Description of the Path

Chesil Beach from Isle of Portland

Dorset (Lyme Regis-Poole Harbour)

Landscape Overview of the Coast - Dorset

Geology is both the curse and the boon of the Dorset part of the South West Coast Path. As a curse, the geology means that the Dorset cliffs are very vulnerable to slippage, especially at the western end. This has meant that a number of diversions, necessary but hardly ideal, have had to be put in place for the Coast Path. There is currently no clear idea of when permanent solutions will be found for these problems. The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2010 may resolve the matter of replacement or alternative routes in the longer term but, apart from the Weymouth area, there is currently no programme for implementation.

However, as a boon, Dorset's exposed and accessible layers of geological history have made it a textbook example for a wide range of coastal features. These features are also landscape highlights - the great shingle bar of Chesil Beach backed by the semi-freshwater lagoon of the Fleet; the fortress-like monolith of the Isle of Portland, jutting into the English Channel; the textbook arch of Durdle Door; the erosion of soft rock once the harder limestone has been broken through forming hollowed-out bays, as at Lulworth Cove; the offshore Purbeck stone stacks at Handfast Point.

Inland, the rolling green hills evoke the spirit and, indeed, even the landscape, of Thomas Hardy, a worthy addition to the range of South West Coast Path landscapes.

Geology of the Coast - Dorset

Mupe Bay

The geology of the Dorset coast has given rise to textbook features which have in turn resulted in the coast, together with that of East Devon, being designated as a natural World Heritage Site for its unique insight into 185 million years of the Earth's geological history. Despite its name, three geological periods are actually represented in the World Heritage Site, though only two of them in Dorset. The oldest period represented in Dorset is the Jurassic. During this time, 200 to 140 million years ago, seas had inundated the old land masses and marine and swamp conditions were found. Later came the Cretaceous period of 140 to 65 million years ago, a period initially of salt flats then later of lush swamps and finally of a great sea.

Because of tilting and later erosion these rock sequences are sometimes found in complex and unexpected progression along the coast. Broadly, Jurassic rocks are found between Lyme Regis and Ringstead, in the Lulworth Cove area and from Kimmeridge to Durlston Head near Swanage. Cretaceous rocks are found between Ringstead and Lulworth, east of Lulworth to Kimmeridge and between Swanage and Poole Harbour. Although not exclusively, much of the Cretaceous area comprises very distinctive limestone and chalk.

Conditions on the coast have made it ideal for fossils. Fossil hunting was popularised by local lady Mary Anning at Lyme Regis in the 1800s, resulting in many famous geologists of the day visiting to learn from her work. Charmouth is now perhaps the best location for this activity.

A geological oddity of the Dorset coast is Chesil Beach with the Fleet lagoon behind. The beach is 17 miles/28km long, increasing in height and in the size of its constituent pebbles towards the east. Its origin is still the subject of much debate. Once thought that it had been formed by being driven onshore by rising sea levels following the Ice Age, a more complex story involving longshore drift carrying material from landslips further west at that time may actually be the cause.

The geology has also given rise to textbook landscape features such as Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door, great favourites for geological field courses. With the former, narrow parallel bands of rock have been eroded by the sea at different rates, following an initial breach in the hard seaward limestone band. This has resulted in an almost perfectly circular feature. Erosion by the sea has also resulted in the famous sea arch of Durdle Door and the breaching of the once continuous band of chalk between the Isle of Wight and the eastern end of the Dorset coast, forming the offshore stacks of Old Harry Rocks.

Historical Development of the Coast - Dorset

Clavell Tower

Dorset is known to have been inhabited in Mesolithic times (c.8000BC), with evidence from Purbeck at the eastern end of the coast as well as Portland and Weymouth. Evidence of human settlement following this period is found inland on the chalk downs rather than on the coast itself. During the Iron Age period of c.600-1st century BC many hill forts were built, the largest of which, Maiden Castle, is visible from the South Dorset Ridgeway section.

The Romans arrived in Dorset and had their main base at Dorchester, inland, but are known to have created earthworks, presumably for defensive and lookout purposes, at Verne on Portland.

The modern settlement pattern was largely established by the Saxons, whose many villages form the basis of the modern map, for example at Abbotsbury, Weymouth and Swanage.

The Vikings visited Dorset early in their raids on England, and traditionally a "hit-and-run" raid near Portland in 795 is said to be their first English incursion. Thereafter, Dorset was largely left alone.

The medieval period saw the building of larger scale stone buildings for the first time, like the castle at Corfe and the monastery at Abbotsbury - this latter was a Saxon foundation but much rebuilt in the Middle Ages. Later still, Henry VIII built defences at many points around the coast of England including, in Dorset, castles at Sandsfoot (Weymouth) and Portland.

Human activity throughout this time concentrated on farming and fishing, but the extraction of building stone at Portland and in Purbeck, the peninsula at the eastern end of the Dorset coast, probably dates back to Roman times. Portland stone has been used for a wide variety of buildings in London, including St Paul's Cathedral and Buckingham Palace, as well as, surprisingly, the UN Headquarters in New York, and is still quarried.

Tourism and recreation have become arguably the most important activity on the Dorset coast in more recent times. Weymouth was popularised as a fashionable resort by George III, who visited consistently between 1789 and 1805. His visits are commemorated by the statue to him on the sea front and his mounted figure in chalk on the hillside near Osmington. The arrival of the railway in 1857 added to Weymouth's popularity.

The railways also reached Lyme Regis and Swanage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, adding to access for tourists. Lyme Regis actually traces its roots to Roman times but really prospered from the medieval period, when the famous harbour known as the Cobb was built. More recently it achieved fame as the setting for the book and film, "The French Lieutenant's Woman". Swanage is of Saxon origins and has a long fishing history. It became a base for the Purbeck stone industry in the 19th century before concentrating on tourism.

A modern feature is the use of Portland Harbour, originally built for the Royal Navy in 1872, and the sea off Weymouth, for the sailing events of the 2012 Olympics.

Character of the Coast - Dorset

Old Harry Rocks

The coast of Dorset is perhaps most generally characterised by cliffs. However, these vary considerably in character and appearance along the length of the coast. There are also exceptions to this general rule, principally at Chesil Beach, in Weymouth Bay and at Studland.

The cliffs are highest in the west. Indeed, Golden Cap east of Charmouth is the highest point on the entire south coast between Land's End and the Thames Estuary. These western cliffs are characterised by being cut by a succession of valleys, thus making for a very saw-toothed profile.

The other characteristic of these cliffs, especially in the far west, is their instability. The geological make-up of this length means that the layers of rock sit very insecurely one on another making for constant and sometimes quite dramatic land slippages. These are most marked between Lyme Regis and Charmouth, where the Coast Path must currently divert some way inland.

As the cliffs progress east they decrease in height until the coastline reaches the great shingle and pebble ridge of Chesil Beach. This is a unique feature on the English coast, a 17 mile/28km bank trapping behind itself a lagoon of brackish water, the Fleet. Inland of the Fleet the land rises relatively gently as sloping green fields, the Coast Path finding its way between these slopes and the Fleet.

Chesil Beach and the Fleet culminate in the great limestone block of Portland, jutting abruptly into the English Channel. Portland is unlike any other promontory on the Coast Path, a massive block of rock which has been quarried for its stone for some two thousand years. Portland also has a visual impact on the rest of the Coast Path in Dorset, an ever-present monolith asserting its influence on the character of the coast.

A relatively low-lying coast is found at Weymouth Bay, and a relatively developed one, until the limestone and chalk asserts itself on the cliffs approaching Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove. Here are tall white cliffs, offshore stacks and coves created by the erosion of the softer rocks behind the more resistant coastal barrier. The coastal features here have made this area one of the country's most important for geography field trips.

Beyond Lulworth Cove the cliffs rise and fall at a breathtaking rate (literally) as the chalk alternates with softer, more quickly eroded rocks. This is an area with an unusual character, the result of its having been used as a military training area for the last 70 years, at once protected and neglected, a character some find charming, others sad.

More tall cliffs lead to St Aldhelm's Head and the quiet and scenic cliffs of Purbeck, marked here and there by old quarry sites.

The coast turns north at Swanage to more chalk cliffs, the picturesque and airy headlands of Ballard Down and Handfast Point with the offshore chalk stacks of Old Harry and his Wife.

The coast then descends to Studland and its area of dunes and heath which leads to the mouth of Poole Harbour, and the end (or beginning) of the Coast Path. Poole Harbour, with its claim to being the country's largest natural harbour, is a fittingly scenic terminal point for the Path.

Walking the Coast - Dorset

Towards Golden Cap

The constant ups and downs of much of the cliff line in Dorset mean that long lengths will be most likely attempted by fitter walkers. These lengths include the western end from Lyme Regis to Burton Bradstock, the length from Osmington Mills to Lulworth Cove and from Kimmeridge Bay to Worth Matravers.

The length between Lulworth Cove and Kimmeridge Bay is arguably the most daunting of all. In addition, because it passes through a military range it is only open at certain times, generally most weekends and also periods embracing bank holidays. Inland diversions are possible but lengthy, so those planning to walk this length need to check on available dates.

There are also difficulties in the far west, between Lyme Regis and Charmouth. Here cliff falls have necessitated inland diversions from the coast.

The Chesil Beach length is relatively untaxing, although between Abbotsbury and Portland the route is near or alongside the lagoon of the Fleet rather than the sea. Chesil Beach itself can be walked but is very arduous and is, in fact, unavailable during the bird nesting season, May-August.

Weymouth Bay is generally level, although also generally urban or semi-urban.

The Purbeck coast between St Aldhelm's Head and Swanage, although with its ups and downs, is less strenuous than some other lengths and has a quiet and scenic quality. Ballard Down and Handfast Point, between Swanage and Studland, together form a popular and relatively easy walking area with wonderful views, while Studland Bay is level and pleasant, a landscape of beach, dunes and heath. However, some may be uncomfortable with the fact that part of this length passes through a naturist beach.

For an unusual day's walk, but one of great interest, the circuit of Portland is an excellent option.

There is bus access to Lyme Regis, Charmouth, West Bay, Burton Bradstock, Abbotsbury, Portland, Weymouth, Osmington Mills, Lulworth Cove, Swanage, Studland and South Haven Point (Poole Harbour). National Express coaches serve Lyme Regis, Charmouth, Weymouth, Swanage and Poole. Mainline railway stations are found at Weymouth and Poole. More unusually, a steam railway links Swanage with Corfe Castle, itself served by mainline rail and National Express coaches.

South Dorset Ridgeway

Durdle Door

Dorset also has the length once known as the "Inland Coast Path", now renamed the South Dorset Ridgeway. This route, officially an arm of the National Trail, runs parallel to the "true" Coast Path between West Bexington and Osmington Mills, passing through a quiet rural countryside which will be recognisable to fans of Thomas Hardy, who set much of his work in this and neighbouring landscapes.

Its length, 17 miles/27km, and the fact that it links with a single bus route at both ends, make it an ideal long day's walk. It includes superb views to the great Iron Age fort of Maiden Castle to the north and over the coast, Chesil Beach and the Fleet, Weymouth and Portland to the south.