Dorset and East Devon Coast

This description the following headings: World Heritage Status, Age of the Dinosaurs, History of the area and Visitor Attractions.

World Heritage Status

The Dorset and East Devon Coast was added to the World Heritage List in 2001. It is also called the Jurassic Coast. The Justification for Inscription reads as follows: The Dorset and East Devon Coast provides an almost continuous sequence of Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous rock formations spanning the Mesozoic era, documenting approximately 185 million years of Earth history. It also includes a range of internationally important fossil locations, vertebrate and invertebrate, marine and terrestrial, which have produce well preserved and diverse evidence of life during Mesozoic times. The area's important fossil sites and classic coastal geomorphologic features have contributed to the study of earth sciences for over 300 years.

The Age of the Dinosaurs

The World Heritage Site extends from Orcombe Rocks, Exmouth, Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset and gives a unique insight into life in the past through the rocks exposed along the 95 miles of beautiful coast. Over eighty percent of the nominated site comprises cliff coastline. The boundaries of the site include the continuous exposure of Mesozoic geological strata from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous eras within the coastal cliffs as well as coastal features such as bays, beaches and lagoons. The Mesozoic era was the age of the dinosaurs that extended from 248 to 65 million years ago. It was divided into the following three parts:

Triassic Era

The oldest rocks revealed in the site are from the Triassic era, 248 - 206 million years ago. These are to be found on the East Devon coast from Exmouth almost to Lyme Regis. This was a period of hot dry conditions with a semiarid desert landscape especially inland. The vast supercontinent Pangaea was beginning to break in two but dinosaurs could still walk from one land mass to the other. Large reptiles and amphibians were a feature. The Dorset and East Devon Coast is one of the richest Mid- Triassic reptile fossil sites in Britain.

Jurassic Era

The succession of Jurassic rocks displayed between Lyme Regis and Swanage is considered to be one of the finest sections of marine Jurassic rocks in the world and provide a wealth of fossils. The Jurassic era lasted from 206 to 144 million years ago and was characterised by wetter conditions. The sea level rose and flooded much of Dorset. Marine life and plant life flourished. Continental drift was continuing but until late in the era, dinosaurs could still move from continent to continent.

Cretaceous Era

The Cretaceous era existed from 144 to 65 million years ago. Fine formations of rocks from this period are to be found at the eastern end of the site, particularly in the Purbeck area. It was during this era that the land masses finally split and continents took up their present positions. This combined with rising sea and land temperatures led to a much greater diversity of animals and plants. This was the last period of the dinosaurs and a time when modern plants and animals began to appear.

A Brief History

The Mesolithic people of Portland (8,000-4,000 BC), are believed to be the first hunter- gathers that inhabited the area. Evidence of Bronze Age inhabitants (2,000-700 BC) living along the East Devon and Dorset Coast is illustrated in the form of ancient "barrows", located a little inland. This is further supported by the discovery of Bronze Age artefacts, such as a sword found in Weymouth harbour. Iron Age hill forts (700 BC - 43 AD) were also built along the coast, many of which are still in evidence. They include Sidbury Castle near Sidmouth, Hawkesdown Hill at Axmouth, Abbotsbury Castle and Fowers Barrow at Worbarrow Bay. There is also evidence of Roman and Medieval settlements along the coast.

The area has a long history of mineral extraction, stretching from the Mesolithic to the present day. Kimmeridge Shale was first exploited during the Bronze Age (2,000- 700 BC), while local stone and marble have been quarried in many instances since Roman times, primarily focusing on Beer, Purbeck and Portland. Stone from these areas has been used to build many of the finest buildings in Britain.

This coast has had a significant influence on internationally well known writers and artists who have written about or painted the area. They include Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Llewelyn Powys, John Fowles, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. It has also long been associated with tourism, first becoming a popular destination during the eighteenth century. move to top

Visitor Attractions

image 2 The key visitor attractions of the area are the cliffs themselves and the landscape behind them. This is an ideal area for walking (or cycling) and enjoying the outdoors. For walkers, there is a coastal trail along the whole of the Dorset and East Devon coast which provides wonderful seascapes on one side and great scenery on the other. Whether travelling by car, bicycle or on foot, there is a series of natural features, man- made attractions and communities of great interest to visitors. What follows is a description of them listed in West to East order.

Exmouth to Branscombe

High red sandstone cliffs are a feature of this area. In places, there are columns of red sandstone rising out of the sea and topped by seabirds. In the Branscombe area, chalk begins to overlie the sandstone thus creating cliffs with white tops. Along the way there are Iron Age hill forts and attractive villages. The historic harbours of Exmouth and Sidmouth fell into obscurity until the eighteenth century when the wealthy discovered the seaside and, later on, the railway came. The other town, Budleigh Salterton has associations with Noel Coward and P.G.Wodehouse. Also, Sir Walter Raleigh was born nearby.

Seaton to Lyme Regis, The Landslip National Nature Reserve

The cliffs turn from red to the white of chalk at 300 foot high Beer Head. There was a major landslip nearby where about eight acres of cliff fell from around 200 feet down into the sea. The six miles along the coast to Lyme Regis were designated as a Nature Reserve and contain a natural wilderness that includes colonies of rare orchids and wild clematis. This is also a landslip area. The biggest move was on Christmas Day in 1839 when 20 acres of farmland went on its way to the sea. The author John Fowles lived in this area and the reserve became the setting for his best known book, The French Lieutenants Woman. Nearer to Lyme Regis, the cliff top pastures offer a haven for varieties of rare plants and a wide range of wildlife.

Lyme Regis

This is a town steeped in history. In the thirteenth century it was one of the most important ports in England and it was granted the “Regis” title in 1279 by King Edward 1. It continued as an important port through the Tudor and Stuart periods. As the harbour declined, so did the town until its revival in the eighteenth century when the social set from Bath and elsewhere discovered it and it took on the role of a seaside spa. Its other claims to fame include the landing of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685 just west of the town to begin his short lived rebellion against the Crown and its many literary associations, among them the visits of Jane Austen who immortalised the town in Persuasion.

Lyme Regis to Bridport

Much of this stretch of coast has been and still is subject to landslips, many of them essentially mudflows. These movements of the upper layers, damaging as they were, had one benefit and that was to expose ammonites and dinosaur fossils. In the last century, the centre for fossil finding moved from Lyme Regis eastwards to Charmouth and the Charmouth Heritage Centre. Some of the best dinosaur and ichthyosaur fossil skeletons found in Britain come from this area. East of Charmouth is the 600 feet high Golden Cap the highest cliff on the south coast of England which offers wonderful views along the coast. There are two Bronze burial grounds on it and the lost village of Stanton St. Gabriel in the valley below. Two miles further east is the other peak of this coast, Thornecombe Beacon which rises 507 feet from the sea.


This is the largest town in West Dorset. Originally a Saxon settlement, it became a centre for rope and later net making in the middle ages, a tradition it continues today. Its historic harbour dates from the 14th century but the town was at its peak in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when Britain was a sea power. It was involved in ship building during this period.

Bridport to Abbotsbury, Chesil Beach

The vertical 100 feet high banded cliffs of golden Bridport sands provide a change of colour for two miles around the charming village of Burton Bradstock. From here, the land begins to level out and merges into Chesil Beach. On the way the path passes the remains of Strangways Castle, the former home of the Earl of Ilchester. The much visited Abbotsbury Sub- Tropical Gardens were started by the Earl and are now best part of 200 years old. The village of Abbotsbury is also famous for its swannery, established by the monks of Abbotsbury in 1393 and still flourishing. Hundreds of swans return every year in the summer. The prominent landmark of this coast is St. Catherine's Chapel, once part of Abbotsbury Abbey.

Chesil Beach

This remarkable beach extends from Abbotsbury to Portland. It is a spit,almost nine miles long that is joined to the land at each end and is said to contain over 100 million tone of pebbles. Tern colonies love it but it is not very kind to humans other than geologists. The Fleet which is the lagoon inside Chesil Beach, is teeming with bird life especially in the winter. Low cliffs near the Fleet are made up entirely of 200 million year old oyster shells preserved in clay.


The Isle of Portland, reached via a causeway is 4.5 miles long by 1.75 miles wide. There is evidence of human occupation here 7,000 years ago. The Romans knew it as Vindilis. Portland is a royal manor and contains Portland Castle which was built in 1539 as protection against attacks by the French. It is one of the best preserved of Henry VIII's castles. Other visitor attractions include Portland House, The Nothe Fort and the ruins of Henry VIII's Sandsfoot Castle. Portland is famous for its lighthouse on Portland Bill and its many connections with the navy. From 1872 to 1985, this was one of Britain's main naval bases. It is perhaps even more famous for its stone. Sir Christopher Wren used it to rebuild London after the Great Fire in 1666. Portland stone has been used in important buildings all over the world including St. Paul;s Cathedral and the United Nations Headquarters in New York.


Weymouth was one of the most important ports in Britain in the Middle Ages and had the unwanted distinction of being the port of entry of the Black Death to Southern England in 1345. It remains an area full ot character and visitor interest. Like other coastal towns, Weymouth became a fashionable seaside spa in the eighteenth century. The spa was established by King George III who enjoyed the town. Visitor attractions include the Radipole Lake and Lodmoor Country Park nature reserves, the sea- life centre and, on the neighbouring hills, the Osmington White Horse.

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Weymouth to Lulworth Cove

The coast east of Weymouth consists of downland pastures above steep chalk cliffs. Notable among them are Bat's Head, 200 feet high, the chalk stacks of Fountains Rock and Butter Rock, Stair Hole and Durdle Door. The last of these is the main attraction. It is the western end of a bastion of Purbeck stone which breaks through the chalk here and gets its name from the rock arch at the end of a promontory. Lulworth Cove is a beautiful inlet enclosed by a circle of cliffs that is broken only by its narrow entrance. It is one of the most photographed beauty spots on the South Coast of England and consequently has its fair share of visitors especially in summer. Interesting buildings include the West Lulworth Heritage Centre and, a short distance away, Lulworth Castle.

Lulworth to Swanage

Moving east past Little Bindon Cottage dating from 1250 and the Fossil Forest, the next point of interest is Mupe's Bay which contains a striking collection of jagged offshore rocks and at its western end, a genuine smuggler's cave. High cliffs such as Cockpit, Gad Cliff and the 549 feet high Tyneham Cap are features of the next stretch of coast as is the Iron Age hill fort known as Flower's Barrow. Kimmeridge is best known for its shale which has been the basis of local industrial activity since before the Roman occupation, the shale being used at different times for furniture, medicines and the production of dyes, varnish, fertiliser and gas for street lighting. Of current interest is the new Kimmeridge Marine Nature Reserve. Beyond Kimmeridge, there are more 400 to 500 foot cliffs. Of particular note among them is St Alban's head, the southernmost tip of the Isle of Purbeck. St.Catherine's Chapel was built near the edge of the cliff about 1175 to provide masses for those passing by at sea. Further east is a stretch of coast where great Purbeck stone quarries operated from 1700 to 1930.

Swanage to Studland

Swanage was a quarry port but this function was gradually replaced in the nineteenth century as the Victorians discovered the seaside and made Swanage one of their playgrounds. It remains a holiday centre for domestic visitors. Durlston Country Park near Swanage is an interesting attempt to protect a section of the area from intensive tourist use. Some of the most important fossils have been found around this area. After crossing Ballard Down and passing Ballard Head, the trail arrives at Old Harry Rocks which form the eastern end of the World Heritage Site. These are chalk sea stacks from the Cretaceous period. Immediately beyond Old Harry Rocks is the pleasant village of Studland with a very interesting Norman church and an expansive beach.


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World Heritage Sites of Wessex


These details were last updated on
26 AUG 2007