Welcome, to Jurassic Park!

Swanage is located near the eastern edge of an amazing stretch of coastline called The Jurassic Coast; England’s only natural world heritage site.  In under 100 miles, the cliffs along the coast contain a fossil record dating from 65 million years to over 250 million years ago.  The time periods enveloped in this extraordinary fossil record include the Triassic Period, Jurassic Period, and Cretaceous Period.  One place we learned all about The Jurassic Coast was Durlston Castle.

With Durlston Castle only about a mile and a half from our house sit, we actually got to visit it several times for different volunteer-run events.  The castle is a part of Durlston Country Park & Nature Reserve; 320 acres of countryside and coastline with a boundless variety of flora, fauna, fungi, and even fossils throughout.

Over our weeks in Swanage, we trekked across the numerous trails around the coastal hills of Durlston Country Park, visited the local lighthouse, hiked several miles along the cliffs, and of course visited the castle.  On our first visit to the castle itself, we simply ducked in for some lunch at the on-site restaurant called Seventhwave Café, after a grueling two hour hike through the hills.  While we were there, we picked up a schedule of events for the castle, and found a couple we were interested in coming back for.

The first event we dropped back in for was a free tour of the castle.  As soon as our tour guide began walking us around, we really started to see the quirkiness of the Victorian castle.  George Burt, the man responsible for the creation of the 19th century oddity that is Durlston Head Castle, was a man of many interests.  Originally a partner in a large construction and limestone quarrying company, Burt built his castle from the local limestone he quarried, as well as remnants from various projects he worked on in London.  All about the property, there are rows of cast iron bollards, emblazoned with “London” and names of other boroughs, which were used as ballast for the return trips made by ships which delivered limestone to construction works across the country.  Burt was an avid recycler.  Even back in the 1800s, before it was cool!

Though it’s not actually a castle, and never was one in fact, George Burt built it as a place for his visiting friends to stop and refresh, and as a kind of shrine to his many interests.  Large stone tablets around the property are carved with everything from Shakespearian quotations to tide times around the world.  At the very back of the property is The Great Globe; a sculpture which is made up of 15 separate slabs of Portland limestone, and measures to about ten feet in diameter.  Surrounding the globe are more tablets, inscribed with poems about the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon, as well as facts about other planets in the solar system.  Further still, there are marble benches set out across the hillside, which are situated in compass directions around the globe.  The entire scene is quite lovely, and makes for a great place to watch the ocean waves from.

For our final visit to Durlston Castle, we came by on a day one of the park rangers led a geology-based walking tour around the castle.  This is where we really got a great lesson on the historical, geological, and archeological significance of the entire area dubbed “The Jurassic Coast.”  Our geological-tour guide started us off at the northern side of the castle, and pointed off into the fog at Old Harry Rocks, and then out to the east where Isle of Wight was hidden behind the thick clouds.  These two landmarks, he explained, were actually connected millions of years ago, but the land-bridge made of chalk between the two had eroded away over millennia.

As our walk brought us around the tip of the small peninsula on which Durlston Castle was built, our guide pointed out the considerable differences between the northern and southern sides of the point.  To the north, the waves were smooth and the cliffs were prone to mudslides; while to the south, the waves crashed against the sheer cliff face, and seabirds made their nests in grooves of the solid limestone walls.  The ranger explained that the land to the north was made of newer, softer limestone and chalk, while the land on which the castle was built, and everything to the south was made of older, more durable limestone.  It was extremely fascinating to see the marked difference between the two sides of the property.  Though our trip had thus far felt like a simple vacation, it was incredibly interesting to learn so much about the area we were staying in.

As we left the castle, we stopped through the gift shop, and I zeroed in on something that I simply had to purchase.  A beautiful, marble die.  Nerds that we are, I think it will make a suitable mascot for our journeys in the future, so I do not feel bad about the acquisition; and, at only 4 pound 50 pence, I think it was a steal!  (Of course we also got a magnet!)

Walking to our car, we passed through a magnificent piece of art, which was added to the castle during its recent renovation.  The Timeline is an art installation on the grounds, which leads from the parking area, right up to the front doors of the castle.  The winding path is a scale model timeline of the history of the Earth, from its birth up to the present.  With engraved plaques along the walkway, Timeline lays out the history of our world.  “3 Billion Years To Go, Bacteria: The First Lifeform Evolves”, and “In The Next Seven Steps You Will Walk Through The Evolution And Extinction Of The Dinosaurs” mark the path at significant locations in the history of the Timeline.  For the final marker in the path, “Present Day” is the description of the evolution of humans being 5 millimeters long, and human civilization being only a quarter of a millimeter in length.  It truly puts things into a unique perspective, doesn’t it?

Several paragraphs back, I mentioned something called Old Harry Rocks.  This landmark is the last bit of the Jurassic Coast we were able to visit in the area, before our house sit came to an end.  The day before our departure, Ian and I made the trip out to Studland, and took the mile and a half walk out to Old Harry Rocks.  Made up of multimillion year old chalk (which is actually made up of an immeasurable number of fossilized, sub-microscopic plankton), it is a bit of a wonder Old Harry Rocks are still standing; but they are quite brilliant to behold.

From one vantage point, it is actually possible to have Old Harry Rocks on the left, and The Pinnacles on the right.  At times, I was actually more enamored with The Pinnacles than Old Harry.  On the day we hiked out to see them, it was quite foggy, and the fog out in the bay behind The Pinnacles gave them a slightly unearthly look.  If you ever get a chance to come down to southern England, I definitely suggest a stop in Dorset to see the striking natural sculptures in person.  After all, they are slowly crumbling into the sea.

With so many interesting things to see and do, it was almost disappointing that we had to prepare ourselves to leave the stormy winter seas behind, and prepare ourselves for a long drive inland.  But, with the relocation came all kinds of new opportunities; and we even took a detour out of our way, so that we could do some spectacularly nerdy things before leaving the coast behind.  You guys definitely do not want to miss our next geeky destination.

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