Dorset is home to some of the most iconic and photogenic locations in the UK: the extraordinary rock arch at Durdle Door, the 17- mile shingle spit of Chesil Beach and the golden cliffs at Burton Bradstock to name a few. It is world famous for the Jurassic Coast, the first wholly natural World Heritage Site to be designated in the United Kingdom, which makes up all but a few miles of its coastline.
The county is extremely popular with photographers, but there is much more to it than the classic viewpoints. There are many hidden gems, from beautiful, rarely-visited coves to serene riverside views and the rolling hills of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. It is not a particularly large county, with an area of just 1,024 square miles and being just 60 miles across, but it packs a lot of variety into a small space. Whether you like dramatic coastal views, moorland, hills or woodland, you will find somewhere that inspires you.
For many Purbeck is Dorset and it is easy to see why. It is full of beautiful and famous locations such as Old Harry Rocks, Durdle Door, Lulworth Cove, Kimmeridge Bay and Corfe Castle. The world famous ‘Jurassic Coast’, England’s first Natural World Heritage Site, has its starting point just outside Swanage, at Old Harry Rocks, and stretches all the way along the Dorset coast into East Devon. The 96-mile long Purbeck section is arguably the most picturesque stretch.
Purbeck is well-known for its geology and is home to some spectacular cliffs and landforms, many of which are highly photogenic. The area has been quarried over the years, which has also led to some interesting photographic opportunities in places such as Dancing Ledge and Seacombe.
North Dorset has its own distinct character. It is largely a rural area made up of rolling hills and scattered villages, including large towns such as Blandford Forum and Shaftesbury. The River Stour enters the county in the north and winds its way through the countryside on its way to the sea at Christchurch. Much of North Dorset is in the River Stour Valley, known as the Blackmore Vale.
The chalk plateau of Cranborne Chase extends into Wiltshire and Hampshire. The landscape here is varied, with ancient woodland, scarp slopes and hills. There is plenty of archaeological interest, with Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments and on its southern edge, the hill forts of Hambledon Hill and Hod Hill. Cranborne Chase and the West Wiltshire Downs has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Beyond the famous locations such as the ‘Hovis Cottages’ of Gold Hill at Shaftsbury, it is no less beautiful, and well worth exploring with your camera.
West Dorset is classic Thomas Hardy country of rolling hills and the golden cliffs at West Bay and Burton Bradstock, made famous in the TV series Broadchurch. It is a region of contrasts. Parts of it feel very remote and isolated but just a few minutes off the A35 you can find yourself in a location such as Eggardon Hill which has an atmosphere of wilderness totally removed from the modern world. On the other hand, there are pretty, thatched villages, the regency resort of Lyme Regis and the town of Bridport. There are also Iron Age Hillforts such as Pilsdon Pen, which at 910 feet, is the highest hill in Dorset. More recently, Tolpuddle is famous as the birthplace of the Trade Union movement.
The West Dorset coastline has its own distinctive character. It is home to Golden Cap, the highest sea cliff on the south coast, and also the unique Chesil Bank, a 17-mile stretch of pebbles connecting the Isle of Portland to the mainland. This shingle beach runs from Portland to West Bay and forms a spit from Abbotsbury to Portland, behind which lies The Fleet, the largest inland lagoon in Britain.
You’d be missing a trick if you didn’t spend some time in east Dorset, as there are some beautiful areas around the conurbations of Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch. Try the historic centre of Christchurch, with its Priory Church and pretty river frontage, the remaining heathland at Hengistbury Head and the famously expensive beach chalets on Mudeford Spit and Stanpit Marsh Nature Reserve. Just escaping the urban sprawl to the north, is the quaint market town of Wimborne Minster and the surrounding villages and countryside.
Getting To Dorset
Despite being a popular destination, Dorset is not as well connected as one might hope. There is no motorway in Dorset and the main roads running through the county and connecting it to the rest of the country can get very busy. But Dorset is worth the effort and, if you avoid peak periods, you’re unlikely to encounter any problems.
From the North
Go south either on the M1 or M6 and then the M40. The A34 will then connect you to the M3 and then the M27. This does not go all the way into Dorset but finishes in Hampshire, just inside the New Forest National Park, where it goes down to 2 lanes and becomes the A31. At busy times, this will result in queues.
From the A31 you can then either head down to the coast at Bournemouth or Poole, or continue on to join the A35 and head to west Dorset.
From London and the East
Coming from London, take the M3, followed by the M27 then A31 into Dorset. If you are coming from beyond London, then you will most likely use the M25 which connects with the M3.
From the West
The A30 is the main road through the west country and this joins with the A35 at Honiton in Devon. From here you can follow the A35 into and across Dorset. From further south in Devon or Cornwall, the A38 connects with the A30.
Distances and driving times to...
London: via M3 and M27
|2h 45 min
Birmingham via M5
3h 07 min
Manchester via M5
4h 28 min
Newcastle via M5
6h 10 min
Glasgow via M6
4h 40 min
Plymouth via A38 and A35
2h 00 min
Where to stay
There is a great selection of accommodation in Dorset from camping to country house hotels. Most visitors like to base themselves on the coast especially in and around Purbeck.
A good starting point to look for accommodation is http://www.visit-dorset.com/accommodation
Best Times of Year To Visit For Photography
Thanks to its position on the south coast, Dorset’s climate is one of warm summers and mild winters.
Spring – March, April, May
Early spring can be one of the hardest times of year to photograph. During March and most of April, the trees are still bare, but with Dorset’s mild climate, frosts at this time of year are rare. Locations can often be dull and muddy, without the mood and atmosphere that winter can bring. April is well-known for showery conditions. These changeable conditions mean excellent light; the drama created as a shower clears and the light bursts through the clouds is hard to beat. Also, with sunshine and rain, there is always the chance of a rainbow.
At the end of April and beginning of May the trees come back to life with vibrant green leaves and bluebells and wild garlic ower; it’s time to head to woodlands and locations such as Hooke Park, Pamphill and the Kingston Lacy beech avenue are excellent options. April can be a misty season, so getting up high for shots of places such as Corfe Castle and Colmer’s Hill is also worthwhile.
Summer – June, July, August
Although summer is a popular time to visit Dorset, it is traditionally regarded as one of the least productive times for landscape photography. Foliage loses its freshness and starts to look a little tired, air quality suffers and there can be a lot of atmospheric haze.
Dawn and dusk therefore become key times for photography. In the summer months, the sun rises and sets over the land on the south coast, so as a general rule, this is the time to head inland. Happily, this coincides with some interesting seasonal activity in these areas. June and July see poppies bloom in farmers’ fields; a carpet of red stretching out into the distance is a spectacular sight.
Autumn - September, October, November
Late October and early November are typically the best time for autumn leaves. In Dorset there are good options, with locations such as the Kingston Lacy beech avenue and the West Dorset woodlands providing excellent subject matter. This is a good time to shoot the Jurassic coast as the sun is in an ideal position for both dawn and dusk, with the weather somewhat more clement than in the winter.
Winter – December, January, February
While some photographers pack away their kit for the winter and concentrate on catching up with processing images and researching locations for the spring, those in the know get on with taking photographs. Winter is arguably the most photogenic season. The quality of light is excellent, with low sun throughout the day and the air, without the summer’s higher levels of moisture, has fantastic clarity.