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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Friday, 9 October 2015

Between Golden Cap and Charmouth

Golden Cap, Jurassic Coast, beach, Dorset

We 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 a mile or so up a steep and hopelessly narrow track called Stonebarrow Lane without, as far as I could see, anywhere 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.

Radar station, Stonebarrow, Dorset, National Trust

After what seemed like several hours, the car crunched to a halt on packed earth and gravel in front of an area of humpy grassland; beyond, the distant blue sea.  This was Stonebarrow.  Assuming – wrongly – that there’d be a nice little sign pointing ‘to the beach’, or, ‘stroll this way to the fossils’, we hadn’t even considered bringing a map.  Salvation was provided in the shape of a helpful lady who inhabited a small, conveniently located, NT shop housed in a 1950s former radar station.  Allegedly, the remains of other coastal defences can be spotted hereabouts, cunningly concealed, ready for the enemy of the time.  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, Dorset, English Channel

In 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 and that we didn’t get cut off by the incoming tide.



It is hard to be disappointed 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, it was decided to relentlessly pursue our objectives of beach and fossil, giving Golden Cap 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 concerned about the steps and the tide.

Dragonfly, Golden Cap, Dorset

St Gabriel’s Steps was a seemingly 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 safe descent.  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 observation, we ascertained that the tide was probably on the way out, rather than in.  Thus heartened, we set off west toward Charmouth.  It was beautiful in both directions, the waves gently breaking and then sucking the stones back with a tender 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 seemed curiously prehistoric.

Charmouth, Jurassic coast, beach, St Gabriel's, Dorset

Although we did eventually pass a few people – fossil-hunters – 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.

Golden Cap, beach, Jurassic coast, near Charmouth

Before 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 also 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.  Oh - did we want something from the kitchen, I was asked?  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, we settled for some sort of pie with ice cream (presumably this did not come from the kitchen), paid, and left.  The pie was nice, though.

Charmouth, river Char, Dorset

Back at the coastal path, we spotted signs warning us that the way ahead was closed due to cliff falls and missing paths.   The message was clear: on no account walk this way, or you will probably die.  Unwilling to accept this, the alternatives being to return the way we had come or divert inland along the road, we sought a local second opinion.  Another friendly lady (that’s two in the same day), advised us, “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, headed over a bit of rough terrain, 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, view, Dorset, coast

But – 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 gingerly approached the dodgy-looking cliff-face.  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 to show off my discovery, barely able to contain my excitement.  “Wow” said Mrs B.  And happily closed her eyes.


Beach, Golden Cap, Charmouth, Dorset

The Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site.  You can find out more about it by visiting the official Jurassic coast website.

Cockleshell, fossil, Jurassic coast

36 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your fossil find!
    Could the emptiness of the beach have something to do with the long walk necessary to get there? Most people have become so lazy when it comes to walking, they expect to be able to drive right up to their beach towels.
    Great pictures, although I must say you shouldn't have mentioned the ruined medieval church... now I want to see it!

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  2. The coastline looks quite dramatic and exciting for the likes of you the fossil hunter. I always get a giggle from your posts. Head Office had the right idea.

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  3. Enjoyed this post very much. Your written word is so entertaining and informative, a rare skill. Having visited this area just a couple of weeks ago I loved your description of the drive along the narrow lanes which I also found terrifying not knowing what was at the end of the lane, if anything! Introduced to fossil hunting by my brother (a geologist) I am hooked. Unfortunately my family didn't share my enthusiasm.

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  4. I love coastlines.
    These images are great.

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  5. Really glad to see you made it down to my part of the world Mike (and I'm hoping there's more to come!). I'm a bit of a fan of Charmouth. I think it tends not to get busy because everyone goes to Lyme Regis etc. I think I would have approached it from the Charmouth end rather than Golden Cap (but that's probably me being lazy...). For future reference that Hard Rock Cafe right on the beach at Charmouth does good coffee and cake and I believe proper food too and if you visit again don't forget to visit the Rock Follies shop on the beach, it's tiny and crammed full of retro clothes and curios. It wont take up much of your time, I think you could only fit about 4 people into the shop before it's too crowded. I'd have been excited about the fossil too - people spend HOURS looking for them and you just 'rock up' and bag yourself one!

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  6. I enjoy your monologues about history...didn't expect prehistory today *smile*

    I remember the shock and awe I experienced as a kid climbing Mount Franklin (El Paso, Texas), elevation 6800 ft, and 800 miles away from any ocean...and finding the impressions of sea shells in the rock. Wasn't until I attended the local university, did I learn a nearby MOUNTAIN was an ancient reef. Oh, our world is amazing.

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  7. Nothing better than pie and ice cream for lunch! haha.

    What an adventure...and a fossil for your souvenir! Love it!

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  8. That sounds like a wonderful day. Especially pie for lunch! Having the place all to yourselves and finding your own fossil were ice cream on the cake. Er, pie.

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  9. I'm not sure the CEO would have followed me so willingly! But glad you got to find at least one fossil.

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  10. Up to your usual standard of information and fun. I would like to crawl inside that sixth photo. What a gorgeous scene! Did I miss the definition of a shingle beach? I laughed at Mrs. B's response to your treasure reveal. Mine would have been entirely different - like, 'Cool!' before closing my eyes. LOL Glad she got her deserved dose of sunny beach. I read somewhere that no place in England is more than sixty miles from the coast. Is that true? Wonderful post.

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  11. The coastline looks marvelously windswept and lovely on this day!

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  12. That's brilliant that you found a fossil!

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  13. That fossil shell would be an exciting find.

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  14. How incredibly beautiful are your photographs. And your found your fossil!!!! Wow!! Have a wonderful day!

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  15. Love your descriptions! I read a book in the recent past about the women who found some incredible fossils in that part of the world and how they convinced the scientific community of their age: "Remarkable Creatures" by Tracy Chevalier

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  16. Good fossil! That seems like a lot of effort to get to it though! The views look worth all the climbing and scrambling.

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  17. I love the views of the coast with the green fields and the water off the cliffs. That would be a wonderfully fascinating visit and so neat to find a fossil. At least they sell Mars bars there. :) I'd be buying one or two of them.

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  18. Loved my time down in Dorset 30 years ago. Brought back some good memories. Erosion in that area does seem to be increasing though at a growing rate. Good for fossils bad for houses sitting near the edge.

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  19. That part of the country has always intrigued me too and next year we must get around to visiting. Himself can drive.

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  20. Wow indeed! I never found a fossil, and you pick one up so easily, and what a beautiful one at that. Lovely images of deserted beaches and fabulous cliffs, not forgetting the Golden Cap. Great post Mike.

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  21. Wonderful coastline Mike, isn't this where all the smuggling went on in the old days? Those narrow country roads frightened the daylights out of me :) OMG I would have been so excited to find such a fossil how lucky was that! Sounds like despite the 'hazards' you both had a super day.

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  22. Wonderful coastline Mike, isn't this where all the smuggling went on in the old days? Those narrow country roads frightened the daylights out of me :) OMG I would have been so excited to find such a fossil how lucky was that! Sounds like despite the 'hazards' you both had a super day.

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  23. A Mars & a map for a pound! Very good value. Some of your landscape photos look like paintings, very beautiful. Also very impressed with the fossil.

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  24. Thank you for another brilliant post Mike, informative and witty. Lovely place, lovely photos. it's on my list of places to visit. Great fossil, loved Mrs B's response! :-)

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  25. I am sorry. I have failed to recognize your adventurous spirit in the words to this piece, but I truly love the pictures you included.

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  26. I'm so sorry that Mrs Britain didn't recognise that what you had discovered was a life-changing treasure.

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  27. Mike - a great post about your beach ramble and adventures. Love your fossil!

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  28. So good to read this, I really enjoyed it.
    One of our grandsons is 'into' fossils at the moment - they are fascinating.

    Beautiful scenery in your photo's too.

    All the best Jan

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  29. So good to read this, I really enjoyed it.
    One of our grandsons is 'into' fossils at the moment - they are fascinating.

    Beautiful scenery in your photo's too.

    All the best Jan

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  30. Fantastic, Mike! it sounds like a real adventure and the fact that there was nobody there makes it even more appealing. we have the kind offer of a cottage in Dorset from time to time and I am going to wait for a nice day (if there is one - you are lucky!) and then head out there. It sounds a summer holidays sort of thing to do, though, so I have probably missed it this year.

    There is something wonderful about being on a deserted beach, actually, and I can't quite put my finger on what it is.

    And the fossil is indeed a thrill!

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  31. Fantastic, Mike! it sounds like a real adventure and the fact that there was nobody there makes it even more appealing. we have the kind offer of a cottage in Dorset from time to time and I am going to wait for a nice day (if there is one - you are lucky!) and then head out there. It sounds a summer holidays sort of thing to do, though, so I have probably missed it this year.

    There is something wonderful about being on a deserted beach, actually, and I can't quite put my finger on what it is.

    And the fossil is indeed a thrill!

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  32. Enthralling read! Wonderful images! Lovely humour! Thank you!

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  33. It would be my idea to walk along there too. What an incredible place. I just returned from a trip to Alabama and two things I collected as Alabama finds, shells and fallen leaves from trees we don't have here in Minnesota! Lucky me.

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  34. Mike-- this is so totally awesome. I've longed to visit this coast and walk along those shores. Ever since I read the book Remarkable Creatures.. It's been a bit of a dream to visit there. Your photos are gorgeous-- reaffirming that I do so want to visit. We did visit an amazing Jurassic coast on our trip to Gaspe last year. That was so wonderful!! I'm headed over your way next May so maybe I'll get a chance to go then..
    Thanks so much for all the work you put into your incredible blog...
    Vicki

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  35. Great commentary on your day out to the Dorset coast. Shame about the refreshments in the middle of summer, some traders just don't get it. Pleased to hear you both got what you wanted from the day.

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Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to www.bitaboutbritain.com and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.