Walking on the Dorset coast

The high cliffs and grand views of this most beautiful stretch of English coastline makes for invigorating walking.

With its towering cliffs and sweeping panoramas, coastal Dorset is classic walking country. Local walking guide Andy Pedrick describes the appeal.

For walkers, Dorset is most famous for its 'Jurassic Coast', a UNESCO World Heritage Site extending the length of the country from Old Harry Rocks near Swanage to the Devon border - and beyond to Exmouth. It runs for some 95 miles, and comprises one of the most attractive stretches of the 630-mile South West Coast Path.

The coastal path is hilly, with regular sharp ascents and descents: a long walk can be quite demanding, while shorter strolls are ideal for family days out. As an alternative - and worth keeping in mind on busy weekends when the coast path is crowded - there is a series of excellent ridgeways a short distance inland along the high Purbeck ridge, which can be used as an alternative, and which command stunning views in all directions.

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The principal areas for walking are Purbeck in the east and the stretch between Abbotsbury and Lyme Regis in the west. The central section around Osmington Mills and Portland is less frequented by walkers.

The Isle of Purbeck
From the Old Harry Rocks near Swanage across to Lulworth Cove in the west, Purbeck is an absolutely stunning corner of England, with the dramatic coast path and some great ridgeway trails making it perenially popular with walkers. It's not really an island, but a peninsula defined by the River Frome to the north and the high ridge of the Purbeck Hills running across its midst. The western boundary is a bit vague - technically it is Worbarrow Bay, but for most purposes it can be extended over to Lulworth Cove and nearby Durdle Door.
Old Harry Rocks
Setting out from the coast path overlooking the chalk stacks known as Old Harry Rocks, the trail heads south through Swanage and on to Anvil Point, where the coast turns westward. Beyond Dancing Ledge (a good swimming spot if the weather is warm) is the handsome village of Worth Matravers and spectacular St Aldhelm's Head (a.k.a. St Alban's Head), followed by geologically-famous Kimmeridge - one of the best places to find evidence of fossils in the area. The path continues to beautiful Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door.
Durdle Door
Depending on your ability and enthusiasm, many of these can be combined into a single walk or a mixture of touring and walking. Old Harry Rocks to Swanage is 2 miles, Swanage to Kimmeridge is around 15 miles, Kimmeridge to Lulworth is 7 miles and Durdle Door a further 2.5 miles. Swyre Head is the highest point on the Isle of Purbeck with stunning views along the coast. One of the great walks in this area is the 'Purbeck Plod' - a 25-mile ramble from Swanage along the coast path to Kimmeridge, from where it turns inland to follow the inner Ridgeway to Swanage via Corfe Castle and Ballard Down.

West to Portland
Just beyond the Isle of Purbeck and now in the Jurassic section of the coast, venue for the 2012 Olympic Sailing, there is Osmington Mills, another excellent place for walking and to find evidence of fossils. Famous for the smuggling tales, you can walk from Weymouth along the causeway past the National Sailing Academy, up onto and around Portland, taking in the history of the port and its quarrying. Once there, it's easy walking out to Portland Bill and stunning views along the coastline.
 
The Jurassic Coast is the only natural UNESCO Heritage Site in England - the others are cultural sites.
Just inland from here is the Wessex Ridgeway which supplies excellent walking and great views along the coast and inland across the heart of Dorset.
 
Ammonite fossil
West Dorset
There's more stunning walking from Abbotsbury to Lyme Regis, a distance of 16 miles. This stretch of coast has been subject to severe erosion and landslips and various stretches of the path have been closed: it's worth checking with the local tourist offices to find out the current situation before you set off. The torrential
rain of early 2014 is likely to cause further landslips.

Abbotsbury is home to a famous swannery and sub-tropical gardens. The path  leads to West Bay, close to Bridport, and on to Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast of the UK. Pass through delightful Charmouth, from where it's 5 miles to Lyme Regis, the path winding through woodland (with the remains of World War II camps, used prior to the D-Day invasion) with views across to the sea.
 
This cliff area is unprotected and therefore produces a continuous supply of ammonites and fossils. This is where the huge pliosaur skull was found in 2007 and is now on display in the County Museum in Dorchester, Dorset's county town. 

TOP 5 EXPERIENCES

1. Old Harry, Ballard Down and Swanage to Corfe Castle

A great ridgeway walk with views over Poole Harbour, Studland, the surrounding countryside and Swanage. Very good terrain.

2. Swyre Head and Kimmeridge

From the car park at Kingston the highest point on the Isle of Purbeck can be reached after a gentle uphill walk of less than a mile. It gives stunning views along the coast to Kimmeridge Bay, Portland and St Aldhelm's Head. The walk can be extended in various ways to take in Kimmeridge and/or the ridgeway to Tyneham village.

3. Tyneham 'Ghost Village' and Wobarrow Bay

Forcibly evacuated in 1943 due to the area being required for D-Day training, this village has remains of some of the houses plus a school and a still-functioning church. There is a great walk to Gad Cliff, Wobarrow Bay, the steep Flowers Barrow ascent/descent where there is the remain of a supposedly haunted Iron Age Fort.

4. Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door

The perfect shell-shaped Lulworth Cove, the iconic Durdle Door arch and surrounding hills provide a truly superb walking route.

5. Golden Cap, Charmouth and Lyme Regis

Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast of the UK at 191 metres (627 feet), is easy to access from Morcombelake, east of Charmouth. Excellent coastal walking and fossil hunting options.

WHEN TO VISIT

Best times to go:

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It's possible to enjoy walking here all year round, although naturally you are more likely to get wet and wind-battered in the rainy winter months. July and August can be unpleasantly crowded in the most popular areas, which leaves the spring and autumn as the optimum times.

April, May and June are particularly beautiful months, with a (slightly) improved chance of fine weather: skylarks trill high overhead and the wildflowers are out - Purbeck has a higher concentration of wildlflowers than anywhere else in England. Plus there is plenty of daylight in which to enjoy it all.

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