Dorset covers an area of 2,653 square kilometres and contains considerable variety in its underlying geology, which is partly responsible for the diversity of landscape. A large percentage of the county comprises either chalk, clay or mixed sand and gravels. The remainder is less straightforward and includes Portland and Purbeck stone, other limestones, calcareous clays and shales. Portland and Purbeck stone are of national importance as a building material and for restoring some of Britain's most famous landmarks. Almost every type of rock known from the Early Jurassic to the Eocene epochs can be found in the county.
Our visits, so far, have concentrated of the areas known as the Isle of Purbeck and the Isle of Portland . Neither of them is actually an island, but rather each is a peninsula and both feel somewhat distinct from the surrounding areas.
Lulworth is a tiny but beautiful village. Its narrow winding streets are lined with thatched cottages and there is a very interesting visitor centre where you can brush up on your geography and see how the coast was formed millions of years ago. A short walk away is Lulworth Cove, an almost circular bay surrounded by chalk cliffs.
From the car park by the centre there is a white path heading up a steep hill to Durdle Door. On the way up there are some wonderful views back over Lulworth Cove and out to sea where you can see as far as the Isle of Portland and the famous Chesil Beach. Durdle Door is one of the most famous sights in the UK; a beautiful rock arch formed 10,000 years ago. From the clifftop that overlooks the beach you’ll see old sea stacks which were once arches, and at the far end of the beach, a new arch is being formed.
There are not many old written records about the arch, though it has kept a name given to it probably over a thousand years ago. In the late 18th century there is a description of the "magnificent arch of Durdle-rock Door", and early 19th century maps called it "Duddledoor" and "Durdle" or "Dudde Door". In 1811 the first Ordnance Survey map of the area named it as "Dirdale Door". Durdle is derived from the Old English thirl, meaning to pierce, bore or drill, which in turn derives from thyrel, meaning hole. The Door part of the name probably maintains its modern meaning, referring to the arched shape of the rock; in the late 19th century there is reference to it being called the "Barn-door", and is described as being "sufficiently high for a good-sized sailing boat to pass through it".
Tiny and unspoiled, Corfe Castle village can’t look much different now than it did hundreds of years ago. Many of the buildings are made of silvery grey Purbeck stone, The ruins of the ancient castle tower over the village. It sits on a small hill in a natural gap in the Purbeck Hills – an obvious site for a defensive post, and it’s thought that there has been a fortification of some kind here since Roman times The current castle dates from the end of the 11th century. It was once a Royal castle, was the site of murders, tortures and political intrigue. Besieged during the civil war, it was finally destroyed by Cromwell and the Roundheads in 1646. Today you can walk amongst its precarious-looking facades and climb some of the remaining staircases. The best view of the village is to be had from its terraces.
Chesil Beach, or Bank as it's also known, is a storm beach, made of billions of pebbles washed up over 10,000 years ago. This immense structure is 18 miles long, stretching from Portland down to West Bay. Chesil derives its name from the Old English ceosel or cisel, meaning "gravel" or "shingle". It is home to rare insects, breeding sea birds and colourful coastal plants. Chesil protects the land from huge waves rolling in from the Atlantic. The pebbles are graded in size from fist-sized near Portland to pea-sized at West Bay. At its widest it is up to 200 metres in width. The height of the beach is typically 11 metres above mean sea level. It's an extraordinary and fascinating place to visit.
For much of its length it is separated from the mainland by The Fleet, (meaning "shallows" in Anglo-Saxon) This is the largest saline lagoon in England and is a very important habitat, providing food and shelter for migrating birds, many types of fish and other underwater creatures.
The Fleet Lagoon and Chesil Beach feature in the novel "Moonfleet" by J. Meade Falkner (1898), in which the village of Moonfleet is based on the real village of East Fleet. It has more recently formed the location of a book "On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan and the film which was based upon it.
Owned and run by the RSPB, the Arne Nature Reserve is on the eastern fringe of enormous Poole Harbour, and overlooks many of its islands. It covers more than 565 hectares of the Arne peninsular, protecting an important area of lowland heath. As well as being home to many bird species and a large herd of Sika deer, Arne remains one of the few places in the UK where all six of the UK's native reptiles can be found. The stunning landscape consists of dramatic open heathland, ancient oak woodland and even a little secret beach.
The tiny village of Arne was evacuated in World War II when it was used by the Royal Navy as a decoy site. Most of the buildings in the village have been built since then. The only older building is the small, beautifully kept, 13th century church of St. Nicholas, which was a delight to visit.
Illustrations of some of the special birds at Arne ©RSPB
The massive Old Harry Rocks, white outcroppings formed over millions of years, prominently mark the end of the Jurassic Coast, Also known as sea stacks, the rocks formed somewhere around 65 million years ago from the buildup of plankton and other micro-organisms. Made completely of chalk, the white rocks were named some time during the 18th century, before erosion had caused some of the other stacks in the grouping to fall. According to legend, the stacks were named Old Harry as a euphemism for the devil, who allegedly used to sleep on the rocks. Another story tells of the pirate and smuggler Harry Paye who stashed his ill-gotten goods somewhere near the rocks.
It's a great place for a walk from Studland village. We walked from the well-signed path after having enjoyed our lunch in the garden of the Bankes Arms overlooking the sea.
Here there is an abundance of rockpools teeming with crabs, anemones, fish and some lovely colourful varieties of seaweed. As part of the Jurassic Coastline Kimmeridge is of geological interest; the rocks on the beach contain a variety of fossils and the area is also home to one of England’s only oil wells. The beach itself consists mainly of rocky shale, with large limestone ledges which can be used as stepping-stones for exploration. The day we were there was a rather overcast and quiet autumn day, but it was nevertheless an interesting and impressive sight.
Downshay is a small friendly caravan site, about two miles outside Corfe Castle village, It is a spacious, lawned and terraced site on 3 levels with private tarmac access road . The small facilites block is always very clean and tidy. There are wonderful views of Corfe Castle and the Purbeck Hills. There is also a separate camping field which is very much in demand in the summer months. We were delighted to discover this campsite and it very quickly became one of our favourites.