Putting in the Miles on the Dorset Coast
By Steve Jones
Last summer, in order to further familiarise myself with both the route and some of our accommodation providers, I walked, well actually I ran, the 81 mile Dorset section of the South West Coast Path. Well actually, I ran more than that. All will be explained!
Before the Off
After leaving an overcast Cumbria earlier in the day I was pleased to be greeted by wall-to-wall sunshine when I arrived in Lyme Regis. After checking into my accommodation it was still relatively early so I decided it was far too nice just to mooch around the town. With a village called Beer just down the coast it was too good an opportunity to lace up my trail shoes and see if I could find a beer in Beer. One of the bonuses of running on my familiarisation trips is that it enables me to check out more of the trail than if I just walked. On this occasion the trip to Beer took me in the opposite direction to the prevailing direction of travel for the Dorset Coast, but it allowed me to see the last section of our South Devon holiday.
The majority of this section comprises the Undercliff National Nature Reserve and offered a different feel to the remainder of my holiday as this section is a wooded area that, once you have started along, you are unable to leave unless you double back on yourself or push on to the finish. The trail is rocky and rooted underfoot a picks a tortuous route through the trees – there are a couple of viewpoints scattered along the way, but mostly the sea is out of sight. On entering the nature reserve you are warned that it takes 3.5-4 hours to complete this section. After 90 minutes of running, feeling a little like John Mills’ character in Ice Cold in Alex, I made it to Beer for my beer. But then I had to run back . . .
Day 1: Lyme Regis to West Bay
The official start of my Dorset Coast adventure. Due to landslips the section from Lyme Regis to Charmouth is closed, so the day starts on the road before cutting across a golf course and the descending into Charmouth. Undeterred by the rain I was looking forward to spending some time on the beach at Charmouth as this is apparently a good location for fossil hunting.
After walking up and down the beach without finding anything I rejoined the trail on the road out of Charmouth. The trail then goes off-road for the rest of the day and takes you over some short but steep climbs before you finally drop down into West Bay.
Day 2: West Bay to Abbotsbury
Today the sun was out again and, after a couple of short climbs leaving West Bay, the trail is generally quite flat as you end up walking along the beach. At times the going can be slow and energy sapping as you have to walk along the shingles that form the beach, but on the whole the trail is still very good underfoot. If you have done our Norfolk Coast holiday think of the beach after Blakey, but longer yet easier under foot.
At the end of the day you walk a little inland – I was surprised to see sheep – heading to Abbotsbury. A worthwhile detour is St Catherine’s Church, on the top of the hill to your left as you approach the village. From the top of the hill you get a lovely view of the village, of the days walking you have done, and of the day walking to come.
Day 3: Abbotsbury to Weymouth
Today you start off away from the coast, but shortly the trail takes you to Fleet Lagoon that are separated from the sea by Chesil Beach. You can make this day relatively short by walking to Ferrybridge and then heading straight into Weymouth, or you can continue over the causeway onto Portland and circumnavigate the island before pushing on to Weymouth – which is what I did. Those of a certain age may remember the TV show Portland Bill, and the lighthouse of the same name is on the southern tip of Portland and is a popular tourist destination.
An often overlooked part of the island, Church Ope Cove, was recommended to me by a friend who grew up on Portland, and, as it was on the trail, I though it worth a look. On your maps it’s marked as Church Hope Cove, however on any signs on the Island the aitch is missing – my aforementioned friend, a lecture in linguistics, puts this down to “the accent seeping into the orthography”. Church Ope Cove was a good call and offered some shelter from the winds that had been battering me up to that point. After leaving the cove the trail takes you round the rest of the island before crossing the causeway and leading you in to Weymouth.
Day 4: Weymouth to Lulworth Cove
The highlight of this day is undoubtedly the finish with Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove. To get there you have to deal with more of the short, steep climbs, but the views from each make them all the more worthwhile.
Durdle Door is a limestone arch caused by erosion of the surrounding rocks by the sea. Lulworth Cove is also created by erosion of the different types of rock that run in layers along the coast – some more resistant to erosion than others which leads to the formation of the distinctive features found along the coast. In the Lulworth Cove visitors centre there is a wealth of information on the creating of these features.
Day 5: Lulworth Cove to Swanage
For this day I linked the two days from Lulworth Cove to Swanage into one. The important thing to remember about the section from Lulworth Cove is that at certain times the coast path is closed as you have to cross a military firing range. If the area is being used for military purposes you are not allowed through this section. There are a couple of options open to you. You could take a bus (or two) around the exclusion zone to Corfe Castle and pick up the trail later, or you can walk the extra distance. I decided to do the extra distance. This way you do pass Lulworth Castle, but I didn’t have the time to visit. Once you pick up the trail at the coast at Kimmeridge Bay the scenery is perhaps my favourite of the whole walk, so I’d say it’s well worth looking at your dates to make sure you can walk the section from Lulworth Cove otherwise, like me, you may be left with the feeling you may have missed out!
Day 6: Swanage to South Haven Point and Poole
As I’d combined the sections from Lulworth Cove to Swanage I had a shorter day to Poole. After the only real climb of the day you are left with a walk along a beach, or behind the beach in the dunes, which is the distinctive feature of this day. It’s also worth noting that a section on the beach near the end of the trail is a naturist zone, so you may, or may not, want to stay in the dunes for this section. The official end of the trail is at South Haven Point. At 36sq km Poole Harbour is apparently one of the largest natural harbours in the world, yet its average depth is only 48 cm! From South Haven you need to take a short ferry ride across the mouth of the harbour from where you can then either walk (c.7km) into Poole or get a bus.