The Dorset and Devon coast is a natural beauty. A fact that won it a place on the World Heritage map. What puts it in the same league as the Great Barrier Reef and Grand Canyon? Mark Rowe finds out

The Dorset and East Devon coastline and the Great Barrier Reef may not appear to have much in common - apart from their great beauty. But in 2001 the coastline from Exmouth in Devon to Old Harry Rocks, near Swanage, became England's first natural World Heritage Site, putting it in the same category as the reef and the Grand Canyon. It is a spectacular location for a walk at any time of year, but its charms are particularly apparent on a clear winter's day.

The strip of land from Lyme and Ware Cliffs east to Eype, a distance of around eight miles, forms the Golden Cap estate, which is managed by the National Trust. Much of the 809-hectare estate falls within a Site of Special Scientific Interest and features ancient woodlands, herb-rich meadows and ancient hedgerows that date back to the Iron Age.

The distinctive cliffs are formed from blue lias clay, capped with sandstone. Landslides have unveiled many fossils and given the area the name of the Jurassic Coast, prompted by a series of spectacular finds, including the 19th-century discovery by an 11-year-old girl of the first ichthyosaur skeleton.

The Jurassic moniker also applies to the area's age: the rocks along this stretch of coast record 185 million years of the Earth's history. The area is also home to a wealth of wildlife, including many birds of prey, green woodpeckers, common lizards, pipistrelle and lesser horseshoe bats and marbled white and meadow brown butterflies. The views across Lyme Bay are striking at any time of year.

Our walk starts in Langdon Hill car park, four miles east of Lyme Regis. Walk through the gate signposted Golden Cap and follow the broad track through the woodland, which mainly comprises beech and Corsican pine. Through the leafless trees you can see the first sightings of the dramatic chain of triangular peaks that climbs away to the left. On the fourth peak, you should just be able to make out a vertical speck - Thorncombe Beacon, the furthest point of the walk. Meanwhile, a fetching flank of fern-fringed wood rises up to your right.

Take the second path off to your left, around half a mile from the car park, signposted Golden Cap and Coast Path. You can now see the bowl-shaped Golden Cap in front of you and glimpses of Lyme Bay beyond.

The bay was described by John Fowles as "the largest bite from the underside of England's outstretched south-western leg" in The French Lieutenant's Woman, with which this landscape is now indelibly associated. Lyme and its surrounds appealed to other authors too: Jane Austen took the characters in Persuasion there and Beatrix Potter, Henry Fielding and Lord Tennyson were attracted by its rich setting.

Walk downhill through a gate and turn right and immediately go through another gate, following the clear track along the edge of the field. Cross a stile and then begin the climb up to Golden Cap. It's not as steep as it first appears, and the well-maintained (and well-trodden) path makes for an easy hike to the top of the hill.

Golden Cap is less a peak than a broad, high flank of land, with sprigs of gorse and heather spread over a wide distance. The cap, at 188 metres, is the highest point on the south coast and gets its name from the rusty-gold rock on its cliff face. On a clear day the views are outstanding. To the west you should be able to see as far as Start Point in Devon, while to the east you can see beyond Thorncombe Beacon, along the coast to Chesil Beach and Portland Bill. Closer still, you can clearly make out Lyme Regis and the Cobb, a harbour wall built of stone and fossils, jutting out like a crooked index finger, where Sarah Woodruff - the main character in Fowles's novel - would gaze out to sea.

From the Cap, retrace your steps downhill to the gate and bear right along the edge of the field to cross a stile in the corner and head downhill. The path is clear, though little wider than a rabbit track, but it soon broadens out into a grassy flank and climbs to reach a small thicket and a fingerpost.

Keep ahead on the path to reach another fingerpost for Seatown. Cross the stile and head downhill, where you reach a further signpost that reads "Seatown diversion". Bear left here into woods before emerging after 200 yards or so to cross a stile and walk along a clear track across a field. This area is rich in birdlife, and I was watched intently by a buzzard using a telegraph pole as a staging post. Also keep an eye out for lapwings, with their distinctive quiff, and skylarks.

At the edge of the field you cross a stile and turn right along Sea Hill Lane into Seatown. Cross the car park and take the path at the far right-hand corner uphill, passing a National Trust post demarcating Ridge Cliff. Some puff is needed, for having come down from Golden Cap to sea level you must now climb up almost as high again. Keep to the right-hand grassy flank as you climb, though beware of the sheer cliffs; the drop is so abrupt that you get the sense you would be falling for hours.

You rapidly gain height and may find yourself looking down on buzzards floating in the valley inland. Then you briefly drop downhill again, crossing a stile to reach a fingerpost at the bottom of Doghouse Hill, believed to get its name from the land's former location for hunting with dogs. The hill is the steepest climb of the walk but you soon reach the ridge and Thorncombe Beacon is at last just a few hundreds yards away.

There has been a signal beacon here on the high coastal path since the 16th century and one was used to raise the alarm of the approaching Spanish Armada. The land around you is dotted with clearly visible Bronze Age burial mounds, dating back 4,000 years.

With your back to the sea, cross the field to reach a stile in the bottom left-hand corner of the field. Cross the stile and, after a couple of hundred yards, take the signposted track downhill to the right. Follow this as it loops around Doghouse Hill.

The path is good in frosty weather, boggy in warmer conditions. It brings you back to the bottom of Doghouse Hill. Ignore the stile on your right and instead head downhill to the stile and then take the path to the right around Ridge Cliff. The banks and ridges of the farmland to the right is home to a rare sight, a 16th-century farming system known as strip lynchets, or terraces for ploughing.

The path comes to open grassland where you head downhill. Two-thirds of the way down, take the smaller grassy path to the right, which passes to the right of a small thicket. Go through a gate and cross a pint-sized stone bridge, known as the Packhorse Bridge, which traverses the modest River Winneford. Turn right and then right again through a gate on to Mill Lane.

Walk past the mill and continue ahead until you reach a large junction of paths and lanes. Take the stile on the left, following the yellow way-marked path. Cross two fields and then turn right by a fingerpost to reach a gate. Scramble over the gate or the remains of the stile and turn right.

Then take the first left uphill, signposted Langdon Hill. Keep on this path, which is marked as Pettycrate Lane, ignoring any tracks off to the right as it climbs up into the shadow of the woods. Shortly after passing a stile on your left, take a narrow path off to the right, which leads up between two posts into the woods. Upon reaching the main path, turn right to reach the car park.

Just like The French Lieutenant's Woman, this walk has a dual ending. Having reached the car park you can unlace your boots or else follow the path through the car park as it loops through the woods, adding about 1.5 miles to your distance.

Distance: Six miles, plus the 1.5mile circular route around Langdon Wood. Time: Three to four hours. OS Map: Explorer 116 Lyme Regis and Bridport.

Mark Rowe stayed at The Byre, a cottage in Toller Porcorum, 10 miles from Golden Cap, managed by Rural Retreats (01386 701177; ruralretreats.co.uk). Prices from £326 for two nights for up to six people. The walk described is one of nine walks in the Jurassic Coast area in a leaflet costing £3.95 published by the National Trust (nationaltrust. org.uk), available from tourist information centres in the area or from the National Trust's West Dorset office (01297 561900) for an extra £1 p&p.

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