MY LEGS hurt. Actually, I think even the hurt hurts. But on balance, I’m feeling pretty good about it.
It’s been a while since my last walk on account of a number of factors including, but not limited to, being a bit busy, my finances dwindling and not wanting to climb hills in the heat of the summer.
With the weather having turned cooler, I decided it was time to take a day off from everyday stuff and things and go for another walk anyway. As it is, I’m somewhat behind on the plan, which sees me in Plymouth by the end of September.
Red Eyes & Roe Deer
So, I reverted to the usual plan of not going to bed and thus was able to catch the last night bus, which meant in turn that I could catch the first train to Bournemouth out of London Waterloo. Not having slept, I spent much of the journey snoozing although, by some magical means, I awoke just past Lymington just in time to see a couple of dozen roe deer grazing merrily away. Deer and the New Forest are inextricably linked, the forest having been founded for the purpose of hunting them but, they being shy creatures, it’s pretty rare that one sees them. Thus, I felt pretty pleased.
Back to Bournemouth
I arrived at Bournemouth pretty much bang on time, which gave me twelve minutes to find the bus to Swanage. The bus station and railway station are right next to each other – Bournemouth even signposts it as the ‘Bournemouth transport hub’ – and so this simple challenge was easily accomplished.
The weather not being as sunny as last time, the bus to Swanage was not open-topped, obviating the need to dodge low branches, although the irregular thunk of them impacting the bus was distracting.
Isle of Purbeck
The bus crossed the mouth of the Poole Harbour on the Sandbanks Ferry and weaved its way through the narrow, winding lanes of the Isle of Purbeck. I was still bang on time, which surprised and delighted me, and I gave myself some mental points for excellent planning. I also gave myself bonus points for spotting a pre-Worboys road sign as the bus entered Studland.
In no time at all I found myself standing back on the seafront in Swanage, looking out to the Isle of Wight, ready to begin my walk.
The first half mile was along the sea front, bringing me to the Victorian pier, built between 1895 and 1897.
A small scale ferry service runs from it to Poole Quay, a mere shadow of the pier’s heyday when it ran full scale steamer services to Poole and Bournemouth. In those days the pier and nearby quayside was served by a small tramway system, the tracks of which are still visible set into the stone of the quay. These days the pier is home to the UK’s oldest existing diving school, founded in 1958.
As I ambled along the quayside, I encountered a sign for Marsh’s Boat Trips, which made me chuckle as that morning I had (as normal) put on the nearest clean t-shirt to hand and, in this case, that meant one adorned with an image of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. I peered curiously over the side to see if any Deep Ones were looking back up at me but I guess Old Man Marsh just isn’t sacrificing enough tourists.
Wellington Clock Tower
Just past Swanage pier I came upon the curious structure known as the Wellington Clock Tower despite it not actually containing a clock:
As a subtle presage of what was to come – and one to which I paid insufficient heed – I now climbed a short distance to Peveril Point, marking the southern extent of Swanage Bay.
Durlston Country Park
From Peveril Point the path followed the line of Peveril Bay, with the environs transitioning from buildings at the edge of Swanage to glorious leafy tunnel-like paths through Durlston Country Park.
I followed these paths with a smile on my face, noting that the low dry stonewalls, used in places to mark their edges, incorporated some random inscriptions, such as street names and a warning that Throwing Stones Is Dangerous.
The path was leading me towards Durlston Head, a renowned site for fossils from the Lower Cretaceous, ever since the first 1850s discoveries of fragments by famed nineteenth century dinosaur hunter, Samuel Beckles.
Pretty much the entire coast from Old Harry Rocks to Exmouth is famous for its fossils, giving rise to its popular description as ‘the Jurassic Coast’. It mostly comprises strata of limestone and clay, which sounds to me like the whole coast is just one good mix away from simply becoming cement. Fortunately, it would take a lot of mixing.
This thought amused me greatly as I approached Durlston Head, which was good as it buffered my dismay when I realised I wasn’t approaching Durlston Head after all.
Naturally, it was at this exact point, while I stood and stared at the diversion sign, that it started to rain. Seriously, the timing was absolutely exquisite.
Little Old Lady with Dog
Fortunately, the diversion wasn’t a long one, cutting out just the actual head plus a cafe and a giant globe. The diversion signage was confusing however and I prevailed upon that universal godsend for the reasonably well-spoken walker, the ubiquitous Little Old Lady with Dog.
Little Old Lady with Dog was very helpful and directed me down the right path, which led me to the oddly-named Tilly Whim Caves.
Tilly Whim Caves
The etymology of ‘Tilly Whim’ is uncertain but it is believed that Tilly was a quarryman and a whim was a type of early crane. Either way, the caves are actually galleries where Purbeck stone was quarried, especially during the Napoleonic Wars, when they provided stone for fortifications along the entire South coast. The caves were last quarried in 1812 and today they have become an undisturbed roost for bats.
Anvil Point Lighthouse
Glad that I had packed my walking cagoule, I pressed on through the drizzle, encountering Little Old Lady with Dog again who wished me well upon my walk. I can only assume that she, or her dog, had special powers because no sooner had she said this than the rain cloud moved away and I was in hot sunshine, stuffing the cagoule back into my bag as I passed Anvil Point Lighthouse. The weather would continue to alternate between sun and rain all day.
With the sun now shining merrily the path became a riot of butterflies with more species than I was able to identify. Tortoiseshells, common blues, fritillaries, marbled whites and orange tips were amongst those I could recognise and they added a rather lovely quality to the whole affair as I ambled merrily along the cliff top towards Dancing Ledge.
Dancing Ledge is a flat area of rock at the base of the cliff, accessed via an old disused quarry. In one part of the ledge is a rectangular dip which forms a swimming pool, blasted out of the rock for the use of Durnford School.
A preparatory school in Langton Matravers, Durnford was notorious for being one of the most Spartan and brutal of its ilk, with a morning ‘strip and swim’ session compulsory in all weathers around the turn of last century. The stone excavated from dancing Ledge was used to build the harbour in Ramsgate in Kent.
I took the opportunity to sit down and have a small rest at Dancing Ledge, which rest was immediately curtailed by another brief shower of rain. The steps down to the ledge having been treacherous when dry, I knew that if I wanted to regain the cliff top, I would have to do so immediately or else wait for the rain to stop and the steps to dry thoroughly. An undignified scramble therefore ensued and I pressed on towards Seacombe Cliff with the rain stopping shortly thereafter.
A little further on from Seacombe Cliff was Winspit Quarry, which I was quietly excited to arrive at. A favourite location for the BBC in the late 1970s and early 80s, Winspit was used for both Blakes 7 and Doctor Who. In the latter it appeared as Skaro, the Daleks’ home planet, in the 1979 serial Destiny of the Daleks.
The quarry has been disused since 1940 and some nice big signs warn that it is dangerous and that rock climbing is forbidden. So, I picked my way past the rock climbers, not to mention the numerous families enjoying their picnics in the galleries, as I wandered about comparing what I could see with mental images of a faraway planet ravaged by nuclear war.
Just after Winspit I was unexpectedly irritated when I was overtaken on the pathway by a young couple who thanked me for stepping aside in tones that smacked heavily of ‘at last’. Admittedly, they were bombing ahead at quite a pace and I wasn’t but even so it rankled. I reminded myself that I had covered six miles from Swanage while they had joined the path from the direction of Worth Matravers, only a mile away.
I paused to let them dash on ahead while I took a look back along the way I’d just come.
St Aldhelm’s Head
I was now heading out along the Portland stone outcrop that forms St Aldhelms Head, named for an early Christian scholar and Bishop of Sherbourne who died in 709.
The hills and fields around this headland were the site for numerous tests and experiments during the early development of radar during the Second World War.
St Aldhelm’s Chapel
Atop St Aldhelm’s Head is a tiny Norman chapel over 800 years old. Getting to it caused me some concern though as the only way up the quarried cliff face from the ledge I was on was a short flight of steps up the cliff face without any handrails. I’m not great with heights; my focus was entirely on the steps with no looking around whatsoever.
The next section of the coast path proved to be a bit of a surprise. The going looked to be pretty level but that was little more than an illusion, with a hidden valley waiting to catch me unawares.
Before I knew it I was looking down in disbelief at a flight of 205 steps leading from St Aldhelm’s Head down to Pier Bottom below. A number of walkers were spaced out – in more ways than one – along this staircase, some looking as though they were contemplating jumping as a way to end the pain.
At the bottom of the steps were just a few metres of level ground before a second flight up again: another 147 steps leading to the top of Emmetts Hill.
I rested at the top, feeling as though my legs were on fire. I admit I’m not very fit but really, that’s 352 steps – I deny anyone not to find that hard going. It was at this point that I realised I’d drunk all my water and that I could really do with anther drink. Oh well. Deduct several points for poor planning…
I headed onwards, passing a monument to fallen Royal Marines as I approached Chapman’s Pool.
Looking ahead across Chapman’s Pool, my heart sank. It was clear that I needed to navigate the valley whose stream feeds into the pool, which meant more descent and ascent.
There was a long way around, skirting right around the entire valley, but I chose the more direct route, once I’d spotted it…
A small sign pointed to the ‘valley bottom’, apparently indicating that I should simply step off the top of the hill and plummet. However as I was looking at it, a puzzled expression on my face, I spotted a second walker fretting over the same thing. Together we peered down the steep hill on which we stood, spotting a flight of precarious steps that disappeared into the undergrowth. One following the other, we descended into the valley along what was, although a marked footpath on the map, technically a diversion from the South West Coast Path.
In the best tradition of shortcuts it was hard going and progress would have been easier had either of us packed a machete. When we eventually made it back up to the other side of the valley, I had to sit down for a moment.
‘I was going to do this last week,’ said the Other Walker, ‘only it seemed too much like hard work. We have to go up that next.’ He nodded towards Houns-tout, a hill that rose up high above the surrounding cliffs (you can see it in the Chapman’s Pool photo) – another 167 steps.
I took them in batches of ten to fifteen, pausing to rest after each one.
‘That’s the hard bit done,’ said Other Walker, ‘it’s only normal undulation from here on.’ He looked across at where we’d come.
‘Someone got bitten by an adder there last week,’ he said, indicating the path from St Aldhelm’s Head. ‘Had to be airlifted to hospital.’
I thought about this. Adders tend to flee if they hear you coming, they usually only bite if you step on them by appearing too quickly for them to get out of the way.
‘Surprised anyone had the energy to rush about up there,’ I said. Other Walker agreed.
‘Good luck,’ he said, ’that’s me done, I’m going back down the same way.’ And off he went, picking his way back down the steps.
With my legs now feeling like jelly, I picked my way along the uneven, unfenced path at the top of a cliff 490 feet (150m) above sea level. What, after all, could possibly go wrong? I could get lost, that’s what.
After Houns-tout the path descended fairly steeply and proceeded to undulate for the next three miles or so. Annoyingly, I managed to follow the wrong waymark – for a local footpath rather than the South West Coast Path – on Houns-tout and set off downhill in the wrong direction, forcing me to re-ascend Houns-tout in order to regain the path.
A brief lie down to stretch out my legs was in order before I could continue along the path above the Kimmeridge Ledges. Though my legs were aching my spirits were still high, buoyed up spotting the occasional rabbit and, three miles after Houns-tout, this:
The Plan is Dead…
I knew by now that my plan for the day was in tatters. I had planned to keep going beyond Kimmeridge Bay, which lay beyond the next headland, heading on another six and a half miles to Lulworth Cove. I had then intended to catch the last bus of the day back to Swanage. Two problems with this plan now made themselves clear:
Firstly, even if the going was good, I would not reach Lulworth in time for the last bus – I had greatly underestimated how much this kind of strenuous ascent and descent impacts one’s journey time.
Secondly, my legs were threatening to rebel in the face of any further ups and downs. I knew then that I was going to end my walk in Kimmeridge, a tiny village utterly lacking in any form of transport out.
‘Ah well,’ I thought, ‘I’ll work it out. Somehow.’
With a feeling of relief, I descended from Hen Cliff down into Kimmeridge Bay, feeling by now quite dehydrated. The Marine Centre there sold no refreshments but a very nice lady fetched me a glass of water from their kitchen and gave me directions to both an ice cream van overlooking the bay and a café in Kimmeridge village, which lay about three quarters of a mile to the north.
Having procured a bottle of water and a can of coke from the ice cream van, I sat at the edge of Kimmeridge Bay car park, looking out at the bay and thinking.
Long Live the Plan!
Lulworth was six and a half miles away and the last bus was in an hour – there was no way I could make it. Kimmeridge had no buses, nor taxis, nor phone signal so I couldn’t call a taxi from anywhere else. It became rapidly apparent that my best bet, short of sleeping in a hedge, was to walk five more miles inland to Corfe Castle, where I might just possibly make the last bus or, failing that, taxis should be available.
My plan revised, I rested my feet and drank my beverages.
Executing the New Plan
The Road to Corfe Castle
My going was slow but steady as I traversed the winding country lanes, idly categorising drivers according to their reactions to pedestrians.
There being no pavement or verge, I would stop moving as a vehicle coming the other way approached, standing as close to the edge of the road as I was able. Most drivers acknowledged this with a wave, inferring that if I’d stopped moving, I probably wouldn’t wander out in front of them. A few gave me sour looks or bombed past with their foot to the floor. The latter were almost always those under thirty.
In addition to various species of motorist, my sojourn along these unclassified back roads showed me a variety of wildlife including a rather startled pheasant and a whole field full of goats. Most exotic of all though were two lost American tourists who stopped their car to ask me if I knew where their hotel was. Not being from Corfe Castle, and their hotel not being on my map, I did not. However five minutes later they stopped by me again, having now learned where it was from someone else, and gave me a lift for the last mile into Corfe Castle.
Almost inevitably, I had missed the last useful bus out of Corfe Castle by minutes, with the next one not due for two hours. So I popped my head into the Royal British Legion, figuring that fading old soldiers were bound to need taxis from time to time, and got the number of a firm based in Corfe.
All’s Well That Ends Well
Less than five minutes later I was in a taxi heading for Wareham, where I caught the very train I had been planning to connect with in Bournemouth.
All in all, a satisfying day’s walk. Less coastal distance than I’d wanted (13½ miles of actual coast path plus 4 miles back towards Corfe Castle and well over half a mile in cumulative ascent and descent) but extra points self-awarded for sufficient problem solving to get home exactly when planned.
This time: 13½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 380 miles