10 (almost free) Things To Do in Dorset you probably don’t know…
It’s always the way, during the school holidays, that your carefully planned outings have a break, the bank account is creaking under the strain of Fun Things To Do with the kids home all day every day, and yet you still need to find something to entertain, amuse or stop the bicker-fest begin in earnest.
So you’re looking for (almost free) Things To Do in Dorset…
For us, the big tourist attractions are a rare treat – with four children, the costs tend to grow exponentially, even ‘family’ tickets usually needed to be added to for the fourth child.
So like most parents over the holidays, when we’re home we try and be a little creative in what we can do for a few hour’s fun without making the bank account cry. Obviously there’s lots of things to be done right in your own home, but we’re really lucky to live in an incredibly beautiful part of the world. So here are my top 10 suggestions for free and/or bargainously cheap things to do in Dorset – from someone who’s lived here all her adult life, raising four children who are Home Educated so happen to be around all day every day all year long… ;)
Think rock pools, sea weed, crabs, fossils… you get the idea. Kimmeridge is a private beach, which means you do have to pay to get down there (this year it’s £5 per car – for as long as you like). You drive down a long and winding narrow road to park on the cliff top – a wide flat expanse of grass which is fabulous for picnics and ball games.
There is an excellent (but tiny) marine wildlife centre, jam packed with information on the amazing local nature reserve, which is always worth visiting.
Most people then seem to head down the cliff path to the right of the car parking area which takes you out onto the curve of Kimmeridge Bay itself – there’s no sandy beach, but this side is shingly, good for exploring and with lots of shallow rock pools at low tide.
But we prefer to head to the left from the front of the car park, along the coastal path past the toilet block and down to the boat jetty underneath the Clavell tower on the cliff edge. Keep following the curve of the cliff face to your left, and you end up in an alien world of slabs of huge rock that beg to be jumped between, leading you round to the ledges themselves which are ace for swimming and rock pooling.
There’s no sand at all, but it’s an exciting beach that’s different to any other, and we never fail to have a brilliant day, whatever the weather decides to do – picnics essential, as unless you get lucky with an ice cream van, your nearest retreat is the beautiful Kimmeridge Village, 15 minutes drive back inland – where Clavell’s Cafe does a marvellous cup of tea.
It’s also dog-friendly all year round.
Our go-to space for a few hours meandering fun. There’s a tiny car park at the top of the hill, and we’d strongly suggest you head for fish and chips in Shaftesbury, ask them to double wrap and head with all speed to the top of Win Green, to eat your feast with the whole of the Dorset and Wiltshire countryside laid out at your feet.
Make sure you have a cricket bat and ball in the car, to head out and play French cricket on the summit with the cows watching as the sun goes down.
Alternatively take your kites and a picnic – on a windy day there’s nowhere better for getting those kites airborne.
The grass is long and insect-filled for exploring, the small ancient beech copse is a fabulous place for some tree climbing, and a gentle stroll around the summit of the hill listening to the larks invisibly high above you is an hour of pure joy. Standing by the trig point you are on the roof of this part of the world, gazing out at a 360 degree view across Dorset and Wiltshire; the coast is clearly visible, all the way to the low purple lump of the Isle of Wight and then turn to see across to the Quantocks in the north-west.
Again, to go to Moors Valley Country Park is free but you have to pay for car parking; £9 a day in the summer. And you will want all day at this fabulous country park.
Leaving aside the amazing visitor centre, the Go Ape Trail and the miniature steam railway, there’s a couple of things you shouldn’t miss.
Firstly, Moors Valley has the Best Play Park In Dorset. Seriously – if your kids love the park, Moors Valley is their heaven. And best of all, it’s not just for the small ones – it’s a play park that appeals to young teens too, with really challenging climbing net, a zip wire and a climbing boulder. Younger children can choose the smaller quiet sand play area, where the big kids don’t go!
Second – the Play Trail. Through the vast woodland is a winding trail which neatly gives your children a lovely long walk in the forest, dissected by properly amazing wooden play equipment. Under 12’s will never want to leave.
Lastly – take your bikes (or hire some for the cycle centre if you wish) – the cycle trails are immense, fun, and off the beaten track. the main visitor areas do get very busy in summer holidays, but head out on the trails and it’s like the forest is all yours!
Head to the village of Cerne Abbas and take the gentle 1/4 mile walk from the churchyard (well signposted, you can’t miss it) to go and admire the giant and his enormous penis – it never fails to amuse, and phallic symbols aside it’s a wonderful walk with amazing views across the Dorset heathland.
You can continue your walk along the wessex ridgeway, which is beautiful – and when you finally make it back down to the village, we strongly suggest you stop into Abbot’s for a cream tea.
Absolutely brilliant place to head with your bikes. You can walk it too, obviously, but there aren’t many off-road routes that the youngest can manage – this is one of them. The main route is a 7 mile circular trip, though there are lots of options to extend or shorten it as you wish. It’s well signposted, well maintained, and enough downhills to be fun without too many uphills to be painful. Brilliant family cycling through lovely forestry with absolutely no traffic to worry about.
If it’s a sandy beach you’re after, we’d always suggest you take a trip to Shell Bay. This whole stretch of coastline is fabulous – we tend to avoid the better-known (and therefore busier) Knoll Beach. The car park straight off the car ferry to Poole is small and fills quickly in the summer – more usual parking in season is along the sides of the road as you approach. The huge expanse of white flat sandy beach runs down to shallow water, perfect for kids to play in. The beach is wide and flat enough for family cricket & volleyball, and there are also designated barbecue rocks to protect the surrounding reserve. Do walk around to the right once you get on to the beach – a 20 minute stroll will bring you to a brilliant tall sand dune bowl which is a family favourite. The low dunes behind the beach are fun for exploring, playing in and also invaluable for sheltering from a chilly breeze! There are even nearby toilets located in the National Trust car-park; eco compost loos which are un-smelly even in the height of the season.
We’re English Heritage members, so Old Wardour Castle is a regular haunt for a day out (if you’re not members, a family entry is just over £10. Total bargain). The castle is big enough to warrant a really good explore (with a perfect amount of stairs and towers), the audio tour is excellent, and the grotto in the grounds is always fun. For us the best thing is a picnic under the giant cedar trees, followed by a few hours playing ‘block’ (I’m sure you’ve played it in your youth, but you may know it by a different name, depending on where you live; it’s hide and seek, except the hiders have to make it back to ‘base’ without being spotted by the seeker).
This fabulous little gem was introduced to us by my in laws, and I’ll admit we wondered what on earth they were about, suggesting we headed all the way to Portland to look at a quarry.
We should have had more trust in them – this is such an unexpectedly brilliant place to explore!
Tout is a unique place where sculptures are carved into the landscape as it was left by the quarrymen – you can follow the suggested trail, or simply meander through on your own and see what you can spot. There are usually a few sculptors at work for you to watch, and in the summer there’s often an area set up for kids to try their hand at sculpting too.
Take a picnic (and lots of water – quarries are HOT in the sunshine!); there are loads of perfect spots to stop, and when you join up with the coastal path the views are unbeatable.
9 – Durdle Door
On Googlemaps here – co-ordinates 50.621870, -2.275350
I know it’s another beachy one, but really; we’re blessed with the most fantastic Jurassic Coast. Everyone loves the beach, and it’s an unfailingly brilliant day out. The Dorset coastline is so diverse, there’s a spot for whatever kind of beach day you fancy!
Durdle Door is more of a country hike than the other two beach choices – you park at Durdle Door Holiday park (charges are Pay & Display rates, over 6hrs is £7.50) which is situated at the top of a high cliff. Then it’s a bit of a hike to walk – you appear at the top of the spectacular ‘door’ , and the views from the cliff top are magnificent – it’s one of my favourite stretches of coastline.
Once you have explored the top you can choose to drop down onto the beach at either side. The steps are steep and unpredictable – which is half the fun.
Though fun isn’t necessarily what you’ll be muttering to yourself when you begin the climb back up to the car at the end of the day….
Kingston Lacy is a large National Trust property – and one that is particular good for visiting with children. The tour of the house is good, the information sheets are fun and the guides always interesting with great stories about the family and the rooms if you ask them. The grounds are even better, with masses of room for exploring, and lots of different gardens from a thick Bamboo Trail to silent Japanese Garden and wonderful woodland trails.
Just across the road is Badbury Rings, an enormous Iron Age fort that’s a brilliant place for letting off some steam and a game of rounders.
Badbury Rings is free, and a family ticket to the whole Kingston Lacy property is £35. However, just the grounds are enough to keep you busy for an afternoon, and a family ticket for grounds-only is under £20.
If you’re interested in things to do in Dorset, do take a look at the Blackmore Vale magazine, a free digital monthly publication offering a slice of Dorset life and featuring the best of what’s on in the Blackmore Vale and North Dorset. You can see all the back issues of The Blackmore Vale here – it’s a great place to start if you’re visiting the county!
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