In this month’s regional focus, Holly Cave provides an insight into Dorset and what it provides group visitors.
Dorset is a place for lovers of the great outdoors. Where Victorian fossil hunters once picked through its sands, the unique Jurassic Coast now plays host to visitors seeking beautiful beaches, wildlife havens, and architectural wonders both ancient and modern.
JURASSIC COAST’S BLISSFUL BEACHES
Since its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, the 96-mile length of coastline between Exmouth and Swanage has drawn growing numbers of visitors from around the world.
The cliffs and beaches in this area contain fossils dating from the Mesozoic Era – holding 185 million years of history, from the time of the dinosaurs. There are a number of gorgeous beaches lining the English Channel to admire within this protected section of coastline, offering more than just fossil hunting opportunities. A quieter alternative is Lulworth Cove, an almost fully enclosed sphere of sand formed by chalk cliffs. It’s an incredibly picturesque spot. There’s a heritage centre and a small museum to enjoy, and many visitors choose to take a boat trip to the famous Durdle Door, a breathtaking arch formed at the edge of a cliff just along the coast from Lulworth.
Further along the coast towards Bournemouth, Studland Beach is a four-mile stretch of sand backed by sand dunes and a wildlife-rich heathland. These days, it is protected and cared for by the National Trust. It is a wonderful place to spend time, gazing out at the chalky white cliffs of Old Harry Rocks and the Isle of Wight in the near distance. If you plan to visit, it may be worth noting that a short section of beach is assigned to naturists. Although, clear signs mark the section where clothing becomes optional. The novelist Ian McEwan named one of his novels after Chesil Beach, the long pebble bank that stretches 18 miles from Portland to West Bay, forming a lagoon. This unusual geographical feature is so long, it’s hardly ever crowded.
The South West Coast Path runs through all these places, marking a continuous trail through Dorset and into Devon and Cornwall. Serious hikers could travel the whole route on foot over a longer trip period, and those not keen on outdoor activities can enjoy a brief stroll along sections of the route, considered to be one of the best walking trails in the world.
TOWNS WITH CHARACTER
Bournemouth is a fantastic base for travel around Dorset. The Hycliffe Marriott Hotel is a top choice for groups, and offers unparalleled views of the sea from its cliff top position. It is an old Victorian building, recently brought up to four- star standards with a newly refurbished health spa. Be sure to spend some time in this lovely seaside resort.
The town beach is lovely, as is Hengistbury Head to the east. It’s an hour north from here to Stonehenge; one of Dorset’s must-see attractions. It is recommended that visitors spend no less than two hours visiting, as amongst the walking routes, the exhibition, external gallery and shop, there is enough to fill a whole day. The site offers free coach parking and groups of 11 or more receive a 10% discount off entry prices, with the driver and tour leader going free.
Stop at Salisbury Cathedral on the way back. This stunning example of early English architecture boasts the tallest church spire in the UK, and visitors to the attraction can climb inside to look at its ancient wooden interior. Another seaside town worth visiting is the Georgian-styled Weymouth, located further to the west. The Isle of Portland is due south of the town, and it is where the 2012 Olympic sailing events took place. It is a lovely area to explore, even if you do only opt to take a stroll around its huge harbour. The Best Western Hotel Rembrandt is a good choice in Weymouth, and is popular with groups thanks to its location on the edge of town, near so many of the attractions. Similarly, Athelhampton House & Gardens, located five miles east of Dorchester, boasts a unique heritage and is a place where guests can enjoy breathtaking garden scenery.
The attraction welcomes group bookings of all sizes, with adequate coach parking facilities on site. Discounted admission prices are handy for pre-booked groups of 12 or more. Further discounts are available when booked with a catering package alongside. Talks and tours can be customized to suit particular interest groups.
PARKS AND WOODLANDS
Between Weymouth and Bournemouth is a swathe of undeveloped land, on which you will find many peaceful outdoor areas. Durlston Country Park near Swanage has a Jurassic Coast Visitor Centre housed in its grand old castle, accompanied by an abundance of wildlife walks and trails. The New Forest edges into Dorset from Hampshire, which may be a good stopping off point on the way in or out of the county. Look out for the wild ponies, which wander around this vast national park, and perhaps take a short walk through this ‘green lung’ of the south. Referred back to novelists, the great Thomas Hardy – born near Dorchester in 1940 – spent many of his weighty tomes describing country life in the county. For serious literature fans, specialist tours take groups around the rural locations and villages, featured in such novels as Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Greenwood Tree. Some experts, such as Alistair Chisholm of Thomas Hardy Explorer, will happily join a coach or large party for a half or full day tour. Near Dorchester, Sculpture by the Lakes is certainly worth a visit for groups in the area. A completely unique piece of parkland, the 26 acres of landscape is decorated with a variety of sculptures, ranging from the small to the monumental. Visitor numbers are limited each day and therefore, visits must be booked in advance. Groups larger that 30 receive a 20% discount off admission.