Dorset: England's Jurassic gem
The UK’s south western county of Dorset offers stunning coastlines, Roman ruins, verdant countryside — but also treacherous roads during Britain’s Big Freeze
The decision to leave the house was looking more reckless by the minute. Black ice and thick mounds of snow were impeding our journey up the hill; success in parking was looking decidedly faint.
The supposedly simple journey was to attend a carol service on Christmas Eve in a church in rural Tarrant Monkton, a tiny hamlet usually a ten-minute drive away, but in the deep winter of Big Freeze Britain (December 2010) it was double that, and then… there was the hill.
On a summer’s day it could be tackled within ten seconds, but in temperatures of minus 12 degrees, with bald tyres, desperately trying to cling to the icy asphalt, the inevitable slide was moments away, so wanting to avert disaster, the car was swung into a muddy verge and considered parked, back bumper poking into the road.
“Need a hand to get her in?” said a friendly passer-by, commenting on the lacklustre job. Clearly, in these parts, my effort was not going to pass for complete. I accepted, and a small group had soon shoved the car’s back end into the verge, out of the way of other sliding motors and tumbling pedestrians.
The decision to leave the house was finally rewarded on seeing the church and its surroundings. On a crystal-clear evening candles lit the snow-covered path to its ancient entrance; inside, more candles illuminated the small building, which was full, like most churches on Christmas Eve, with the faithful and the part-time faithful (those that gather for headline Christian events), creating a warm atmosphere that could have been the same a year back or a hundred years back - a traditional, rural English scene that few tourists ever discover on whistle-stop tours of London’s Big Ben, Oxford’s spires, and Shakespeare’s Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Those tourists willing to step off the beaten track will find hamlets like Tarrant Monkton in abundance across England’s countryside. Dorset itself demands a visit for more than just its ‘quaint’ villages. Its undulating hills, verdant valleys, historic ruins, and protected coastline will keep any touring group busy, and for those with a penchant for natural beauty, there are few places in the UK that can match it — the county has the highest proportion of conservation areas in England, including one ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ and two ‘Heritage Coasts’.
In winter you’d be unlucky to experience the vehicular farce of hill-sliding as we did on Christmas Eve, mainly because December 2010 was the coldest on record for over 100 years. Usual temperatures are well above freezing, with Dorset enjoying some of the warmest temperatures in the UK (which might not be saying too much); needless to say, summer is the advisable time to visit, with temperatures usually in the mid-20s.
On a summer trip, the county’s heritage coastline, The Jurassic Coast, is a popular attraction, but if you’re expecting touristy restaurants and bars, think again. The attraction here is not just sunscreen and swimming; this is a place where fossils literally come tumbling out of the rock every day, as soft limestone cliffs are slowly eroded by the waters of the English Channel.
The Jurassic Coast stretches for 153 km taking up most of Dorset’s waterfront, reaching into neighbouring Devon — and little of it is developed as the land is protected. Any fossils found need to be left in place, but the hunt for 180 million year-old animal remains will keep the kids busy (for at least an hour, at which point an ice cream stand is never far off).
For families from the Gulf, there’s something that bonds the economies of Dorset to those of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and beyond — the discovery of oil. Dorset can proudly boast the world’s oldest continuously pumping oil well, found on the innocently named Wytch Farm in Kimmeridge, which produces about nine million barrels of oil a year. To put that in context, Dubai pumps around 18 million barrels of oil a year, meaning that Dorset is certainly a player in the oil business, but nothing compared to the big guns of Saudi Arabia, Canada, or Venezuela.
Even though black gold may be flowing from the ground, Dorset is still a quiet place, more centred on farming than on outlandish petrodollar-fuelled development. Little has changed in the area for 100s of years — the parishes (areas based on churches within villages) are almost the same as they were when written up in the Doomsday Book of 1086, which lists all lands and property in most of England and Wales.
Change that has taken place can be easily noted on those parts of the coast that are not protected, particularly around the large towns of Bournemouth, Weymouth, and Poole. Colossal caravan parks litter the land, alongside row upon row of bungalows and suburban communities. The residents are mainly retirees enjoying the warmth of the south coast, making Dorset the county with the highest proportion of elderly people in the UK (around 25 per cent of the population are over 65).
The relaxed lifestyle and heritage coasts bring millions of tourists each year, mainly from within the UK, who unfortunately clog up the otherwise quiet roads as they trawl the county for coastal walks and campgrounds. Some also come to visit the historical sights, of which the Romans are responsible for some and the English Civil War for many others. The Latin-speaking invaders made a base for themselves in Dorset, and have left behind ruins, such as Badbury Rings, now best known for the annual Point-to-Point events that take place by the ancient hill fort.
Point-to-Pointing is probably unknown to foreigners, as you’d need to be truly in-the-know to attend. Normally taking place in the winter to spring, it basically involves amateur jockeys riding amateur horses over an amateur course built around a field or farm. Badbury Rings is no different, but the Roman ruins provide an unmatched setting, with onlookers huddling for warmth in marquee tents as horses canter around the field below.
Back in the deep winter, also huddling for warmth, was our group, post candlelit carol service, now battling to maneuver our car from the muddy verge into which it had been wedged. The starry night meant temperatures were continuing to drop, but we didn’t mind. Dorset had once again provided a classic English experience, something few tourists will see, except for the most determined... or fortunate. None of these experiences are off limits — they just take perseverance to track down.
Deep snow and ice being a rarity, don’t bank on seeing that side of Dorset. More likely you’ll visit in the summertime, escaping to the traditional English countryside for a busy tour, or just sitting in a pub garden enjoying Dorset’s natural beauty.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN 2011 IN KHALEEJ TIMES