SATURDAY morning saw me up with the lark, by dint of having already been up with the bat and the night owl, ready to take advantage of whatever fun, frolics and inevitable rain the late summer bank holiday weekend could throw at me.
I duly squelched aboard the last night bus, having been treated to some of that rain between my front door and the bus stop and proceeded to dry out to merely cold and damp by the time I reached London Waterloo.
Wending to Weymouth
Definitely Not Rush Hour
At Waterloo, I queued pointlessly for twenty minutes while the baristas in the only open coffee shop opted to function on geological time.
Eventually, with the queue down from about eight people to three and each coffee taking approximately four minutes of dithering to produce, I abandoned my dreams of a steaming, foaming cup of hot chocolate and dashed, disappointed, for my train.
At Least It’s Moving
Mere moments later, it departed, jolting and shuddering in that way that makes you ask:
‘Trains: are you sure this country invented them?’
And Then It Wasn’t
In the blink of an eye, I found myself in Weymouth, three and a quarter hours later. It was a long blink; I was tired.
Arming myself with bottled water and a nutritious chocolate bar breakfast, I headed off along the Rodwell Trail back to Ferry Bridge, where I picked up the South West Coast Path once again.
The Coast Path
The path on the western side of the bridge was quite different in character, as it would have to be, for the bulk of Chesil Beach extended, ruler-straight, from here to Abbotsbury, some eight-and a half miles away, where it then merged with the coastline.
My walk would be along the actual coast, separated from Chesil Beach by the Fleet, easily Britain’s largest lagoon, and thus I would be walking a great deal further, thanks to the undulating coastline.
Chesil Beach takes its name from Old English ceosel meaning ‘shingle’ and there is certainly a lot of it. Looking across the Fleet near Ferry Bridge, you don’t really get a feel for the size of Chesil Beach. It’s eighteen miles long in total and fifteen metres high, and the size of the pebbles is naturally graded from one end to the other. So much so, in fact, that smugglers making night landings could tell where they were from the pebble size.
Chesil Beach is unusual even in how it came to be there. Although usually described as a tombolo, a deposition landform that links islands and is created by the effect of those islands on the waves, Chesil is actually a barrier beach, a completely different type of deposition landform. Over time it has drifted from a position off the coast to collide with Portland and the mainland.
Along the Fleet
Wyke Regis Training Area
The path ambled alongside the Fleet for a bit, full of mid-morning dog walkers as it skirted the edges of fields and suburb alike. Before long it passed by a military establishment, which seemed mostly to be a station for refuelling vehicles. The compound was surrounded by the usual high fence and razor wire but, rather charmingly, just outside the fence were a couple of these:
‘WD’ stands for War Department, which became the War Office in 1857 and merged with the Admiralty and Air Ministry to become the Ministry of Defence in 1964. The arrow is the government broad arrow, long used to mark the property of HM Government. The broad arrow still sees some use today; it is part of the logo of the Ordnance Survey for instance, although one could be forgiven for thinking that was meant to be a compass.
Littlesea Holiday Park
The path plunged unexpectedly into a magical leafy tunnel with lots of slippery mud and great clumps of nettles at just about finger height. You’ll note that’s ‘clumps’ as in plural; you’d think one would learn after the first one, but no.
I was still thinking ‘ow’ as I emerged to skirt the Littlesea Holiday Park and camp site, heading for Chickerell Range.
At the edge of the camp site I saw a sign that confused me.
The path through the firing range was the usual experience of passing through MOD land: fantastic scenery generally untouched by visitors but festooned with dire warnings to stay on the path at all times, lest you should suddenly explode. Or be shot. Or eaten alive by MOD guard dogs. Or maybe all three. Shot by an exploding MOD guard dog, that’s not how I want to go. I stayed on the path.
Beyond Chickerell Range it was back to open fields, with rolling hills and caravan parks in the distance. The path curved round to within a stone’s throw of the tiny village of East Fleet, the setting for J Meade Faulkner’s smuggling novel, Moonfleet. East Fleet comprises a handful of houses and what’s left of its church (namely the chancel) — a freak combination of strong winds and storm surge breached Chesil Beach and crashed ashore in 1824, demolishing much of the village.
The weather was much gentler while I was nearby, with a few half-hearted attempts to rain being all it could muster. For which I was grateful. I considered stopping at the Moonfleet Manor Hotel for refreshments while the rain made its mind up whether or not to do the job properly but in the end I pressed on and the rain headed inland to bother someone else.
The path skirted some more fields and a sand track for training horses, not to mention a number of old WW2 pillboxes dotted here and there. Then, after a couple of particularly dull and uninspiring fields, the path turned inland, as if it were chasing the rain. It certainly led a merry enough chase, across pretty fields and narrow country lanes and just skirting the very edge of Wyke Wood. Although none of it seemed particularly high, there did appear to be a lot of hills to climb.
Aha, I thought. It wasn’t ‘War Department’ and a broad arrow. it was ‘All of West Dorset’ that was up.
The purple hill was Merry Hill, which climbs, mostly sedately, to a civilised 76 m and which I had thought looked quite pretty from a distance. It was pretty close up too, although a lot buzzier on account of all the bees. The flowers are lucerne, also known as alfalfa, a forage crop not all that common in England.
At the top of the Merry Hill, I was rather delighted to find dry stone walls with stone stiles built in, which somehow had an added charm from the usual wooden affairs. Although the terrain kept climbing a further twenty metres to form a new peak at Linton Hill, the path skirted round this remaining at the same level and opening up a rather lovely vista:
A Convenient Refuge
The skies darkened and the rain came back for another go just as I descended into Abbotsbury, a brief ten-minute precipitative tantrum that only made me more determined to find a cup of tea. And, as it turned out, a cheese scone with ham on it.
Abbotsbury is a rather pretty village whose name derives from the powerful abbey built here by Orca, steward to King Canute, in the eleventh century. Although, even then, when Orca and his wife Tola arrived to build mighty monuments, there was already a thriving religious community in the area.
The abbey grew prosperous and mighty, two characteristics guaranteed to ensure its doom at the hands of Henry VIII. Bits of ruined abbey buildings are scattered around the village and its barn, which survived, is the largest thatched building in the world. The barn is also home to Abbotsbury Children’s Farm, which was full of children and was betraying all the characteristics of a tourist trap. I steered well clear.
Having drunk my tea and eaten my scone, I headed back towards the coast via a path that circled, practically knee deep in pheasants, around the bottom of Chapel Hill.
Quite apart from being a fourteenth century landmark, Chapel Hill is a wonderful example of lynchets, the strange little terraces that adorn many a Dorsetshire hill. Lynchets are the product of repeated ploughing, betraying a past in which the hill was used for cultivation. They typically show up though in fields covered in grass and sheep: ancient crop fields long since turned over to pasture.
Incidentally, I wasn’t kidding about the pheasants. I must have seen at least fifty of them, running in and out amongst the sheep. They kept their distance, although not a huge one, and seemed mostly unconcerned with curious bipeds right up to the moment a camera phone was produced, at which point they were suddenly shy.
The Actual Coast
For one horrible moment I thought the only way onwards was going to be to crunch along Chesil Beach. Fortunately there was a road running alongside it down the coast. A narrow road with passing places. Although most of the passing place signs had had the first ‘p’ obscured for humorous reasons.
My feet were feeling a bit tired by now so I sat at the roadside and drank some water near the entrance to the lane that ran up to Lawrence’s Cottage. I had picked this Grade II listed, eighteenth century farmhouse out as a good place to pause for one very good reason…
After a while the road changed slightly in character, from being merely narrow and uneven to officially ‘unsuitable for motor vehicles’. The next mile or so was by turn, metalled, potholed, rutted or covered in shingle. I can only imagine that this road, Burton Road, was once in good condition but has been deemed uneconomical to maintain.
It ended at a car park, where a proper, navigable road led inland at the small settlement of West Bexington. Thereafter the path looked like this…
Mercifully, the coast path turned slightly inland to go around what just looked to me like a mass of reeds but that the map said was Burton Mere, another small pocket of water trapped between the mainland and Chesil Beach. Although by now it was also Cogden Beach, one of Chesil’s most remote stretches but also one of the most accessible thanks to its very own car park a short way inland.
Following the path, I tramped through the edges of fields and up onto a low, muddy cliff leading on to the village of Burton Bradstock. I had considered heading on to West Bay but by now I was tired and I knew there would be proper cliffs from here onwards. No, Burton Bradstock would mark the end of the day’s walk.
‘First’ Does Not Imply ‘Punctual’
It was fitting that my thoughts returned to the concept of operating on geological time as it semi-prepared me for my encounter with the bus company known as First…
There was just enough time to nip into the cafe by the beach before locating the bus stop and waiting. And waiting. And waiting. And starting to panic a little. All unnecessary fretting of course. After all, what’s half an hour between friends? What’s that? Something about a ‘timetable’? How charmingly naive…
This time: 15½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 428 miles