If you saw such a thing in Dubai you might assume it was the zany creation of a capricious sheikh, but this is Dorset and Chesil Beach is all natural.
Stand on Portland Heights or outside St Catherine’s Chapel high above Abbotsbury and look out to sea and you will be treated to the most extraordinary sight – a wide, golden, shingle bank rising out of the water and running along the coastline, with a lagoon sheltering sheepishly behind it. If you saw such a thing in Dubai you might assume it was the zany creation of a capricious sheikh, but this is Dorset and Chesil Beach is all natural.
Stretching for 18 miles between West Bay and Portland, Chesil Beach is the largest of three major shingle structures in Britain. The shingle bank, which reaches around 40 feet at its highest point, was formed by rising seas at the end of the last Ice Age.
Its rounded pebbles have been graded in size by strong tidal currents; they are as small as peas at the western end and the size of oranges at the Portland end. For centuries the size of the pebbles has been helping locals, mostly smugglers and fishermen, pinpoint where they are landing on the beach.
The lagoon, known as The Fleet, extends from Abbotsbury to Portland and contains a mixture of salt- and freshwater. Home to an abundance of birdlife, wading birds can be seen all year, while brent geese from Siberia and red-breasted merganser (fish-eating duck) visit in winter. The birds’ ancestors must have had quite a shock back in 1942–43, when Barnes Wallis’s famous bouncing bomb was tested on The Fleet in preparation for the Dambusters raids.
At the southern end of The Fleet, just before you head over the causeway from Weymouth to Portland, is the Fine Foundation Chesil Beach Centre and a pay-and-display car park with direct access to Chesil Beach. The centre is run by Dorset Wildlife Trust and provides information on Chesil Beach, the Fleet and Portland.
Binoculars allow you to watch seabirds feeding on the sand flats and there is live video from cameras on the bed of the lagoon. It is worth checking whether any sections of the beach are closed, as during nesting season (usually April to August) parts are off limits to avoid disturbing the birds.