A weekend discovering the Jurassic Coast

By | Category: Travel destinations
the bathouse of George III sill awaits on the front in Weymouth

George III’s bathing hut

Weymouth and Portland have been in the limelight recently as the sailing and windsurfing venues for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Weymouth first became well known as a holiday destination back in the nineteenth century when mad King George 111 became a regular visitor. The area is part of what is now known as the 95 miles of Jurassic Coast designated an UNESCO World Heritage site. The various rocks and fossils tell the history of the earth across 185 million years.

On the seafront known as the esplanade is a statue of King George III together with a replica of his bathing hut. Although she never visited, there is also a Queen Victoria Jubilee clock. Overlooking the beach two upturned hulls of sailing boats are kiosks serving food and drink. I was delighted to see that a section of the beach is dog-friendly. Dominating the skyline looking into the sea, a 174 ft viewing tower was built for the Olympics. Despite my fear of heights I enjoyed the ten-minute ride, sitting in a circle facing outwards as it slowly rotated upwards providing those inside with a 360 degree vista. An audio commentary related the area’s history pointing out to us among other things a chalk engraving of King George III on his charger carved out on the hillside. Back on the ground a land train, the Sea Life Express  (sponsored by Weymouth SEA LIFE Adventure Park which is one of the big tourist attractions in the town) took some of my fellow companions to Lodmoor Country Park where there are lots of activities for children including the RSPB nature reserve and sea life park.

image of the Sealife express in Weymouth

The Sealife Express

Guarding the mouth of Portland Harbour, Nothe Fort was once a military site, and is now a tourist attraction charting the history of coastal defence from the Victorian era onwards.  From its ramparts are amazing views down the Jurassic Coast to St Albans Head to the East and the isle of Portland to the West. Surprisingly dogs are welcome. The harbour itself is jam-packed with sailing and motorboats. Activities including jet skiing and mackerel fishing are on offer. In the summer, I was told that dolphins can sometimes be seen swimming alongside the boats. A shop on the key sells freshly caught fish. In July there is a Seafood Festival where the pavements are filled with stalls selling the crabs, lobsters, and mussels.

For fresh fish, and particularly for anyone wanting to eat Dorset crab, the Crab House Cafe situated in a big shed overlooking pebbly Chesil Beach, was highly recommended. Chesil Beach is a thin strip of land with water on both sides that ties Weymouth to Portland. The wetlands in this area are a haven for bird watching. The visitor centre run by the Dorset Wildlife Trust has explanations about the locality including the various birds one might see. They also run lots of activities for both adults and children. With a great expanse of shingle tapering down to the sea the area was not only filled with people sporting binoculars but also those exercising their dogs.

From here I hired a bicycle and helmet to explore part of the Jurassic Cycle Trail. The area has 17 miles of cycle tracks, some of which run alongside the South West coastal path. Not being a very confident cyclist, fortunately a lot of the paths were away from the main roads. As well as cyclists there were also people strolling along the route enjoying the lovely countryside.

statue of an octopus

the octopus “statue” at Tout Quarry

At one time buildings made from Portland stone (limestone) were very popular.. Sir Christopher Wren used the stone to build St Paul’s Cathedral. The Bank of England is made from it too as is the facade of Buckingham Palace. Although many of the quarries are now closed Tout Quarry hidden away on the road between Weymouth and Portland has been transformed into a sculpture park. The area is surreal with over 60 sculptures, some hidden away in unlikely places including one by Antony Gormley. There are lots of different paths and I could have spent a long time wandering around. The place is obviously not as appreciated by the locals as it should be as bushes filled with raspberries were just waiting to be picked.

With a combination of clean winds, sheltered waters and weak tides the area around Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbour the Weymouth & Portland National Sailing Academy is considered to be the best location for sailing in the UK and probably the world. Ben Ainslie won his gold medals here and sailing clubs from all around the world visit to practice or take part in competitions. When I was there, there were lots of people milling around.

Sailing boats in Potland Harbour

Portland Harbour

At the Andrew Simpson Sailing Centre, Tim Anderton, one of the sailing instructors told me that they take people at all levels from novices to those wishing to train as instructors. Children from the age of five are welcomed, and anyone that comes is then encouraged to go on and join their local club. Everything I needed was supplied – the boat, the wetsuit. The only thing I had to bring was my swimming costume. Although, he added, that a major misconception was that you need to swim when in fact you don’t. I was given a life jacket to wear as I went for a short, but rather windy, trip around the harbour in one of their dinghy powerboats.

Although the area is mainly devoted to water sports I found some other places to visit. A short walk from the sailing area, Portland Castle is a purpose-built artillery fort constructed during the reign of Henry VIII as part of the coastal defence of Portland harbour. The fort now belongs to English Heritage. A guided commentary describes the life of the men who lived there. In the nineteenth century, it was converted into a home and extended but was subsequently registered as an ancient monument and converted back to how it was when it was originally built.

At the southernmost point overlooking the Portland Race, the red and white stripped lighthouse at Portland Bill is fully operational. In their visitor centre I learnt about its workings, and joined a guided tour to climb the 155 stairs to the top. Well worth it for the wonderful views of the Dorset coastline, a lasting memory from an action packed weekend.

 

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