12.Dawlish to South Haven Point – Jurassic coast to bare bum beach, possibly the best pub in the world and posing (pouches) at the “pretend finish”.
After returning from my enforced rest I had felt very tired, but as I walked to Starcross for the ferry to Exmouth I had a new spring in my step, due in no small measure to the drop in humidity on a bright and breezy day. I’m certain that the very high humidity over the previous few weeks had aggravated an already infected chest
I made rapid progress over familiar ground along Exmouth promenade. When I reached Sandy Bay Caravan Park the residents were out in force – exhibiting behaviour that I had come to expect from caravaners (see above). I tend to get angry at any display of bad manners and there was much to be angry about on this section of the path. I compared and contrasted this with the very different, more genteel and civilised behaviour displayed around the wastelands of the North and West of Cornwall. I concluded that overall, the Devon path is far more “touristy” than its Cornish counterpart.
Before I’m picketed by the Caravan Club I should say that I’m not anti-caravaner. I live in a town with a large summer influx of people staying in both static and touring caravans and I think there is much unwarranted snobbery directed at them. Many are friendly and intent only on giving their families a good time, often on a limited budget. However, I have to be honest though and say that I’ve also met some who are so dysfunctional that you would prefer not to share the same country with them, let alone the same caravan site.
A strange encounter near Ladram bay provided another bizarre study in human behaviour. Strolling along a narrow path, I saw a couple heading towards me. These were decidedly NOT caravaners; he was dressed in long khaki shorts which looked like a souvenir of his days in the Raj and she in the sort of tweed outfit often sported by visitors to National Trust properties. The path was strictly two abreast here and noting that they were walking side by side, I assumed they would separate. Head down, I ploughed on – only to walk straight into the woman, knocking her off the path and regrettably sending her camera tumbling to the ground. Clearly her game of “chicken” had gone horribly wrong.
I asked why she hadn’t got out of the way and she replied in a shrill, high pitched, hysterical voice, “I could ask you the same,” failing to acknowledge that to do so, I would have had to walk off the cliff. I’m ashamed to report that I did not react well, observing that they were incredibly bad mannered, or words to that effect. This was the only piece of “unpleasantness” on the whole trip and came not from an interaction with a humble caravaner, but from a snooty pair of “ramblers.” I wouldn’t have minded, but I had followed a policy of not looking for confrontation but always giving way where there was a 50-50 call. Once again, I marvelled at the rich diversity of the Great British Public.
Since Sidmouth is a sedate retirement resort it was not surprising to find that the ratio of “National Trust Types” to caravaners increased as I approached. I recall eating a Sunday lunch at the Bedford Hotel there many years ago, when I felt like the only diner without a tie, blazer and regimental badge. Colonel Blimp country.
I covered the ground quickly today and arrived in Sidmouth well before Pat. Sitting on a bench overlooking the very attractive sweep of promenade, I was touched by the sight of a charming, (very) old couple walking hand in hand down the path. A reminder of how much more fun the days have been when spent in Pat’s company (not that Pat would ever hold hands on the coast path!). Another advantage of having her with me is that I don’t tend to knock old ladies over when I have a chaperone.
Our accommodation in Sidmouth deserves a mention – The Dukes Hotel could not be faulted (well, the beer could have been free, but you can’t have everything) with great service and very well appointed rooms. This was the day that I started to enjoy the walk again.
The 10.3 mile walk from Sidmouth to Seaton was one of the tougher days and I’m not surprised that it’s graded “challenging”. It is a relatively short walk along the beautiful Jurassic Coast, but the miles are hard.
The Jurassic Coast stretches from Orcombe Point, near Exmouth, to Old Harry Rocks, near Swanage. Created in 2001, it was only the second wholly natural “World Heritage Site” to be designated in the United Kingdom. I was lucky to share much of this spectacular stretch of coastline with Pat.
I didn’t feel tired the morning I left Sidmouth – a sure sign that I’d finally thrown off my chest problems and was getting back to full fitness. This upturn in fitness level was accompanied by a dramatic change in geology, moving from red sandstone to the white limestone of the Jurassic Coast.
An abiding memory of this section was the smell of wild garlic around Branscombe, scene, in 2007, of the wreck – and subsequent looting – of the container ship MSC Napoli. It took some time to convince Pat that the overwhelming smell was actually wild garlic and not the aftermath of the garlic potatoes from our excellent meal at the Dukes the night before.
After Branscombe the path wends its way along the beach for a while before striking off steeply across the undercliff to climb a few hundred feet to the cliff top. This is an enchanting path over an area where a landslip has produced an irregular and heavily vegetated landscape of peaks, gullies and massive slipped blocks.
The number of people out on the path seemed to increase by the day, but that didn’t detract from a really good walk which passed through the delightful village of Beer. However, it was definitely a case of travelling hopefully being better than arriving. Our destination, Seaton, looked pretty run-down and neglected, despite the large new housing estate being built by the tram terminus.
In the absence of a likely looking pub we dropped into an unlikely looking one on the prom. It was full of incoherent people who had almost certainly been there since lunchtime – or even breakfast, judging by the state of one or two of them. As I had already discovered, this sort of clientele were fairly typical in this sort of seaside pub at teatime. We supped up and escaped while the going was good.
Seaton did not seem blessed with a wide choice of eateries, but we found a nice old-fashioned Chinese restaurant, where we had three quick courses and retired to bed.
The walk from Seaton to Seatown is graded “moderate”. Maybe I just had a bad day, but I found myself at odds with this rating, finding it far from “moderate,” including as it did a very steep hill out of Seaton, 7 miles of undulating hellish undergrowth, a generally uneven walking surface, a long uninspiring diversion behind Lyme Regis to avoid a land slip and finally the climb up Golden Cap, at 627ft arguably the highest point on the south Coast (“arguably” because the top lies a few hundred metres inland). I know that grading walks is a very difficult and subjective affair, but I found the SWCP website to be generally pretty reliable and this was the only occasion where I thought they had got it wrong.
We began our walk to Seatown by crossing the River Axe over “Axmouth Old Bridge”, said to be the oldest standing concrete bridge in England, before climbing up a steep path by the golf course.
Pat walked with me from Seaton to Lyme Regis and probably wished she hadn’t. Being a sun worshipper, she did not enjoy traversing the “The Axmouth – Lyme Regis Undercliffs National Nature Reserve.” The guide book describes it as “one of the largest and best examples of land-slipping in the British Isles.” We considered it a gloomy, seven mile long slog. I know it is a geological feature of some note, but not our favourite spot on the path. It’s probably very interesting if you are a botanist or geologist, but I found it a tiring and boring few miles, miles that I hope never to repeat – and there aren’t many bits of the path that I would say that about!
Pat gratefully bailed out at Lyme Regis, when I found that my celebrations at being “out of the woods” were premature and that worse was in store. Due to a landslip just east of Lyme the path had been diverted inland across a golf course and along a few miles of metalled road. After dodging golf balls and shielding my eyes from the dazzling display of technicolour golfing garb, I re-joined the path at Charmouth.
Things finally began to look up and Golden Cap, which was a joy to climb, even at the end of a frustrating day. I was overjoyed to meet Pat at the top, she had taken the bus from Lyme back to Seaton then picked up the car and driven to Chideock. We watched the evening light turn Lyme Bay a silvery blue before we descended to Seatown.
At Seatown, I treated myself to a well earned pint at the Anchor, amongst a mixed clientele of tourists and well-heeled locals. I had an unfortunate altercation with the barman – an “arty” looking youth with half a beard, beads and a superior attitude – who informed me that a lime and soda would set me back £2.40, because they “had to get the soda in specially.” I speculated as to whether it was flown in by helicopter when he proceeded to pour a short measure in return for this princely sum. My not unreasonable request for a top-up was met with a look of withering disdain.
After another fine example of British service with a smile, things improved immeasurably. We walked up the hill to Chideock and checked into what was one of the best B&Bs of the trip. Set in a thatched, 16th century Dorset longhouse, “The Warren House” is across the road from the friendly “Clock House” pub and next to the church. Both B&B and pub are strongly recommended. We did not sample the church, but I’m sure you’d get a warm welcome there too – and you won’t have to pay for your glass of wine either.
The next day I made an early start, driving to Abbotsbury before breakfast so we’d have a car at the end of the walk and catching the 7.48 am bus back to Chideock. Another example of an excellent rural bus service.
We decided against the alternative, inland, route along the “Dorset Ridgeway”, but thought it would definitely be worth exploring at a later date.
It was evident from the number of people who seemed able to brush past on a narrow path without a word, staring purposefully into the middle distance that we were back in “caravan country”. I know it’s stupid to generalise and we did meet many friendly caravaners, but it was again noticeable (and also surprising) how “tourist types” were typically less friendly than many of the more affluent looking locals.
Walking was hard work along the shale beach-side paths; however, an entertaining distraction was provided by playing “spot Billy Bragg’s house.” Left-wing singer-songwriter Billy has taken stick from some quarters over the years because of his big, cliff top house near Burton Bradstock (the words “champagne” and “socialist” cropping up regularly in reports disparaging him), but all the locals I met spoke very fondly of him, typically saying that although they “didn’t share his politics” he had done a lot for the local community, usually for causes that earned him no publicity. I’m a big fan and having witnessed him more recently, turning out in the wind and hail to sing a few songs in support of Occupy Exeter, I consider him one of the good guys.
My B&B in Abbotsbury shared premises with a lovely tea shop and my room was an old “apprentices cottage.” The nicest touch was the cream tea on the lawn on arrival. Such a warm welcome was rare and all the more impressive because of that. I never object to paying a premium for quality accommodation and good service, yet – as I might have mentioned- so many B&Bs on this trip charged a premium for the bare essentials.
Abbotsbury is a lovely village – if a little twee – and must have more tea shops per head of population than anywhere else in the world. However, after Pat had left me and returned to Bristol my objective was not a pot of Earl Grey but a pint of Gales HSB at the Illchester Arms. This is an old coaching inn, serving good food, but its big drawback was the group of drunken locals, who had clearly been in the otherwise empty bar for some time. The leading light of this unsavoury group was a fat man with ear-rings, shaven head, tattoos and the foulest mouth I had encountered since Porthcothan. Oddly, his friends, including a couple with a baby, didn’t seem to mind.
The walk from Abbotsbury to Weymouth far exceeded expectations. A long, exhilarating ridge, with panoramic views over Abbotsbury Swannery and the channel led down to a path running along the edge of The Fleet, a fresh water lagoon between Chesil Beach and the mainland, which took me almost all the way to Weymouth.
After passing the deafening firing ranges at Chickerell army camp, I left Chesil Beach (and the “proper” coast path) behind me and trudged through the urban environs of Weymouth as it slowly dawned on me that my B&B was in a pub on the far side of town, well away from the sea-front.
The pub was very old and admirable as a drinking venue, but I was not sure about its credentials as a B&B. My spacious, well-appointed room was situated in a separate concrete block, fancifully described as “carriage house accommodation.” I started to have doubts when I passed through the smoking area on the way to my “carriage house” and spotted a man with a well-polished, shaven head and an elaborate tattoo covering his bald pate. I’m reminded of a recent newspaper article about a man who had a full English breakfast tattooed on his head. Another reminder that there really is “nowt so queer as folk.”
This was not one of my best overnight stops – which was unfortunate as I had two nights and a rest day there. I felt very tired on my rest day and in my notebook I commented that:
“perhaps it’s the beer taking its toll – maybe I’ll have to make the ultimate sacrifice”.
Needless to say I didn’t.
I awoke looking forward to a full English breakfast, having avoided this treat most days in favour of beans on toast, but was disappointed that, apart from bacon and egg there were none of the other “trimmings” like toast, cereal or fruit juice. Another case of “minimal service at maximum cost.”
I walked along the promenade into town, which had a run-down feel to it. I wasn’t sure if Weymouth would present the “Best of Britain” to those visiting the Olympic sailing events in 2012: Southampton and Cowes might have been far “classier” venues? It did feel a bit rough around the edges, but perhaps the Olympics would give it some much needed regeneration.
I dined in a pretty soulless pub on a residential estate near my B&B. This was the cheapest meal of the whole trip and, although the food was good, my table near the dartboard brought the constant risk of a player scoring a double top on my forehead and tended to make for a rather nerve-racking and hurried dining experience.
This was another night without a new ale to record. Becoming frustrated at the lack of progress with my “Real Ale Challenge”, I considered diversifying into cider: however, after stepping over a group of revellers leaving a Weymouth cider bar, I decided against it. To be fair, one member of this group showed great dignity and left the bar with his head held high – the trouble was, his feet were held even higher.
While in Weymouth I received a Tweet from an Audit Commission colleague, which read;
“Musings on landscape, eco-tourism, fellow walkers, erosion of the coast path, best walking kit etc. much appreciated”.
Musing 1– It’s hard to see the landscape when you’re blind drunk.
Musing 2– Eco-tourism? Is that why I never get my towel changed?
Musing 3– Being a dour Northerner channelling Alfred Wainwright, I’m avoiding other walkers like the plague.
Musing 4 – On kit, several people seem to be using GPS to navigate their way along the path. These and walking poles seemed a little excessive on Penzance promenade.
The walk around Portland is “optional.” Some guides to the coast path exclude the circuit, but I figure that it’s indubitably part of the “coast path,” so has to be done. I’m joined again by friend and former work colleague Rob along with cloying mist, which clings to us all day. I’m sure the views are spectacular, but all I remember are lots of fences, military installations, a young offender’s institution and a prison looming bleakly out of the fog. Once again, Rob was an engaging, easy-going companion.
The highlight of this damp and dismal day was a really good fish meal at the Kings Arms, on the quay at Weymouth. Pollock fillet with cream and grape sauce, all for a very reasonable £7.95.
The path from Weymouth to Lulworth was an 11 mile “walk of three parts”. Very flat along the promenade around Weymouth Bay, then a pleasantly undulating path for a few miles, finishing up and down three miles of steep, but lovely, chalk cliff towards the natural limestone archway of Durdle Door- probably the most photographed landmark on the whole South coast- then on to Lulworth Cove.
Lulworth Cove is such a popular tourist spot that, even on an out of season Thursday afternoon, it was full of people.
Pat picked me and Rob up at Lulworth, returned Rob to his car in Weymouth and then took me back to her brother’s house at Worth Matravers. I know this is getting repetitive, but I really do not deserve her.
Because the Lulworth military firing ranges were closed the day we were due to walk from Lulworth to Worth Matravers, we had to do some juggling, walking from Worth Matravers to South Haven Point first, then returning to do Lulworth to Worth the following day.
Had I not lost a week, the walk to South Haven point would have been the finish. It was strangely “ordinary” and uneventful until Studland Bay, with its population of seemingly all-male and rather exhibitionist, naturists. As we gazed at the array of sagging posing pouches and upturned, bronzed buttocks I speculated that if I’d brought my bike I wouldn’t have been short of a place to park it.
The day would have been more “eventful” had we not missed a pod of several dolphin just before Swanage – we met a man at a “Dolphin Watch” lookout in Durstone Park who told us we had just missed one of his best sightings of the year. We had been conversing with another walker about wild flowers when the dolphins swam past!
We posed (sans pouch) at South Haven Point for pictures at what would have been the finish but, because it’s not, it meant little to us, so we pressed on. It’s also a pretty uninspiring place, alongside the permanent queue of cars waiting for the Sandbanks ferry. I was rather pleased not to be celebrating the finish there.
The next day I returned to Lulworth Cove with my super fit brother-in-law Jim and his wife Caroline, to walk to Worth Matravers. We had more great weather for what was a pretty hard day overall. The first half was very tough, but eased off (a bit) after Kimmeridge.
It is well worth waiting for a day when the guns fall silent and you can traverse the permissive path running alongside the military firing ranges, rather than take the suggested inland alternative. I consider this to be one of the top three days of the whole SWCP, so must be savoured to the full!
After leaving Lulworth Cove and viewing the fossil forest near Little Binden, we soon commenced the extremely steep climb up Binden Hill. With its signs warning walkers of the need to keep to the path and avoid touching any unexploded shells, the path is consistently challenging as it makes its way to Kimmeridge, where, improbably, we passed an oil well that has been in production since 1957.
The guide book’s advice that the path then “continues to rise steeply to the heights of Houns-tout cliff” doesn’t really do justice to the lung-bursting qualities of this limestone peak.
Just when you thought the worst was over and you’re nearing the end of the trail, you still have to contend with the long, steep staircase to the top of St Aldhelm’s Head and its charming little Norman chapel. St Aldhelm, the 7th century Bishop of Sherborne, appears to have been a right clever dick who set up a number of monasteries and had his writings commended by the venerable Bede.
We rounded the day off in style, with a few pints in the Square and Compass, with Pat, Jim, Caroline and Pat’s sister Eileen. A barbecue at Jim’s house followed and the perfect end to a really memorable day was my winning a fiercely contested scrabble competition.
Sipping a pint of Ringwood’s Best at the Square, I consoled myself by reasoning that this should be the last of the really hard sections, but I know that I shouldn’t underestimate the bits I missed in Cornwall due to the chest infection. So, after my “false finish” at South Haven Point it’s back to fill in the gaps.