Dorset and the Jurassic Coast

Dorset and the Jurassic Coast

Rolling chalk hills cascade down to the famous Jurassic Coast, lush green uplands crowned with ancient fortifications and mysterious chalk hill figures set in the landscape tower over delightful villages with thatched roofs. A land that inspired the novelists Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen and the poet William Wordsworth. A coastline that boasts World Heritage status with its amazing rock formations and fossilised remains.

Take the M4 out of London or Heathrow Airport to junction 17 for Chippenham then take the A350 all the way down into Dorset to the town of Shaftesbury. Make your way up the B3081 Bleke Street at the roundabout as you arrive in town and park at the Bell Street car park. From here it is a short walk along the High Street to Gold Hill which is what practically every tourist visitor to Shaftesbury wants to see. Get your cameras ready to photograph this steep cobbled street of thatched cottages. Images of this famous street grace the front covers of guide books, magazines, chocolate boxes and jigsaw puzzles sold throughout the world. Gold Hill appears on TV, film and a famous advert for Hovis Bread. Start at the top by the 14th century St Peter's church and walk along the cobbles past the delightful cottages on one side of the road and the ancient buttressed walls of the old abbey on the other. You will, of course, have to make the journey back up again to get back to the car park!

Leave Shaftesbury on the A350 southwards towards the Georgian market town of Blandford Forum with its town square, brick houses and it's intriguing little museum of fashion. Parking available on the market square except on Thursdays and Sundays when the market is being held. Exit south westwards by crossing the River Stour on West Street, over the bridge, onto Fair Mile Road towards the village of Winterbourne Strickland, a village of thatched cottages mixed with modern bungalows with the River Winterbourne flowing through the middle, then take a right on Dunbury Lane to Milton Abbas.

This delightfully charming village is not all that it seems. Unlike most places that grew up piecemeal over time, Milton Abbas was plannned and built in the 1780s as the local landowner didnt want the original village spoiling his view! There are 36 almost identical thatched cottages lined up with a late 18th century Gothic church at the end. The village is much larger these days so the road you need to travel down to admire these cottages and maybe take a walk around is called simply The Street. If you follow the The Street past the church heading south west you will pick up signs for Milborne St Andrew and get yourself onto the A354, turning right towards Dorchester.

Follow the A354 and cross over the A35 into Puddletown, worthy of a brief look at the High Street as it features as Weatherbury in Thomas Hardy's novel 'Far From The Madding Crowd'. Take the Dorchester Road out of the village, briefly back onto the A35 south west to the next junction signposted for both Higher and Lower Bockhampton. Drive down Cuckoo Lane a short distance until you reach a thatched cottage on your left, you should see an old wooden sign pointing to Hardy's Cottage, turn left here and take the narrow lane to the car park at the end.

Thomas Hardy was born here in this thatched cottage built by his Great Grandfather, just outside Dorchester in 1840 and initially trained as an architect before turning his attention to poetry most of which were published fairly late in his life. His novels include Far From The Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Many towns in Dorset and other parts of England feature in his novels but assume different names. Salisbury is Melchester, Oxford is Christminster and Dorchester becomes Casterbridge. Some of his works were written in this cottage and visitors are able to explore the house and gardens. Later in life he designed a house in Dorchester called Max Gate which is also open to visitors. Dorchester is just a very short drive from here and the Dorset County Museum, founded by Hardy, on High West Street is full of Jurassic Coast fossils. The town has history that goes back to Roman times when it was a garrison town known as Durnovaria and some of the walls remain in place.

An interesting side trip from Dorchester is to continue west along High West Street to the mini roundabout and turn right on The Grove taking the B3147 north. Join the A37 keeeping right, then a right turn signposted for Cerne Abbas will take you on the A352 to the famous Cerne Abbas Giant hill carving. Take the A352 through Cerne Abbas village to the viewpoint car park on your right. The huge hill carving of a giant naked man is 180ft (55m) tall and is a popular local attraction and symbol of fertility. One look at it and you can see why! Its true purpose, however, is a mystery but it is widely believed to date back no later than the mid 17th century, although many argue that it is much older. Some believe it to be a prehistoric carving of a giant slain by local villagers and recent excavations suggest it to be a 10th century creation. Nevertheless, it is an impressive and unusual sight and worth the side trip before returning to Dorchester. 

To avoid returning into Dorchester head back from Cerne Abbas on the A352 and take the A37/A35 ring road around the town then the A352 towards the famous Jurassic Coast. Drive along this road until you pick up signs for West Lulworth and Lulworth Cove at the Red Lion pub which will be over the road on your right. Turn down this lane and drive on through Winfrith Newburgh village, bearing left until you see the large brown tourist sign for Durdle Door (right) and Lulworth Cove (straight ahead). Turn right here and drive down the narrow single track road past the caravan site to the large gravel car park at the end. Ahead of you is the impressive limestone arch 200ft (60m) high towering over the bay. You can walk down the steps to the beach and admire this spectacular rock formation created at the very end of the Jurassic Period 140 million years ago. From here coastal paths take you on a scenic walk to Lulworth Cove although the terrain along the cliff tops means there is a lot of steep climbs up and down.

If you wish to drive then return to the road you came in on and turn right for West Lulworth driving through that village down Church Road and taking a right turn on Main Road down to Lulworth Cove. The large car park and visitor centre can be seen on your right as soon as you arrive. Park here and walk down to the bay along the little lane via the holiday rental accommodation, pubs and gift shops selling beach related products. Down in the cove there are a plethora of yachts bobbing up in the water, plenty of swimmers in the sea and a delightfully sheltered and exquisitely beautiful panorama of cliffs and seashore to be viewed. There are a number of clearly signposted footpaths to follow around the cove or you could just simply find a bench (if you are lucky) and enjoy an ice cream. Lulworth Cove attracts over half a million visitors each year so it can get a little crowded in June, July and August.

Drive out of the parking area over to East Lulworth on the B3070 and just past the village is a narrow country lane branching off left. This takes you through a Ministry of Defence area which may be closed off to the public if live firing is going on! This is your route to Corfe Castle so if the gate is shut drive off on the B3070 and journey via Holme Lane and Stoborough Green. If the lane is open take the clifftop drive and eventually onto the Isle of Purbeck with the roads meeting up alongside the impressive ruins of Corfe Castle.

The stark but imposing ruins of the castle stand crowning a small hill on the edge of the pretty stone clad village of Corfe Castle itself. The castle was one of many built on the orders of William the Conqueror after his invasion in 1066. Wishing to control the population and impose his laws on his newly conquered subjects he went on a massive castle building programme, ordering the construction of over 700 fortifications in his 20 year reign. Many of these were simple wooden affairs standing on top of an earth mound and Corfe Castle was no exception. It was rebuilt in stone over successive centuries and its end came in the Civil Wars when it was attacked in 1643 and again in 1645. Access to the ruins can be made from the National Trust car park as you enter the village from the north on the A351. Alternatively head right into village by making a right turn after the Greyhound Inn then head down West Street. There are a cluster of one-hour parking bays below St Edward's Church, close enough to the National Trust gift shop, the model village and the town museum located in the country's "smallest town hall". If you can't get a slot here or you want to stay longer than an hour continue down charming West Street and turn right at the end to use a pay and display car park. Railway fans may wish to venture over to the railway station where steam hauled trains run from Wareham to the seaside at Swanage.

Head further along the Isle of Purbeck on the A351 to Swanage itself where the steam trains complete their journey. It was the coming of the railways that boosted the tourist trade in this seaside town but its main source of income for centuries was the loading up in the harbour of freshly quarried stone extracted nearby. This would chiefly be the famous Purbeck Marble, a fossiliferous limestone used in the construction of buildings throughout the country. The promanade walkway still features narrow gauge railway tracks from the days of loading stone onto waiting boats.

Swanage has a literary connection as it features as Knollsea in Thomas Hardy's novels and its pleasant old world ambience is worthy of a short stop. You will arrive here along Victoria Avenue so use the two hour parking facility at the Co-op supermarket near the railway station. From here you can walk to the charming sea front and along The Parade to the little Swanage Museum and visitor centre. The words compact and bijou certainly describe this little museum, crammed with photographs, signboards, little recreations of shop facades and a display of Purbeck marble. Further along the beach front, walking south, you will get to the old stone quay and the short 19th century Swanage Pier where boat tours of the Jurrasic Coast regularly leave from. Also punching the skyline is the memorial to Prince Albert which stands above the 19th century Swanage Amphitheatre with its Purbeck marble Ionic columns.

The main pedestrianised beach front road  is called Shore Road and features beach huts with multicoloured doors, a selection of fish and chip shops, a sand and shingle beach and views of the Isle of Wight.

Leave the town on the extention of Shore Road which hugs the beach for a while then heads away from the sea and becomes Ulwell Road. This will join the B3351 Swanage Road over to Studland and its tranquil nature reserve. You can park here and take a coastal walk over to the headland and overlook Old Harry Rocks, a remarkable collection of chalk stacks heading out to sea. This marks the easternmost point of the Jurrasic Coast. 

At the end of the B3351 you will join the queue of vehicles ready to cross the mouth of Poole Herbour by ferry to Sandbanks on the other side. This large but very shallow natural harbour claims to be the second largest natural harbour in the world after the one in Sydney, Australia. Troops left from here by boat to the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day landings in June 1944. A £4.50 fee is charged for camper vans to make the short journey, dodging larger ferries from Poole to the Channel Islands and Cherbourg in France. The harbour and its islands can be seen on your left as you make the crossing, the largest and most visible of the these islands is the heavily wooded Brownsea Island.

Poole Harbour stands at 14 square miles (36 square km) and if you wish to see a bit more of this natural wonder then take the ferry to Brownsea Island. Leave the camper van at the ferry car park, just where you disembarked from the ferry that you had taken from Studland. The little ferry boat will cross the water to an island just one and a half mile long (2.4 km) and features rare plants, woodland walks and heathland. It was here in 1907 that a camp for young boys, organised by Lord Robert Baden-Powell was the genesis of the Scouting movement.

To head to Bournemouth from Poole Harbour drive past the expensive apartments and houses of the rich and famous, this is one of the country's highest priced areas of real estate. Follow Banks Road, the B3369, towards a right turn for Haven Road, joining the B3065 signposted for Bournemouth (4 miles) alongside various brown tourist signs listing a number of amusements. Haven Road becomes The Avenue which will be where you turn right on Western Road following signs for Bournemouth West Cliff and Alum Chine.  Follow this road into the town centre, when you reach the roundabout go across it and follow signs for seafront parking. This road is the B3066 Priory Road with parking areas on both sides. Bath Road South car park is the most convenient being right next to the pier and fairground attractions.

A short walk up the coast path from the car park will take you away from the crowds of beach loving day trippers to the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. This charming Art Nouveau house was built between 1897 and 1901 as East Cliff Hall. The owner, Merton Russell-Cotes, along with his wife, donated his fine art collection and the house to the people of Bournemouth in 1919. The house and its delightful grounds are open to the public. Back down at the beach attractions can be found at the front of the pier such as the Vintage Fun Fair complete with carousel and helter skelter. On the other side from the fair can be found a Ferris Wheel. The pier was built and rebuilt over and over again in the late 19th century thanks to storm damage but the final structure, designed by the famous pier architect Eugenius Birch, was opened in 1880 with later extentions. Partial demolition occured in 1940 as a wartime precaution then it was rebuilt again after the war. There is a charge in peak season to take a stroll along its length. Further east along the seafront can be found Boscombe Pier and along the Undercliff promanade there are amusements and seafood restaurants.

The Central Gardens are a pleasant place to spend some time, the further you walk away from the seafront the quieter the gardens become. This is the route of the Bourne river which gives the town its name and you can walk on upstream to the Upper Gardens and on to the tranquil little Coy Pond Gardens with its shady Coy pond. Walking west along Bournemouth beach one can visit both Alum Chine and Branksome Chine. Chines are steep sided coastal gorges and provide enjoyable walks from the sea shore into the wooded valleys. These are some of the attractions that make the town a more than worthwhile stop, but Bournemouth has a population of nearly 200,000 so it has a busy and bustling shopping area of streets with the same chain outlets for clothes and food seen practically everywhere else. Keep to the sea front areas and the Central Gardens to discover areas that feel more unique.

The A338 is the road that takes you out of Bournemouth and away from the county of Dorset up to Ringwood where you join the A31 East at the roundabout before continuing on to the M27 and M3 back towards London.