The Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site is more popularly known as the ‘Jurassic Coast’
The Jurassic Coast runs along the English Channel from the red cliffs of Exmouth in the west up to the limestone of the Purbeck peninsula near the town of Poole in the east. It owes its iconic name partially to a popular film but primarily to the fact that the coast of Dorset and East Devon is a geological and archaeological timeline of the history of the earth, spanning the Triassic, the Jurassic and the Cretaceous periods. Normally these time periods would have been layered on top of each other, but on this coastline they are formed as a continuous sequence which means that you can literally walk through time – from one period to the next – covering 185 million years in 155 km.
Fossils found on the Jurassic Coast come from these three periods, the Mesozoic Era. The first dinosaurs evolved during this enormous time span comprising the Triassic (250-200 mill. years ago), the Jurassic (200-145 mill. years ago) and the Cretaceous periods (145-65 mill. years ago). By the end of the Triassic period most of our living groups of four legged animals, including frogs, turtles and crocodiles had arrived.
The Jurassic periods saw an explosion of life in new habitats formed by the expansion of shallow seas. Ammonites were common but reptiles were the dominant “predators” on land, in the sea and in the air. The dinosaurs conquered the land and pterosaurs controlled the skies. Ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs ruled the world’s oceans, giving rise to one of the most terrifying creatures that ever lived – pliosaurs.
A massive asteroid impact in the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago wiped out 60% of the species on Earth, causing the extinction of dinosaurs, giant marine reptiles and ammonites, signalling the end of the Cretaceous period. The plants and animals that survived are the ancestors of all modern life and created a world dominated by mammals, flowering plants and grasses.
A living coastal landscape and World Heritage Site
In addition to being important for the study of earth sciences, the Jurassic Coast is also a living coastal landscape and a recreational area popular among other things for hiking. A walk on the well kept Coast Path is highly recommended and possibly the best way to really experience this beautiful and varied coastline, its towns and villages, the undulating landscape, the characteristic coves and the stunning cliffs hovering over pebble beaches. Among the many highlights and visual treats along the coast is the impressive rock formation – the Durdle Door (see photo above).
Enlisted in 2001, the Dorset and East Devon “Jurassic Coast” is England’s first natural World Heritage Site. It is considered to be one of the most significant sites in the world for the study of earth sciences. By emphasising the earth science story, the phrase ‘Jurassic Coast’ is fast becoming as familiar as the UK’s other natural wonders such as the Lake District in northern England and the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, also World Heritage Sites.
The Jurassic Coast Team
The Jurassic Coast Team manages the World Heritage Site and reports back to UNESCO to ensure its status is maintained. One of the key requirements of a World Heritage Site is that it functions in its local community, and the Team works to involve the local community in its work wherever possible. An example of this is the regular Jurassic Coast Communities Forum meetings, held in various coastal locations and giving representatives an opportunity to discuss issues relating to access, developments, conservation and other topics.
The Jurassic Coast Trust is the Team’s charitable arm and raises money to fund education, conservation and community projects along the Jurassic Coast. They have recently recruited and trained a group of Jurassic Coast Ambassadors, who function as expert volunteers in their communities to deliver projects for everyone from schools to local residents. The Trust also works with local businesses to promote sustainability along the coast and add value for guests by offering guided walks, children’s activities and other services.
For more about the Jurassic Coast and the Team’s activities, see their official page.
World Heritage Facts
The Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site (Jurassic Coast) World Heritage Site is approximately 155 km long, and just under a kilometre wide at its widest point. The boundary excludes the man-made frontages of the towns of Exmouth, Sidmouth, Seaton, Lyme Regis, West Bay, Weymouth, Portland Port and Swanage. The property is owned by over 80 separate landowners, including the National Trust with over a third of the site. Around 342,000 people live in the four districts along the coast, but only approximately 10 people live within the designated boundary.
Header photo of ammonite impressions © Milangonda Dreamstime
All other photos by Asgeir Pedersen, IN Editions
This is a revised version of the article, first published 30 June 2015