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Discovering West Bay and the Iconic East Cliff of the Jurassic Coast of Dorset

Updated: Apr 10, 2022

Only a few minutes’ drive south from Bridport towards the coast is the picturesque and industrious fishing village of West Bay formerly known as Bridport Harbour. West Bay is situated at the mouth of the river Brit a tidal river and former estuary where the iconic East and West cliff tower of the village on either side.

Why is West Bay Iconic?

West Bay is iconic for a number of reasons but more recently because of the dramatic role played by its clifftop's as a backdrop to ITV’s award-winning drama series Broadchurch starring David Tennant as DI Alec Hardy, Olivier Coleman as DS Ellie Miller, and Jodie Whittaker as Beth Latimer.

Visiting West Bay, Dorset

When you arrive and park up at West Bay my recommendation would be to make a beeline towards the award-winning West Bay Discovery Centre – it is free to enter.

Located in the former historic West Bay Methodist Church locally known as the “Chapel on the Beach”. The building dates back to 1849. The building was restored and re-opened as a visitor centre in 2018. From my own experience you are warmly welcomed by the volunteers and trustees happy to help and answer any questions.

The West Bay Discovery Centre is the perfect preamble to understanding the area of West Bay and get the latest information. Especially in a place located along the Jurassic Coast with such a rich story of natural history.

The centre will explain the history of West Bay, its shipbuilding past, and key events such as the Great Gail of 1824. Along with a “fish cam” there is a superb display supported by the Jurassic Coast Trust featuring the fossil finds by local fossil hunters Peter Langham, Robert (Bob) Chandler and David Sole. David Sole is also credited with finding a Scelidosaur now exhibited at Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre.

I particularly thought the paper replica of an ichthyosaur was well very well made as was the 3-D model of West Bay showing in detail the coastlines geomorphology. Its simple models like these that help us all to decode the natural environment.

As you leave please sign the visitor book and have a read of the notice board to see if there are any talks, guided walks, and events that take your interest.

East Cliff, West Bay

As you arrive in West Bay you are immediately drawn to the scale and golden colour of East Cliff. This cliff is composed of the early Jurassic Bridport Sand Formation one of the major sandstones in the Jurassic sequence in Dorset.

Before explaining the geology and potential for fossil collecting along East Cliff it’s important to remember that the early Jurassic was a period of significant global change in continental configurations, oceanographic patterns, and biological ecosystems.

During the early Jurassic Pangea the supercontinent would begin to split apart and the world experienced an significant increase in plate tectonic movement, volcanic activity and orogenesis or mountain-building.

Additionally, its important to note that these cliffs nowadays are very dangerous and you are best not to get too close or at a minimum wear a safety hard hat and keep vigilant. East Cliff is best viewed at a distance and you will regularly see scientists surveying the beaches and cliffs to identify potential hazards and the effects of coastal erosion.

Now for the Earth Science of East Cliff

The Bridport Sand Formation was laid down during the Toarcian Age between 182 million and 174 million years ago. The second formation sitting comfortably on top of the Bridport Sand Formation between West Bay and Burton Hive along the East Cliff of West Bay is the middle Jurassic Inferior Oolite. The Inferior Oolite is a younger marine limestone laid down between the Aalenian and Bathonian Ages approximately 174 – 168 million years ago. These coastal cliff exposures extend between East Cliff to Burton Cliff in Burton Bradstock. Interestingly, perched rather elegantly on top of East Cliff and offering exceptional 360 degree views of Lyme Bay and rural Dorset is the Bridport & West Dorset Golf Club.

View of East Cliff, West Bay, Dorset

The cliff's distinctive but superficial golden rust colour of the Bridport Sand Formation is a result of the oxidisation of fine grains of pyrite “fools gold” which is an iron sulphide mineral. The oxidation or the addition of oxygen to the pyrites changes this mineral from one with a metallic lustre to limonite a dull iron ore.

The Bridport Sand Formation has relatively few fossils due not only its complex chemistry for limiting preservation but also because of its complex history of how these sediments were formed. Finding belemnites and ammonites along the foreshore is rarity but not impossible.

This formation was developed in a shallow marine environment possibly a huge sandbar that over geologic time was significantly influenced by marine transgression and regression or sea-level changes. In turn the Bridport Sand Formation shows evidence of considerable reworking from the impact of storms, flooding and bioturbation. The latter is the continuous effect of burrowing marine animals living in the sediments and their activity changes the chemical properties and transport of water throughout the formation.

Putting the Oo into Oolite

The second formation long the East Cliff of West Bay is the middle Jurassic Inferior Oolite a hard marine limestone that caps the cliffs of the Bridport Sand Formation between West Bay and Burton Hive. Above the Inferior Oolite is the Frome Clay formerly known as Fullers Earth.

In the UK there are several types of Oolites including the Great or Main Oolite known as Bath Stone and the Superior Oolite known as Portland Stone. Throughout history Oolite has been quarried and used as building stone.

The Inferior Oolite limestone was laid down between the Aalenian and Bathonian Ages between 174 – 168 million years ago.

An Oolite is a spherical crystalline deposit of billions if not trillions of small concentric or radial structures called “ooliths”. These are composed mainly of calcium carbonate surrounding a nucleus of a sand grain or a tiny shell fragment.

Due to height of the Inferior Oolite (upwards of 40 meters) it is inaccessible. There is a paucity of fossils on the foreshore and only after cliff falls occur that fossils may be exposed. These include ferruginous oncoids (another great name!) or “snuff boxes” that are elliptically shaped brown iron rich structures made up from successive layers iron-oxidising bacteria encrusting fossils.

Inferior Oolite fossils may include ammonites, belemnite, molluscs, brachiopods i.e. Sphaeroidothyris sp. and ammonites including Strigoceras truelli, Parkinsonia sp. Lioceras sp., Rhaeboceras sp., Ancolioceras sp., Hyperlioceras sp., and Procerites sp. To name a few.

Looking beyond the Marketing

If you look beyond the marketing of West Bays' smooth pebbly beaches West and East of the Jurassic Pier. The great walking paths along the South West Coast Path, boat trips, leisure activities, and seafood served by its seaside cafes, restaurants, and pubs. There is also another way to connect with West Bay and learn more about its exciting Jurassic coastline. If you have decided to visit West Bay this year please do visit the West Bay Discovery Centre.


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