ALTHOUGH I very much wanted to do another walk yesterday, my finances are dwindling and so I was in some doubt as to whether I should. Imagine my surprise then, when I found that by buying advance tickets (which restrict you to travelling on a specific train) I could travel First Class more cheaply than Standard Class.
In truth, there’s not much difference between First Class and Standard Class on South West Trains services out of London Waterloo but at least it was nice and quiet. I had a lot on my mind, so forewent my usual railway snooze in favour of staring unseeingly out of the window. It seemed like no time at all before I was back in Bournemouth, alighting at its dull and unremarkable-looking station, which was built in 1885.
Red Buses, Yellow Buses
Upon emerging from the station I immediately gained a smile upon my lips as my eyes fell upon a number of bright yellow buses.
This may sound like an odd thing to smile at, but in the 70s, when I was young, most of the nation’s buses were run by the National Bus Company, whose buses were red across much of the country (although in some places they were green, presumably just to taunt the red-green colour blind). Certainly, where I grew up National’s local arm, Alder Valley, operated red buses. Naturally, London Transport (as it was then) also operated red buses. And Reading Transport’s buses were maroon and cream which, to my eyes, was just another flavour of red.
But when we drove down to Bournemouth for the day, there the buses were bright yellow! This was excitingly different. Even the buses outside Bournemouth – run by National subsidiary Hants & Dorset – were poppy red. But in the town itself? Bournemouth Transport buses were yellow. A place with yellow buses! Who could imagine such outrageous and heady exoticism? I mean… yellow buses. The very idea!
It has to be said, 1970s Britain wasn’t the most thrilling place to be of primary school age.
Since then the buses have ceased to be run by the council with Bournemouth Transport having been sold to Transdev, who sold them to RATP Group. These days they’re primrose yellow rather than mustard, and have been rebranded as the imaginatively named Yellow Buses with the slogan ‘the brighter bus company’ but – and this is the critical thing – they’re still yellow. It was a condition of the sale.
So I stepped out of the station, saw the yellow buses and smiled. It’s a warm and fuzzy place, nostalgia, isn’t it?
Since the bus to the pier was just sitting there it seemed rude not to catch it, saving myself the half mile wander down to the seafront. This also bought me some time to find a café and enjoy a coffee and a healthy, nutritional breakfast of chocolate fudge cake. Finding a café involved wandering aimlessly about the middle of Bournemouth, which contains a park comprising the Lower, Central and Upper Gardens.
I stopped in the gardens to watch a few of the squirrels, of which there are a lot. Much like London’s squirrels they dart about, disdainful of the people. Unlike London’s squirrels, they don’t edge forwards and let you feed them if you’re calm enough. No, Bournemouth’s squirrels are used to a population with a high proportion of retired folk who don’t move so fast. This makes them bold – they don’t wait to be fed.
The expression on an unsuspecting visitor’s face when a squirrel leaps out of a tree, down their arm and disappears off with their bag of crisps or nuts has to be seen to be believed.
Bournemouth is, according to a 2007 survey by First Direct, the happiest place in Britain, with 82% of respondents claiming to be happy. I do wonder how many of the other 18% had just been mugged by a squirrel when asked to take part in the survey…
Anyway, having had my breakfast, I returned to Bournemouth Pier, where my last walk concluded.
The current pier was built in 1880 and was designed by naval architect and pier specialist Eugenius Birch, who also designed the pier that the Lemming and I didn’t see in Margate on account of it having long gone. Bournemouth’s pier has proven more resilient. It has been extended, refurbished, partly demolished and partly rebuilt but it is still going strong.
The Birch pier replaced an 1861-1876 pier by John Rennie which was destroyed by storms.
I set off at a brisk pace along the concrete promenade that tops the sandy beaches, thinking what a nice change it made from shingle. There are about seven miles of golden yellow sand here and I knew it would be only a matter of time before I gave into the urge to take off my boots and paddle along at the water’s edge. First though, I would give the struggling sun a chance to try to warm things up a bit.
West Cliff Lift
Heading away from Bournemouth Pier, I soon passed the West Cliff Lift, one of Bournemouth’s three funicular railways. I didn’t take a picture of either of the other two on account of my phone battery dying midway through my last walk, so I made a point of getting a picture of this one.
Even though it had only just gone nine, the beach and promenade was quite busy with joggers, dog-walkers and cyclists, plus a single pair of girls on roller-blades who were skating along in perfect unison. As they sailed past me I passed the sign announcing that I had left Bournemouth and entered Poole. This made little difference down by the beach except insofar as the nature of the groynes had changed. Bournemouth had favoured wooden groynes, all numbered. Poole made its groynes out of piles of rocks.
The actual part of Poole I was passing was its suburb of Branksome where, hidden away at the top of the cliffs, multi-million pound mansions nestled together as closely as one can when each is surrounded by acres of securely fenced grounds.
It was there that I gave in to the almost overpowering urge and decided to walk the next mile and a half up to my ankles in gentle waves of breathtaking icy coldness.
So I splashed merrily along, finding the water was actually okay once my feet had gone properly numb. Occasionally I would find a small patch of pebbles to pick my way around, or have to avoid someone’s dog, but mostly I had the actual sea to myself. Ahead of me I could see the beach stretching away to the Sandbanks Peninsula and then the bulk of Studland and the Isle of Purbeck beyond. On my left was the open sea. On my right some lovely sandstone cliffs, occasionally broken by a chine.
A chine – or a bunny in the New Forest – is a river mouth characterised by a narrow, steep-sided valley that has carved its way through a cliff to the sea. The word is Saxon in origin, cinan meaning a gap or yawn.
I paused by Branksome Chine, standing on the award-winning blue flag beach – to follow the coast around with my eyes and take this picture of Handfast Point.
I kept splashing along until I reached the edge of Sandbanks, a sandy peninsula jutting into the mouth of Poole Harbour.
There, I put my boots back on and availed myself of a café that served me a rather expensive bacon sandwich. I initially blanched at the price – £4.50 for which I got a sandwich alone, without any sort of accompaniment – however when it showed up it appeared to be half a pig’s worth of good, smoked bacon, which mollified me somewhat.
After stuffing my face, I stood outside the café and looked at the sea on one side and then at Poole Harbour on the other.
Poole Harbour is about fourteen square miles in area, which is pretty big for a natural harbour, but is also quite shallow, with an average depth of about half a metre (or just a foot and half).
Just along from where I was standing is a favourite spot for windsurfers, who take full advantage of a stretch of calm water which is only knee deep.
Objects in the Rear-View Mirror…
I was amused to find I only half-recognised Sandbanks as I headed west across its dunes. Like the yellow buses, it looms large in my memory, but to me Sandbanks represents the grim determination to enjoy a day at the seaside, heroically building sandcastles in gale force winds and rain.
Wandering along as an adult in the sunshine was a bit weird, as I could both identify things and yet not find them how I remembered. And classically, as is always the case with childhood memories, it was a good deal smaller.
Before long, I found myself waiting for the Sandbanks Ferry, having paid my pound to cross. The ferry hadn’t changed at all.
The ferry is a chain ferry or floating bridge, which is to a boat as a tram is to a bus. That is to say, it is attached to two great chains that run across the bottom the harbour mouth, which function like the rails of a train – they keep it on course and it pulls itself along them in order to move. This has two main effects:
Firstly, the ferry can’t really manoeuvre and there have been a few accidents with yachts sailing into it over the years.
Secondly, you can’t really feel when it starts moving, which can be a bit of a shock when you’ve suddenly crossed the harbour mouth without noticing.
Isle of Purbeck
On the far side of the harbour mouth lie South Haven Point and Shell Bay, which has very few shells and an awful lot more lovely yellow sand. It also has the start of the South West Coast Path.
It was a trip to Plymouth last August that set me off on this whole coastal walk thing, when I decided I wanted to walk the South West Coast Path and then wondered if I could link up with it by walking from Gravesend.
Apparently I can, yes. And so, I took my first steps along the South West Coast Path onto the peninsula known as the Isle of Purbeck.
South West Coast Path
The South West Coast Path, which runs all around the West Country, differs from Britain’s other coastal paths in that it isn’t merely an invention for the purposes of tourism cobbled together out of hundreds of local footpaths and some new stretches to link them up.
It is actually the old patrol route of the coastguard, used to move from lighthouse to lighthouse keeping an eye out for smugglers. It is for this reason that it hugs the coast, allowing the coastguards to see into every cove. Of course, it hasn’t served that purpose for a very long time but it does mean we get a footpath with some truly excellent views out of it.
Grinning merrily, I set off along the water’s edge again, for the path runs along the beach along Shell Bay and Studland Bay beyond it. As I strolled along the sands, a huge dark cloud lowered overhead and gave a bit a half-hearted attempt at raining. In return, I showed my contempt by not putting on the cagoule I’d brought with me, leaving it rolled up in my bag.
‘Your rain is pitiful,’ I told the cloud. ‘It’s not worth the effort.’ Suitably chastened, it headed inland to find someone else to intimidate.
Towards the northern end of Studland Bay there was rather a lot of seaweed, decomposing nicely in the sun. It was, I think, what you might charitably call a ‘bracing’ and ‘natural’ aroma. The National Trust had put up a sign explaining that masses of foul-smelling seaweed is a natural and important part of the ecosystem, presumably to deter Mr and Mrs Suburbanite (and their holidaying 2.5 children) from loudly proclaiming that something must be done about it.
Rather gamely there was a café overlooking the largest, smelliest expanse of seaweed, catering mostly to the desperate and those with no sense of smell. I bought a cold drink there.
Fort Henry Bunker
From the café I followed a path up onto the cliff top which soon brought me to Fort Henry Bunker, a WW2 fortification built by Canadian engineers in 1943 to defend us against the expected German invasion.
The path continued along the cliff top before turning inland and taking me through Studland village where a bunch of surprisingly camera-shy mummers were getting into their costumes and practising their words. This struck me as odd, since mummers plays usually occur around Christmas but as I headed off, cries of ‘In comes I…’ ringing in my ears, I passed a wedding reception which I suspect they were planning to entertain.
I pressed on, the path taking me out along the cliffs until I reached Handfast Point. This was, as I had expected, much kinder on the nose than Studland Bay had been. It was however, a tad vertiginous.
Old Harry Rocks
The cliffs are part of the chalk ridge that gave rise to Old Harry Rocks, the Needles and the western end of the Isle of Wight.
I’m not good with heights and it felt pretty alarming to be wandering about near the cliff edge, especially when a Labrador that thinks she’s a mountain goat was charging about like a mad thing.
On turning inland, it became immediately obvious that the height of Handfast Point was nothing and that for quite a while the going would mostly be upwards.
The path climbed and climbed and climbed some more as it mounted the chalk ridge that forms Ballard Down. After a while the path became less open, surrounded by trees and hedgerow, and began to steeply descend in the form of steps. I passed what appeared to be a school outing heading the other way and then found myself back in the open, getting my first view of Swanage and Swanage Bay.
The path kept descending, mostly lurking amid the trees near the cliff edge, before it suddenly turned into a number of urban streets and led me down towards Swanage’s sea front.
Swanage was absolutely packed. I think half of Dorset had decided to spend Saturday afternoon there, which gave it a very holiday atmosphere. Ice cream in hand I ambled slowly (and tiredly) along the seafront taking in the view.
Battle of Swanage Bay
Swanage is first mentioned (as Swanwich) in the 877 Anglo Saxon-Chronicle as the site of a naval victory over the Danes by King Alfred:
‘This year came the Danish army into Exeter from Wareham; whilst the navy sailed west about, until they met with a great mist at sea, and there perished one hundred and twenty ships at Swanwich.’
I wandered around the busy streets of Swanage, which appeared to consist almost entirely of shops selling tourist paraphernalia and no actual useful goods whatsoever. Even so, it had a certain holiday-ish charm.
At the end of one street I found a pub called the White Swan.
I decided not to try a pint of Piddle on account of already being dehydrated. Instead, I bought a bottle of water and headed for the railway station to catch a bus. Catching a train would have been little help as the branch line to Swanage was closed in 1972 and only partly reopened as a heritage railway in 1979.
Trains now run as far as Norden and there are plans to properly reconnect the line with the national rail network at Wareham but at present there’s no link. I therefore climbed aboard an open top bus for what turned out to be the most exciting bus journey of my life. I kid you not.
The Trees of Terror
The driver of the open top bus clearly believed in the need for speed and at various points cut up a cyclist and then another bus (he must surely have seen the latter if not the former).
The combination of velocity, no roof and overhanging foliage for much of the route across Purbeck made riding upstairs something of an experience and the passengers had bonded in adversity by the time the bus was safely aboard the Sandbanks Ferry. What do you mean we could have sat downstairs? Are you mad?
I made it back to Bournemouth station in plenty of time to catch my scheduled train (which was good as my ticket wasn’t valid for any other). I thus enjoyed a quiet and relaxed journey home in First Class while the rest of train got quite busy.
All in all, I was in pretty high spirits by the time I got home, although that didn’t last thirty seconds after I’d opened my post. But that, as they say, is another story entirely…
This time: 11 miles
Total since Gravesend: 366½ miles