There’s just something special about Dorset, I can’t quite put my finger on it. It might be memories of lazy summers days spent on a cliff top staring out to sea. Maybe it’s the chocolate box villages that inspired literary greats. It might even be the sting of sea salt on my face on those blustery days where the weather howls in off the coast. I don’t know, but it certainly stands out for me as one of my favourite travel destinations in the UK, especially if I’m in search of all things wild. Here’s 5 places to visit in Dorset.
What to Expect from a Visit to Dorset
Look in the right places and you’ll be rewarded with rugged coastlines guarding the secrets of creatures that walked the earth long before we did.
As well as stretches of open heath land – its swathes of gorse and heather adorning the landscape with jewels of purple and yellow. Hill forts, burial chambers and ghosts of the past all make their homes in this county of blue and green.
But for me, Dorset is all about wildlife. It’s so rich in natural history that any memory I have of time spent here is steeped in nature. From peregrines on clifftops, and deer in woods, to the occasional dolphin cutting the surface of its waters.
In Dorset, there’s wild where you least expect it, so it requires your full attention. That said, if you want some guaranteed wildness then here are my top 5 places to visit in Dorset to go for some wild encounters.
1. RSPB Arne
Situated in Wareham, this RSPB nature reserve doesn’t scream wilderness. It’s plentiful facilities including toilets, a gift shop and a café may make it seem like a timid choice. But, despite its civilised demeanour, this huge nature reserve is a great place to experience some of Dorset’s finest wildlife.
Arne is comprised of a whole host of habitats. There’s ancient woodland, heath, scrub, mud flats and reed beds to name a few. This reserve acts as a tasting pallet for some of Dorset’s varied habitat.
With plenty of marked trails around the reserve you can easily spend a day exploring the richness of diversity on offer here.
As you can imagine, with such a diverse habitat you can expect to see a diverse collection of wildlife. Wandering round the many marked paths you may spot birds of prey such as merlins, or hen harriers hunting overhead.
You may even come face to face with the sika deer herd that make their home here on the peninsula. Look closer to the undergrowth, and you may even spot one of the UK’s 6 reptile species.
Once your taste for the wild is satiated and your legs can carry you no more, you can relax in the cafe here. Sit and digest your wildest encounters of the day over a nice coffee.
2. Kimmeridge Bay
This is Dorset’s more immersive wildlife experience. Just a half mile outside of the village of Kimmeridge, this sheltered bay boasts an array of rockpools ready to be explored.
When the tide goes out at this rocky beach, a whole new world is uncovered. Sea anemones cling to rocks and crabs lurk in the swathes of seaweed. With plenty of rock ledges and crystal-clear pools, this spot makes for some of the most accessible rock pooling in Dorset.
Activities to Enjoy
If you’re feeling a little braver and perhaps have a snorkel (and probably a wetsuit to hand) then you can dive in and follow the snorkel trail marked out from May-September. You can float above gardens of seaweed watching out for wrasse. Or, just admire the peaceful tranquillity and stunning colours of the many underwater species that make their home here.
For those who prefer to stay dry, the Wild Sea Centre offers plenty of informative and interactive displays. Here, you can learn about the marine life that lives within the Purbeck Marine Wildlife reserve.
The cliff top car park looking down into the bay makes the perfect spot for a picnic. Make sure to pack a flask so you can warm up after your underwater exploration.
3. Durlston Head Country Park
Another of Dorset’s multi-habitat nature reserves is the breath-taking Durlston Country Park and National Nature Reserve. Situated just outside the coastal town of Swanage, this wild spot takes in oceanic views from the rocky cliffs. There’s plenty of walks through farmland, woodland, and along its important dry-stone walls (popular with reptiles, mammals and insects).
Something for all Seasons
The wildlife on this 320-acre site is changeable and there is something here for all seasons. In winter, watch the brave divers braving the choppy seas below the cliffs.
In summer, the area is full of sea birds, such as gannets, guillemots and razorbills. These birds nest here on the cliff faces raise their young through the summer.
Those long hazy summer days are perfect for lolling in the long grasses looking out for the natively rare Lulworth skipper butterfly. If you’re lucky, you might spot a pod of dolphins frolicking in the shimmering blue sea.
But the winter walks on windblown clifftops are equally inviting and especially wild. Foaming seas lashing the bottom of the cliffs, below old caves, as a peregrine buzzes past on the hunt is wild Dorset at its best. It’s also the perfect excuse to make the most of the on-site cafe! Warm up with a hot chocolate, whilst watching the elements rage outside. A perfect place to visit in Dorset.
4. Hambledon Hill
Heading inland to the rural outskirts of Blandford a different kind of wild becomes more apparent. A more ancient kind. Outside the small village of Childe Okeford is Hambledon Hill. This is Dorset’s impressive Iron Age hill ford with dramatic views across extensive farmland from the top.
Whilst exploring the sites various ramparts be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the wilder inhabitants of the area. Watch the skies for soaring red kites and buzzards. The lush green fields surrounding the hill are the perfect habitat for hares. Be sure to scan the area for the tell-tale signs of black tipped ears poking above the fresh shoots.
How to Avoid the Tourists
Lots of people know this wild secret though and it gets busy especially with dog walkers. So, if you want a truly wild experience why not think about planning your visit in the quieter hours. Perhaps head out early and enjoy the sunrise whilst soaking in the dawn chorus. Or you could make the most of the areas brilliantly dark night skies and investigate the encompassing blanket of stars.
It’s the perfect place to stand in ancient footsteps and absorb the atmosphere of a panoramic wild experience.
For the last of my wild places to visit in Dorset, we’re heading back to the coast in search of a different kind of wildlife.
The coastal village of Charmouth is home to a nature of Jurassic proportions, which makes it perfect for fossil hunting. The beach at Charmouth is littered with fossils. It’s a great place to head to if you want to find a prehistoric souvenir to take home.
Fossil hunting is particularly prolific after stormy seas, and a bracing stroll along the pebbles can uncover fossilised ammonites (the swirly shell looking fossils) or belemnites (more bullet shaped). Both of which are quite common on the Jurassic coast.
Not sure what to look for? You can sign up for fossil hunting tours at the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre. Otherwise, you can just head out on your own and see what ancient artefacts you uncover.
Safety by the Cliffs
If you are heading out on your own then stay away from the cliffs, and don’t try to hammer out any fossils you find there. Not only is it prohibited but its also incredibly dangerous, as the cliffs can be particularly unstable.
Time spent in the elements with the sound of waves crashing beside you is a wild encounter in itself, even if you don’t find anything.
Dorset is not always portrayed as a particularly wild place. It’s located in a populated area, with plenty of tourists flocking there each year to make the most of its numerous beaches, dramatic cliffs, picturesque villages, or seemingly endless rolling countryside.
But, if you know where to look then Dorset has some beautifully wild secrets of its own.
Jeni Bell documents her travels through her blog, Seeking Wild Sights. Her passions include both travel and wildlife. She travels most of the year with her other half, Bill and their dog Millie, in their camper van.