Walking the Dorset Coast: Here’s What You Need to Know
Where pastures meet the sea.
England, indeed the entire British Isles, is a haven for walkers. It pairs fitness with some of the most idyllic scenery on earth. There is terrain to suit every fitness level and every quest for an aerobic challenge.
Walking in Dorset, about two hours by train from London, combines aquamarine sea vistas with the pastoral beauty of Shakespeare’s “blessed plot.”
In a nation acutely aware of those blessings, a good bit of Dorset is designated as an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty).
The Dorset coastal walk is part of the famed Southwest Coast Path, which in its entirety is 630 miles around the western tip of England.
My 5-day stint covered the “Jurassic Coast” — from Lyme Regis to Lulworth Cove, beyond Weymouth — a total of about 45 miles.
Plan, Plan, Plan!
The success of any hiking or walking trip the trip is defined by variables such as weather, trail conditions, the unforeseen injury. Mitigate any possible downsides of the unexpected with a plan.
Winging it is good; I love on-the-fly. But I also like knowing where I’m going to lay my head each night, and how my luggage is going to get from point A to point B. There is enough adventure on the trail.
Organize with a professional
Self-guided tour companies provide structure and guidance that takes the guesswork out of the experience.
When we got stuck along the trail, befuddled by the map the second day out, there was a phone number and a helpful voice at the other end.
When to go
We chose mid-June which, despite an early heat wave, gave us the untrammeled beauty of early summer. That said, all places in the northern hemisphere are lovely in September/October and I’d bet Dorset glows at that time of year.
The Dorset coast is a tourist magnet. High summer, July and especially August, is the ‘season’ so set your expectations: packed restaurants, impatient crowds, increasingly frazzled staff.
“Shoulder” seasons are highly recommended. Late autumn would be stunning.
What to expect
- Terrain — The maps/itinerary are very clear as to the difficulty of the topography. Most fall into the “mild” to “moderate” range with some steep patches. While the “ascent” is not remarkable, the long, slow climbs can be challenging.
- A good part of the trail leaving Lyme Regis is along the beach, under the famed Jurassic Coast cliffs. It makes for a pebbly, unstable ground underfoot, slow and tiring. This section is also stunningly beautiful, and it’s possible to pick up a fossil or two if you’re eagle-eyed.
- Weather — Coastal weather is often fickle but, it’s important to understand that this walk is very exposed to the elements. There is little shade from the blazing sun, little protection from rain and wind.
- Facilities — are few and far between on the trail. Be prepared if necessary, to “go” behind a dune or other secluded spot. As ever, good trail etiquette is “carry in/carry out” so, be prepared!
- The trail runs through private pasture land. At points, you’ll be next to, or in some cases among, sheep or cattle.
It’s a very different concept to American hikers/walkers who would not dream of “trespassing” on private land. In the U.K. it is permissible. There is an unspoken pact with the cows: you leave them alone and they leave you alone.
What to bring
- Maps/guides Maps/guides If you work with a comprehensive trip organizer, you’ll have a precise itinerary, essential phone numbers, general maps. The trail is well marked, so additional material (like the famous British Ordnance Survey maps) isn’t necessary.
- Proper gear This is more than a “sneaker” walk; bring good quality, lightweight hiking boots. You’ll cover a range of terrain, from muddy pastures to pebbly beaches.
- A good, comfortable backpack. Even though you’re just out for the day, you’ll need more than a “fanny pack.” Find a comfy, small backpack; the kind with the mesh holders for water, or other things you want handy, is a plus.
- Snacks because nothing is worse than being hungry on the trail. Or, hitting lunch time with no lunch in sight. Have protein bars, hard candy (chocolate melts), maybe an apple.
- A walking stick is one of my necessities. I use a telescope model that fits into luggage for overseas flights. It helps with balance, getting over difficult terrain, and is as useful uphill as downhill. They are easy to find at outfitters; the good ones are pricey.
- You need to be prepared for varying weather conditions: rain gear, shorts, long sleeve shirts, hats, sunglasses, sunscreen. If your luggage is transported daily you needn’t carry all this stuff. Having it with you means you can be prepared for any weather.
- Tissues for a runny nose and for when nature calls. Small plastic bags with a “zip” closure for tissue storage until you reach a trash bin. Pre-moistened wipes are useful and take up little room. Bring insulated, refillable water bottles. It’s imperative to stay hydrated, and buying water along the trail is an annoyance.
Highlights of Walk, Lyme Regis to Lulworth Cove.
We started this adventure in Lyme Regis, spending a few days at this durable seaside resort. For well-heeled Londoners in the 19th Century, Lyme Regis was a “go-to” summer destination.
Jane Austen, author and a frequent visitor, captured the vibe in Persuasion when she wrote,
“A very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.”
And it’s as true today as it was back then. Below, the garden path she was said to have strolled.
The town’s other claim to fame is being the epicenter of England’s early proving ground for the Evolution vs Creation debate, raging in 19th C intellectual circles.
Mary Anning (1799–1847), a self-educated fossil hunter and collector, was eventually credited with the first discovery of the plesiosaur, who roamed these parts during the Jurassic era. In her time, Mary endured intellectual and gender bias by the more “learned” men at the British Museum but now has her due.
We left Lyme Regis, walking along the shoreline and up across the “Golden Cap” toward the town of Eype.
It was a strenuous 9 miles in scorching heat, with gorgeous views but no relief from the sun.
Day 2 Eype to Abbotsbury an eleven mile stretch of easy to moderate terrain, but difficult underfoot on the pebbly beach.
Walking under the cliffs, but no fossils to be found.
Day 3 took us from Abbotsbury to Weymouth, thirteen miles over easy terrain. The challenge here was the lack of amenities: no rest stops or places to buy lunch. We were slower than planned, and should have anticipated the need to carry a sandwich. Live and learn. Snacks filled in. Water was crucial!
Weymouth was all the rage during the 18th C. reign of King George III. The Georgian architecture and graceful promenade along the shoreline tell the story of a luxurious bygone era. A bit faded, but with very good bones.
Today it’s a bit forlorn, bravely trying to regain its long-gone glamour.
Day 4, Weymouth to Lulworth Cove. It was a strenuous thirteen miles to Lulworth, but perhaps the most dramatic scenery of all. The highlight is the spectacular limestone arch known as the Durdle Door. The steep incline covering 1.25 miles or so is worth the slog.
The highlight is the spectacular limestone arch known as the Durdle Door. The steep incline covering 1.25 miles or so is worth the slog.
It’s where England could be mistaken for the Almafi Coast.
Lulworth is a charming town and in mid-June geared for the upcoming tourist season.
Lastly, who doesn’t love a place that loves dogs?
2018 Copyright Jane Trombley