Ever since I was little I’ve loved going to the beach, and growing up near the Dorset Coast we were spoilt for choice. Our beach of choice was St Oswalds Bay, next to Durdle Door, as you can swim out to the rocks, and Durdle Door itself is spectacular. We also loved the sandy beaches around Studland, and when I spent a summer nannying I took the children to some of the more off-the-beaten-track beaches; Dungy Head, Chapman’s Pool and other tucked away ones.
Little did I know that I was building sand castles on what would become a World Heritage Site – recognised as being as internationally important as the Great Barrier Reef, The Grand Canyon and Komodo. In 2001 the stretch of coast roughly between Exmouth and Studland was designated a World Heritage Site, because it is unique in that it offers a complete geological record of 185 million years of geology and prehistoric life. From the oldest Triassic rocks in the red cliffs of Devon, through Lyme Regis & Charmouth’s Jurassic Blue Lias to the chalky white of Purbeck’s Cretaceous limestones, there is a clear record of the rocks and fossils laid down over millions of years. If you’d like a more entertaining explanation than mine, and who wouldn’t, take a look at the brilliant little animation here.
Dubbed ‘The Jurassic Coast’, the actual UNESCO World Heritage Site is, strictly speaking, just the actual coast itself from the mean low water line to the top of the cliffs (or back of the beach), and doesn’t include the town seafront areas of Lyme Regis, Seaton etc. However, the term ‘Jurassic Coast’ has been enthusiastically adopted by the whole region, including areas within the AONBs of Dorset and East Devon, many National Trust sites and land owned and used by myriad landowners, residents, tenants, councils, tourists, fishermen and all sorts of individuals, groups and bodies.
Making sense of all this, and promoting, protecting and sharing the Jurassic Coast with a world-wide audience falls to the now-independent Jurassic Coast Trust. They and a wide network of volunteers, trustees and business partners work tirelessly to encourage as many people as possible to get involved, from world-renowned palaeontologists to little school-children, and they run events throughout the year promoting the geology, landscape, fossils, wildlife and learning opportunities the coastline offers.
Their remit in terms of conservation, learning and community engagement is too big to describe here without resorting to a long and possibly tedious list, but one important way they manage to deliver so much quality public involvement is through their Ambassadors. Just about the only thing they have in common is their commitment to the Jurassic Coast – other than that, they are a hugely varied group of experts. Geologists, teachers, walking guides, fossil hunters, artists and enthusiasts from all walks of life, they are well-trained and give large amounts of time and energy to get the public involved in every aspect of the Jurassic Coast.
One of the Ambassadors I’ve met through volunteering at the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival is Cara Jenkins, of Beachwood Adventures. With over 15 years experience in Forest School education, Cara is brilliant at getting children, teenagers and families out into the natural world, and has been running ‘beach school’ sessions for a few years now. She has appeared at Jurassic Coast Trust events and developed many fossilly games and activities, which always get the children engaged.
Martin Curtis of Jurassic Coast Guides is another Ambassador – a fully qualified mountain guide, he leads guided walks and tours, and is a keen amateur fossil hunter. He has talked to many school and youth groups about fossil hunting on beaches and how to do it safely, and is passionate about the area in general.
If you feel like getting out to discover the Jurassic Coast for yourself, the website has a calendar of events, including fossil hunts and guided walks, and they have links to all the museums, visitor centres and resources you’ll need. Each section of the coast has its own distinct character, due to the different geological features – steep cliffs, wave-cut platforms full of rock pools, arches and stacks like Durdle Door and the stacks of Ladram Bay, and one-of-a-kind landscapes such as Chesil Beach, the spectacular 15mile pebble beach beloved of night fishermen and landscape photographers. I think almost everyone I know has at some stage ‘done’ Lulworth Cove on a geography field trip, as it is such a textbook example of coastal erosion, complete with a baby version at next-door Stair Hole. This is geology at its most accessible, with features so perfect they end up on school desks all over the world, and we are lucky enough to be able to absorb it all whilst simply walking the dog or enjoying a nice cold pint by the beach somewhere.
If you can attend any of their events, please do, but also if you’re out & about visit one of the visitor centres, such as the Lulworth Heritage Centre – I have found that (like wildflowers and weather, for me) the more you understand these things the more interesting they get, and I have grown to love the coast more and more the more I understand it.
We are so lucky to live in such a special place, and it’s so easy to take it for granted, but it’s nice to know there are people working hard behind the scenes to conserve it and inspire future generations to make the most of the unique things it has to offer.