MINE was not a lazy Sunday morning, for I found myself up and out of my cheap and cheerful hotel — the main rule of which appeared to be that no two staff members could have the same accent, whether it be foreign or domestic — and awaiting a bus under the gaze of the King’s Statue in Weymouth.
Waiting in Weymouth
By George, I’ve Got It!
As I stood there, not fully awake yet, I vaguely regretted not being able to stay at the same place as last week but to get anywhere last minute at the seaside on a bank holiday weekend was more or less miraculous. Also miraculous was that the bus showed up on time. Excellent, I thought. We’re off to a good start.
Will I never learn?
It showed up on time, yes. It left on time? No. Once stopped, the bus wouldn’t start again. Not a quirk one really wants in a bus. Eventually, after several attempts, one of which included him just sitting down for a smoke and glaring at his vehicle, the driver managed to cajole his recalcitrant omnibus into a semblance of life.
And then, finally, we were off…
Resuming the Jurassic Coast
Half an hour or so later, I was standing on the beach looking up at Burton Cliffs and wondering why the much-lauded Hive Beach Café wasn’t open yet.
What’s in a Name?
Burton Bradstock is recorded as ‘Bridetona’ in the Domesday Book, meaning ‘the village of the River Bride’. Over the centuries that corrupted to ‘Burton’, with the ‘Bradstock’ part coming from Bradenstoke Priory in Wiltshire, which inherited the village from the Abbey of St. Stephen in Caen, which in turn had been given the Manor of Brideton by King Henry I in payment of a debt.
The priory is long gone, having been dissolved seven Henries later and its mournful ruins can be found near Lyneham. Only its name lives on, attached to this little Dorset village.
I knew absolutely none of this as I set off but it was a beautiful morning as I passed any number of early morning dog walkers. As I strolled along the easy, grassy path, I thought that if the rest of the day could only be like this, then it would be an absolute doddle. That wasn’t looking too likely however.
Burton Cliff got just marginally higher and then rolled downwards back to sea level, taking the path along with it. Here was Burton Freshwater, the mouth of the River Bride and home to sprawling caravan park and camp site.
Freshwater Beach Holiday Park
The path now wandered inland and up to the caravan site, passing through a field full of donkeys which were skilfully ignoring the entreaties of a bunch of kids to come closer. I practically had to climb over them (kids and donkeys alike) to cross the stile that led me into the Freshwater Beach Holiday Park, where I immediately got lost.
It all looked so easy on the map. The path went into the camp site on one side and came out on the other. Easy. Not so much on the ground. The proprietors seemed to have an aversion to signage, especially signage that might assist walkers in crossing their site, because of course walkers weren’t paying to be there.
East Cliff (only not)
I eventually spotted some footpath signs on the far side and followed them only to find that I had not quite gone the right way. I was still heading east but I was on the inland route, separated from the cliff by my least favourite type of terrain, the golf course.
Even so, it was still pretty pleasant and it was only when the path wound down a hill and dropped me into West Bay that I realised that I had accidently taken the easy route. The cliff – East Cliff – had only been maybe 40m high as it approached West Bay but it looked very much as though it lost all that height in about the same distance. The descent would have been steep.
‘Oh well,’ I said with a shrug, ‘it’s not like I skipped that bit on purpose.’
I ambled around to the other side of the harbour and purchased a nice bacon sandwich and a hot cup of tea. There, armed with the Ultimate Food of Walking, I sat and contemplated West Bay.
West Bay was originally known as Bridport Harbour, which is a good name for a settlement that has a harbour and lies just two miles from the market town of Bridport. But not good enough for the Great Western Railway, whose arrival in 1857 saw it renamed as West Bay, because they thought it more attractive.
By 1930, GWR had to admit its cunning plan to establish a new resort had not been successful and railway passenger services ceased. Goods trains kept going for another thirty years but the 1960s brought Dr Beeching and even the tracks were torn up. It still has a harbour though.
Stabbed with a Bridport Dagger
Bridport itself is famous for its rope-making, leading to the marvellous phrase ‘stabbed with a Bridport dagger’ as a euphemism for ‘hanged’.
The path up West Cliff out of West Bay involved a fairly sedate and steady climb up to about 60 m or so, which was nothing prepared to what was to come…
Before long, the path rolled down through Eype’s Mouth, which is apparently home to rare beetles. I was more interested in the meaning of eype, which is ‘a steep place’ in Old English.
On the far side of Lower Eype the path rose, dropped, and rose again to climb the hill known as Thorncombe Beacon. At 157 m, this would be the second highest cliff of the day. And it felt like it.
I rested at the top of Thorncombe Beacon for some time, only choosing to move on as the wind started to pick up.
The route onward crossed Doghouse Hill, which seemed to me to consist mostly of cows. The descent was a lot gentler than the ascent and I was suddenly glad that I had chosen to do it in this direction.
At the foot of the hill lay Seatown, a tiny hamlet where I procured some more water and — more importantly — an ice cream, which I happily devoured. Some others who had climbed Thorncombe Beacon with me nodded their greeting in the street as if we were part of a special club for people too stupid to just go around things.
Actually, as you get closer to it, Golden Cap seems somehow less tall.
I think it’s because the land around it is also pretty high and it slumps towards the sea rather than presenting a sheer cliff face. This is in part due to its geology, with the sloping part being mostly greenstone — which actually is golden coloured where exposed — and the lower, more vertical cliffs being limestone and shale.
The path up and down is steep, and composed of an awful lot of steps, but they zigzag up the side of it and so, somehow, it felt a lot easier going than Thorncombe Beacon. The lack of bovine obstruction was also a plus.
Earl of Antrim Memorial
At the top is a memorial plaque to the Earl of Antrim, who was president of the National Trust until his death in 1977.
There are also some awesome views although the one looking back was slightly spoiled by a family who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — keep any control over their kids. I may have become much better at heights in the last couple of weeks or so but when their child of maybe six or seven years started climbing the barrier rail I just couldn’t watch.
St Gabriels Mouth
After the steps down from Golden Cap, the hills dropped down to a stream and bridge near St Gabriels Mouth. A fair bit of undulation followed but at least there was nothing extreme like Golden Cap or Thorncombe Beacon.
Hidden away in the trees were a load more steps taking me up to the top of the cliff called Cain’s Folly, which was about 140 m high. It was part of a series of cliffs that keeps changing dramatically. In 2000 a two mile stretch of cliff face just fell right off.
Fortunately, it totally failed to collapse while I was at its summit, sitting on a bench admiring the view and being desperately befriended by an elderly couple’s dog, which hoped I might have food to share. The elderly couple cheerfully informed me they’d done this stretch half a dozen times now and that they’d moved to Devon from the Thames Valley, not all that far from where I grew up.
This put me in mind of my uncle and aunt, who live in Ottery St Mary in Devon, not far at all from the Jurassic Coast. I felt slightly guilty at not having visited them for far too many years but think I was right not to stay in Ottery while walking.
‘Hello Uncle and Aunt, can I stay? I won’t be here except when sleeping and I need you to drive me to Burton at silly o’clock in the morning, what’s for dinner?’ — This seems to me to be even ruder than not visiting. I like my uncle and aunt a lot so I really must go and see them. But not while on a walk.
Simply not Cricket
While I was talking to the elderly couple atop Cain’s Folly, they told me I had a passenger, selfishly using my legs to move around faster.
My passenger was an enormous green grasshopper, who judging from his size had clear aspirations to be a locust. We carefully detached him from the back of my shirt and sent him on his way before the Very Hungry Dog could subject him to a taste test.
It tried to rain as I descended into Charmouth, a small town that was a thriving resort in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and which claims Jane Austen amongst its visitors. One of its hotels, the Queen’s Arms, can not only claim a fugitive Charles II as a boarder when it was inn, but was originally an abbot’s house in which Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, lived when she first came to England to marry Henry’s elder brother Arthur.
It’s not clear if the pub ever actually showed Catherine’s arms but, if it did, then they should have looked something like this. As queen, she would have shown the arms of England on one side of the shield and those of Spain on the other. Spain’s arms were pretty busy-looking at the time.
To the west of Charmouth is the cliff known as Black Ven, a 130m high structure of limestone and clay that apparently has the largest and most studied mudslides in Europe. With Black Ven and its neighbours having spectacularly engulfed the beach a few years ago, the South West Coast Path had been diverted on account of it otherwise being in mid air. The diversion took in such heady and interesting sights as the A3052 and another golf course.
Eventually, just as I was losing the will to live, I found myself in Lyme Regis.
That Familiar Feeling
I’d been to Lyme Regis before when I was young; we’d traipsed about on the beach collecting fossils and apparently risking imminent death by mudslide.
Mostly, I remember that my feet really hurt due to the pebbles on the beach. So, when I trudged slowly, tired and footsore, into Lyme Regis it seemed only right that my feet ached.
‘The Pearl of Dorset’
Lyme Regis is lovely, full of tiny, tiny streets and oozing with character. Also, crammed with people on a bank holiday weekend, and jammed with traffic, much of which has no idea how to cope with the tiny, tiny streets. Throw in the X57 bus, whose route takes it right through the middle, and you have some entertaining chaos.
I went and found a café, facing onto the beach near a pretty little bridge, and relaxed with a cup of tea and a slice of lemon drizzle cake while my feet returned to feeling something like normal.
Tea and cake not being quite restorative enough, I purchased my second ice cream of the day and wandered slowly along the seafront, which was a little bit busy.
Lyme Regis has a pretty busy history too — Lyme is in the Domesday Book but didn’t gain its ‘Regis’ until a royal charter from Edward I in 1284.
Notwithstanding its royalist name — and a confirmation of the charter by Elizabeth I in 1591 — Lyme Regis went Parliamentarian during the English Civil War and withstood an eight week siege by Prince Maurice during 1644.
Not yet done with rebellion and treason, it was then the landing place for the Duke of Monmouth at the start of the Monmouth Rebellion, the Duke’s abortive attempt to overthrow his uncle, James II.
On a more loyal note it is twinned with St George’s, the largest town in Britain’s oldest remaining colony, Bermuda; Admiral Sir George Somers, Bermuda’s accidental founder (he got shipwrecked), hailed from the town.
Do I Stay or Do I Go?
Time was pressing on now and I wondered if I should just stop at Lyme Regis and not press on to Seaton as I had planned. Seaton was a good seven miles away by coastal path and Sunday bus services pretty much meant I needed to get there inside of three hours.
Could I manage that kind of speed after already walking eleven and a half miles, including Golden Cap, Thorncombe Beacon and Cain’s Folly?
Sounded like a challenge to me…
A National Nature Reserve
The path to Seaton was one long magical leafy tunnel, as it climbed and dived through the heavily wooded Undercliff, a heavily-wooded terrain comprised of old landslips.
The path there varied from odd snatches of metalled road to mud tracks — with a lot of mud — and short flights of steps up or down every few yards or so. In places the canopy was dense enough to create real gloom and at one point there was even a dark and mysterious pool.
All in all, it was probably the best leafy tunnel adventure I have ever had the pleasure to walk and I whisked along surprisingly briskly. I think perhaps my brain was too busy trying to ensure I kept my footing to remember how tired my feet were. Along the way, I saw squirrels, mice, a couple of students and this:
Allhallows Water Pumping Station
One thing I couldn’t see, as there was no easy way to get to it from the path, was ‘Goat Island’. In the first ever scientifically described and recorded landslip, a chunk of cliff broke away in 1839, leaving a fissure, with one piece detached in the middle. It’s pretty cool but all you can see from the path is the top of the cliffs.
Snarly Beasts of Evil
Eventually the leafy tunnel of adventure spat me out onto a path by a ploughed field where a man out walking his three dogs made very little effort to control them when two of them decided to be snarly beasts of evil.
Actually, to be fair to the dogs, one was old and unfazed, one was young and excitable and one was easily led. So the young one decided to run at me all growling and snarling and clearly intent on taking a bite, while the middle dog kinda leapt on the bandwagon.
It quickly turned out that Young Dog was a cowardly bully as for all his snapping and growling when i put my bag between him and me and rammed it into his nose he backed off pretty sharpish. We replayed the scene several times over before his owner – who could see this quite clearly — finally strolled over and gave his errant dog a slap. Did he apologise that his dog was trying to attack me? No, of course not. What he said was ‘you can go past now’.
End of the Undercliff
As I entered Seaton, I saw a sign at this end of the Undercliff warning that it took three and a half to four hours to walk. I’m glad I hadn’t known that or I probably wouldn’t have done it in two and a half. It might explain why I really wanted to have a nice long sit down though.
Axmouth Old Bridge
I crossed the River Axe on the old toll bridge, then backtracked slightly to take a picture of it from its newer replacement:
I made it to the bus stop with minutes to spare, plus several more when it was inevitably late. Lateness clearly didn’t sit well with the driver since he drove as though practising for the Grand Prix. That made going back through crowded Lyme Regis in a double decker bus quite exciting, I can tell you.
This time: 18 miles
Total since Gravesend: 446 miles