Britain’s Jurassic Coast is a UNESCO World Heritage Site stretching from Exmouth in East Devon to Old Harry Rocks in Dorset. The 95-mile stretch of coastline is famed for its natural beauty, quaint villages and, of course, its prehistoric heritage.
Home to fossils and rock formations dating back to the Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic periods, the Jurassic Coast has earned global renown amongst historians, geologists and paleontologists alike. To walk its length – which makes up a portion of the South West Coast Path – takes roughly 9 days, give or take.
Here, we’ve compiled a collection of 11 unmissable historical sites to visit on the Jurassic Coast, from world-famous natural landmarks to historic towns, monuments and attractions.
1. Orcombe Point
Orcombe Point in Devon marks the western limit of the Jurassic Coast. It’s a dramatic natural site boasting towering cliffs, great ocean views and rock formations dating back to the Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic periods.
At Orcombe Point, you’ll find a monument known as the Geoneedle, which is a manmade sculpture formed from different rock samples taken along the Jurassic Coast. While exploring the area – which is thought to have been used as a navigational marker by the Vikings – be sure to look out for rare green-winged orchids and a whole host of different butterfly species that call it home.
2. Budleigh Salterton
The quaint seaside town of Budleigh Salterton, which sits at the mouth of the river Otter, gained popularity as a coastal destination in the 19th century. But its history goes much further back than the Victorian era: the surrounding coastline boasts cliffs dating back some 250 million years to the Triassic period.
Today, visitors can find the towering Triassic cliffs – which are a deep red colour – a short walk from the village. The South West Coast Path passes Budleigh Salterton itself, making it an ideal pit-stop during a walking tour of the Jurassic Coast.
3. Branscombe Beach
The mile-long shingle beach at Branscombe borders the village of the same name, which has historically been known for its fishing and lace industries. Perhaps most famously, though, in January 2007, the MSC Napoli ran aground off the beach and its cargo of some 2,300 containers began to spill into the ocean and ashore.
A frantic scavenging operation then ensued, as people from across the country journeyed to Branscombe to take items that had washed ashore, including everything from boxes of wine to BMW motorbikes. These days, Branscombe is decidedly quiter than in the winter of ‘07, and is the perfect spot for a picnic or a paddle.
4. Beer Quarry Caves
Just inland from the town of Beer are the Beer Quarry Caves, a subterranean complex of man-made tunnels formed from the excavation of ‘beer stone’ over two millennia. A popular building material used heavily in British churches, beer stone was quarried extensively in the area from the medieval period through to the 20th century.
Today, visitors can take guided tours of the Beer Stone Caves in the summer months, while in the winter, the site is used as a bat hibernaculum. Expect to see sprawling caverns, ornate pillars and vaulted roofs in the underground complex.
5. Lyme Regis
As well as being a picturesque seaside resort sometimes referred to as the ‘Pearl of Dorset’, Lyme Regis is a town rich in history. Perhaps its most famous resident was the 19th-century fossil hunter Mary Anning, who made her name hunting, analysing and documenting fossils along the Jurassic Coast.
If you pay a visit to Lyme Regis, be sure to visit the Lyme Regis Museum, which is home to a whole host of Mary Anning artefacts as well as other local history collections. Afterwards, you can take a stroll around the harbour, grab an ice cream and even try your hand at some fossil hunting yourself.
6. Charmouth Beach
Another great spot for fossil hunting along the Jurassic Coast is Charmouth Beach, a quaint spot popular with families for its historic relics. Charmouth made headlines back in 2000 when a substantial cliff slide unearthed a fossilised Ichthyosaur head.
If you do make the trip to Charmouth, be sure to visit the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre for all things fossils. There, you can view displays of locally unearthed fossils – including the aforementioned dinosaur head – or sign up for one of their organised fossil-finding expeditions.
7. Chesil Beach
Stretching from West Bay to Portland in Dorset, Chesil Beach is an 18-mile long ‘barrier beach’ or ‘tombolo’ – essentially a shingle bar backed by a large tidal lagoon. The vast ridge makes for quite a spectacle, though it’s comparatively young – a mere 20,000 years old – compared to the prehistoric rock formations of the Jurassic Coast.
The unique geological formations of Chesil Beach make for a unique habitat for wildlife. As such, the ridge is home to a protected area for nesting birds, while an array of sea creatures call its waters home. If you tire of the sprawling shingle, make a pit stop at nearby Weymouth for some golden sands.
8. Durdle Door
One of the most iconic landmarks along the Jurassic Coast – if not the entire British coastline – Durdle Door is a limestone rock formation that juts out into the English Channel in a neat arch. The curved golden beach, framed by steep cliffs and the iconic arch formation, is the perfect spot to take a break from walking or to have a dip.
The beach at Durdle Door is just a short 15 minute walk from the South West Coast Path. But be warned: Durdle Door is an extremely popular site and can get very busy in the summer months and during school holidays.
From Durdle Door, you can head east along the South West Coast Path to Lulworth Cove; this is the most popular stretch of the path, and it attracts some 200,000 walkers each year. At Lulworth Cove you’ll find a gorgeous horseshoe bay bordered by towering cliffs.
Lulworth Cove formed when a formation of limestone was eroded by the sea, eventually hollowing out a cove. Be sure to visit the Lulworth Crumple, which sits above the cove and is a towering wall of layered limestone and shale rocks with a distinct wave-like appearance.
As you near the eastern tip of the Jurassic Coast, take a brief inland detour to Corfe Castle. This dramatic 11th-century fortress – built under William the Conqueror – has fulfilled a number of roles throughout its thousand-year history, from royal residence to military stronghold.
Though damaged significantly during the English Civil War, Corfe Castle is still well worth a visit. Its romantic ruins sit high atop a natural ‘motte’, with many of its original features still well preserved. For the best view, take the steep climb up West Hill.
Marking the easternmost limit of the Jurassic Coast, Old Harry Rocks is a series of white chalk stacks and structures lining the Dorset coast to the south of Poole and Bournemouth. Many thousands of years ago, Old Harry Rocks would have formed part of a vast chalk ridge that stretched all the way along the south coast to the Needles on the Isle of Wight.
‘Old Harry’ actually refers to one particular stack – the furthest out to sea – while ‘Old Harry’s Wife’ fell prey to erosion in 1896, crumbling into the waves. There are fantastic views of the rocks from the surrounding grassland, but if you’re keen to get up close to the structures you can join a guided Kayak tour from Studland or take a cruise from Poole.