Dorchester & Portland – Dorset
From the lush pastures of peaceful Blackmoor Vale to the spectacular limestone caves and wild beaches of Portland, this part of Dorset has much to offer. Follow paths once trodden by smugglers, snorkel around sea stacks or spend lazy afternoons on the grassy banks of the Stour.
In the north, the slower stretches of the Stour are filled with yellow water lilies. This is Blackmore Vale, classic Dorset dairy country and where the novelist Thomas Hardy spent some of his happiest years. At Colber Bridge, a pretty white-painted, wrought-iron footbridge spans the Stour, just above Bather’s Island, the site of the old river-swimming club. Up- and downstream are further places to dip, or launch a canoe if you are discreet.
To the south, the great chalk uplands rise up to Cerne Abbas, site of Britain’s largest chalk figure. It’s not clear whether the naked giant pre- or post-dates the 10th-century Benedictine monastery, or if the monks would have approved. The abbey was destroyed but the elaborate, stone Abbot’s Porch remains, and there is a small holy well – a quiet place for reflection.
Continue south via Maiden Castle, Europe’s largest Iron Age hill fort, to Chesil Beach, nature’s massive stone-grinding machine. Along its staggering 18-mile length, the pebbles range in size from pea gravel to fist-sized cobbles. To reach the wild central portions of the beach you must cross the Fleet marshes and lagoon, a journey completed under cover of darkness by many smugglers of the past.
The hard, white limestone of Portland rises up from the ocean in the far distance. The fine stone from its quarries was used to build prestigious buildings, including St Paul’s Cathedral. Now the abandoned cliff-side quarry at Tout has been transformed into an inspirational sculpture park, with displays and installations carved from the rock faces all around.
Below Portland’s cliffs, especially along the eastern shore, this limestone isle offers some of the most spectacular clear-water snorkelling in Britain and in its aquatic gardens you can spot orange wrasse, while pink anemones shelter among the kelp. There are strong currents offshore, so always stay close and keep away from Portland Bill, but on a hot summer day, this is a true paradise to explore.