SATURDAY’S walk marked the first occasion on these coastal perambulations on which I have not completed a section purely as a day trip. A friend, whom we shall here call ‘Alice’, has asked me several times when I’ll have to stop day-tripping and start staying over, and the answer is apparently now.
Plans in Motion
This turn of events was made possible by the lovely proprietors of Fosters Guest House in Weymouth, who not only allowed me to book a single night during August (most seaside establishments have a two-night minimum policy during the summer season) but also to do so for less than the cost of another day’s rail fares.
Having fixed my destination as definitely Weymouth, I then had to return to Durdle Door, which is easier said than done.
Easy or otherwise, I was keen to continue on from my last walk for three reasons:
Firstly, I felt that I had cut the last walk short; secondly the tourist bus that makes getting there possible only runs until the start of September – so it had to be this week or next – and last but not least because the thought of walking up Swyre Head scared me. And I wasn’t having that…
Plans and Information
So, the usual Plan A put me on a train to Wareham at some ungodly hour, where I cunningly intended to catch the seasonal X43 tourist bus despite an almost complete lack of bus signage relating to this service.
Fortunately, the very nice woman in Wareham’s visitor information centre was able to direct me to the correct bus stop, armed with a rather chunky booklet containing timetables for many Dorset buses that I’ll probably never need.
Bussed and Bust are Homonyms
I boarded the bus in high spirits and refused to be put off by the driver’s parting words to another of his passengers:
‘Well, I would take it out of service to deal with it but then the only replacement would be some creaking wreck from the 1930s.’
Well, that’s all right, then.
La-La-La Can’t Hear You
Any concern about undefined problems with the bus were quickly put aside as I discovered that the service was subsidised by Dorset County Council and thus ridiculously cheap.
Besides, I was already sufficiently concerned about walking up Swyre Head that there really wasn’t much room in my head for any additional concern.
It was pretty grey and miserable when I arrived back in Lulworth Cove, although the rain held off as I traipsed over the top of Hambury Tout, waiting instead until I reached Durdle Door and began the day’s walk in earnest.
The rain was not at all welcome. I was already concerned that Swyre Head looked challengingly steep (and aware that I’d not really proven up to mastering steepness of late) without it becoming wet and slippery. The thought flashed through my head that maybe I should claim that rain stopped play and take an inland route – a thought I immediately castigated as craven and unworthy.
I saw another walker heading along the path and quietly followed him, knowing that if I was going to do this, I had best do it quickly before the rain got to work. I traversed a short section of path that had alarmed me last time, repeating the mantra ‘there is only the path’ and not looking at all at the edge.
In truth, I don’t think it was actually scary but Swyre Head had me rattled.
A Head Full of Fear
I’ve been trying to think what it is about this particular hill that so alarmed me and I think it’s partly because, when the land looms up in front of you, unsure if its the floor or a would-be wall, then you can see all too clearly how close the path really is to the edge. It’s also partly about exposure: halfway up a steep hill you have a drop behind you, as well as the cliff to one side.
The path dropped surprisingly gently down to the wonderfully named Scratchy Bottom and I looked up through the intermittent drizzle at the terrifying height of Swyre Head.
Actually it’s not that bad, close up, I thought. True, there are no steps, but it looks doable. And so it was.
I’m pleased to say that this time, I only stopped once for a rest, although no one else climbing needed to. I took it quite slowly and felt extremely relieved when I got to the top. The view would probably have been truly magnificent if the sky hadn’t been full of grey.
As if sensing my victory, the rain stopped for a moment, and I paused to consider my next steps (and catch my breath)… should I now take a handy inland path, or should I continue along the coast? Flushed with victory as I was, there was only one possible answer…
The Coast Path
The descent from Swyre Head was rather less brutal and allowed me good views of my next ascent, which was Bat’s Head.
It was hard going up Bat’s Head, perhaps because I chose the shorter, but steeper, direct route rather than one that turned off diagonally along the cliff edge. It had just started raining in earnest again and I wanted to spend as little time as possible scrambling up its muddy sides in a downpour.
Upon reaching the top I more or less collapsed and just lay there in the rain panting from exertion. This has got to be making me fitter, right?
At the top of Bat’s Head, I started talking to a couple of other walkers who had camped at Lulworth and were doing a circular walk. I then chatted amiably to another group of three walkers who had the same plan as I – to work to Weymouth. They left me behind on the ascent up White Nothe but I would meet them again and pass them up at the top. Not so great on ascents, me, but pretty good on the level.
White Nothe means ‘white nose’ on account of an apparently nasal-looking projection from the cliff. I couldn’t see that but I could see quite a lot from the cliff top, the rain having finally given up and moved off, with blue skies making a tentative appearance.
I left the other walkers sitting atop White Nothe and pressed on ahead, following the path through some National Trust land along the top the Burning Cliff, a landform whose name isn’t metaphorical.
The geological makeup of this particular section includes bituminous shale, which spontaneously combusted in 1826, causing the cliff to burn underground, smouldering away for several years. Such fires continue to present a potential hazard along this coast, with a landslide burning through the summer of 2000 in Kimmeridge Bay.
All Right with Height
It was while I was walking the Burning Cliff, noting with disappointment, that it wasn’t on fire, that I noticed something very odd. I was peering over the edge of the cliff without concern. My crippling fear of heights had apparently remained in Scratchy Bottom, whimpering at the path up Swyre Head, because I felt absolutely fine.
A bit of experimentation with vertiginous cliff edges followed, showing that I still felt some alarm, but that my often excessive vertigo had much diminished. The mind truly is a funny thing. Still, this put me in a tremendously good mood. Not only had I conquered my unnecessary fear of Swyre Head but apparently I’d (temporarily) conquered my general fear of heights into the bargain.
The path took me past the field where Ringstead once stood – a prosperous village long vanished, possibly due to the plague – and down to the modern village of Ringstead, situated to the west of the original.
There, I was overtaken by a particularly speedy grandmother, arms full of seaside paraphernalia, on her way to meet her grandchildren for lunch. She bid me a good day as she passed me – along with an explanation for her hurry – and commented on how glorious the weather had become. I realised then that she was right, blue skies and blazing sunshine was now the weather of the moment.
Wending Through Woodland
Having stopped to buy a cold drink in Ringstead, I now found the path continued at more-or-less sea level for a bit before climbing some low cliffs en route to Osmington Mills. For some of the way, it was open clifftop farmland, but for quite a lot of it, the path was like this:
Osmington Mills lies on the coast while Osmington village is just a little way inland. The painter John Constable spent his honeymoon there in 1816 and painted several pictures of the area, including some of the cliffs that I was traversing.
I stopped and rested in Osmington Mills, availing myself of the handy Smugglers Inn, which was absolutely heaving (as one might expect on an August Saturday lunchtime).
Suitably refreshed, and powered by Gin and Tonic, I then trekked onwards over the fairly low cliffs of Black Head and Redcliff Point. Here, two sights presented themselves to me: Firstly, a perfect line of cows, picking their way down the footpath, and secondly this:
A little old lady, doddering her way down the path on Redcliff Point, opined that the path got steeper every day. I sympathised, although the path was fairly shallow, and asked her for directions as little old ladies know everything.
A short while later I was descending into Bowleaze Cove, which is dominated by the fading, empty glory of the Riviera Hotel.
An extended family of holidaymakers were peering through the fence at the Riviera and I was able to sound ridiculously knowledgeable as one said ‘I wonder when it was built’, and I could answer ‘mid-1940s’ in passing.
Suitably smug, I purchased in ice cream on the beach and made my way across sand, pebbles and a handy sea wall / promenade along the line of Weymouth Bay.
I soon realised that I would be passing right by my B&B and could drop off my bag, since I would hardly be needing my coat and OS map from here. Thus unencumbered, I wandered through Weymouth at my leisure, freed for once of any real time constraint.
With a population of 53k, Weymouth is a thriving resort town which developed as an outlying part of what is now one of its suburbs, Wyke Regis.
Chartered in the thirteenth century, it was licensed as a wool port in 1310 but proved so accessible to French raids that the licence was transferred to Poole in 1433.
What had been two separate, rival towns – Melcombe Regis, north of the River Wey and Weymouth, south of the Wey – were united in 1571 by Act of Parliament.
Weymouth’s parliamentary connections continue with Sir Christopher Wren, who became its MP in 1702. He also controlled the quarries on the nearby Isle of Portland between 1675 and 1717 and it is not exactly a coincidence that his most famous masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral in London, is constructed from Portland stone.
Another Weymouth resident, the painter Sir James Thornhill, decorated the cathedral’s interior. He became MP for Weymouth in 1722.
Weymouth first became known as a resort in 1780, when the Duke of Gloucester, brother to George III, built a house in the town and overwintered there. Weymouth’s seafront – the Esplanade – comprises many buildings from that period, with Georgian and Regency terraces built between 1770 and 1855.
I took off my boots and splashed about in the sea for a bit, letting the water cool my feet (although the sea was actually quite warm) before heading along the coast path again.
It meandered round the town harbour, past Nothe Fort, a Victorian defensive structure commissioned in 1872 at a cost of £120k. Over the years its weaponry was upgraded but it wasn’t until 1940 that it got to fire on real targets, which turned out to be refugees fleeing the Channel Islands who were greatly alarmed to be shelled on their approach to safety.
The path soon passed Weymouth Breakwater, one of several breakwaters forming the massive Portland Harbour. The first breakwater was built between 1849 and 1872, using blocks of Portland stone. In 1906 two more were added and, to protect against submarine attack, the obsolete warship HMS Hood was scuttled across the southern entrance to the 1848 breakwater in 1916. Its wreck is still there.
A naval port for over a century, Portland Harbour was sold by the Royal Navy in 1996 and is now a mostly recreational harbour; the sailing events of the 2012 Olympic Games will be held there.
A little further on was Sandsfoot Castle, a Henrician Device Fort built in the late 1530s as one of a pair with Portland Castle.
Surrendered to Parliament, it served as a mint during the English Civil War and was governed for some time thereafter by Humphrey Weld, scion of a powerful landowning family based in Lulworth. The Welds still own the Lulworth Estate – comprising most of the non-MOD land around Lulworth – and even Durdle Door!
After Sandsfoot Castle, the coast path joined with the Rodwell Trail, a leafy-sided flat tarmac footpath and cycle path that I initially failed to recognise for what it was. It was only when I passed the overgrown remnants of old station platforms, labelled with a modern but British Railways-era style sign, that I realised this was the long defunct Portland Branch Railway.
The first branch line to Portland was built in 1865 but didn’t survive the 1960s and Dr Beeching’s famous axe. It was closed in 1965 and the bridge to Portland removed six years later. These days it is, as I’ve said, a footpath and cycle path, cutting through Weymouth from the station to Ferry Bridge.
I arrived at Ferry Bridge – the bridge to Portland – not long before sunset.
The current bridge was built in 1985 to replace a rusting structure from 1839. Before 1839, crossing was by fording at low tide or else by ferry (hence the name).
Reaching Ferry Bridge made it four hundred miles from Gravesend, so that seemed a suitable achievement.
I ambled back along the Rodwell Trail, passing through long-abandoned halts and under bridges, arriving back in central Weymouth just as it started to get dark. Adding in the mile from the bus stop to Durdle Door at one end, and the walk back along the Rodwell Trail at the other brings Saturday’s total up to 16 miles, although only 12 of them actually count.
This Time: 12 miles
Total since Gravesend: 400 miles