The Jurassic Coast is a 95 mile stretch of UNESCO coastline that holds 185 million years of history. Starting in Exmouth, Devon and ending at Old Harry Rocks in Dorset, the geology of this World Heritage Site covers three fascinating periods of history:
These three time periods make up the Mesozoic Era which was a time spanning approximately 250 to 65 million years ago. Here’s a brief overview of what went on in these three periods:
252 – 201 million years ago
The rise of reptiles and the first dinosaurs.
The landscape of this area was sweltering hot deserts. The Earth’s crust was sinking which caused layers of sediment to layer up which formed rocks.
201 – 145 million years ago
Birds and mammals graced the planet.
Rising sea levels transformed the desert into a tropical sea. Towards the end of the Jurassic period however the sea levels dropped and a forest grew.
145 – 66 million years ago
Dinosaurs became extinct.
At the beginning of the Cretaceous period, the forest that had grown towards the end of the Jurassic period died and the landscape changed to rivers, lagoons and swampland. Towards the end of the Cretaceous period, the sea levels rose again and the older layers of rock from previous time periods were covered in sandstone and chalk.
On an adventure exploring the Earth’s history along the Jurassic Coast, you can expect to learn about creatures you never knew existed, literally walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs, hunt for fossils, enjoy fish and chips in beautiful coastal towns, indulge in locally made ice cream and marvel at the rugged coastline.
To save time and fussing around with cash or prevent needing to run back to the car for every car park on the Jurassic Coast, download the following parking apps so that you can pay for and top up your parking from anywhere on your phone.
Unfortunately I can’t remember which one is used where but if you have them all ready to go you won’t waste any time. Some car parks are free and there are a few that only take cash, so I recommend keeping some spare change on you before you arrive.
Let me take you from west to east for 13 things you don’t want to miss along the Jurassic Coast:
Park your car at Foxholes car park right next to the beach and get a Kelly’s Cornish ice cream from the little hut on the seafront before taking a stroll down the promenade. It’s right at the end where you’ll find very short cliffs of bright red rock topped with luscious green foliage.
250 millions years ago (that’s even older than the dinosaurs) this landscape was a scorching hot desert. It was the centre of the super continent Pangea and was very close to the equator. During this time, very little plants could survive the heat and flash flooding.
The layer of red rock you can see today at Exmouth beach is 185 million year old sand dunes from the aforementioned time where this part of the world was desert.
Sidmouth is a seaside town that takes about half an hour to drive to from Exmouth. The town’s backdrop, Sid Valley, is made of red cliffs from the Triassic period.
Like with many coastal towns and cities along the south west coast, the popularity of seaside resorts between the 18th and 19th centuries made Sidmouth a desired holiday spot. Its pretty town centre echos this period in time but now offers a variety of both high street stores and independent shops and eateries which were a welcomed escape for us when the heavens opened the day we visited.
On a sunny day you can sit out on the beach, walk the Blue Plaque trail or hike parts of the South West Coastal Path.
I particularly recommend popping into the National Trust gift shop in town as they sell all sorts of wonderful guides on the area plus eco-friendly items that can help you to reduce your daily single-use plastic waste. I picked up a National Trust Scone recipe book which I’m particularly excited about as it features 50 regional scone recipes from all around the United Kingdom.
Make time to visit Sidmouth Museum as it is home to rare fossils from the Triassic period.
A trip to the Jurassic Coast is incomplete without making the effort to go hunt for fossils yourself and Charmouth beach is the perfect place to do it!
Though you could hunt for fossils anywhere along the Jurassic Coast, Charmouth’s shingle beach is particularly popular for fossil hunting because it is a large area full of opportunity as fossils are plentiful within the shingle, particularly after high tide.
Before you begin your hunt, make a stop at Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre where you can see a display of the types of fossils you can find with a careful eye along the beach.
Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre is open every day from 11am – 3pm and entrance is free.
Tips for fossil hunting
Always check the tide times before you go
Wear waterproof and sturdy shoes
It’s quieter in winter, so you’ll have a better chance of finding something
The best time to go is when the tide is going out as high tide will have resurfaced a new layer of rocks
Your eyes are your best tool
Spend time turning over rocks, you never know what’s underneath them
Be patient, finding fossils really relies on luck
NEVER dig into the cliffs, these are structurally unsafe and you could cause cliff fall. Coastal erosion is sad enough, do not contribute to it.
The most common and easiest to find fossils are:
They existed during the Jurassic period and went extinct during the Cretaceous period. They had a squid-like body but a hard internal skeleton. Fossilised Belemnites look like stone bullets.
They were squid like creatures that lived within the chamber of a tightly spiralled shell. The shell is what you will be able to find fossilised on the beach with a careful eye.
Fossilised seashells look just like regular seashells but attached to rock.
If fossils aren’t your thing, you can also find heaps of sea glass in all sorts of colours on Charmouth beach.
West Bay’s crumbling golden cliffs have become a famous landmark in popular culture thanks to the popular ITV crime drama, Broadchurch. The erosion of these sand cliffs reveal indications of fallen sea levels from 175 million years ago.
The best time to see them is on a clear, sunny day when the light hits them and highlights their golden tone.
When you’ve had your time on the beach, venture behind the car park to The Customs House Emporium for a chance to find some relics of a different kind. Riffle through vintage, antique and retro items to find a favourite record, a pre-loved jacket or a second hand table.
Chesil beach is an 18 mile long shingle ridge that stretches from West Bay to the Isle of Portland and is one of Dorset’s most iconic landmarks.
Unlike the soft sandy beaches of south west England, Chesil Beach is formed entirely from shingle. As the ridge is entirely exposed to the elements it doesn’t make for the perfect spot to lounge in the sun or picnic, but is a place where you can walk off your fish and chips. The sound of the waves pummelling and dragging the stones should be a soundscape on the Calm app.
Wear practical footwear as the shingle does not make for a sturdy surface.
Need a Friday night movie recommendation? Ian McEwan’s novel-turned-film, On Chesil Beach (2018) is another beautiful period film starring the amazing Saoirse Ronan that features Chesil Beach.
Isle of Portland
At the far end of Chesil beach is the Isle of Portland, which is best known for its quarry which has provided the stone that built Buckingham Palace.
The best place to see all of Chesil beach is from the top of the hill where the Weymouth Olympic Rings are (Weymouth hosted the sailing competitions during the 2012 Olympic Games). You can drive up there and park just opposite them. From the rings you will get an amazing view down at Chesil Beach.
Another neat thing to see on the Isle of Portland is Pulpit Rock. Located at the far end of the Isle of Portland, Pulpit rock resembles an open bible leaning upon a pulpit.
Weymouth is your classically quaint English seaside town that has been a popular destination for holidaymakers for over 200 years.
This long curved beach of soft golden sands is lined with a Georgian Esplanade where you can buy ice cream, sandwiches, buckets, spades and more! The shallow waters are sheltered so they’re perfect for dipping your feet and playing with children and dogs.
Stroll over to the marina to an array of little sail boats bobbing in sparkling waters against a backdrop of colourful rainbow houses. This part of Weymouth feels like the Mediterranean.
PFH Top Tip: Arrive early to park in Pavilion Forecourt car park, it’s small so it fills quickly but it offers the ideal location between the beach and the marina.
Durdle Door is one of the most iconic sights of the Jurassic Coast and was my favourite spot to visit. Tucked away, far out of sight from the car park is the beautifully natural, limestone arch of Durdle Door, jutting out from the beach into the surprisingly crystal clear waters of the English Channel.
Durdle Door was formed by a rippling effect through the Earth’s crust that spread north when the African and European tectonic plates collided with each other. To give you an idea of how immense that pressure was, that same collision created the mountainous region we know today as the Alps. It was this rippling effect that pushed and shoved the Earth’s crust to create the rugged coastline of south Dorset and Purbeck. Durdle Door was in the centre of one of the folds in the rock and as the sea eroded the softer rock, it revealed an arch which we know as Durdle Door.
PFH Top Tip: Beat the crowds and park in the field car park on the top road as it is open in the early hours of the morning. The official Durdle Door car park is closer but it doesn’t open until 9.30am and gets busy incredibly fast. Arrive for sunrise, park in the field, walk the extra 10 minutes and you will have the place to yourself. Both car parks have pay and display machines.
The walk from even the first car park is a steep path from the clifftop down to the sea so I strongly advise you wear trainers/sneakers and make sure you have plenty of water with you for the walk back up. Though it doesn’t take long if you’re of average health, it is steep and can be a struggle on a warm or hot day.
With my shoe warning in mind, I also want to add that although it looks like sand from above, the beach is made from tiny shingle that doesn’t look threatening until it fills the space between your sandal and the soles of your feet, at which point it’s like walking on needles. I strongly advise you to wear trainers/sneakers, trust me, your feet will thank me.
The reason I recommend you arrive early is because there are plenty of photo opportunities on your journey down to the beach that get very crowded once the clifftop car park opens. Once you have made the first descent down the path from the cliff edge, you will come to a plateau which is the perfect opportunity to capture Durdle Door from above. From here you will also be able to see Man O’ War beach located to the left of Durdle Door, it’s another beautiful spot where the water looks all shades of turquoise before turning to a deep blue as you look further out to sea.
Take the steps down to the beach where you will be able to capture Durdle Door from the water’s edge. Then lay out a blanket or a towel and enjoy with view with a picnic as you take in the beauty of this natural rock formation, to the sound of gentle waves lapping upon the shore.
Located just a 10 minute drive from Durdle Door is the equally photogenic coastal gem, Lulworth Cove. Unlike Durdle Door where the only thing there is the beach unless you make the trek back up to the clifftop for a single mobile food truck and toilet block, Lulworth Cove has no end of ice cream shops and souvenirs, most importantly locally made, edible souvenirs such as cider and fudge.
Park up at the top of the village, potter around the shops and visitor centre before heading down to the beach. Though there isn’t much beach around at high tide it is the best time to visit to be able to see all the wonderful blues and green of the water, especially when the sun hits it. For the best view walk up the narrow path to the top of the cliff (it’s not very far) to look down upon the beautiful cove encompassed by white and green cliffs. Take a moment to marvel at the sea sparkles as the sunlight bounces off the calm turquoise water.
I highly recommend trying as many flavours of Purbeck ice cream as you can whilst in Dorset. It’s a Dorset ice cream company that does the best clotted cream and berries ice cream I’ve ever had… and I’ve had a lot. You’ll find Purbeck ice cream being sold here.
Along with enjoying the breathtaking scenery of the Jurassic Coast firsthand, the main excitement of visiting this 185+ million year old coastline is to learn about who roamed the land and ruled the ocean millions of years before we ever existed.
Located in Kimmeridge is the The Etches Collection Museum of Jurassic Marine Life, a museum dedicated entirely to Dr Steve Etches MBE’s collection of fossilised marine life from the Kimmeridgian Seas. The exhibitions include footage of how he excavates his fossils, his notes on everything he finds as well as information on what you are looking at.
Step back in time, 157 million years ago to be precise, to a prehistoric seascape home to terrifying predators and sea monsters you would never want to meet whilst taking a dip in the ocean. Come face to face with these amazing pieces of history from tiny ammonites to enormous Ichthyosaurus.
Whether you are an experienced palaeontologist or novice fossil hunter, you are sure to be fascinated by Etches’ collection of fossils and the world that came before us millions of years ago.
Open daily from 10am – 5pm.
Closed on 24th, 25th & 26th December.
Children (5-16 years) £4
Children under 5 years old are free
Family ticket (2 adults + 2 children) £20.00
Family ticket (1 Adult + 3 children) £ 16.00
Tickets are an annual pass.
The building has step free access
A lift is available to travel between floors
There’s an accessible toilet on both floors
Please use the provided hand sanitiser before and after entering
Observe the one way system
Wear a face mask at all times indoors
Please stay 1-2 metres away from others
Spyway dinosaur footprints
Though learning about fossils is fascinating and gazing at Durdle Door is breathtaking, making a trip out to the Spyway dinosaur footprints is without the doubt the coolest thing you can do along the Jurassic Coast. In fact I would go as far as to say it is in my top five things to do in the UK along with feeding Reindeer in the Scottish Highlands and frolicking in lavender fields.
Park up at the Spyway National Trust car park and take the footpath between the fields making a right onto Priest’s Way. Walk for about 12mins until you see a wooden gate on the right hand side that has a little sign that says “Dinosaur Footprints”. Enter the gate and keep walking until you see a patch of rock at a lower level to the surrounding field. It’s within this patch of rock that you will find a series of huge round indentations, these my friend, are brachiosaurs (of the sauropods) footprints made 140 million years before you took your first steps.
This magical piece of history is just out in the middle of a field, next to a quarry and free for anyone to visit. What’s cooler than literally walking in the footsteps of some of the largest animals that ever lived?
It’s presumed that the quarry was once a watering hole, and that the dinosaurs’ footprints were imprinted into the soft mud which then became preserved by the layers of rock that formed over them.
Swanage is the most easterly seaside town along the Jurassic Coast and has been a popular seaside resort since the Victorian era. Explore its cluster of independent shops and grab some Fish and Chips from Harry Ramsden’s on the seafront to enjoy on a rented deckchair on the beach (£2) followed by an ice cream.
Walk off your meal along the soft sand then spend your pennies at the arcades. Click here for more ideas on how to spend a day at the seaside.
Old Harry Rocks
The last stop along the Jurassic Coast when travelling from west to east is Old Harry Rocks, a series of startling white chalk formations that are ever so slowly tumbling into the sea, due to natural erosion.
During the Cretaceous period, 100 million years ago, a substantial amount of plankton skeletons drifted to the bottom of the ocean in this very spot. Over the next 35 million years this formed a thick later of white limestone known as chalk, and that’s how the cliffs here at Old Harry Rocks were made.
The name Old Harry refers to the lonely stack of chalk furthest out to sea. He used to have a wife (another stack next to it) but in 1896 coastal erosion got the better of her and she fell into the sea.
Legend has it that Old Harry Rocks was named after Harry Paye, an infamous pirate known for running amuck along this part of the coast.
The closest car park is a National Trust one at South Beach. It will take about half an hour to walk from the car park to Old Harry Rocks along the South West Coast Path.