Driving on the Wrong Side: A Jurassic Coast Road Trip

Jurassic Coast or Bust

If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, ‘Well, now that’s a bit of a tall order,’ and then they’ll launch into a lovely protracted discussion… Within minutes the conversation will plunge you into a level of details that leaves you, as a foreigner, swiveling your head in quite wonderment.  —Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island

Bill Bryson’s terrific rant on Briton’s special relationship with the physics of road travel aside, we were gung-ho to road trip in a country marked by signs we could read if not always comprehend. With rental tent and car in our possession for a few days longer, we left our Stonehenge Summer Solstice extravaganza in the dust and set out on a great American British road trip. Our goal was to explore the craggy beauty of Dorset and the East Devon Coast, better known in the post-Steven Spielberg world as the Jurassic Coast.

Day 1 Trespassing at River Farm

Like organic raised moths to a biodiesel flame, we made a beeline for River Cottage Headquarters in Dorset. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s venerable institution—the place that sparked Briton’s, and perhaps the world’s, love affair with farm-to-fork eating—really is foodie Mecca.

It was Saturday and we parked at the top of the property near the administrative building. Just past a sign that read ‘Ticket holders only beyond this point,’ we ducked onto a footpath to the farm.


We traipsed over a wooded hill and down to the pig pens and cow pasture. The animals were as happy and healthy as you’d imagine. There were no humans in sight so we took the liberty of showing ourselves around a couple of Eden like greenhouses.


Hoping Hugh would invite us in for a cup of tea, we braved saying hello at the big cottage. We came up through a side garden completely surprising a River Cottage staffer. She apologized that they were preparing for an afternoon wedding so there was really no way we could visit the famous farmhouse restaurant for supper, but let us take a peak around the cottage grounds some more and suggested that we try our luck at their offsite kitchen, the River Cottage Canteen and Deli in nearby Axminster.

The Cottage | River Cottage, Dorset

The Cottage | River Cottage, Dorset

We scored a last minute table at the Canteen and had quite possibly the best meal of the trip. Highlights included a local seafood board, cornish mussels with cider and leaks, an asparagus, poached farm egg and ewes curd salad, and a dreamy lemon curd fumble: a River Cottage invention that’s part crumble and part foole (a traditional custard-based English pudding).

River_Cottage_Menu River_Cottage_Fumble

Day 2 To Catch a Dinosaur

True to its name, the Jurassic Coast is home to Jurassic (as well as Triassic and Cretaceous) era rock formations. Dinosaur and prehistoric remains have been discovered since the 1700s, and due to the continued erosion of the area’s undercliff,, discoveries are still ongoing.

Jurassic Coast Undercliff | Under Cliff

Jurassic Coast Undercliff | Under Cliff, Lyme Regis, Dorset

We visited the cute as a button seaside town of Lyme Regis to trowel the fossil beach known as the Ammonite Graveyard. We were in the midst of some serious fossilers, including a couple who brought not only hammers but what appeared to be a highly evolved fossil hunting dog. With fido’s help they unearthed a set of oversized prehistoric vertebra. Cool, eh?

We admired the large constellations of ammonites (pretty, swirly mollusk predecessors) fossils, and found a couple of cork sized pieces to fill our pockets. Then, just as we were returning to the car,  I eyed a perfectly detailed ammonite the size of a softball.

Timing couldn’t have been better. We were after all on the way to my grandma’s, and what child doesn’t want to show up at their grandmother’s house with a piece of stone or dead animal (in this case, both!) as a gift?

This lady found fossilized giant vertebrae

This lady found giant vertebrae

This lady found a fossilized shell

This lady found a little ammonite

Beer, Devon

Beer the town has no relation to beer the hydrating pastime. The leafy town’s name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “bearu” meaning “grove”.

After eyeing the boldface promise of Beer on her map for miles, the thirsty road tripper might find this fact discouraging, but take heart. There is no reason you can’t stop for an ale in one of Beer’s many inn turned pubs.

There is no beer on Beer Hill

Beer the town also has a stunning cliffside community garden and a rather charming seaside. A walk on the beach also affords some travelers, still ever so slightly tanned from the beaches of Rio,  an opportunity to snuggle into their Patagonia jackets and be entertained by short-clad pasty white tourists eating ice cream and trying to look as though they are enjoying a cold and windy day at the shoreline. (It is England after all)


That night we camped at the best pitch of our road trip, on the bank of the Jurassic Coast at Durdle Door. Our sunset hike was like stepping into the North Atlantic Cabo San Lucas.

Durdle Door, Lulworth, Dorset

Durdle Door, Lulworth, Dorset

Day 3 Cliff Petitions to Spend the Rest of our RTW Trip at the Tank Museum

We didn’t make it to Highclere Castle, aka the real Downton Abbey, but a visit to Lulworth Castle gave us a great feel for period life on a British country estate (hint: there was a house peacock).

Lulworth Castle | Dorset

After immersing ourselves in how the other half once lived, we spent several hours gorging on World War I and II history—as well as some contemporary insight —at The Tank Museum . Cliff loves early 20th century history and knew some of the museum’s impressive displays by sight. I enjoyed the cultural framework tied into each exhibit, and in particular a display on WWI communication systems featuring a pigeon carrier. At 16, my great grandmother concealed her age, enlisted, and took a communications position using the birds for the Royal Air Force.

The Tank Museum | Bovington Camp, Dorset

The Tank Museum | Bovington Camp, Dorset

A Carrier Pigeon and capsule like the ones my Great Grandmother used in WWI

A Carrier Pigeon and capsule like the ones my Great Grandmother used in WWI

We continued east for an afternoon stroll around Maiden Castle. The site once housed one of the largest and most intricate Iron Age hill forts.  The land has been in use for 4,000 years, and for the past 1,000, it’s been used to graze sheep. They’re terrific company as you explore the ruins.

The Maidens of Maiden Castle

The Maidens of Maiden Castle

Next we paid a visit to the Cerne Abbas Giant. The chalk and turf etching depicts a giant wielding an oversized club and even bigger erection. No one knows exactly where he came from, or who he’s meant to be. Legend paints the giant as a 17th century hercules with (visible) fertility powers. He reminded us of a less epic, less mysterious Nazca Lines.

The Abbas Giant. His fertility and man hood on display. | Dorset, England

The Abbas Giant. His fertility and man hood on display. | Dorset, England

By this time we had built up quite a road trip appetite, we plugged “Indian Restaurant”  into our GPS (for the 100th and last time) and headed towards the first small village that could shower us with nan and curry. We stuffed our faces with delicious food, found a dark small campsite near by, pitched our tent, drank some beers and congratulated ourselves on a road trip poorly planned but perfectly executed.

Corfe Castle | Dorset