Between Golden Cap and Charmouth

Golden Cap, Jurassic, coast, DorsetWe wanted to walk along Dorset’s Jurassic Coast and hunt for fossils.  No, that’s not quite right: I wanted to walk along the Jurassic Coast and hunt for fossils; Head Office wanted to find a sun-drenched beach to lie on.  Influenced by the fact that parking in National Trust car parks is included in our membership fees, we settled on an area owned by that august body and headed for the Golden Cap estate near Charmouth.  All went well until the sat nav urged me to drive half a mile or so up a steep and hopelessly narrow track called Stonebarrow Lane without, as far as I could see, enough room to swing a cat – or to pass another vehicle coming down.  In denial, I muttered, “No, that can’t possibly be it”, and did another circuit, via Cardiff, just to make sure it really was that bad.  It was.  I’d never want huge roads to replace Britain’s country lanes, but can’t say I’ve ever unconditionally enjoyed driving along them, white-knuckled, ears, eyes and other bits tensed.

Stonebarrow, Dorset, Radar StationAfter what seemed like several hours, ten minutes later, the car crunched to a halt on packed earth and gravel in front of an area of humpy grassland; beyond, the distant sparkling blue sea.  This was Stonebarrow.  Naively assuming that there’d be a nice little sign pointing ‘to the beach’, or, ‘stroll this way for the fossils’, we hadn’t even considered bringing a map.  Salvation was provided in the shape of a helpful lady of middle years, who inhabited a small, conveniently located, NT shop concealed inside a 1950s former radar station.  Allegedly, the remains of other coastal defences can be spotted hereabouts, cunningly obscured, ready for whichever enemy we were fighting at the time they were constructed.  Stonebarrow has a much earlier history – it is possibly the site of a Bronze Age burial mound, long since washed into the sea, and certainly on the path of a 17th century road with roots in far more ancient times.  Some say that a gibbet once stood at the eastern end of the car park, where smugglers and other ne’er do wells were hanged. Those were the days.

Golden Cap, visit Dorset, Jurassic CoastIn any event, our charming saviour sold us a Mars bar, a useful booklet of nearby walks for the princely sum of one pound, and pointed us in approximately the right direction.  The clue was the sea.  I’d like to report that we set off with joy in our hearts and a song on our lips – but it did look an awfully long way to the beach.  Our obliging guide had nevertheless assured us that all would be well; provided the steps down from the cliffs hadn’t been washed away in the recent bad weather, that we didn’t get cut off by the incoming tide and that Thor didn’t send down a thunderbolt to zap us into eternity. I might have lied about the last bit.

Path to Golden Cap, wildlife, Dorset, coastIt is actually hard to be downhearted about anything for long when you’re traipsing up and down through a pleasant-perfumed mixture of meadow and scrub, on a warm, dry day, with dragonflies and birds wheeling around and about, and the occasional powder-blue butterfly fluttering in your path.  We headed gaily toward the lump of Golden Cap, the highest point on England’s south coast (627 feet/191 metres), though, in truth, it never seemed to get much closer.  The ‘gold’ by the way, comes from the orange colour of the sandstone – the southern end of same vein as the stone of the Cotswolds.  In fact, the committee decided to relentlessly pursue our objectives of beach and fossil, giving the summit of Golden Cap itself a miss this time, tempting though it was.  I even didn’t make much of a fuss about not dawdling to look at a ruined medieval church, St Gabriel’s.  There’s dedication for you; actually, I was more anxious about the steps and the tide.

Dragonfly, heathland, Dorset, JurassicSt Gabriel’s Steps turned out to be a rickety wooden stairway leading down the cliff, at a point where the incline was marginally less vertical than elsewhere.  An astonishing sight greeted our eventual arrival on the shoreline; there was no one there.  Don’t get me wrong – I wasn’t expecting a welcoming committee, congratulating us on our arrival and safe descent.  Though that would have been nice.  But it was a sunny day in August; and there wasn’t a soul in sight on a beach in this relatively populated, and popular, part of Britain.  Hey-ho.  By careful observation, we ascertained that the tide was probably on the way out, rather than in.  Phew!  Thus heartened, we set off west toward Charmouth, leaving Golden Cap behind.  It was beautiful in both directions, the waves gently breaking and then sucking the stones back with a tender rattling-rumbling sound.  The cliffs along this sweep of the coast are a dirty grey, with irregular heaps of tumbled rock providing evidence of their worrying instability.  Apart from the sad detritus of the modern world that had been washed ashore, it all seemed curiously prehistoric.

Charmouth, beach, JurassicAlthough we did eventually pass a few fellow-beings – fossil-hunters equipped with neat little hammers – we never did find out why this stretch of the beach was so deserted.  Perhaps it was because it was a shingle beach.  The seashore closer to Charmouth, where a surprisingly large number of people were busy chipping at rocks to see what lay within, was sandier and reasonably full of families enjoying themselves. Chip-chip.

Golden Cap, beach, Jurassic coast, near Charmouth, DorsetBefore taking a cliff-top hike back to the car, we needed sustenance.  Lunch!  Hungry and thirsty, we set off to see what Charmouth had to offer, beyond something from a pub.  It is possibly a price for Charmouth not being a tacky seaside resort that the choice of eateries is extremely limited.  To be fair, it is a small place.  After a short walk through seaside suburbia, we came upon a little establishment, Bank House, which offered a very acceptable looking menu in the window.  We entered and sat with audible sighs of anticipation.  When nothing happened, I went in search of menus, conjuring up images of a nice little plate of pasta with a chilled glass of something dry and Italian to wash it down.  Oh – did we want something from the kitchen, I was asked?  Resisting the urge to remark that we had simply come in to admire the cutlery, I ventured to enquire where the food was prepared, if not in the kitchen, and was advised that they were just about to close.  Perhaps Charmouth receives few afternoon visitors; perhaps it’s because everyone (except us) knows that the whole damn place apparently shuts for siesta.  Tired, and a little fractious, we settled for some sort of pie with ice cream (presumably this did not come from the kitchen), paid, and left, muttering about myopic customer-awareness.  The pie was nice, though.

Families, fossil hunting, beach, Charmouth River Char, CharmouthBack at the coastal path, signs were spotted warning that the way ahead toward Stonebarrow and Golden Cap was closed due to cliff falls and missing paths.   The message was clear: on no account walk this way, or you will in all probability die.  Unhappy at that prospect, but also reluctant to accept the alternatives of returning the way we had come, or diverting inland along the road, we sought a local second opinion.  Another friendly lady (that’s two in the same day), advised, “I haven’t told you this, but…” if we followed the path until it ended at the collapsed cliff, jumped down, traversed a couple of rock-faces, yomped over a bit of rough terrain, crawled gingerly over a glacier, didn’t mind the risk of imminent death, and hopped across someone’s land for a bit – it would be fine.  So we did.  And it was.  The end.

Charmouth, Lyme Regis, DorsetBut – I forgot – you’re bursting to know if Head Office got her time on the beach and whether I found any fossils, aren’t you?  Well, at some point several paragraphs ago, I left Mrs Britain happily soaking up the rays whilst I warily approached the dodgy-looking cliff-face.  Golly, I’d forgotten my hard-hat and hi-vis vest.  Not really knowing what to do, I picked up a rock at random.  It felt quite soft, like a kind of hard, grey, mud.  Gently, I tapped it on another rock and it cracked along the seams to reveal the outline of what looked like a cockleshell.  To me, it was almost as thrilling as finding a dinosaur; something that no man had ever seen before, that had been encased in mud for 140-200 million years (give or take).  I crunched back across the shingle to show off my discovery, barely able to contain my excitement.  “Wow” said Mrs B.  And happily closed her eyes.

Cliffs, Golden Cap, fossilsThe Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site.  You can find out more about it by visiting the official Jurassic coast website.

Fossil, cockle, Golden Cap

29 thoughts on “Between Golden Cap and Charmouth

  1. jmnowak

    Head Office didn’t seem too impressed! I was always fascinated with seaside fossils and David Attenborough’s coastal adventures too. Walking along that scented path, just seeing a hint of what’s to come, would also have me skipping with joy!

  2. Magali@TheLittleWhiteHouse

    I had to laugh at the mention of those narrow path because we have the same in Brittany and my GPS keeps asking me to drive there and I’m always wondering if I’m going to make it alive at the end.
    The view is stunning and I guess it helps a lot to walk long miles.
    And about the fossil? Wow!

  3. Tina

    The narrow roads can make for a tense drive. What lovely photos. One reminded me of scenes from Broadchurch, the tv show. How I would love to walk around those cliffs and old roads.

  4. Rosie

    What an adventure and you got there in the end with the help of some local knowledge. It is a beautiful if fragile part of the Jurassic Coast line, your fossil is such a treasure. I always think of fossil hunter Mary Anning and her little dog disappearing under a rock fall at Lyme Regis, Mary survived but I think the little dog was lost. Great post:)

  5. milliethom

    Wonderful post, and one that brings back memories to me. This is one area of southern Britain I have been to. We had a week in Charmouth six years ago but all our photos were lost when our old computer crashed. We soon leaned to store photos in multiple places! I agree that Charmouth is limited in what it has to offer but it made an ideal base to explore lots of Dorset. We didn’t find the lanes as bad as those in Cornwall!
    The cliffs at Charmouth are very unstable and visitors are warned not to go too close. A young woman was killed there a short while after our holiday when a section of the cliff collapsed on her. A tragic accident! Still, the beach is a great place for fossil hunting. How great that you found one. We didn’t actively look. But your success has inspired me for next time.

  6. Cynthia

    I would have been over the moon to crack open a mud ball and be the first person – ever – to see a fossil! This is an area I want to visit in England and in all my trips, never have. One day …

  7. Marcia

    Love your sense of humor that comes through so well in your writing. Read a book about the fossil hunting there in 1800s. Can’t remember the title just now. My best fossil experience was in Montana looking for dinosaur fossils with a paleontologist. He let us keep some that had washed out so no chance to put back together. I wonder where those fossils are now? Maybe with oldest daughter.

  8. Lisa G.

    Ah, that beautiful English scenery – the hedgerows, lush grass, path down to the sea, the dragonfly (or dragonfly kin). I’m glad you enjoyed your adventure. 🙂

  9. alexandra s.m.

    What a fun adventure indeed!
    Always enjoy your beautiful pictures as well as your text.
    Thanks Mike!

  10. Clare Pooley

    I love this place though the last time we went to Charmouth it was definitely a bit grubby with lots of detritus on the beach and in the Char. That was a while ago so things may have improved a bit. We’ve found fossils there too – so exciting! Thanks for the lovely photos which have reminded me of so many holidays!

  11. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – well that was an adventure in many ways. I wonder if the beach population was larger because the car park was nearer … and perhaps a better quality of pie and friendliness … pity about the grumpiness – does put one off. Still – THEE found a fossil …and you are definitely not joining the ranks of fossilized. Long walk – glad you found the car though. Loved the story telling … at least Mrs B opened her eyes to ‘look’ … and admire said fossil! Cheers Hilary

  12. Ellen

    Haha! I read this whole post out loud to my Mr. B. Oh those narrow lanes, we are still twitching from our time on them. 🙂 Glad you made it there and back again unscathed! I just met someone who is from Devon who now lives in the U.S. Have a good weekend.

  13. 1066jq

    We did a bit of fossil hunting in that area one year, it was incredible and we too found fossils. Hate the teeny tiny lanes with no place for two cars, scare the beJesus out of me.

  14. Carla TePaske

    Hi Mike,
    I just loved this. You are so good at describing your adventures. Right to Mrs. B soaking in the sun, closing her eyes and smiling as you presented your find. My boys act the same when they find a cool rock. 😉 And I may just act the same as Mrs. B. 😉
    As always, thank you for the well done post.
    Carla

  15. Sarah

    You were brave driving up that road it looks such a steep drop on one side! Stonebarrow is
    one of our favourite places but we always walk there! Sarah x

  16. CranberryMorning

    I love everything about this post, although a piece of pie just doesn’t cut if after you’ve been trudging along for too long. I definitely could not have passed by St. Gabriel’s without going inside. The whole beach experience sounded nice, especially without many people there, but aren’t the rocks in your garden just as old? Granted you probably can’t hammer them apart and find fossils. The whole tide thing sounds very exciting to me, since I’ve never experienced the tide. I know that it washes corpses out to sea (or in, if you’re not a good planner). Loved all the photos, and probably especially the one of the narrow lane. We once met a lovely woman at Hereford Cathedral who instructed us to drive on a cowpath to get from point HC to B. If she had not been with us in the vehicle, I would never have let Mr. C. proceed, because it didn’t look like any kind of road to me. So happy that Mrs. B got her time soaking sunshine. Is a gibbet part of a flibberty gibbet?

  17. April Munday

    There was a big cliff fall round there last week, which is probably why your beach was a bit empty. The south coast is just a little fragile at the moment.

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