Exploring the Jurassic Coast

Exploring the Jurassic Coast is an extremely rewarding hobby, but it is a little bit like learning about space: the scope is so vast and the numbers are so big that it is difficult to take it all in.

Exploring the Jurassic Coast in East Devon
View of the Jurassic Coast and Sidmouth from Salcombe Hill.

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The Jurassic Coast

The Jurassic Coast starts at Orcombe Point in Exmouth and stretches all the way to Old Harry Rocks in Dorset, a distance of roughly 154 km. So far, I have only hiked the sections from Exmouth to Sidmouth, plus explored smaller sections around Salcombe Mouth Beach, Branscombe, Beer, Lyme Regis and West Bay, but I would love to do the whole trek one day. (Cue daydreams of purchasing ultralight backpackssleeping bags and tents on Amazon. My wishlist is long…).

Exploring the Jurassic Coast at Sandy Bay in Exmouth
Straight Point in Sandy Bay, Exmouth is just around the corner from Orcombe Point, which marks the beginning of the Jurassic Coast.

The Jurassic Coast became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. It is the only place on Earth where you can study three geological time periods all at once: the Triassic, the Jurassic and the Cretaceous (aka the Mesozoic Era). In numbers, we’re talking 252 to 66 million years ago. Mind-boggling, right?

How the cliffs were formed

There’s more. In the Triassic period, this area was a baking hot desert. Apparently this is why the cliffs are red, they were scorched by the desert sun. In the Jurassic, the sea levels rose and transformed the desert to a tropical sea. Then there was a forest, which got buried in sediment and died, then tectonic forces started shifting the rock about. Then the sea rose again, and when it retreated, it left behind the gorgeous white chalk cliffs of the Cretaceous. 

Exploring the Jurassic Coast along the cliffs from Exmouth to Budleigh Salterton - which are actually Triassic
The coastline between Exmouth and Budleigh Salterton is Triassic.
The white chalk cliffs in Beer are from the Cretaceous period
The white chalk cliffs in Beer are from the Cretaceous period. 
The sea stacks at Ladram Bay always take my breath away
The staggeringly beautiful sea stacks at Ladram Bay, between Otterton and Sidmouth.

Cliff safety

For now I’ve just been hiking the area in sections of 10-20 km per day, while desperately trying NOT to think about the fact that there are cliff falls all the time. The official advice on cliff safety? “Caution must be exercised”. Ok, then. The advice is a little more helpful for those who admire the cliffs from beneath: “The Coastguard advises that beach users stay at least the height of the cliff away e.g. if a cliff is 20 metres high, a distance of 20 metres should be kept.” 

The cliff base is breaking apart in chunks that are roughly 10 cm wide.
The tides are slowly eroding the base of the cliffs.
Pebbles being released onto the beach from the bottom of the Triassic cliffs in Budleigh Salterton.
Sometimes you can see the different strata very clearly in the cliffs. This is a stratum of clay at the bottom of the red sandstone cliffs on Budleigh Beach.
The pink pebbles of Budleigh Salterton are a geological phenomenon. And on a rainy day, you can clearly see your own reflection in them!

Fossil hunting

When you are exploring the Jurassic Coast, you are likely to stumble across a fossil or two. I am sure you are familiar with Mary Anning, the Georgian pioneering palaeontologist from Lyme Regis who discovered the IchthyosaurusPlesiosaurus and Pterosaurus. Of course, in those days, male scientists often bought her fossils and took credit for her discoveries. She is also known for being the inspiration for the tongue-twister ‘she sells sea-shells by the sea-shore’, which may or may not be true. (It is quite possibly just a case of folk etymology.) I have written more about Mary Anning here.

Exploring Lyme Regis in Dorset
View of the Jurassic Coast from The Cobb in Lyme Regis, Dorset. Golden Cap, the highest point on the South Coast of England at 191m, is in the centre of the photo.
The Jurassic Coast is a popular spot for fossil hunters - this boulder was full of fossilised sea shells.
I discovered these fossilised shells in a boulder on Salcombe Mouth Beach.

The red Triassic cliffs predate the dinosaurs, so fossil finds there are rarer. There were creatures living here while the area was a prehistoric desert, though. Meet Kapes, the super-cute parareptile!

Kapes, the parareptile that predates dinosaurs in Devon
Image credit: Bristol University
The iconic red cliffs on East Beach in West Bay, Dorset, at dusk.

My favourite route

East Devon isn’t just the gateway to the Jurassic Coast, it is also a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. When you are exploring the Jurassic Coast here, it doesn’t really matter which hike you choose – they are all stunning! My favourite route is probably the hike from Lime Kiln car park by the Otter Estuary in Budleigh Salterton to Jacob’s Ladder in Sidmouth. The hike there and back is about 20 km long, and it takes in both the sea stacks at Ladram Bay (see above), High Peak (157m high and once the site of an old Iron Age hill fort) and Jacob’s Ladder/Connaught Gardens. 

Exploring the Jurassic Coast along the Triassic cliffs from Otterton to Sidmouth
Exploring the Jurassic Coast along the cliffs from Otterton via Ladram Bay to Sidmouth.
Exploring the Jurassic Coast along the Triassic cliffs near Sidmouth
View from High Peak of Jacob’s Ladder and Sidmouth.

Exploring with my camera

I have lived in this area for just over a year now, and after thinking about it for – well – almost a year, I decided it was time to invest in a camera again. My iPhone Plus, which I have taken most of the photos in this blog post with, is good, but I feel that this spectacular landscape deserves even better. So I have invested in a Sony HX99, which is hardly the greatest camera in the world, but which offers great quality for the money, and – most importantly – is TINY. It only weighs 243g, so in a way, I suppose it is an ultralight hiking camera, lol. I am looking forward to learning how to use it properly, so I can do justice to the amazing views I come across when I am exploring the Jurassic Coast.

Sunset in Budleigh Salterton, East Devon. The cliff formation Otter Head is part of the Jurassic Coast.
Sunset in Budleigh Salterton. Unedited iPhone image.