A Jurassic Coast Road Trip in England

18 September 2017

Don't be fooled by the distance. This stunning stretch of coastline, England's only natural UNESCO World Heritage site, crams so much in - and boasts so many inland temptations - that you could easily spend five days enjoying it, whether it's behind the wheel, on foot or in the water. Rimming most of Dorset, and dipping into neighbouring East Devon, the Jurassic Coast takes you on a geological journey through time. Its rocks cover 185 million years of the dinosaur-dominated Mesozoic era. Fossil hunters will be in their element, but so, too, will foodies, historians, hikers, artists and literary lovers.

Distance:

Officially 153 kilometres (about 250km with diversions).

Highlights:

- Scenic walks on the South West Coast Path, a route spanning 1014km of southern England

- Sampling delicious seasonal produce at some of the country's best delis and gastropubs

- Browsing galleries full of art inspired by the region's rolling green landscapes, epic coastline and fossil heritage

- Bedding down in spruced-up farm buildings, cosy inns and ivy-clad Georgian cottages

- Taking in the gorgeous location of TV hit Broadchurch

Day 1 - Bournemouth to Corfe Castle

From Bournemouth, take the Sandbanks car ferry - which crosses Poole Harbour three times an hour - to Studland, where you should park up and tread the clifftop path towards Old Harry Rocks.

Old Harry Rocks. Follow the trail to Old Harry Rocks.

 

The coast's most easterly point, these dazzling white stacks are typical of the chalky scenery that dominates southeast Dorset. For lunch, try Brownsea Island rock oysters or pressed pheasant and chicken terrine at The Pig on the Beach in Studland, or drive to nearby Swanage for fish and chips on the waterfront. Spend the afternoon roaming the ruins of Corfe Castle - which was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell's Parliamentarian army during the English Civil War. Corfe's grey-stone village is a quaint place to spend the night. 

Corfe Castle The intriguing Corfe Castle.

Day 2 - Corfe Castle to Weymouth

Drive south to Lulworth Cove, where an excellent heritage centre reveals how geology and erosion have fashioned this dramatic coastline. Thigh-straining clifftop walks offer fabulous vantage points, while kayaking trips let you glide past caves, blowholes and under the iconic stone arch of Durdle Door.

Durdle Door. Stop to check out Durdle Door. Image: Steve McKenna.

Head to Weymouth, hub of the 2012 Olympics sailing events. There's a raft of enticing places in which to eat, drink and sleep and the Isle of Portland is close by. Connected to the mainland by a causeway, Portland is renowned for its red-and-white striped lighthouse and historic quarries (the British Museum and St Paul's Cathedral are among the landmarks constructed with the local limestone).

Day 3 - Weymouth to Dorchester

Amble along Weymouth's Chesil Beach, a sweeping 30km barrier of shingle that acted as the backdrop to Ian McEwan's 2007 novel, On Chesil Beach.

Chesil Beach. Stop for a meander at Chesil Beach. Image: Steve McKenna.

Then drive north into the endearingly pastoral 'Hardy Country' - where Thomas Hardy lived and set his books. Visit his thatched cottaged birthplace in the village of Higher Bockingham, and Max Gate, the red-brick mansion he built with his literary riches.

The cottage birthplace of Thomas Hardy. Image: Steve McKenna

Both edge Dorchester, a bustling market town that doubled up as Hardy's fictional Casterbridge. There's a recreation of Hardy's study - and heaps of fossils - in the town's Dorset County Museum.

Dorchester Dorset Museum. Dorchester Dorset Museum is full of interesting finds. Image: Steve McKenna.

Dorchester's pubs excel in Dorset real ales and hearty, home-made fare. 

Day 4 - Dorchester to Lyme Regis

Make a beeline for the sheer sandstone cliffs of West Bay, near Bridport. You might recognise them from Far From The Madding Crowd - the 2015 cinematic remake of Hardy's novel - or Broadchurch, the ABC drama starring David Tennant. 

West Bay. The incredible coastline at West Bay. Image: Steve McKenna.

The Jurassic Coast's loftiest point, the 191m high Golden Cap, is a great photo stop on the way to Lyme Regis, one of Dorset's loveliest seaside resorts. 

Lyme Regis Museum. See incredible fossils in Lyme Regis Museum. Image: Steve McKenna.

Guided fossil walks are run by the town's museum, which displays awe-inspiring finds, including the skull of an ichthyosaur (carnivorous marine reptile) that 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning extracted from Lyme's cliffs.

Day 5 - Lyme Regis to Exmouth

Stroll the sea walls of The Cobb, Lyme's curving man-made harbour, or through the Undercliff, a birdlife-rich nature reserve shaped by landslips. Bid farewell to Dorset and cross the county border into Devon, where the desert-red cliffs and sea stacks of Ladram Bay and Orcombe Point are highly Instagrammable.

South West Coast Path. There's so much to see and discover along the South West Coast Path. Image: Steve McKenna.

The latter - the Jurassic's most westerly marker - is just outside Exmouth, said to be Devon's oldest seaside town. The nearest city - with an airport, train station and car hire drop-off point - is Exeter, another half-hour's drive away.


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Steve McKenna

A regular contributor to some of Australia's leading newspapers and travel magazines, Steve McKenna has visited, written about and photographed more than 80 countries on six different continents. He fears he has an incurable case of wanderlust and is particularly fond of Europe, Asia and South America.