, might like to take a peek. He ambled over looking sceptical but was soon removing the lens cap from his SLR camera. My first fossil hunting foray and I'd unearthed a specimen Bob considered worth recording.

A picnic of locally sourced food from Purbeck Deli set us up for a gentle two-hour circular walk along the coast, onto the ridgeway and past the tick-tock of the 'nodding donkey', the oldest working oil pump in the UK, which yields around 65 barrels a day from Jurassic layers that lie 350m below.

This stretch of coast forms part of the Ministry of Defence's Lulworth Range and is open to the public only on weekends and in the school holidays. Tyneham, is a 'ghost village' was evacuated by the Army in 1943 and permanently requisitioned five years later. Its ruined cottages and intact red and grey 1940s phone booth speak of another world. Weeds grow where children played and wasps have colonised the eaves of the church, now an information centre, whose door carried the sign: "Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly." A promise unfulfilled.

Today, information boards and photos tell of a lost way of life and long-dead inhabitants. The vacant village provided a quiet and poignant coda to a delightful autumn weekend.

Last updated: 11:59am, February 23 2012