England's Southern Shores - Jurassic Coast, Plymouth, Port Isaac & St. Ives
One of the loveliest discoveries about England is the diversity of its coastline. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, I’m no stranger to rocky beaches lined with driftwood, seagulls soaring overhead, and an ocean that unless you’re performing a Wim Hof challenge (feel free to look him up), you may think twice before diving into. Much like the Seattle area, England may not initially come to mind when dreaming of white sandy beaches and clear blue waters, but they sure deliver.
We started the long weekend making our way down the Jurassic Coast. This UNESCO World Heritage Site runs approximately 96 miles down the southern coast and is a prehistoric playground with over 185 million years of environmental change. These unique land and rock formations and secluded coves, along with the potential of seeing fossils would be enough to excite any aspiring paleontologist. Apparently, the remains of a Woolly mammoth were found not long ago. That’s exciting stuff!
Old Harry Rocks
It's easy to research the most popular stops along this coastline, and we opted to visit four along the way. The most eastern tip of the Jurassic Coast, and considered the starting point, is Old Harry Rocks. These impressive chalk creations reminded me a lot of the White Cliffs of Dover, as they inspired the same amount of wonder and awe. There are several car parks to choose from and it's only 5 GBP for non-National Trust members for an all-day pass. Hiking along these cliffs will take you anywhere from one to four hours depending upon your route, and it’s a wonderful way to embrace the fresh air and work up an appetite for the fresh seafood that awaits you down the coast. Weekday mornings are best, as this location gets busy in the afternoon and on weekends.
Lulworth Cove is the perfect example of the unique geological resistances of nature. Certain materials like clay and sand are more susceptible to wear and tear versus its neighboring chalk and limestone. Therefore, the seaward side has eroded over time, creating what is now a lovely cove full of fishers, seafood restaurants and quaint little shops. We ate lunch at Lulworth Lodge and enjoyed outdoor dining with a view, a pint, and a savory pot of mussels.
The hilltop hike from Lulworth Cove to Durdle Door is a must. It's a breathtaking view of the English Channel and only takes about an hour roundtrip. I’ve wanted to visit this amazing formation since moving to the UK, and it was such a treat to see it in person. The name Durdle comes from an old English word “thirl”, meaning drill or bore. It’s thought to be the most famous stone arch in the world and has been showing off its form for over 10,000 years now. I recommend taking the staircase down to the beach to really take in this impressive 200 feet tall imposing landmark.
Portland Bill Lighthouse
Our last stop along the Jurassic Coast was the Isle of Portland. The Portland Bill Lighthouse has been a waymark for vessels navigating the English Channel since 1906. It reminded me of home with the salty sea air, crashing waves against the rugged shore, and the high-pitched mew of seagulls overhead. Stop by the visitors center for a scoop of ice-cream and the history of past lighthouses and Portland’s unfortunate wrecks.
Our homebase for the weekend was the elegant Duke of Cornwall Hotel. She was built in 1863 and it will certainly take you back to a time of elegance and sophistication. Long, winding staircases lead to the lobby and dining area and ornate wallpaper and vintage furnishings are displayed throughout.
I remember learning about Plymouth and the celebrated sailing of the Mayflower, but it wasn’t until I was standing at the location of those famous harbor steps, that it truly struck me. As with so many historical sites, when you see them in person, the actuality is quite visceral.
The Mayflower Museum is a wonderful way to brush up on your high school history, and there’s a detailed replica of the first Mayflower ship from 1620. The museum shares in detail the hardships of such a difficult voyage and the reality behind the arrival to the New World.
The Plymouth Gin Distillery has been serving up this local spirit since 1793, and there’s a beautiful bar upstairs where you can request specialty drinks using their famous gin. We spent a few hours just taking in the hull-shaped timber ceiling that dates back to 1431.
If you’re a seafood lover, you won’t go hungry in Plymouth. Although there are other options, I recommend the fresh oysters, mussels, and smoked salmon, paired with a crisp white wine. You can also find plenty of pubs offering live music and a nightcap.
If you have seen the tv series, Doc Martin or the 2019 film, Fisherman’s Friends, then you know about Port Isaac. From Plymouth, it’s a short 1.5 hour drive. This charming fishing village seems to have taken its design from the pages of an English fairytale. The town was built in the 1400’s and the streets certainly reflect the absence of motor vehicles at that time. There’s a main car park at the top, then you stroll the paved walkway down into the village center. Shops filled with boater’s treasures, scoops of ice-cream, Spiced Cornwall Rum, and lunch at The Golden Lion where sea shanty singers still perform on occasion, was the idyllic way to spend the day.
Just a two-hour train ride south of Plymouth sits the picturesque village of St. Ives. The white sand beaches and turquoise waters took me back to my days traveling through the Caribbean. It truly is a tropical paradise nestled unassumingly here in the UK. With stunning views overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and several beaches to choose from, it’s no wonder it welcomes over 500,000 visitors each year. That’s quite a popular destination considering there’s only about 10,000 permanent residents. St. Ives is also home to several art galleries, including a pottery studio and a painting school. You can learn to surf or charter a boat for the day. Most establishments seem to be dog friendly, as are most locations in England.
The weather was not entirely in our favor, but much like the Caribbean, the rain comes and goes quite quickly, and you are no worse for wear. Pop inside one of the many seaside restaurants for a cocktail or visit the family-run Roly’s Fudge for a decadent nibble.
England offers many different landscapes, and you will never run out of beautiful scenery to explore. The southern coast is the perfect way to rest and recharge before heading back to the city. I’ve just scratched the surface of these appealing coastal towns, and I look forward to continuing my tour of this diverse island.
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