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History & CommunityThe Jurassic Coast

The Jurassic Coast

This is, of course, the name of a bus which runs around our coastline, roughly from Poole to Exeter. It carries the excellent advertising slogan “One bus—millions of years of history”, which is quite true of our Jurassic Coast. It has an image of a young lad in shorts, wearing an explorer’s hat with two ammonites at his feet. Had he been to Charmouth or Lyme Regis?

Some months ago (I am amazed to find it was nearly 4 years ago !) I wrote about the South Dorset Ridgeway, inspired by a television programme by Tony Robinson, the ridgeway runs along high ground within the Jurassic Coast. This included Maiden Castle near Dorchester and on west to the Bronze Age burials of Poor Lot, near Winterborne Abbas, encompassing thousands of years of history, but in the cliffs of the Jurassic we have evidence of millions of years of history. Recently a good friend gave me a well-thumbed copy of Ancient Trackways of Wessex by H.W. Timperley and Edith Brill which states that the ridgeway here is a continuation of the Great Ridgeway from Wiltshire over the chalk hills to Toller Down above Beaminster and down to the coast. From the early days the ridgeways may have been trade routes and later drove roads taking animals to markets. A fold out map in black and white shows the Great Ridgeway like a large river flowing through the land with tributaries at intervals. Actually it is the reverse, dry high ground which could be walked, away from trees which might hold danger. Timperley describes the South Dorset Ridgeway as a high ridge of chalk falling away steeply on the seaward side, sometimes with an overlay of gravel and sand, supporting gorse and heather in places. At Black Down it is nearly 800 feet above sea level, with evidence of prehistory from at least the Bronze Age, passing the hill-forts of Maiden Castle and Abbotsbury Castle Camp, with round barrows showing that around the Bronze Age the route must have supported a large population. It joins the modern coastal path from west to east.

Several chalk ridges connect the Great Ridgeway to the South Dorset Ridgeway, including south from the Frome river to Dorchester, west of Maiden Castle close to Clandon Barrow crossing the Winterborne near Gould’s Hill and Batcombe Hill, Cerne, Sydling St. Nicholas, Grimstone, Muckleford to Black Down and also a track from Poundbury.

The A35 road from Dorchester to Bridport is in part based on a ridgeway, linking Poundbury Camp to Eggardon Hillfort as used by the Romans. Many tracks join it to the Coastal Ridgeway.

Reverting to the Great Ridgeway as it strides across the south of England it is joined on the chalk downs of Wiltshire by the Harrow Way, or Hard Way which starts at the Kent coast, near Dover. The combined ridgeway passes near Stonehenge, partly becoming the A303, the old coach road from London to Salisbury to pass Stourhead and Alfred’s Tower. This became a cattle droving road in the 18th century. It proceeds to Batcombe, the Cross in Hand, Cadbury Castle, Minterne Magna, Evershot, Toller Down to Beaminster Down thence to Axmouth, Seaton Bay and Beer. So it was a complete route from coast to coast. In more local detail it passes Cromlech Crock Lane (Crimnercrock). Then the Hore Stones, Horn Hill, the banks becoming deeper, Lewesdon Hill, Broadwindsor, Owlers’ Lane (reminding us of smuggling) Birdsmoor Gate (earlier known as Furzemoor Gate), to Marshwood and Lambert’s Castle then onwards to Lyme Regis and Axmouth. There may have been a diversion to Pilsdon Pen, originally an Iron Age settlement and hillfort, preceded by Neolithic flint tools and Bronze Age burial mounds on the way. Louise Hodgson in More Secret Places of West Dorset points out that the Jubilee Trail and Monarch’s Way also converge on Pilsdon Pen. The Blackdown Hill ridge also carries the way for a mile and a half, near Kittwhistle and a small stream called Temple Brook with wild flowers.

From medieval times there have been records of landslips and we know they frequently occur along the Jurassic Coast cliff, so the route to and along the coast has moved inland over time. The South Dorset Ridgeway now forms part of the South West Coast Path National Trail.

Finally this little piece of nonsense from G. K. Chesterton seems apt :

“Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode

The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road”.

He did indeed with his feet and those of his cattle!


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