Dorset’s Heritage Coast
Craig Roberts explores one of the finest stretches of coastline in England.
Anyone visiting Dorset cannot afford miss the splendour of the southern coastline. Stretching from Lyme Regis to Purbeck, it sets the scene for breathtaking views for both walkers and casual visitors alike. Such is Dorset’s variety of scenery, both by the sea and inland, that it is said that, once you have toured Dorset, you will have visualised a quarter of what England has to offer!
To the West, stand the magnificent cliffs of West Bay. Encompassing the small fishing village of the same name, these cliffs actually start at Lyme Regis, they then reach their maximum height of 618ft at Golden Cap, the centre of a large estate owned by the National Trust. It's actually the highest point on the Channel coast, and affords wonderful views both along the coast and inland. All the beaches along this stretch of the coast make good walks, but care must be taken with the unforgiving tide.
Further down the coast lies the great expanse of Chesil Beach, which stretches for 8 miles from Abbotsbury and joins Portland to the mainland. Being mainly pebble, the beach is actually graduated, so that the pebbles at the Abbotsbury end are larger compared with the ones at Portland. This has been caused by the force of the sea and was used by 18th century smugglers to their advantage to get their bearings, even on the darkest night. The beach creates a sheltered lagoon of partly fresh and partly salt water. Known as the Fleet, it’s a haven for birdlife, most famously the swans that have settled at the Abbotsbury end.
Abbotsbury itself is a picturesque village of yellow stone and thatched roofs. Overlooking the village, atop a hill covered with strip lynchets is St. Catherine’s Chapel. Built in the 14th century entirely of stone, roof and all, it has survived because it was seen as a useful navigational landmark for sailors. The 250ft climb to the chapel is rewarded with a fantastic view.
The small and sparse Isle of Portland on the eastern end of Chesil Beach, juts out into the Channel and protects Weymouth from the rigours of the sea. Almost treeless with cliffs on all sides, it's known for its pale limestone. The Portland stone quarrying has made its way into the construction of many famous buildings such as Buckingham Palace and St. Pauls Cathedral as well as the local church. At the south tip of the island, called the Bill, sit the two lighthouses. The first was built in 1716 and is now used as a bird observatory. The second one was built in 1905, is still in use today and is sometimes open to the public.
Sitting inland from Portland is the popular seaside resort of Weymouth. It offers a fantastic sandy beach, picturesque harbour and fine Georgian houses. Before it was united in 1571, Weymouth was divided into two towns by the estuary of the River Wey. Weymouth on the south side and Melcombe Regis on the north. It was through Melcombe Regis in 1348 that the Black Death is said to have arrived in England. Weymouth became fashionable in 1789 when it became the holiday retreat for King George III. The harbour is still very busy with fishing and pleasure boats and now includes a ferry terminal opposite the Northe. The Customs House and the Harbour Master’s office, both used in the early 19th century, still stand on the north side of the harbour.
Heading down the coast we reach the splendour of Durdle Door. This incredible rock formation leading into the sea, has an archway built into it, but will eventually crumble away as the sea gradually erodes into the Portland limestone. It was from here that Leuit. Thomas Edward Knight, a customs officer, was thrown over the cliff edge by smugglers. Not surprisingly he died the next day. The coastal path passes along here and carries on to Lulworth Cove, and is a wonderful walk along the cliffs, if a little strenuous at times.
Owned by the Lulworth Estate, Lulworth Cove is a sweeping horseshoe shaped formation that becomes very crowded at high season. A place where many people moor their boats and fishing trips depart. On the cliffs above, is the start of the MOD firing ranges, meaning that the occasional gunfire is all that unsettles the quietness. Just inland sits Lulworth Castle. Dating from about 1600, it has been owned by the Weld family since 1641, but was reduced to just a shell after a disastrous fire in 1929.
The coastline between Lulworth and Kimmeridge Bay to the east has strong connections with the smuggling trade that existed in the 1700’s. Worbarrow Bay, Horbarrow Bay and Brandy Bay, the latter needing no explanation, were all popular landing sites for the contrabands that traded around the time. They were all safe beaches that had fast tracks inland onwhich to transport their goods unseen by the Revenue officers.
At Kimmeridge Bay, up on the clifftop sits the Clavel Tower. It was built in 1830 by the Reverend John Clavel and although being described as a folly, observatory or lighthouse, most probably would have been used as a signalling tower in the days when smuggling was rife. Kimmeridge itself has a long industrial history based on raw materials. Oil has been refined here since 1861, being drawn from the fossil cliffs.
The Dorset Coast Path carries on round to the Isle of Purbeck to finish at Hardfast Point and Old Harry rocks. These cliffs were once connected to The Needles on the Isle of Wight before being eroded into the coastline we know today. Until 1896, Old Harry had a neighbouring stack called Old Harry’s Wife, before a mighty storm washed her away.
Jane Austin, Thomas Hardy and T.F. Powys are amongst the many literary writers that have connections with Dorset. Judging by its dramatic coastline it's not surprising where they got their inspiration from.
All images and text copyright © Craig Roberts 2000