The Charm Of Charmouth

17th January 2014

The thought of a weekend at the British seaside may not be rocking your boat at the moment, but when the gale force winds die down there will be miles of wonderful coastline waiting for you to explore.

Emma Carter digs deep and shares the details of one of her favourite destinations...

The British are an island race – the sea is in our blood – so it’s no wonder a trip to the coast has such appeal. The excitement of seeing the first glimpse of the water, the sound of the crashing waves and the smell of salt in the air all make the heart beat faster with the anticipation of joys to come.

Great Britain has many fantastic coastlines, but few are as impressive as Dorset’s spectacular 96 mile Jurassic Coast: an ancient landscape of dramatic cliffs and stunning beaches. World famous for its geology and fossils, revealing 185 million years of the earth’s history, the coastline forms part of England’s first UNESCO National World Heritage Site.
At the heart of the Jurassic Coast is the pretty seaside village of Charmouth. It’s the best place in England, if not the whole of the UK, to look for fossils, and for a mum with two energetic boys who are fascinated by dinosaurs that’s a big attraction.

The tide wasn’t conducive to fossil hunting when we arrived, but that wasn’t a problem: we headed straight to the Heritage Coast Centre which attracts 100,000 visitors a year and is the hub of fossil exploration in this area. We have been there a number of times but, as my sons grow up, they’re interested in different things on each occasion. This time around, it was the marine rock pool aquarium which caught Isaac’s eye, while Felix went more hi-tech on the interactive computer. With free entry, it’s the perfect place for children to find out more about this amazing stretch of coastline – little ones love the fossil touch table and the video microscope to examine their own finds. There’s also an astonishing fossil collection and the remains of Charmouth’s very own dinosaur. You can also book a guided fossil walk and maybe return with a handful of ammonites.

The rocks locally date predominantly from the early part of the Jurassic period (around 190 million years ago), during which time this area lay beneath a warm, shallow sea, closer to the equator, approximately where North Africa resides today. For over two hundred years, visitors have been intrigued by fossil finds here. The famous 18th century fossil hunter Mary Anning developed her own interest when her father took her on fossil hunting expeditions to make money for the family by selling the ‘curios’ to the holidaymakers of the day. She became an internationally renowned palaeontologist, and continued to collect and deal in fossils all her life.

Aside from paleontology, Charmouth has a colourful past, with many tales of deeds and misadventures scattered throughout its history. A typical example involves the former owner of Charmouth Manor, James Warden, who had an argument with a neighbour, Norman Bond, that resulted in a duel at a local inn. James was shot through the heart and the neighbour fled the country to Barbados. The episode is recorded on the large table top tomb near the entrance to Charmouth Church. Amusingly, his wife did not appear to be broken-hearted, as a letter from the time shows: ‘Mrs Warden welcomed and even courted her widowhood. She chose the pistols, thanked the gentleman who had lent them and made no effort to prevent the duel, although she lived close to a magistrate. In short she seemed determined that one of them should fall. If Mr Bond, then her husband must be hanged, and if the latter, she was fairly rid of him’.

Mrs Warden would still recognise today’s Charmouth, as it has changed little in the last few hundred years. It nestles at the base of steep hills along the River Char close to Golden Cap, the highest point on the South Coast, which at 627 feet is visible for miles. Charmouth’s population of just under two thousand swells in the summer months as visitors enjoy the area just as the first tourists did in the 18th and 19th centuries. Simple pleasures like paddling, crabbing, fossil hunting on the tranquil beaches, or walking along the magnificent cliff tops are the same today as they were all those years ago. It is just as magnificent out of season, too, and the fossil hunters are particularly fond of the winter months as the weather brings more specimens onto the beaches. There should be a good haul this spring after the recent storms.

Early records show settlers living in the area during the Iron Age. These early inhabitants, the Durotriges, were one of the Celtic tribes living in Britain before the Roman invasion. They controlled farming land, and surrounded the area with strong hill forts which acted as protection from other tribes; remains of these can still be seen today. Much later, during the Saxon period, Charmouth’s coastline was invaded by the Danes in 831 and 35 ships with between 16,000 and 17,000 men landed. A bloody battle was fought on Charmouth beach and surrounding areas with many of the local inhabitants slaughtered. It’s hard to imagine today, as you walk along Charmouth’s peaceful main road – aptly named ‘The Street’ – that the marauding Saxons could have dealt such brutality.

The genteel buildings you stroll past vary in age; small 17th and 18th century cottages sit prettily next to grand and elegant Regency houses, with the village itself surrounded by West Dorset’s rolling hills. Charmouth can boast a wealthy range of famous visitors including, rumour has it, Catherine of Aragon, who in 1501 stayed at one of the village’s oldest residences, now a small hotel called the Abbot’s House. Built by Forde Abbey as a guest house, it later became a hostelry known as The Queens Armes. Its most famous guest was Charles II, who stayed the night in 1651 when he was looking for a boat to flee France after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester. Jane Austen is also known to have been a frequent visitor to Charmouth, describing it as ‘a sweet retired bay, beached by dark cliffs where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide’.

Charmouth has avoided building huge developments to cater for tourists and remains a traditional, friendly seaside resort with a range of accommodation to suit all. The lively active community ensure that the town always has plenty going on – summer or winter.

Smell the sea, hear the waves… It's not just the fossils that make Charmouth such an attractive destination. The beach is safe for children of all ages as it shelves gently and at low tide there are wide expanses of sand and interesting rock pools. Buy a net and a bucket and you’re set for hours of maritime fun.

After a bite to eat (chips always taste so good by the sea), we headed across the river Char on the understated timber footbridge that leads from the seafront car park. The bridge was opened two years ago, the result of a successful collaboration between engineers, artists and rangers. It provides a fantastic viewing point in this unique landscape, widening in the centre so that you can stop and take in your surroundings.

This, of course, was all completely lost on my sons as they charged across, heading for the pebbly river bank where they whiled away a good hour or more paddling and throwing stones. I do love a place that allows children to rediscover those traditional holiday pastimes.

Other visitors obviously appreciate that quality too. Ian Simpson, who runs the award-winning The White House hotel with his wife Liz [see page 5 for details on how to win a two night stay here], says guests often remark on how unspoilt the town is. “Everyone comments on how uncommercialised the beach is – we’re always hearing people say ‘It’s just like it was when I was a child’ and ‘I came here camping with my parents when I was small and now I bring my family here for a proper old fashioned seaside holiday.’

The village itself is a short walk from the beach. For a place of its size, it has a good selection of shops and restaurants, including a butcher, a baker, and (far more useful than a candlestick-maker) a friendly grocery store where we stopped off to stock up on basics and ice creams. It’s not a seaside holiday without ice creams.

There’s a lot more on offer here than just a pretty village and family-friendly beach, though. Charmouth is surrounded by great walking country offering both coastal and countryside footpaths through fabulous scenery, much of it National Trust land. The Devon border is within striking distance. A popular hike, and one I’ll be taking the boys on when they’re a bit older, is the four mile walk from Charmouth to Seatown. The steep ups and downs are well rewarded by the view from Golden Cap. From there to Seatown it’s downhill all the way. You can refuel at the Anchor Inn before walking the final 3⁄4 mile inland to the bus route back to Charmouth.

Just before we left, Felix shot into one of the fossil gift shops and spent £1 of his holiday money on a pack of magnetic haematite beads. He was thrilled and explored the magnetic qualities of numerous metal objects on the journey home. It got me thinking what an appropriate souvenir that was of our visit to Charmouth – fun, inexpensive, educational. Like the magnets, I’m pretty sure the village will draw us back again in the near future.

For more info on what Charmouth has to offer, visit www.charmouth.org

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