Exploring Dorset AONB
Updated: Jan 10
Chris Woodley-Stewart explores the Jurassic Coast and the South West Coast Path, and says Dorset is "arguably England's best county for wildlife".
Much of Dorset is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and as well as having wonderful landscapes and a rich historic environment, it's also arguably England's best county for wildlife.
In summer, I head to the heathlands, buzzing with a stellar cast of jewelled insects, enigmatic reptiles and birdlife that includes the mysterious nightjar, the dartford warbler and the parachuting tree pipit. Inland, winter is a time when the cultural heritage takes over from the natural to some degree, and attention turns to trying to read the 'humps and bumps' in the landscape. But now it's the windswept, wave-battered coast that draws me, and I'm heading to Thorneycombe Beacon and then along the South West Coast Path to Charmouth, over Golden Cap.
The moment I set off I'm greeted by two buzzards, whirling in courtship flight above the field to my left. Buzzards are a common sight across the country now, but they never cease to delight, and their mewing is England's real call of the wild. Looking back north beyond the cone of Colmers Hill, it's possible to discern the original plateau through which the rivers have cut today's network of valleys, leaving more prominent conical hills like Colmers. Many of these are the sight of hillforts and tumuli and it's easy to see why they were the focus of ancient settlements.
By the time I reach Thorneycombe Beacon and the ruffled blanket of sea below, I'm joined by three ravens, tumbling together through the sky. Watching them it's hard not to conclude that they are simply doing this for the sheer joy it brings them (and me). In summer a diversity of flowers, butterflies and birds can be found up here. But today it's just the ravens sharing my sweeping view to the east to Chesil Beach and Portland, and to the west the imposing hulk of Golden Cap, with Lyme Regis and the Jurassic Coast beyond.
I'd spend the night at Highway Farm, just west of Bridport, which has the warmest of welcomes from Pauline and John Bale. Their self-catering cottage is cosy, well-equipped and beautifully kept, as are their B&B rooms in the main house. The Bales farmed further inland before they ran this business and they have a tremendous knowledge of the local area and are warm and articulate champions for all that Dorset has to offer. Their food is locally-sourced or homemade, and they are great examples of the notion that the most important ambassador for a place can be the person who gives you your breakfast and talks passionately and knowledgeably about the area they love.
As well as providing B&B and self-catering, the Bales host courses in textiles, woodworking and much else besides, arrange fossil walks, produce cook books (for local and Malawian charities) and have a peaceful fishing lake. Highway Farm is so lovely that I could be forgiven for not wanting to venture out, but this is the first decent weather in weeks.
The Jurassic Coast is the UK's first natural World Heritage Site, as well as being part of the AONB, and is famed for its fossils. It was here that Mary Anning, the 'founding Mother' of modern palaeontology, proved through her discoveries that women could 'do dinosaurs too' – and better than the men. Fossil hunting is hugely popular here – there's a simple fossil hunting code that everyone should follow – and if you can't find an ammonite of your own then there are plenty of guided fossil hunts available in summer to help you. The sea is constantly reshaping this dynamic coastline, and each fossil revealed is a memory of life hundreds of millions of years old.
By the time I reached Charmouth, I'd been reminded that the coves, valleys and cliffs of the South West Coast Path have a great many ups and downs – several ascents of Everest worth on the whole route; I feel I earned my delicious locally-sourced dinner in the Ilchester Arms at Symondsbury that night – and the 'beer miles' were very low too, with some of the local brewery's finest on offer.
My journey to Dorset from the North Pennines had been a 10-hour mini-adventure in its own right, and was only possible because of the fantastic bus service along the Dorset coast that provides linear walking opportunities by public transport. The amity and helpfulness of the driver on the number 31 was mirrored in everyone I met, from host to publican and from farmer to shopkeeper.
Chris stayed at Highway Farm, near Bridport, which costs from £88 a night B&B. To get there by public transport: take the train to Dorchester South railway station then take the X31 bus to the Bridport stop from where you will be able to see the farm.
Words by Chris Woodley-Stewart