A signature experience of walking in Dorset is exploring the World Heritage-listed Jurassic Coast, which extends from Old Harry Rocks to the Devon border just past Lyme Regis. Dorset has been a hotbed of human activity since prehistoric times. Prior to the Romans the region was ruled by Celts, the Durotriges, who built hillforts all over the county (many of them visited in this book), especially along the border with Devon, then occupied by tribal rivals, the Dumnonii. When the Romans rocked up in 54bc, they utterly overwhelmed the locals and forever changed the face of Southern England. Many routes explained in these pages go right past Roman forts and follow ruler-straight sections of footpath that reflect roads built by the well-organised Italians. Another wave of invaders arrived seven centuries later, with battleships and brutal berserkers. Portland suffered Britain’s first Viking attack in 789ad, sending a tsunami of shock and awe across the country. Wessex’s King Alfred the Great famously fronted the fightback against the Norse newcomers, becoming the first Anglo-Saxon king in the process.
The Normans – direct descendants of the Vikings – came knocking next. William the Conqueror had Corfe Castle built on a Purbeck hilltop soon after his dramatic arrival in 1066, establishing a structure that’s still standing almost 1000 years later, providing a great focal point for one of this volume’s inland ambles. More story-soaked castles are found in Sherborne, where wandering Walter Raleigh based himself when he wasn’t gallivanting around the New World, discovering tubers and tobacco, and harassing the Iberians.
Fear of the Spanish Armada sparked the construction of beacons and battlements along the county’s Channel-facing hills in the 16th century, some of which still survive (with more added during the Napoleonic Wars), but it was an internal conflict that caused the worst carnage in post-medieval England. Both Corfe and Sherborne’s Old Castle were wrecked by Roundheads during the English Civil War, which culminated with the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Two years later, Cromwell’s New Model Army pursued the murdered monarch’s son (later restored as King Charles II) across the country as he fled along a route now commemorated by a long-distance walking trail, the Monarch’s Way, large sections of which are touched upon here.
In 1685, Charles II’s illegitimate son – James Scott, Duke of Monmouth – landed in Lyme Regis to gather support for a rebellion against his catholic uncle, King James II. He was defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor, but his route across Dorset is remembered in the Liberty Trail, another long-distance path extensively explored within these pages.
The sleepy town of Tolpuddle was at the epicentre of a socio-political earthquake in 1833, when six farm workers were shipped to Australia for swearing an oath to protest against plunging agricultural wages. The resulting outrage influenced the birth of the trade union movement – a route in this guide follows in the Martyrs’ footsteps from the scene of their ‘crime’ into the fields they once worked.
During WWII, Dorset’s beaches were used for practice ahead of Operation Overlord, which began with D-Day on 6 June 1944. The bunkers that sheltered Churchill, Montgomery, King George VI and General Eisenhower as they watched manoeuvres are still open. Pillboxes from the same era are found beside footpaths too, along with everything from fantastic follies such as the Great Globe near Swanage to intriguing enigmas such as the Chalk Man in Cerne Abbas.
Dolphins are often spotted cavorting in the waves below the limestone cliffs of Durlston Head off the Isle of Purbeck, along with the occasional whale and basking shark, while Brownsea Island is famous for its populations of native red squirrels and Asian sika deer, which sometimes swim across to the mainland.
More than 420 bird species grace the coast and skylines of Dorset, including kestrels, merlin, peregrine and red-footed falcons, and several species of owl. Auks (including puffins) are sometimes seen around Portland and close to Dancing Ledge. The rare natterjack toad is found in wetlands around Hengistbury Head, and in the county’s copious woodlands hares, foxes and badgers are regularly seen. Lucky riverside ramblers might spy otters.
A signature experience of walking in Dorset is exploring the World Heritage-listed Jurassic Coast, which extends from Old Harry Rocks to the Devon border just past Lyme Regis (and, beyond, to Exmouth). Traced for its entire 154km length by the South West Coast Path, this natural wonder is a sensational stretch of shoreline featuring fossil-strewn beaches, colourful cliffs, beautiful bays, cave-lined coves, iconic rock formations and heather-tussocked headlands.
Here you can stroll through 200 million years of intense geological activity, travelling back in time to the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event, when the sun set on every schoolchild’s favourite generation of dinosaurs, including T-Rex. Beachcombers can stumble across ammonites from Charmouth to Chesil, and petrified fossil forests are found around Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door.
Conditions and considerations
This eclectic selection of walks, rambles, hikes, treks and dawdles reflects the astonishing diversity of Dorset’s topography, which ranges from the craggy clifftop paths of Portland and Purbeck to the bucolic bridleways across Blackmore Vale and Cranborne Chase. The terrain is pretty gentle, although care needs to be taken on certain sections of the South West Coast Path, where erosion has made some cliffs unstable. Avoid walking along beaches below such cliffs, too, and always obey signage relating to diversions. Each route is worth exploring many times to witness the turning of the seasons and the shifting mood of the elements that sculpt this unique landscape. None demand exceptional fitness, but Dorset does boast the highest point on the South Coast and many other steep hills besides, so be prepared for some breathtaking climbs – all amply rewarded by stunning views.
The climate is typically temperate, with plenty of sun in summer, but rain is a regular visitor throughout the year. Strong winds can occur, so take care around cliffs, which are rarely fenced off, especially when walking with children. Carry adequate warm and waterproof clothing, and drinking water. Mobile phone reception is patchy in remote areas.
Various well-signposted long-distance footpaths crisscross the county – including the epic South West Coast Path and aforementioned Monarch’s Way and Liberty Trail, plus the Macmillan Way, Jubilee Trail and Hardy Way.
Dogs are welcome on most paths, so long as they are under control and don’t pose a threat to sheep, cattle or wildlife. Always look out for signage, however, and be aware that some areas don’t allow dogs due to the fragility of the ecosystem.
Using this guide
Each route is accompanied by an estimated time allowance and a sketch map showing key features of the area, but these should not be relied upon for navigation – topographical Ordnance Survey (OS) maps are best for this purpose. Reference to the relevant 1:25,000 OS map has been included in the intro text to each walk.
The walks are primarily circuits. Where public transport to the start/finish point of a route is available, this is indicated in the intro text, alongside parking information, but be aware some regional bus services do not run particularly regularly – especially out of season.