Travel Through Time on England’s Jurassic Coast

By Jan Schroder

The phrase “take a step back in time” may be overused, but there’s nowhere on the planet where it rings truer than on the Jurassic Coast of England. Visitors can step back 185 million years on this 95-mile-long coastline in southern England.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, the coast runs from Exmouth in East Devon to Studland in Dorset and is a popular destination for its massive, towering cliffs; unique geological formations; and quaint villages. Activities include digging for ancient fossils, engaging in water sports, hiking one of the most scenic and undeveloped coastlines in the world, visiting a 12th-century castle or just relaxing in a traditional English pub.

Start your visit in centrally located Weymouth, in the county of Dorset, popular for its golden-sand, three-mile beach. If you’re bringing the family along, the children will enjoy seasonal donkey rides and Punch and Judy puppet shows on the beach. Stroll along the historic and picturesque harbor area where old fishing boats and kayakers share the water with yachts and luxurious cruisers. Shops, pubs and restaurants line the harbor, making it a perfect spot to spend a few hours.

For a good view of a large portion of the coast, head to the Jurassic Skyline attraction, where you will ascend 174 feet in a circular capsule, which then fully rotates twice for 360-degree views.

Jurassic Coastline, England © Andrew Martin | Dreamstime.com

Jurassic Coastline, England. Photo: Andrew Martin | Dreamstime.com

On the must-see list for the Jurassic Coast are Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door. You don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate the views of layers of ancient rock from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods on a visit to the picturesque Lulworth Cove, itself a World Heritage site and one of the most beautiful spots on the coast for its unique, scallop-like formation and crystal-blue waters.

The 1.3-mile walk from Lulworth Cove to Durdle Door remains one of the most popular of the 630-mile South West Coast Path that edges the coastline. With its rapid changes in elevation, it’s one of the most challenging paths in the country. While this section of the path does include some steep inclines on occasionally slippery rocks, the spectacular views are worth the windy, strenuous climb.

As you descend on the path from Lulworth, you’ll have magnificent views of Durdle Door, one of the most photographed spots in Dorset. The natural limestone arch rising out of the sea formed when the force of constant waves over thousands of years eroded a section of the rock. The beach in front of the arch attracts swimmers and snorkelers.

If the family is along, or you’d like to take home a piece of history yourself, Charmouth offers the best place to find fossils. While visitors aren’t allowed to dig into cliffs, loose fossils are plentiful, especially at low tide. To learn more about fossils and join a guided tour, visit the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre, where you can also examine any of your fossil finds under a microscope and have a staff member identify them. The Lyme Regis Museum, another option, features fantastic views of Lyme Bay. Its Mary Anning Wing, named after the first female paleontologist, sits on the site of her former home. Born in 1799, she supported her family by selling fossils to museums around Europe.

While in Lyme Regis, you have to take a walk along the curved and slanted 870-foot-long harbor wall called the Cobb, famous for the scene in The French Lieutenant’s Woman in which Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep first lock eyes.

Lyme Regis Coastal Town © Jasminelove - Dreamstime.com

Lyme Regis, Coastal Town in Dorset, England. Photo: Jasminelove – Dreamstime.com

The county of Dorset is a popular filming location, especially for period pieces, as it has miles of coastline and countryside, quaint villages and stately homes. Parts of the movie The Imitation Game and several scenes from Dunkirk were filmed here. You’ll also find those soaring cliffs that were a key element in the first season of Broadchurch in West Bay.

This is also Thomas Hardy country, with several of his novels and stories based here. You can visit his modest thatched-roof cottage where he lived with his family and wrote his first novels.

Do not miss the iconic Corfe Castle, a 1,000-year-old castle built for King Henry I, William the Conqueror’s son. Despite efforts to destroy it over the years, the castle still stands, bearing plenty of scars and gaping holes. After a visit to the castle, stop in The Greyhound in the village below for a traditional English cream tea, which includes two scones, clotted cream and jam.

Upscale accommodations along the Jurassic Coast range from properties in former country manor homes to more modern hotels with sea views. Dining options range from traditional fish and chips to Michelin-starred cuisine.

Recreational opportunities are plentiful, from rock climbing to biking and horseback riding. The Jurassic Coast is also a mecca for water sports, with swimmers, kayakers, divers, surfers, paddle boarders and sailors enjoying the waters. To really get your adrenaline going, try coasteering, an activity invented in Great Britain that involves moving along a coastline by swimming, climbing, jumping and diving. While it may seem extreme, the activity can be suited to a range of abilities and even be suitable for young children.

Whether you have several days to explore the spectacular Jurassic Coast or only time for a short visit, it’s an easy trip from London and a place where you’ll view scenery only seen on the southern coast of England.