As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Jackie King picks out the options for a greener holiday among this rich and varied landscape, from the Jurassic Coast in the south to the chalk downs and Hambledon Hill in the north.
The quilt of this strikingly beautiful landscape is embroidered with geological wonders, remarkable prehistoric sites, captivating villages and haunting ruins. Deep valleys and of the west give way to the open heathland of the Purbeck Peninsula in the east. Much of the striking terrain provides an important conservation habitat that spectacularly supports a wide range of flora and fauna. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping and multi-generationally captivating aspect of Dorset is the stretch of 200-million-year-old shoreline that UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site. The Jurassic Coast part of it runs from Exmouth in Devon to Studland Bay’s Old Harry’s Rocks and Dorset can claim a whole 71 miles of it as its own. The fascination of being able to walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs and to happen across beautiful fossils gives a unique and compelling reason to return again and again.
Visitors enjoy the rich and varied opportunities to explore a preserved and protected environment and discover many corners that feel locked in time. It is refreshing to experience different paces of life… one minute the happy buzz of wandering from stall to stall in town markets, another the serenity of big open skies on head-clearing walks; the convivial atmosphere in log-fired pubs drinking local ale one evening, then delightful solitude as you splash about in quiet coves. Remarkably, for much of the year you can unhurriedly explore iconic sites such as Durdle Door, Lulworth Cove, magnificent Poole harbour and West Bay without the crowds.
Where to stay
Finding a place to rest your head in Dorset is not difficult – the AONB is peppered with lovely self-catering cottages, warm and cosy B&Bs, family-friendly campsites and charming inns and hotels. All these places have been chosen for the owners’ commitment to the environment – a stay at any of them won’t play on your eco conscience.
Whatever your boat, we have something to float it. We defy you not to fall in love with the magnificent camping set-up at Mallinsons – which will you choose to stay in… a house in a veteran oak tree, a bell tent, yurts, tipi or shepherd’s hut? You’ll have woodland showers, a sauna, a games yurt and an ‘Out of Africa’ kitchen. To complete the perfection, there’s a pizza oven, too, so come prepared. At Monkton Wyld Court you choose between a B&B where you prepare a do-it-yourself vegetarian breakfast at a time of your choosing, a hostel with dorms or camping on the west lawn with a firepit and showers thrown in. Best of all, Monkton Wyld runs some brilliantly inspiring courses. How about hedge laying, foraging, yurt building or small-scale dairy farming? Laid-back sybarites will swoon over the idea of a break in the achingly cool Pig on the Beach at Studland. The kitchen garden drives the menus, along with local suppliers and you eat the delicious outcomes in a sea view conservatory. Find a path down to the beach, a beach hut and Dorset Horn sheep roaming happily. Finally, for the community-minded there are affordable stays at Lulworth Cove, Swanage and Litton Cheney YHAs.
Where to eat
From Dorset-reared beef to crab, lobster and mussels collected along the coast, to creamy local cheeses and breweries and vineyards scattered throughout the AONB – if sampling local flavours is high on your holiday to-do list, Dorset won't disappoint. The AONB has a thriving café culture and you won't be short of places to wind down in after a day roaming around the coast or countryside, from local tea shops to Michelin-starred restaurants. And when tired limbs yearn for something a little stronger, a cosy pub should be just the thing.
Over in Wareham find The Salt Pig, a paean to the richness of Dorset’s produce. Fab bread, wicked cakes and local charcuterie can be taken away or eaten in the café. A fishmongers and an off licence have been added to the line-up. Hix Oyster and Fish House needs little introduction these days and this sassy little shed with views over the Cobb will delight more than your taste buds. Mark Hix has quite an empire, yet he is seen sometimes at weekends, either glimpsed in the kitchen or setting off on his fishing boat in search of mackerel. Or how about a pub to cosy up in? The Acorn is a 16th-century coaching inn in glorious Evershot and more than a touch Hardy-esque; the village is well worth a wander.
Where to visit
No visit to Dorset would be complete without a trip to the Jurassic Coast, the beautiful cliffs of which embrace the AONB. There's no doubt that the coastline is stunning and definitely deserving of the attention it receives from visitors to the region, but there is a whole host of other exciting and entertaining things to see and do in the area to reward the visitor who goes a bit deeper. There are rolling valleys and villages of chocolate-box cuteness to explore, fascinating visitor centres and pockets of peace and tranquillity found in public gardens and impressive castles. With so much to do in the great outdoors, it can be difficult to take yourself inside, but there are also some fascinating museums detailing the region's history, geology and archaeology, which will keep the family amused.
Corfe Castle is sure to ignite the imagination of old and young – the ruins with arrow slits, the keep walls, the motte and bailey and its majestic site atop a hillock will fire up young would-be knights; its history as a Saxon and Norman fortress and a royal palace will delight romantics. A visit to the National Trust site should be combined with lunch in one of the three pubs in the village. The 25 acres of the Swan Sanctuary at Abbotsbury are a pocket of serenity where you can stroll through the world’s only managed colony of nesting mute swans. Feeding happens at 12 and 4pm and, before or after, Abbotsbury itself is worthy of exploration, with its subtropical gardens and children’s farm.
Away from the sea there are rolling hills and gentle valleys, one of which, the Cerne Valley, is presided over by the Cerne Abbas Giant carved into the chalkland. The lush valley runs from Minterne Magna to Charmouth and is known for its butterflies, barn owls, kestrels and buzzards.
Things to do
If you're after a varied landscape, a protected area that combines seascapes, rolling hills and quaint hamlets, you can't do much better than Dorset. From the South West Coast Path to demanding off-road cycle trails, the region has plenty to keep walkers and cyclists busy, but If you want to take in the beauty of the landscape at a more leisurely pace, there is mile upon mile of relatively flat walking routes, bridle paths and footpaths, making it easy to get around the AONB under your own steam. Whether you're visiting in the midst of winter or the peak of summer, whether you're blessed with blue skies or have to endure heavy clouds, the coast, countryside and character-packed villages of one of England's most beautiful regions have plenty to keep you entertained.
The Dorset section of the South West Coast Path is a heady prospect and offers exceptional views, especially around Golden Cap and Old Harry’s Rocks. The end of the epic path is celebrated by a sculptural installation at the end of Studland Beach, just by the chain ferry.
Demanding off-road cycle trails should sate the appetite of adrenalin junkies – see 1 South West, but if you want to take in the beauty of the landscape at a more leisurely pace, miles of relatively flat routes that are more easily navigable, check out The West Dorset Pedal.
Kayaking is a great way to explore the coast, and the Studland Sea School has gear to borrow for a sea safari. Keep your eye out on calm days for seahorses, pipefish and flatfish. For snorkelling in the famously clear waters, Kimmeridge is a favourite spot to explore the limestone beds. On the Smugglers Trail the family can set off with an audio recording that tells tales of 17th- and 18th-century smugglers Jake Diamond, Issac Gulliver and the like. It leads on to the site of Stonebarrow Hill above Charmouth and along the way children can do crayon rubbings at nine stops.
Getting to the Dorset AONB by public transport
The Dorset AONB remains for the most part gloriously unspoilt and retains an otherworldly air due largely to the fact that no motorways pass through the region. The area is well connected by rail, but thereafter, getting to the rural heart of many parts requires some patience over buses, or opting to go by bike or car (there are park and ride services at Weymouth, Dorchester and Norden). For detailed travel info: mapping.dorsetforyou.com/TravelDorset
Dorset is served by a rail network from many main towns across the UK, with direct trains operated by SouthWest Trains from London Waterloo stopping at Bournemouth, Dorchester and Weymouth, plus Sherbourne and Axminster (for Lyme Regis). Other operators include First Great Western (which also runs the Heart of Wessex line - a picturesque 87-mile route from Bristol to Weymouth via Bath, Wiltshire and Somerset before traversing the Dorset AONB) and Cross Country (for services out of Bournemouth to the north of England).
There’s also a charming steam train option: Swanage Railway runs between Norden, just outside Corfe Castle, and Swanage. The old railway line was demolished in 1972, but has been enthusiastically reinstated and the service is run by a team of 500-plus volunteers. Swanage Railway is an ongoing project, with work currently taking place to link the line with the national rail service from Wareham station.
National Express runs regular services to Bournemouth, Dorchester and Weymouth, Sherbourne and Axminster, as well as Bridport, Honiton, Yeovil and Exmouth.
Getting around Dorset by bus is possible, but there are only limited services so it's a good idea to plan your trip before you go. The Jurassic Coaster X53 service operated by First Group, runs from Exeter along the coast via Beer, Seaton, Lyme Regis, Abbotsbury, Chickerell, Weymouth, Osmington, Wareham and Poole. It's an hourly and very reliable service in the summer, and two hourly (and still reliable!) in winter. It provides an excellent opportunity to go on one-way walks along the coast and to visit the market and coastal towns.
The ‘More from Wilts & Dorset’ group offers regular services (but not on Sundays) between Poole, Wareham and Swanage on the number 40 bus, and between Bournemouth, Studland and Swanage on the number 50 bus.
Further information for getting around the Dorset AONB
For detailed local travel information visit mapping.dorsetforyou.com (includes timetables, live bus times, bus passes and concessionary travel, and accessible community transport) or Traveline (0871 200 2233 for impartial information on planning your journey by bus, coach or train). Google Maps app is invaluable for comparing journeys by bike, train, car and on foot, and also for scheduling any kind of journey.
For more idea of green holidays in Dorset: Green Traveller’s Guide to Dorset AONB