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The striking cliffs and beach in West Bay, along southern England's famed Jurassic Coast (Photograph by Gideon Mendel/Corbis)

England’s Ultimate Cliff-Hanger: Dorset

If these cliffs in West Bay Beach look familiar, it’s because they brood over the key crime scene in the transatlantic TV hit Broadchurch

Rising as if ripped from Earth’s crust, the formation has always seemed positioned for dramatic effect. In fact, show creator Chris Chibnall calls the murder mystery a love letter to his home in West Dorset.

Beyond the bluffs lie all the trappings of a classic British seaside town: thatched cottages, shops brimming with buckets and spades, strawberry jam on scones, and generous lashings of clotted cream—all served up in one of England’s most family-friendly settings.

Still, like the shadowy characters of Broadchurch, Dorset thrives on secrets. Ocher red sediment, gravel-encased fossils, and preserved dinosaur footprints contribute to the 200 million years of semi-buried history that earned this 95-mile shoreline its status as a World Heritage site and its nickname of Jurassic Coast.

With luck, a guide, and occasionally a geological hammer, hikers can uncover fossils amid the craggy coves, sandy beaches, and blustery walkways while puffins lurch overhead and dolphins slice through choppy waves. Although experts unearth fossils around the West Bay cliffs, beginners can maximize their luck a few miles west in Lyme Regis, aka the Pearl of Dorset.

Tip: Stay at The Bull Hotel, where some rooms have four-poster beds or roll-top tubs, in a renovated coaching inn.

Travel Trivia: In the 1040s, Benedictine monks raised swans for banquet food at Dorset’s Abbotsbury Swannery, where a colony of mute swans nest today.

This piece, written by Abigail King, appeared in the February/March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.