As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Dorset, Harriet O'Brien picks out a selection of water sports, walking and cycling in this glorious Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in southern England.
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 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.
Cycle – almost everywhere
Dorset offers a wealth biking challenges, from deep valleys and steep contours in the west to rolling chalk lands further north. So first choose your terrain and gradient. Then pick a trail. The Dorset section of the 1 South West website (www.1SW.org.uk) presents a terrific choice of off-road options. The Dorset AONB has devised The West Dorset Pedal, five (free) downloadable trails from 11 to 17 miles that take in artists’ studios and great places to eat. Meantime if those Dorset hills seem a bit much, Marshwood Trails rents out electric as well as regular bikes. dorsetaonb.org.uk/explore/walkingcyclingandriding/16-cycling
Information on Cycling in the Dorset AONB
Cycling around Dorset is strenuous and rewarding in equal measures, dipping down into coastal towns before climbing out the other side, with fabulous views of coast and country the whole way. The AONB may have more than its fair share of tricky terrain, but don’t let the thought of steep inclines put you off bringing your bike. If you want to steer clear of hills then you’ll find plenty of flat trails and routes throughout the county that make perfect cycling routes for all ages and abilities. But, if it is challenging cycling you’re after, then Dorset offers plenty of exhilarating descents and off-roading opportunities, too.
If you're not sure where to start when it comes to chosing your cycle route in Dorset, South West Cycle Adventure is a good place to begin. The comprehensive site promotes off-road routes throughout the AONB. If you fancy the idea of peddling your way around the AONB, but are put off by the steep ascents (and Dorset definitely has more than its fair share of hills), why not let an electric bike take the strain? Marshwood Trails specialises in electric bike tours, offering guided tours in groups which cater for all levels of fitness and ability. There are various routes to chose from – the 15-mile 'Marshwood' route follows a string of Iron Age forts, whilst the 'Bride Valley' trail follows the coastline for part of the way – you will be treated to tales of smuggling en route. If you want to explore by yourself, they also hire bikes by the half-day or day.
Sustrans Route 2 currently links Dover and St Austell, and for most of Dorset section hugs the Jurassic Coast. It's a great way to explore the area and is signposted the whole way.
The North Dorset Trailway is made up of sections of the old Somerset and Dorset Railway linking Bristol, Bournemouth and Christchurch. This flat, traffic-free route has lots of interesting places to visit en route, from heritage sites and beauty spots, to intriguing villages and welcoming pubs, inns and cafés. You can join and leave the route at various points along the way, making it an ideal cycle path for families.
The Petit Tour de Manche is an epic 450-mile journey which hugs the Dorset coastline before hopping over the channel to continue its route along the Brittany and Normandy coast. The British part of the route follows the National Cycle Network routes 26 and 2, following a combination of country roads and greenways. It's flat and accessible, making it ideal for families.
Walk at Durlston Country Park
A 20-minute walk uphill from the centre of Swanage, Durlston Country Park offers 280 acres of dramatic coastal scenery. It was devised in the 1880s as a resource for the local community by local magnate George Burt. He built a castle here as a tourist attraction and, following restoration in 2011, so it still is today. It’s the hub of the park, containing interactive computers and displays about the natural life here: 500 varieties of wildflower; 250 species of bird; 500 types of moth. On some days you may see puffins and dolphins. There are a number of clearly marked trails, with printed guides available to buy. The park is open (free) daily sunrise to sunset. www.durlston.co.uk
Hike along the South West Coast Path
Take in some of Dorset’s 71 miles of the South West Coast Path between Poole Harbour and the western reaches of Lyme Regis. This is largely cliff country, spectacular and high in the west, decreasing eastwards down to the shingle of Chesil Beach, and then rising dramatically again around Lulworth. The most spectacular – and challenging – sections are between Lyme Regis and Burton Bradstock, and Lulworth Cove and Kimmeridge Bay. Take in a section by walking one way and catching a bus back: the X53 allows access to much of the path between Abbotsbury and Lyme Regis, while the X43 runs between Lulworth and Swanage. Bus details on dorsetforyou.com; southwestcoastpath.com
Hike along the Wessex Ridgeway
Here’s a path to take you high through the rural heart of Dorset. The Wessex Ridgeway is a 62-mile trail from northern Ashmore (at 700 feet the highest village in the county) to the south west coast at Lyme Regis. Most of the route is along a great chalk ridge - formed 100 million years ago and offering wonderful views. Highlights include Hambledon Hill Iron Age fort and the fringes of the Blackmore Vale; the Dorsetshire Gap, an intersection of five ancient paths near the village of Melcombe Bingham; and Marshwood Vale with its patchwork of ancient fields and thick hedgerows. dorsetforyou.com/wessexridgeway
Follow the Smugglers’ Trail
Stories of Dorset’s 17th- and 18th-century smugglers abound along coast. The tale of Jake Diamond, from the gang of notorious smuggling ‘king’ Isaac Gulliver, is the subject of a lively, one-mile audio trail downloadable to an android device. You then follow it at Stonebarrow Hill above Charmouth, and with crayon rubbings to be made at nine stops the walk becomes something of a treasure hunt. It’s been put together for children but adults find it equally intriguing. Part of the National Trust’s Golden Cap Estate, Stonebarrow Hill is wonderfully rich in bird and plant life and offers great views over cliffs and sea. The trail is also available as a free app from iTunes, see Stonebarrow Hill Smugglers. dorsetaonb.org.uk/explore/a-time-and-a-place/smugglers/61-smugglers-in-dorset
Snorkel in Kimmeridge Bay
Five miles west of Swanage, the marine reserve of Kimmeridge Bay is a place of extraordinary geology - and attendant sea life. It is made up of clearly defined beds of limestones and shales and has a large wave-cut platform known as The Flats. It also produces oil – on cliffs to the west you’ll see BP’s nodding donkey pump. Don’t be put off by this, the rocks and cliffs are dramatic while the underwater world is magical. A marine centre run by Dorset Wildlife Trust orchestrates a snorkelling trail for which waterproof guides to the colourful seaweeds and other marine life are available as well as hire of masks and snorkels. The trail is open May to September. www.dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk
Kayak in Studland Bay
For all the summer crowds at Studland Bay, quiet reaches of water are home to sea grass meadows that shelter seahorses, pipefishes, flatfish and more. The best way to explore this wildlife-rich environment is on a kayak safari, particularly on a calm day when you’ll be able to see well below the surface of Studland’s clear waters. 'Fore / Adventure' has teamed up with Dorset Wildlife Trust to create a wildlife trail that starts at Middle Beach. Waterproof guides can be bought at the National Trust shop at Knoll Beach and at the Sea School at Middle Beach which also offers kayak hire and tours. foreadventure.co.uk
For information on characterful places to stay, local food and drink, and nearby visitor attractions, see our Green Traveller's Guide to Dorset