Mark Smith

THE first thing you notice is the sheer drop to your left, a wall of stone straight down to the sea. It spits spray at us.

The next thing you notice are the cliffs to your right: great slabs of yellow, and silver, and white. There are large, angular, rectangular holes in the cliffs, great doorways in the stone that lead into the darkness. It isn’t natural. Man has been here.

Then you notice the structures dotted about the place, or the remnants of them. What looks like a man-made ramp, a ramp that goes nowhere. And the ruins of a building of some kind. The walls have mostly collapsed a long time ago; there are bricks that have been left where they’ve fallen.

What is this place? It’s obviously where two traditional enemies – industry and nature – have combined, or done battle, and the result is one of the most extraordinary and beautiful parts of the Dorset coast. It’s one of the strangest and most compelling places I’ve ever seen. No wonder Doctor Who has filmed here. It looks, and feels, a little alien.

Humans apparently first started quarrying here at Winspit Quarry in medieval times and carried on until the early 1900s. The quarrying explains the doorways into the darkness and the ramp, which was used to transport the stone onto carts. The rest is down to nature: the cliffs lead down to the constantly changing coastline that has given up the remains of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs and reveals the story of Britain’s Jurassic past.

We have come to Winspit from the beautiful little village of Worth Matravers, which is about a mile away up the hill. The village was mostly built from the Purbeck stone that was taken from the quarry which means all the buildings have a sort of caramel creaminess to them. On a sunny day like this one, you can also see the silver that hides beneath.

Our reward for the little trek to and from Winspit is lunch at The Square and Compass pub in the heart of the village. It’s been here since 1752 so probably fed some of the smugglers that used this coast to land their goods in the early 19th century. It’s a sturdy little building that sits at the top of the village; the wind is getting up a bit but we sit outside and look out to sea.

The menu is good. Today we’re having great cliffs of cheese and veg pie and some of the pub’s own cider. There are several choices, including Kiss Me Kate (sweet), Eve’s Idea (medium) or Sat Down B Cider (Dry). We try the medium option and it’s deep and delicious and a wonderful riposte to the kind of mass-produced cider you get in supermarkets. We finish with two slices quarried from a massive home-made apple cake.

For the rest of the day, we stick to the coast, which is hard to resist in this most dramatic and elegant parts of England. For two people recently arrived from cold Scotland, Bournemouth is a revelation. Sheltered by cliffs, the beaches have their own micro-climate and some of the warmest sea temperatures in the UK. The dog, who, like us, is more used to the more bracing beaches of Scotland, makes the most of it and becomes a wet, warm, sandy bundle.

We stay on into the late evening. Near the pier, a small battalion of surfers is treading water waiting for the sea to do its thing. Bournemouth has one of the largest surfing communities in the country and today the surfers are determined to get the last bit of energy from the water.

We watch them ride the waves for a bit, then walk along for something to eat at the Branksome Beach restaurant. It’s still warm enough to sit outside with a glass or two of pinot grigio. We get chatting to the lady at the next table who tells us she used to run one of the stalls on the front selling snacks and spades (“and other essentials like fags!” she says).

Then it’s back home to our temporary home on the edge of the New Forest. We’re staying in one of the lodges at Oakdene Forest Park in the village of St Leonards, which is just a few minutes away from the forest. The lodge is large and comfortable (there’s a hot-tub as well) and it’s right on the edge of woodland you could explore for weeks; there’s a path that goes on for miles – run it, walk it, stroll it, whatever you want to do.

Oakdene Forest Park is also a convenient spot for heading to the coast or inland, and on the second day, we decide to explore the New Forest, with its little nooks and crannies. The forest is one of the largest remaining expanses of heathland and woodland in southern England; it resists the idea of a plan, so we do it the best way: no map, no sat-nav. We just drive that-a-way.

The effect when you first experience the Forest is similar to Winspit and Bournemouth. In Winspit, you suddenly feel like you’re in an ancient, alien place; in Bournemouth, it suddenly feels like July; and here in the New Forest, you leave the towns and villages and suddenly you feel like you’re on an untamed prairie.

What helps creates the effect are the ponies. There are around 5,000 of them and they wander unchecked in the forest where the locals have the right to graze their horses and cattle freely. It means you might have to stop for a pony that’s in the middle of the road; they’re used to the cars and are in no rush, so be prepared to take your time.

We decide to enjoy one of the most traditional views of the ponies, which is from the window of a pub: the Royal Oak in Beaulieu. While the horses chomp on the grass, we chomp on unfeasibly large bits of fish and a huge vegan nut wellington. One of the great advances pubs have made in the last 10 years is that many of them have suddenly started taking vegan and vegetarian food seriously. It’s a great sign.

We head back into the forest, slowing down occasionally for horses that aren’t in a hurry and end up in the town of Lymington. They made salt here, and ships, and it’s all written down in the Doomsday Book. Today, the high street, which dips slowly to a small harbour, is healthy and interesting: second-hand books and first-rate pasties. It is a bit of Georgian elegance on the prairie.

The following day, we stay closer to home and visit the Liberty’s Owl bird sanctuary on the western side of the Forest. It’s one of the biggest of its kind and the staff at the centre do several falconry demonstrations a day. Top of the bill today – and he knows it – is the crested caracara, a long-legged hawk native to the US and South America. He stomps around like he owns the place, then throws his head back and calls to the sky. He’s showing off to the audience and the audience love it.

Later in the day, we head back to the coast; in Dorset, the coast is always calling. We stop off at Avon Beach near the town of Christchurch. It’s getting late now but it’s still pretty warm. The owners of some of the beach huts are lingering, blankets over their knees and the last of the sun on their faces. Off to the East you can see the Isle of Wight; to the west Bournemouth and Poole. This is the coast that tells a Jurassic story. It reveals the great achievements (and a few misdemeanours) of humans. It’s extraordinary and beautiful. But today, it’s just a place to walk until the sun goes down.

Travel facts

Mark was a guest of Shorefield Holidays which has seven holiday parks across the New Forest and Dorset.

Breaks at Oakdene Forest Park cost from £445, based on a two-bedroom Superior hot tub lodge (sleeps 4). The breaks can be either Friday to Monday (3 nights), or Monday to Friday (4 nights).

For bookings call 01590 648 333 or visit