Go beach combing in Dorset
If you’re hoping to find fossils, the Jurassic coast is the place to start. Charmouth is one of the best places to go beachcombing in Dorset – the visitor centre runs guided fossil-hunting walks.
And Lyme Regis, site of Mary Anning’s famous finds, is another easy spot to start with kids: it can get busy but you’re guaranteed to see ammonites at least with the fascinating fossil shelf known as the Ammonite Pavement.
Seatown is another great place to spy ammonites and they’re usually easy to collect, which is ideal with children. Stick to the foreshore rather than the cliff bases as these are crumbling which can be dangerous.
Or head to Kimmeridge Bay, which is also wonderful for rockpooling – just watch the tides if you’re exploring, as well as the cliffs, which are crumbling in places here too.
While you’re there, head to the Etches Collection in Kimmeridge itself – the Museum of Jurassic Marine Life is packed with fossils and takes visitors on a journey back in time to the Kimmeridgian Seas, 157 million years ago. There are also family events and activities on during the school holidays.
For more tips on fossil hunting for beginners, including how to stay safe and where to look (and why you don’t need to take a hammer), see this advice from the Jurassic Coast Trust.
Hit the beach
There are beaches galore in Dorset to make sandcastles between fossil hunting – explore the fabulous sand creations at Sandworld Sculpture Park for some inspiration.
For family-friendly beaches, you’re spoiled for choice: Weymouth has a stretch of golden sand and gentle waves to paddle in (plus some traditional seaside fun), while Swanage beach has its own sheltered bay with family-friendly swimming areas.
West Bay – now forever known as the beach from Broadchurch – has those dramatic cliffs as a scenic backdrop, with sand at the edge of the fine shingle beach. For quieter coves, Church Ope cove has Viking history – apparently the landing site of the first raids made on the British Isles, or there’s a mix of sand and shingle at Gundimore which you can reach from Mudeford Quay.
South Beach is one of Studland’s more peaceful spots – Knoll beach is the most popular (watch out for the naturist section) with four miles of beach to explore in the nature reserve of Studland Bay.
The gardens will be open once again in Spring 2021, when wide open lawns and the space and freedom to explore makes Forde Abbey a great day out for all the family. Adventurers will love our willow labyrinth in the arboretum, watching wildlife on the lake or the 160 foot fountain, the highest powered fountain in England. Running in and out of the spray is a great sport for younger visitors to the garden and if you stand at the top end of the fountain, you’ll often see a rainbow.
There is also a pick your own fruit farm at Forde Abbey where you can pick a variety of berries in season.
Durlston Country Park
The best of the countryside and the coast combined, Durlston Country Park is on the corner of the Isle of Purbeck looking out to Swanage, with some gorgeous walking trails to discover across the 320 acre site. If you visit at the right time of year, you might even spot dolphins (April/May and October/November are best), seals and basking sharks in the waves. There are also regular family events, trail explorer books to buy, as well as ideas for a mini-beast safari.
And at Durlston Castle, you can find live wildlife cameras as well as a fossil room plus rangers to offer more information.
Moors Valley Park
Find a Gruffalo at Moors Valley Country Park At Moors Valley Country Park lurks a fearsome monster, with a poisonous wart on the end of his nose – and purple prickles all over his back. Well probably. One of the locations for the string of Forestry England Julia Donaldson trails, it’s still home to both a Gruffalo and the Gruffalo’s Child, along the children’s Play Trail, as well as other family trails.
Plus, of course, plenty of places to walk, cycle or watch the scenery from a narrow gauge steam train – along with a more adrenaline-fuelled option on the Go Ape Junior High ropes course, for anyone who fancies themselves the scariest creature in the wood.
Visit Brownsea Island
For more native animals, take a ferry from Poole or Sandbanks over to Brownsea Island, home to endangered red squirrels – perfect for children to scurry around as well. Famous too as the birthplace of Scouting, there are special calming walks if you want to wind down plus a family squirrel trail and other activities like den building.
Trace a thousand years of history at the now ruined Corfe Castle – not least the fact it inspired Kirrin Castle in the Famous Five books. With its murder holes, secret places and tales of treachery and treason, not to mention rumour of royal death and its place in the Civil War, it’s perfect to let imaginations run wild. Tickets must be prebooked.
Monkey World - Ape Rescue Centre
There are more than 250 primates of over 20 different species at this sanctuary for rescued primates. Guided tours and talks give interesting and personable information about the many different species, personalities and stories that thrive here, raising awareness of the need to protect these amazing animals. Children will also enjoy the Great Ape Play area.
The Dinosaur Museum
This award-winning museum is packed with fun for children with a quiz, lots of interactive elements, puzzles and a chance to make your own discoveries within the excavation pit. Then if all that wasn’t quite daring enough, put your hands in the mystery feely box.