Published in The Observer, March 2008
It’s a big, bold, beautiful bus. A bus with attitude, which squeezes cars up onto the pavement in the narrow streets of Beer and Lyme, and persuades even pushy Land Rovers to reverse out of its way. The number 53 is justifiably self confident; it’s the Jurassic Coast bus, and has ammonites painted on its sides. The journey from Exeter to Bournemouth costs a mere £5.50.
From the best seat at the front of the top deck you can watch the Devon and Dorset countryside slowly unfold. This is, after all, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but a car driver sees little of what goes on behind the high banks and hedges of the West Country. From the bus you get a balcony view into meadows where lambs play king of the castle and clusters of piglets, as pink as cherry blossom, nuzzle their mud-caked mothers. And near the villages you can peep, guiltily, into normally secluded gardens and see what people are up to.
During the journey’s four and a half hours you can alternate between observing the countryside and dreamy lassitude, half hearing the conversations of the regular passengers returning from their shopping trip in Exeter. “Yes, ended up in hospital. A huge cheese fell on her and broke her arm…” Goodness! I wish I’d listened to the beginning of that one. The villages have quintessential English names: Newton Poppleford, Beer, Chideock, Burton Bradstock, Poxwell, Wool. Each owes its character to the local limestone. Soft grey in Newton Poppleford, but golden Jurassic from Chideock to Abbotsbury.
The Jurassic Coast bus holds one more trump card. The fare allows you to “hop on, hop off” as often as you want. Apart from the chance to visit attractions such as the Swannery at Abbotsbury, or the towns of Bridport, Weymouth and Wareham, its route touches the coast at convenient intervals, allowing you to walk a stretch of the South West Coast Path. Almost anyone can cope with the two mile path from Beer to Seaton – it’s even paved most of the way – whilst the up-and-down hike from Seaton to Lyme Regis is more challenging but infinitely rewarding, taking you through the other-worldly jungle of the undercliff. This unique woodland of ash and hazel has gradually taken hold after a mighty landslip 170 years ago reshaped the coastline. In early spring the path is bright with primroses and in summer with countless butterflies. There are even more testing walks: Golden Cap, near Chideock, is the highest point on the Jurassic Coast (190m) and the seven-mile stretch of pebbles which form Chesil Beach will challenge the fittest walker.
The Jurassic Coast was named a World Heritage Site in 2001. The area around Lyme Regis has long been known for fossils (helped by the success of The French Lieutenant’s Woman) but the whole coastline has gained self-confidence from this designation, England’s first for a natural wonder. There are booklets and notice boards explaining the geology, and a heritage centre at Charmouth which tells you about fossil hunting. You may not find your own pocketable ammonites, but walk east along the beach from Seaton and you will come to a set of giant ones embedded in smooth grey rock like dinner plates. The coast, and its bus, are well named.
© Hilary Bradt