The coastline of east Devon and Dorset offers something unique: in just 96 miles of colourful and varied rocky cliffs, you can time-travel through hundreds of millions of years of Earth’s history. The rocks give us an unrivalled insight to an exciting time in the life of our planet and you don’t have to be a trained scientist to appreciate it. With a little help, anyone can decipher the evidence and look back to lost worlds filled with exotic creatures.
It is without question one of my favourite places in Britain to visit, but not just because of the rocks. It is a fossil-hunter’s paradise, a delight for wildlife enthusiasts, and a geomorphologist’s wonderland of outstanding scenery where you can see coastal features evolving. Add to this pretty villages, industrial heritage, charming hotels and award-winning pubs and you could say the Jurassic Coast has it all.
Age of reptiles
So exceptional is the geology of the area that the Jurassic Coast was designated a natural World Heritage Site in 2001. In fact, the rocks don’t just date from the Jurassic period but span the older Triassic and younger Cretaceous geological periods, too: so really it should be called the Mesozoic coast, after the era that comprises all three.
A trip from Orcombe Point in the west to Old Harry Rocks in the east is a continuous geological journey into the Mesozoic era, from 250 to 65 million years ago. Also known as the ‘Age of Reptiles’, it was during this time that dinosaurs evolved to rule the world only to face extinction by the end. Fossil dinosaur bones are rare, but you can still see their unmistakable footprints preserved in rocks at many places including Durlston Bay and Worbarrow Bay.
A great place to start exploring is Budleigh Salterton, a small town close to the western end of the World Heritage Site. The beach is backed by dramatic cliffs of 250-million-year-old Triassic rocks, the oldest anywhere along the Jurassic Coast. Their deep red colour comes from iron oxide minerals that are only preserved in dry conditions. This clue tells us that back in the Triassic period, Devon was part of a hot desert, a bit akin to the Namib in southern Africa today.
Carry on from Budleigh Salterton and the desert-sandstone cliffs continue eastwards. Ladram Bay is worth a visit for lovely views of isolated sea stacks that mark the former line of the retreating coast, but for old-world charm, keep going to the traditional seaside town of Sidmouth.
I’d recommend the Clock Tower Café in Connaught Gardens for some good food and a view to match looking back along the ‘Triassic Coast’ from the top of the cliffs.
As you travel east, the rocks become progressively younger. Originally laid down as sediments on top of each other, massive earth movements have tilted the ancient layers eastwards. Weathering and coastal erosion have created the landscape we see today, with the oldest Triassic exposures lying in the west, Jurassic-aged rocks generally forming a middle section and Cretaceous rocks to be seen in the east – hence the feeling of travelling through time.
You can explore fairly easily by road but one of the best things about the Jurassic Coast is the South West Coast Path, a national walking route that often hugs the very edge of the cliffs along its length. I’ve never walked the full extent, but dipping in and out on short sections is very rewarding.
East from Sidmouth lies the pretty village of Branscombe, with its long pebble beach. From here there is an attractive walk along the South West Coast Path for about three miles to Beer, where you can get a drink and an excellent prawn sandwich at the Anchor Inn. Along the way, after the steep slope up to South Down Common, you
will encounter the slumped cliffs of the major 1789 Hooken landslide. This is a clear reminder that while the rocks may be ancient, the landscape of the Jurassic Coast is far from it. It is constantly evolving and it is this dynamism that creates such diverse habitats for wildlife.
One of the joys of the Jurassic coast is an afternoon spent fossil-hunting at Charmouth or Lyme Regis. It was here,
in the early 19th century, that fossilist Mary Anning made her exceptional discoveries, including the first Ichthyosaur known to science. Anning’s specimen of this marine reptile was 5.2m long.
The rocks are formed from mud and clay deposited in warm Jurassic seas, and within them are the fossilised remains of ancient sea creatures. The rocks are soft and the unstable cliffs ensure a constant supply of new material onto the beach – so despite hundreds of visitors, the supply of fossils is never exhausted. With a little patience, I guarantee it won’t take you long to spot the beautiful swirl of an ammonite shell in among the pebbles and experience the thrill of connecting with a creature that lived 195 million years ago.
At the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre you can get expert advice or join a fossil-hunting guided walk and with luck, you might find a fragment of an ancient marine reptile that the area is famous for.
On Chesil Beach
My gastronomic highlight of the Jurassic Coast is lunch at the Hive Beach Café at Burton Bradstock, near Bridport. The menu of locally sourced, seasonal food includes Lyme Bay hand-dived scallops, Portland oysters and, if you’re feeling bold, try some giant spider crab, caught just off the beach. The beach itself is a part of another remarkable 18-mile long Jurassic Coast feature: Chesil Beach. As any geography student will tell you, this is a text-book example of a tombolo, a shingle bar connecting two areas of land. Here it links the Isle of Portland to the mainland and acts as a barrier for the Fleet, the largest tidal lagoon in Britain. To find out more about this important wildlife habitat there is a visitor centre at Ferry Bridge.
As you travel east past Portland and Weymouth, you get into Cretaceous country where the youngest rocks on the Jurassic Coast make up the stunning Purbeck coastline. At Lulworth Cove, a perfect horseshoe-shaped bay has formed where the sea has broken through a barrier of hard limestone and hollowed out softer clays in front of a resistant chalk cliff.
At Durdle Door, the same limestone barrier forms a near perfect coastal arch. These, and other local sites worth exploring such as Stair Hole and the intriguing Fossil Forest, are all accessible from the coastal path.
The end of the Jurassic Coast is just past the headland of Ballard Down, where the famous sea stacks of Old Harry Rocks are another stunning reminder of how the sea and the underlying rocks shape the landscape. A wonderful way to experience any part of the Jurassic Coast is by boat but here especially, a boat trip out of Swanage or Poole offers the best views. There is nowhere else in the whole world like the Jurassic Coast. It’s the coastal landscapes and rich fossil pickings that bring me back time and again. Whatever your reason for visiting, I won’t be far behind you.