England's only natural UNESCO world heritage site. The Alternative Guide
The Jurassic coast is the destination of many a boring school geography trip for children in the UK but it's so much better than I ever remember as a kid.
England might have a fair few UNESCO cultural world heritage sites (think anything from The Tower of London to Stone Henge) but The Jurassic Coast is the only one classed as a natural, non man-made site.
It's a breathtaking stretch of coastline with steep cliffs, white sandy beaches, crystal-clear blue waters and impressive rock arches.
The Milky Way rising over the 200ft tall natural limestone arch 'Durdle Door'.
Why is this an 'alternative' guide?
There's not exactly a shortage of guides out there explaining how to explore the area on foot. Whilst the coastline might offer some cracking hikes, which are well worth doing, it's also extremely busy most of the year-round. This has never been more true than during the coronavirus pandemic. So predictably (for me), this alternative guide gets you away from the literally thousands of people on the footpaths and out onto those gin-clear ocean waters. Not only is it a more dramatic and exciting way to see the sites, you'll also have it all to yourself.
I'm basing this guide on a trip we did in September 2020. We very nearly didn't bother. The original plan was just to do the walks but I thought I'd throw the kayak in the boot of the car just in case the trails were too busy - which they were. Upon arriving at Lulworth Cove car park, there were already several hundred cars by mid-morning. I tend to feel it's just not fun when you turn up to a natural beauty sport and get herded around like cattle, so to the water we took.
The rest of this article will first give you a bit of background about the Jurassic Coast, before showing you all the amazing things we saw from the water and the route we took. As you leave the thousands of tourists on the footpaths and float out on the water, you will see perspectives that very few visitors will ever have the privilege of seeing. At the end I'll give you some practical tips on how to do it yourself. Remember, if you're less experienced, you can always go with a recognised water sports company. There are also motor boat tours too if you are less able bodied.
A taste of what's in store on the Jurassic Coast... The rocky sea stack above would have once formed one side of a giant rock arch, before collapsing and disappearing for ever.
I had been to the area twice before. Once was a few years ago to do some of the hiking trails which were great, although less busy than they are now. The other was on a school geography trip aged about 15. It was cold, rainy, windy and we spent most of the miserable day messing about with a clipboard and annotating a dull-as-can-be worksheet about the less interesting aspects of the local geology.
It's this geology though that's a big part of the reason why this coastline is a classed as a world heritage site. Fossils found in the rock stretch back 185 million years to the time of the dinosaurs (hence the name) and beyond. The area is considered one of the most important teaching sites in the world for Earth Sciences and has been instrumental in the development of the fields of geology and paleontology. Basically it's pretty important!
'Importance' is one thing, but for me, the sheer natural beauty of the place is what makes it truly great. The 'Purbeck' limestone gives rise to amazing cave systems that eventually collapse to form sea arches - like Durdle Door - which in turn also collapse to leave solitary sea stacks that stick up incongruously, yet perfectly, out of the brilliant blue sea.
Rippled layers of rock near Lulworth Cove caused by the formation of the Alps.
It's not uncommon to still find fossils here if you look out for them - millions of years ago the area was a tropical sea and it's the fossils from these sea creatures that can be found in the rocks.
More recently when the African and European tectonic plates collided to form the Alps, the ripples from this massive collision stretched all the way over here and caused the crumpling of the rock you see above.
Enough about geology, interesting as it is. Time to focus on the trip. At the end I'll give you some more specifics to help you plan your own trip.
Getting your bearings
Getting to the Open Sea
Lunch & coffee on the beach
The return leg begins
Back to the pub
Getting your bearings
Arriving at Lulworth Cove car park at the end of September, we could see the walking trails were packed, so we decided to get out our inflatable kayak. First up, we scouted out the route by climbing to the viewpoint above Lulworth Cove. We couldn't see down to Durdle door from here but it was a good place to check out the sea conditions and get our bearings. It's also a cracking view!
Assessing the route from the viewpoint above the perfect horse shoe that is Lulworth Cove. Steep cliffs on either side tumble hundreds of feet down into the blue abyss below.
After inflating the kayak in the car park, it took us around 5 mins to carry it down to the launch point - the beach at Lulworth Cove. We budgeted about half a day to get out of the cove and head down to Durdle Door and then beyond to the incredible 'Bat's Head' before retracing our steps back to the start. This allowed time for a couple of stops: coffee & lunch on the beach as well as an incredible swim at the mesmerising 'Stair Hole' on the way back.
Here's the route map I made to help you plan your own voyage:
Getting to the open sea
Upon launching from near the cafe on the genteel beach, the water in the cove looks calm and glassy because, well, it's a cove! The shelter of the cove lulls you into a false sense of security until you leave it via the rocky headland to the right and enter the open sea. As soon as we were out of the cove we were greeted by choppy water and a huge headwind that made it feel like we were paddling through treacle. At times the wind was so strong we were practically stationary but the wind was also gusty, so we saved our energy and whenever it dropped we paddled like mad. On the plus side, the steep cliffs of the coastline are incredibly, ruggedly beautiful. It keeps the smile on your face despite all the huffing and puffing.
Soon we passed Stair Hole where we would stop to swim on the way back - more on that later. Our first priority was battling that wind and making some progress. It was a bit daunting to start because we couldn't see the arch of Durdle Door for the first half of the trip. What with the choppy water and the relentless wind, it felt a bit disheartening, if not a little worrying, as we didn't have anything to measure our progress by.
For late September the weather was beautiful and 20oC, yet the conditions on the water were tough. It's fair to say that if you do not have a good level of fitness and you're not experienced on the water, you should definitely choose to go with an organised tour company (easily bookable). By the time we got to Durdle Door our lungs were screaming and we were glad for a bit of a rest.
The alternative view of Durdle Door - from the sea. A perspective that few visitors will ever see.
When we eventually got there, the arch was every bit as impressive as we imagined. It was also a lot bigger than it looks from the shore. You don't quite appreciate 200ft of looming limestone until you paddle straight through it. Part of the reason for this is that the view from the beach tricks you. It's actually much further out to sea than it looks.
An unexpected joy was the sense of occasion in paddling through the door. It doesn't look so bad from the picture above but the beach was pretty crowded and there was even a queuing system to get down to it, further up the cliff. We felt incredibly grateful not to be caught up in all that but also a bit embarrassed as we floated under the arch of Durdle Door and into view of a large crowd of curious people on the beach. It sort of felt like being at the theatre - being unexpectedly thrust out on stage with no preparation as the 'audience' eagerly await your first line. If you do this trip, the hoards on the beach will point and stare at you - you have been warned! On the flip side it really does make you feel like some sort of intrepid explorer, even though your probably no more than a few miles away from the nearest cappuccino.
So after floating about for a bit and bathing in the attention of onlookers - and more importantly the wonder of our surroundings - it was time for the next leg of the journey: onwards to Bat's Head.
As the chatter from the beach at Durdle Door slowly faded to silence, we set out eyes on the hoizon, to a massive hulking cliff sticking out into the ocean. This stretch was easier going as we hugged the calmer waters of the beach. It felt wilder and more remote than what we had passed before. Visually, things got even more interesting with lighter, more iridescent water and the mottled hues of the cliff being that much more noticeable.
As we drew closer to Bat's Head we started to appreciate how it got its name. Not because there were (seemingly) any bats nesting there but more do to the shape of the cliff. At the bottom of the towering wall of rock there was a tiny triangular slit, no more than 20ft high. As we drew even nearer, we could see that the slit formed a short tunnel - the beak of the bat - that ran all the way through the headland. What a wonderful way to mark the half way point than to paddle round the headland, turn180 degrees and paddle back through the passage!
VIDEO: The turning around point, paddling back through Bat's Head. The current suddenly rushes through here and carries you through at quite a pace.
Lunch & coffee on the beach
As soon as we turned around and passed back through Bat's Head (gotta be one of the most epic 'emergences' from a tunnel ever!) we beached the Kayak and set up our picnic lunch and coffee. A dry bag and flask seemed like an excessive amount of clobber to be taking on a 1/2 day kayaking journey but it was so worth it. Lunch always tastes better when you feel like you've earned it, so you may as well do it properly.
The lunch spot on the beach near Bat's Head.
The return leg begins
Having fueled up with lunch and a 20 min nap in the sun on the beach, we started to make our way back to Lulworth Cove. Not only were our blood glucose levels up, we also had that strong wind behind us and we were absolutely flying. Thankfully it was this way round - I think a headwind on the return would not be a lot of fun. Soon we were back through Durdle Door again and on our way to Stair Hole for a swim.
VIDEO: Paddling back through Durdle Door (v.hard to film whilst managing the current!)
Swimming at Stair Hole
Choosing to swim here on the way back turned out to be a great shout. It has to be one of my favourite swimming spots on the whole fo the southern coastline. Take a dip here and you could easily be in Lord of the Rings.
At the time it was tempting not to bother as we were keen just to get back, get warm and get to the pub. Nevertheless we braved it out and I'm so glad we made the effort. The entrance is pretty obvious from the sea; just look out for something that resembles the entrance to Narnia. We found it easiest to go through the hole and beach the kayak before swimming. The last thing we wanted was the boat floating out to sea!
Take a dip here and you could easily be in Lord of the Rings.
Heading back up the coast towards Stair Hole, the wind now behind us.
The swim that awaits you at Stair Hole:
The beautiful and bizarre rock formations inside Stair Hole.
Back to the Pub
After swimming, the home stretch back to Lulworth Cove was short, if cold and arduous. Top priority to was some grub so we headed straight for the Lulworth Cove Inn pub to inhale a big hot plate of food and have a well earned celebratory drink. What an incredible day it had been and the trip had been just long enough to feel a big sense of achievement whilst not feeling like we had overdone it. Cheers to that :)
Watching the sun set over the Jurassic Coast after a well earned meal in the pub.
I hope you enjoyed reading about this alternative way to see the Jurassic Coast. Please do subscribe to my blog at the top of the page. For help in planning your own trip, I've listed some of the key details below.
thanks for reading,
The Specifics & Keeping Safe:
Parking: Lulworth Cove Car Park
Launch Point: Carry boat down to Lulworth Cove Beach.
See route map.
Keep no more than 50m from land at all time to avoid getting swept out to sea (strong wind and currents).
Head out of Lulworth Cove and turn right, follow the coast past Stair Hole, head all the way past and through Durdle Door all the way to just past Bat's Head and then come back through the rock tunnel in Bat's Head.
Stop for coffee & lunch on the beach if you want (bring your own food & flask).
Head back up the coast towards Lulworth Cove, stopping for a swim at Stair Hole on the way. It is best to swim at Stair Hole on the way back to avoid getting too cold (beware strong currents).
Distance & Time: Out and back round trip about 7-8km. Budget half a day, inc. stops for coffee, swims etc.
Experience: Achievable for anyone of good/moderate fitness but if you are not experienced on the water it is best to book through a kayak tour company (ask at tourist info in the car park). Less able-bodied people can take motor boat tours from nearby towns (book in advance).
Wind and Currents: It was very hard work on the way out to Bat's head due to a headwind and so took much longer than the return leg. Currents and tides (which change) also must be considered. The best bet is to get advice for that day from the visitors info centre by the car park and plan accordingly.
Other Safety: Wear a life jacket, take food, water and mobile phone in a dry bag. Inform others of your trip when you launch. At Stair Hole don't jump off rocks without having assessed the water underneath beforehand. Even then, exercise extreme caution. Don't jump off Durdle Door.
All images and footage copyright © Lawrence D'Silva apart from the milky way shot which is a licensed stock image.