Posted 6th Feb 2014
As waves crash against the dramatic cliffs of the Dorset Jurassic Coast they gradually peel back layers of time, exposing incredible geology that has seen the area designated England's first natural World Heritage Site. We take a look at the footprints left behind by dinosaurs among the rich history and warm hospitality Dorset has to offer
Once upon a time, around 250 million years ago, the story of the spectacular Dorset coast began as the Earth dramatically evolved through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, today leaving its legacy to be discovered along the coastline of deep time. Whilst dinosaurs walked the land, enormous predators swarmed the seas, with the likes of the Ichthyosaur and fearsome Pliosaur taking charge of the ocean, still sharing their story with us today.
Stretching 95 miles from Exmouth through West Dorset, Weymouth and Portland to Purbeck, the Jurassic Coast of Dorset is designated a World Heritage Site for its unique insight into the Earth Sciences, with around 185 million years of history buried deep within its rocks. The site is of universal value, up there with the Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China, situated on England's doorstep ready to be explored. Together the rocks record the Mesozoic Era of geological time, also known as ‘Middle Life', when monstrous beasts roamed the Earth and the massive super-continent Pangaea broke up into the seven continents we have today. East Devon and Dorset once lay within the arid centre of Pangaea, evident in the red Triassic rocks of Exmouth that once survived conditions close to those of Africa.
Today, the Jurassic Coast of West Dorset can be freely explored and enjoyed, with fossils up to 190-million-years-old still being discovered every day. In fact, a fossil find is almost guaranteed on the beach at Charmouth, where staff at the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre take groups out on an exciting hunt for a major piece of history almost every week. Visitors scour the shores for ammonites, brittle stars (echinoderms closely related to starfish), belemnites (bullet-shaped fossils that were the hard internal shell of an animal closely resembling the squid), fossilised wood and even the bones of Jurassic marine reptiles and dinosaurs, eager to be the first to discover a phenomenal artefact from millions of years ago. Whether you're out on a guided walk or foraging for fossils alone, a visit to the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre is definitely worthwhile. Have your fossil finds identified by expert volunteers and pick up top tips for next time, explore the museum full of amazing fossil collections and meet the infamous Charmouth Dinosaur - a Scelidosaurus discovered by a local fossil collector. A life-size cast of this best preserved and most complete dinosaur ever found in Britain is on display at the Centre. Incredibly, the Scelidosaurus, discovered near Charmouth, has been found nowhere else in the world, believed to have washed out to sea and drowned here. Though a dinosaur is a very rare find, ammonites are plentiful among the pebbles of the Jurassic Coast and make a beautiful souvenir from your trip. The stunning coiled shells are one of the most recognisable fossils, once belonging to the same group of animals as octopus and squid. Just a stone's throw away from Charmouth, in Lyme Regis, one of the greatest fossilists of all time, Mary Anning, made her first exceptional find. Mary gave the area its renowned status for fossils after her discovery of the first Ichthyosaur in 1811, continuing to rack up a record number of fossil ‘firsts' during her lifetime. You can follow her fascinating journey, among a wealth of other local history and interesting fossils, at the Lyme Regis Museum in the heart of the town.
For another incredible find visit the Dorset County Museum where you will be left just as awe-inspired as you delve among the astounding Jurassic Coast Gallery. The massive fossilised skull of the Pliosaur, a marine reptile thought to be the most fearsome predator the Earth has ever seen, is on display in the gallery. The fossil is 150-million-years-old and is thought to be 95 per cent complete - a stare into the mouth of the beast quickly brings to life this once ferocious serpent of the sea. Not just well known for its dinosaurs, the Dorset County Museum is home to much of Dorset's rich heritage, with its Archaeology, Victorian and Dorchester Galleries, A Writer's Dorset section dedicated to the area's literary history and many other exciting exhibitions and collections - one of which is a reconstruction of Thomas Hardy's study. Novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, famous for his works including The Woodlanders and Under The Greenwood Tree, spent most of his life in Dorset. Dorset County Museum has the largest Hardy collection in the world, with the study from his home at Max Gate reconstructed with all of his original belongings on display. Look out for the very pens Hardy used to write some of his greatest works, each inscribed with the titles of the novels he wrote with them.
Well known as Hardy Country, Thomas is undoubtedly Dorset's most famous author and poet, still very much part of their proud heritage. The life of Thomas Hardy can be closely followed, from his birth place to his final resting place at St Michael's Church in Stinsford. Hardy was born in 1840 in Higher Bockhampton, near Dorchester, in an evocative cob and thatch cottage built by his grandfather. The pretty cottage has been little altered since the Hardy family left, and can still be visited today. Be sure to wander through Granny's Kitchen during your visit and get a feel for tough 19th-century rural life, before pausing thoughtfully in the bedroom where Hardy wrote Under the Greenwood Tree. Next, continue your literary trail with a visit to the atmospheric Victorian home designed by Thomas Hardy - Max Gate. This sophisticated town house is just a short walk from Dorchester town centre and is the place Hardy wrote some of his most famous novels, including Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Though many of his possessions were dispersed before the house was acquired by the National Trust, visitors can still enjoy the splendour of the house. Why not stop and write your own masterpiece at the desk in Hardy's study? Or help yourself to a spot of tea and a slice of cake in the old kitchen? From one prolific figure to another, Dorset is also famed as the peaceful retreat British scholar, writer and soldier, Thomas Edward Lawrence, took solace in. Known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia' for his liaison role during the Arab Revolt in World War One, Lawrence owned a simple, isolated cottage called Clouds Hill in Bovington. He once wrote: ‘I've a hut in a wood near camp wherein I spend my spare evenings,' about the tiny brick cottage that provided a rural escape whilst he was stationed at Bovington Camp, later becoming his home after he left the RAF.
The county is full of enchanting treasures to unearth, so next on your journey of Dorset discovery has to be the majestic Corfe Castle near Wareham. The imposing building grows ever taller as you approach the 55 metre hill it stands atop. The adventure begins with a slow and easy climb from the bottom of the hill, following a trickling stream and grazing goats to the top of the path. Through the trees the quaint village of Corfe Castle welcomes you with its old-fashioned cobbled streets and traditional shops, with a cosy tea room where you can take the weight off your feet. At the foot of the village the evocative castle ruins rise up, looking out over the area it once protected. With more than a 1,000 years of turbulent history, the castle has served as a royal palace and fortress, a treasury, military garrison and a family home during its time. Built in the early 12th century for King Henry I, it was designed to look impressive, standing at 21 metres tall and, despite partial demolition by order of Parliament in 1646, the castle still oozes its former grandeur with its gleaming tower of Purbeck limestone that can be seen from miles around, and its intricate stonework including a ‘pelican in her piety' on the east wall of the keep - the only example of which to be found in a Norman castle. Stories of treachery and treason surround the captivating ruin as it stood firm through the raging Civil War, surviving two sieges. Today, even in its partial state, it is still enjoyed by all members of the family, with big kids and small only too keen to imagine the sword battles, villains and heroes that have crossed this sturdy fortress.
After all the action of the castle it's time to take a slower pace and stop off at the peaceful Kingston Maurward Gardens and Animal Park in Dorchester. Stunning parkland and landscaped gardens surround the 18th century Kingston Maurward mansion house, where a pleasant afternoon soaking up the picturesque views and a wealth of wildlife can be enjoyed. The formal Edwardian gardens boast over a kilometre of yew hedging laid out to create a series of ‘garden rooms', with a secret garden, rainbow beds, a lakeside temple and serene Japanese retreat all hidden within. Its residents - the farm animals - brighten the gardens with their cheeky antics, eager to meet the latest visitors. The little ones will love petting the friendly goats, cute Shetland ponies and noisy ducks and geese, along with donkeys, cows, pigs and sheep. Keen birders should take a trip along the nature trail surrounding the beautiful lake, where birds can be seen dipping and diving playfully over the water.
Read the rest of this feature in the March/April 2014 issue...
By Natalie Mason
Images courtesy of Visit Dorset