Ssshh! Don’t tell anyone: the best time to visit Dorset is in winter
Getting up early to watch the sun rising over a frozen landscape, mist hanging low in the silent air and a ruined, thousand year old castle in the distance. It’s what memories are made of.
Think of Dorset and your first thoughts may be of summer. But there are just as many adventures to pursue across the coast and countryside of this county in the south-west of the UK during the winter months. In fact many would argue that it’s only during the winter months that you really experience the beating heart of the county.
So put on your warm clothes and lace up your walking boots. Here are 5 brilliant reasons why you should visit Dorset this winter.
- Sky shading infinitely into the sea
On a fine winter’s day one of our favourite places is Branksome Chine, here to walk along the shore at water’s edge, the fine sand shimmering in the soft light.
Walking on the beach, especially at low tide, you feel far from the cares and crowding bustle of everyday, at times almost alone to enjoy the reflected colours of sky, sea, and land, brilliant or muted according to the day.
On the horizon, sky and sea merge in a hazy band like a story for which there is no beginning or end, absorbing your thoughts of the past or the future, whilst the gently unfolding waves at your feet remind you that what really matters is right now. This moment.
On a cloudy day the horizon is a muted, misty palette of greys, the sky shading infinitely into the sea. On a bright winter’s afternoon, the early sunset streaks the darkening sky with ever-changing shades of brilliant colour, deepening as the sun falls slowly below Canford Cliffs and the Sanbanks peninsula.
And for a brilliant winter beach walk away from town…? Go to Studland, in the Purbecks or, in West Dorset, Burton Bradstock and West Bay (of Broadchurch fame).
2. Blow wind blow
When the wild winds are blowing there’s no better place to feel the raw power of the swelling sea than at Kimmeridge.
Watch as the swell builds into a breaking wave, whitecap running along the top until, in a crescendo, crashing into the great rocks fallen from the cliff down to the ground below. The white surf is flung high into the air and, in a fine salty spray, carried on the wind to your face.
This force field of moving water is what the word awesome was made for, and for once the description is apt.
Kimmeridge is the most renowned wave spot on the Dorset coast, so when the wind is blowing you’ll often find surfers and windsurfers riding the waves across the bay.
You can pick your way down to the pebbly beach to the right and walk over the shallow limestones ledges of this part of the Jurassic coast — a great spot for rockpooling — or go round to the left to the small harbour. Weather permitting, walk up and along the cliff (but don’t walk close under the cliff or at the cliff’s edge!)
Looking up to the cliff on the left of the bay you’ll see The Clavell Tower. This Tuscan style tower dates back to 1830 when it was built as an observatory and folly by Reverend John Richards Clavell of Smedmore. But where you see the tower now is not quite where it began.
Built close to the cliff edge, land erosion (those waves) in the intervening years meant the tower was in imminent danger of falling into the sea. In successful restoration works the tower was dismantled brick by brick and rebuilt 25 metres inland. Now it’s available, incidentally, as a holiday let (sleeps 2) through the Landmark Trust.
The Tower, incidentally, provides the setting for the climactic scene in PD James’s novel The Black Tower.
3. Swans drifting on the river flow
Leaving the coast behind, the countryside beckons. Enjoy a quiet walk along the winding river path of the Stour at Bryanston, or across the meadow at Blandford St Mary.
It doesn’t matter whether the winter sun is shining low in the sky, its rays glinting through the occasional evergreens, or if the day is unremittingly grey, you can lose all sense of time simply wandering along the riverbank.
If you’re lucky a group of swans will drift past you on the gently flowing river. If you’re even luckier and observant, you may spot a family of otters launching into the water from the tall grass on the far bank.
But if you’re looking for a magnificent view, then climb Hod or Hambledon Hill (or, of course, the hills surrounding Corfe Castle to see the ruins emerging from the mist). Unless you’re fit you’ll feel a healthy sting in the back of the throat as you make your way up the steep banks to the summit, but from high on these prehistoric hill forts the world is at your feet.
From up here the fields are squares of light green separated by the darker threads of hedgerows, here and there a village or hamlet, wisps of smoke rising from chimneys in the late afternoon betokening a sense of warmth and home.
4. When dinner should be over
After all this fresh air it’s definitely time to pull up a chair, look deep into the flames of a fire burning brightly in the corner and relax. You’ve earned it.
Think of a drink, but not just any drink. Try a beer from one of the ever-growing number craft brewers that have sprung up across the county.
A Captain Swing, perhaps, a ruby ale from The Piddle Brewery, in (where else) Piddlehinton, near Dorchester. Or a Parabolic from the Eight Arch Brewing Company, tucked away in a corner in Wimborne Minster. This one you can also taste on site as the brewery taproom is open every Friday from 4–8pm with food and usually music.
But it’s not just beer. There’s the already renowned Black Cow vodka, uniquely distilled in west Dorset from cow’s milk. And now there’s a hot club of micro distillers of gin, as well as gin bars in which to try them all.
Conker Spirit was the first, founded in 2013 by Rupert Holloway in an old Victorian laundry in Southbourne. Down the coast in Poole, beach-inspired Lilliput Dorset Gin has already won accolades from the IWSC and the Great Taste Awards.
In Dorchester there’s Fordington Gin by Ros Nelmes. This is a London Dry Gin with a special twist based on absinthe botanicals. Oh yes — two parts Thomas Hardy to one part St George with a dash of Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge. Make mine a double.
Time to eat?
By now some amongst you, dear readers, may be thinking — possibly even aloud — that it’s time to eat. To you I say, quite simply, twice baked Westcombe Cheddar cheese soufflé, green leaf salad, fries.
An iconic dish at a distinctively British countryside inn, the King John at Tollard Royal. And all with a roaring fire. You’ll want to go back, again and again.
This is of course not the only brilliant Dorset countryside inn, or indeed the only item on the menu — you could really channel Tom Jones and Mrs Waters, for example, with a côte de boeuf for two — but, after all that fresh air, it’s time for bed.
5. Hands-on, scramble-on attractions
Time for something different? Then time for Monkey World or The Tank Museum. Each very different but, as it happens, conveniently located close to each other in Wareham
Monkey World is home to over 250 primates of more than 20 different species, including three groups of orang-utans and 11 species of monkeys and prosimians. But that’s just half the story. Monkey World combines fun with a serious purpose — the rescue and rehabilitation of abused and endangered primates.
Here you can learn more about man’s closest relatives at one of the half hourly talks by the Primate Care workers, then swing through the trees yourself in the exceptional adventure playground.
Bovington — home of the tank
At the Tank Museum you can explore the history of the tank, from its earliest use in warfare, at the trenches in France just over a century ago, to the present day.
There are nine ‘experience spaces’, so called because the museum very much has a hands-on, clamber-on, get involved approach, taking you through design and manufacture of the tank, stories of the first crews, and deployment on the battlefield.
5 and a half - one extra brilliant thing
Because you won’t want to miss this.
Moreton Church lies just a mile or so away from Bovington. A jettisoned bomb in the 2nd World War blew out all the stained glass windows. Following a fundraising effort, new glass panels etched by Lawrence Whistler were installed in the 1950s. Illuminated by the winter light, the effect is breathtaking.
There is also — tell no one — an excellent tea rooms in the village, next to the church. Don’t miss the cakes: the bier that carried T E Lawrence (of Arabia)’s coffin from the church to the grave now serves as the cake stand.