“What can you see in a day?” ask people who doubt that a cruise allows any meaningful time ashore. The secret is to arrange a private tour. A recent trans-Atlantic sailing cruise stopped at Portland, a skinny island in the English Channel connected to the mainland by Chesil Beach (made famous by Ian McEwan’s novel and film). I liked the spunky tone of Daren Gapper’s website, so I booked his tour of Dorset and the Jurassic Coast.
Gapper met us the gangway. Even though we were warned that private vehicles were not permitted on the pier, Gapper and Snowy, his classic Volkswagen minibus, were waiting. This is yet another reason to hire a local who has friends at the barriers who wave him through.
As we drove through the verdant Dorset countryside and old market towns, Gapper reminded us that we were in Thomas Hardy country.
“This is Dorchester, Hardy’s hometown,” he said, “only he called it Casterbridge — as in ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ — and Wessex was his fictional name for Dorset.” Jane Austen also set some of her books in the area, and it was the location for the TV drama “Broadchurch.”
The entirety of Dorset’s western shoreline is known as the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our first stop was on a steep hill with expansive views of Durdle Door, an iconic ancient stone arch that was carved by the sea and bears more than a passing resemblance to a dinosaur. Nearby cliffs composed of gray clays, yellow sandstones and golden limestones record 80 million years of Cretaceous history and are a renowned source of fossils that include fish, giant marine reptiles and especially ammonites — mollusks with coiled shells similar to the modern nautilus.
We had a chance to try to find some on a beach but were more successful at a gift shop and bought some for inexpensive souvenirs. One of the very last rocks to form in the Jurassic period is the Portland limestone that was used to build Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral and the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Our route from Weymouth took us through the Purbecks, an area of coast that is surrounded by water on three sides. Gapper’s itinerary reminded of E.M. Forster’s line in “Howard’s End”: “If one wanted to show a foreigner England, perhaps the wisest course would be to take him to the final section of the Purbeck Hills and stand him on their summit, a few miles to the east of Corfe.” These rolling hills and roiling seas also inspired landscape artists such as Paul Nash and J.M.W.Turner, and we found photographic fodder around every turn: tree-lined lanes leading to imposing manor houses, thatched-roof villages and ancient woodlands carpeted in a knee-deep tide of spring bluebells.
Just as we were feeling peckish, Snowy arrived in Sydling St. Nicholas, a Miss Marple-perfect hamlet with connecting bridges to the thatched cottages lining the banks. The roses and clematis that festooned the whitewashed walls defined “picturesque” once and for all. Gapper escorted us into the Greyhound Inn, where dogs and tourists were equally welcome, and explained that Thatchers was the local cider and Butcombe the beer. The dim light and low ceilings added to the authentic atmosphere. The menu featured both traditional and trendy. I went for the duck salad while my husband picked the pork-and-onion pie with mash and a pint of the beer. Everything was fresh and delicious.
Standing at the base of the nearby Corfe Castle ruins, Gapper dramatically told the tale of Ethelred (“The Unready”), who became king at age 7 following his half-brother’s murder and had to defend his territory from the rapacious Vikings. Toward the end of his reign, Ethelred ordered the massacre of all the Danes to eliminate treachery. Conspiracies and threats loomed for centuries. Six hundred years later, Lady Mary Bankes defended the castle with only a few soldiers and servants by heaving stones and hot embers from the battlements.
Without a guide, we wouldn’t have bothered to stop at an ancient Norman church in the hamlet of Steeple, which ironically has no steeple, and we would have missed the fascinating fact that it has the same coat of arms as George Washington because of a genealogical connection. Likewise, we would never have known that a bucolic bend in the road near Bovington is the spot where Lawrence of Arabia suffered his fatal motorcycle accident. And we never could have found the Roman Town House, an excavation that could have been in Pompeii rather than tucked behind the unprepossessing Dorchester County Hall, and marveled at its exquisite mosaic floor.
Our last stop was at the Hardy Monument — dedicated to a naval officer, not the writer — high on a hill overlooking the harbor and our cruise ship. This turned out to be especially meaningful the next day when we toured the HMS Victory in Portsmouth and stood at the very spot where Lord Nelson died in Vice Admiral Hardy’s arms during the Battle of Trafalgar.
Maybe the naysayers are right. There isn’t much you can do during a cruise excursion except watch centuries of history come to life, make visceral connections to art and literature, see how the contours of continents reveal their geologic origins, imagine lifestyles in cottages and castles, taste the salty brine in the wind, sample the local brews and walk among ruins that reveal the past and promise the future.
WHEN YOU GO
Dorset Day Trips: www.dorsetdaytrips.co.uk
The Greyhound Inn: www.visit-dorset.com/food-and-drink/the-greyhound-inn-p1881973