Essex born and bred I may be, but my heart is firmly rooted in Dorset. Some of my earliest memories are of family holidays around Swanage, Lulworth Cove and the amazing coastal rock formations such as Durdle Door, with their twisted and tormented strata layers.

I vividly recall stays on my grandfather’s houseboat in Poole Harbour, watching crabs scuttle about in the shallows below our windows when the tide was in, and scrambling over the over the Purbeck hills around the chocolate-box village of Corfe Castle, where he lived.

His grave, and that of one of my uncles, lies in the village cemetery just below the evocative conical hill and ruins of the castle. Surely there is no prettier or more peaceful resting place, and whenever I return there it lifts my soul rather than filling me with sadness.

Yet what draws me back to this beguiling area again and again is more than just the rose-tinted recollections of my childhood and family ties. Sure, the summers were endless, the skies bluer and the sea warmer in my mind’s eye. But I have explored far beyond that Eastern corner of Dorset into neighbouring Devon over the years, and the sense of wonderment and thrill of discovering new delights is just as strong as ever.

When I took up diving in my twenties, I went back to delve under the waves, off the rocky ledges at Kimmeridge Bay, beyond the wave-churned pebbles of Chesil Beach and in the clear waters off Devon’s crumbling cliffs. Below and above the water, both are every bit as extraordinary along this fascinating part of Britain’s coast.

It seems that I am not the only one who thinks it is special, either. The 95-mile stretch of stunning Devon and Dorset coastline from Exmouth in the west to Studland in the east has been designated England’s first naturalWorld Heritage Site by UNESCO – ranking it as important in global terms as the Grand Canyon, Galapagos Island and Great Barrier Reef.Welcome to the Jurassic Coast.

Its importance is because of those rocks, which represent a geological walk through time spanning the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Or, in simple terms, 185 million years of the Earth’s history.

fossils

For fossil hunters, and the general public, the sedimentary rocks hide a wealth of fossilised remains.Walk along the beaches at Lyme Regis, Charmouth and other places and you will be amazed at the ancient treasures you can find among the rocks brought down from the fragile cliffs by erosion or washed up by the sea.

Of course, what brings most visitors to the region are its beauty, the sandy beaches and the charming towns and villages. There are so many places to see and things to do, quite apart from fossicking for fossils, that you would need to explore it over several visits.

There are a number of gateway towns along the coast, identified by special road signs, where you can stay and use as a base or make time to visit. On the western end, Exeter is the major town. It bristles with history which, although somewhat newer than that encased in the nearby rocks, includes a glorious gothic cathedral and historic quayside as well as its Guildhall, which dates back to 1330, and medieval underground passages.

One of England’s oldest seaside resorts with two miles of sandy beach, Exmouth lies at the western edge of the Jurassic Coast, with National Trust-owned Orcombe Point at the western boundary, marked by the Geoneedle sculpture unveiled by Prince Charles in 2002 to inaugurate theWorld Heritage Site. The cliffs in this area are made of dramatic red Triassic rocks.

To the east, the town of Budleigh Salterton is famed for its associations with literary greats including Noel Coward and PG Wodehouse, while Sidmouth is a charming town with lovely gardens, beaches and a Regency history.

Branscombe is reputed to be the longest village in the UK and is one of East Devon’s prettiest. Many buildings are owned by the National Trust. Ottery St Mary’s 14th Church of St Mary is a remodelled miniature copy of Exeter Cathedral, while Honiton is famous for its lace making.

landslides

The cliffs around the pretty fishing village of Beer are unusual because they are of chalk. The high-quality Beer Stone has been quarried since Roman times, creating Beer Quarry Caves. The Axmouth to Lyme Regis Undercliffs National Nature Reserve is an important wilderness area. Formed by landslides, which still occur, the reserve is a diverse habitat for many species of plants and animals.

Lyme Regis itself is a delightful resort of narrow streets winding down to the harbour, where the Cobb – the ancient causeway – is best known for its starring role in the movie, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Life doesn’t get much better than eating an ice cream while sitting on a bench overlooking the harbour on a summer’s day. But watch out for seagulls dive-bombing and stealing your treat. The safe, sandy beach is great for kids.

Between Lyme Regis and Charmouth is where most fossils are found. Visit the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre or Lyme Regis Museum to find out more.

The beautiful cliffs around the harbour village of West Bay include Golden Gap, at over 625ft the highest on the South Coast. Take the South West Coast Path across the cliffs for views stretching from Portland to Brixham.

Chesil Beach is one of the world’s finest barrier beaches and stretches for 17 miles, with the pebbles increasing in size towards the east, as does the beach height. The Fleet Lagoon, a brackish natural lagoon behind it, is rich in wildlife and is home to the world’s oldest managed swan population, Abbotsbury Swannery. Sub-tropical gardens, a tithe barn and children’s farm can also be visited nearby.

Just inland is Hardy’s Monument, celebrating the famous author. This is Wessex – Thomas Hardy country – and you can follow a trail linking places where he lived, such as Hardy’s Cottage in Higher Bockhampton, and wrote about, as well as the world’s largest Hardy collection at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.

The Dinosaur Museum, Maiden Castle and the Roman Town House are among other attractions in Dorchester.

rock arch

Also away from the coast are the must-see towns of Sherborne, with its medieval buildings, abbey and two castles, and pretty Shaftesbury – where steep, cobbled street Gold Hill was used as the location for the celebrated Hovis bread TV adverts.

Back on the coast, the Isle of Portland lies at the end of Chesil Beach, with its fortress, Portland Castle, worth visiting. At Weymouth, you can make your own sand castles or see the amazing sand sculptures created by Mark Anderson and his late grandfather, Fred Darrington, at Sculptures in Sand on the seafront.

The area surrounding Lulworth has long been used by the Army for exercises and firing ranges, and you can trace the history of tanks at the Tank Museum, near Wool. Lulworth Cove is the picture-perfect bay and a magnet for tourists in summer. Half a mile west is the stunning rock arch of Durdle Door, one of the most photographed sights on the Jurassic Coast.

Kimmeridge Bay is another famous fossil area, and its rock ledges create shallows where snorkelling and diving are popular. Rich in marine wildlife, it is part of the Purbeck Marine Wildlife Reserve.

Swanage is the archetypal British resort and great fun for the family with its Victorian pier and Punch & Judy Show.

The chalk stacks of Old Harry Rocks mark the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast. Beyond it is the broad sandy sweep of Studland Bay and the chain ferry across the Poole Harbour entrance to Sandbanks.

As a child I remember walking across the white-sand dunes from the houseboat to paddle on Studland Beach and collect razor clam shells from Shell Bay – as sharpedged as their name suggests. Part of the beach is a haven for naturists. I wonder if they know.

jurassic coast facts

where is it?

The Jurassic Coast covers 95 miles of the Dorset and East Devon coast, from Studland to Exmouth.

getting there

Gateway towns giving access to the coast by road include Exeter, Lyme Regis, Dorchester and Poole. The Sandbanks Ferry (www.sandbanksferry.co.uk) is a chain ferry connecting Poole with Studland. South West Trains (www.southwesttrains.co.uk) operates services from London’s Waterloo to Weymouth via Dorchester and as well as services to
Exeter via Axminster.

getting around

For those who want to leave their cars behind, the CoastlinX53 Jurassic Coast Bus Service operated by First (www.firstgroup.com/ukbus) runs daily, year-round between Poole (peak times to/from Bournemouth) and Exeter via Weymouth, Bridport, Lyme Regis and Seaton. Several operators run local bus services.

Swanage Railway (www.swanagerailway.co.uk) operates steam trains on six miles of track through the heart of the Isle of Purbeck to Corfe Castle and Norden.

south west coast path

The South West Coast Path National Trail spans the entire length of the Jurassic Coast. A network of local footpaths link to it, making circular walks possible. There are free downloadable walking routes at www.southwestcoastpath.com.

events
Among the many events along the coast and inland is the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival
(www.fossilfestival.com), from April 29- May 1, 2011.

information
For information on the Jurassic Coast including places to see and what to do, visit www.jurassiccoast.com. For more details on Dorset and Devon, including accommodation, go to the websites of Destination Dorset (www.visit-dorset.com), Visit Devon (www.visitdevon.co.uk) and West Dorset (www.westdorset.com).One-third of the Jurassic Coast is protected by the National Trust, which has a dedicated Jurassic Coast section on its website (www.nationaltrust.org.uk).


All prices and details were correct when published, please check before you visit Dorset.