I went on a trip this weekend and it didn’t involve bicycles! However despite this being a nominally a bike blog I’m going to write this one up as it’s a great part of the world to visit. Between Friday and Sunday myself and my friend Judith walked approximately 40 miles along the south west coast path (with a few detours) between Studland and Weymouth in Dorset. I don’t know the exact distance because it was a technology free weekend. Mobile phones were turned off on the bus to Sandbanks in Poole and then only turned back on in Weymouth. No GPS was carried. No charging of devices required. To be honest this was great although it exposed how much we usually want to know what time it is as neither of us had watches. Time didn’t matter but it didn’t stop us wondering about what time it was, the twisting and turning of the route also made accurate estimations using the sun fairly difficult at times.
Friday afternoon Judith picked me up from my Parent’s house and we drove to the station in Poole. South West trains do a ‘deal’ in the car park there so it costs £9 from noon Friday to end of service on Sunday night. From there as the weather wasn’t brilliant it was a bus to Sandbanks to get the chain ferry to Studland. Then we were off, walking the initial miles down the beach. The weather wasn’t great with some light rain but it wasn’t a deluge and we didn’t really get wet. The weather cleared as we progressed onwards and after leaving the beach at Studland village we had a quick pint in the Bankes Arms. The next part of the route takes you up and over Ballard down with a good view of Old Harry rocks and then across Swanage bay. It’s a fairly sedate incline both up and down which I guess breaks you in gently for things to come.
With cloud cover it was difficult to judge how many hours of daylight we had left but with head torches in our packs it wasn’t too much of an issue. Food however was definitely required so we descended into Swanage and had a decent pub meal at the White Swan. There was quite a bit of hustle and bustle in Swanage which was a contrast to the quietness on top of Ballard down. With darkness starting to fall it was time to push on and find somewhere to camp for the night. We headed out to Peveril point past a stage in the park which was part of the RNLI celebrations that were happening in the town. After climbing south from the headland and briefly rejoining the road the path snaked back down and through the woods overlooking Durlston bay. We were walking by headtorch now but I spotted a clearing to our right which comprised a number of stone benches surrounding another stone cross formation. Perfect!
The sky was fairly clear by this point with no more rain forecast. No tarp was therefore required and we settled down for the night in our bivy bags with a view of the clearing night sky and stars above. One stone bench acted to shelter us from any remaining breeze and the temperature didn’t drop that much over night. Despite being fairly close to the road and ‘civilisation’ it was a quiet spot and the only real sounds were the odd hoot and puff of the Swanage steam train drifting on the wind. I assume they were running a late service to Corfe castle in order to provide a ‘park and ride’ for the RNLI celebrations.
Day two started with clear skies and sunshine. Despite starting relatively early at about 8am (I think – remember no watches) the temperature was warm. We quickly passed Durlston castle, the globe at Durlston head and then rounded Anvil point to head west. Once we had rounded the point the wind took the edge off the suns warming effect but it was still a pleasant temperature. You maintain height for this part of the coast path and we made good time with only one break between Durlston and dancing ledge. The first ‘up and down’ came at Seacombe and here we decided to turn inland in the bottom of the valley and head up the hill to Worth Matravers in search of a cafe. This was mainly for my benefit as I am a habitual morning coffee drinker. The cafe in Worth felt like you were visiting your grandparents with very polite service and china that bore a picture of the Queen. I did notice that the waiter who was super polite to every customer seemed more jovial and relaxed with us in our scruffy walking attire. We also reckoned on occasion he may have had to retreat to the kitchen for a rant/swear as an anti-dote to continual pleasantries.
From Worth Matravers we decided to head west back to the coast path and so cut out St Aldhelm’s head. Leaving the village we did our good deed for the day by helping a lady remove a gate post/temporary bollard from the ground. I’d say this was abnormal but in my experience of life in Dorset villages being asked to help carry out random tasks is actually fairly common. Welcome to the countryside! For much of the time outside of villages we only had the odd other walker or runner for company and the ‘silence’ was fantastic. I put silence in inverted commas as depending on where you were the sounds of nature surrounded you. The singing of birds, the chirp of crickets and the noise of the waves on the shore. At one point we saw a deer on the hillside to our right that sat there unmoving and cautiously just watched us as we passed.
At Houns-Tout we made a navigational error and walked inland realising rather too late that we were on the path to the village of Kingston. I’ve ridden through Kingston on the bike though and knew that on the outskirts we could turn left and continue west to rejoin the coast path. To be honest I’m glad we took this detour as it enables you to walk along a ridge that runs between the coast and the Purbeck hills to the north. This means you get double the view! The hills and Corfe castle sitting in the gap between them away to the right and then the coast and the Isle of Portland in the distance to your left. The path then drops you into the village of Kimmeridge where we stopped for a late lunch. From there you rejoin the coast path at Kimmeridge bay which is known for being a great place to find fossils. However with a lot of ground to cover we pressed onwards.
Just after Kimmeridge bay you enter the Ministry of Defence ranges. This area is used by the MOD for target practice and is only open to the public during restricted times. Naturally with this being such a popular tourist area one of these times is essentially ‘the summer’. However as you enter the ranges there is a big sign that says No Camping! Added to the fact there may be unexploded shells lying around off the marked range walks it was clear we had to walk to the other side of the ranges before we could stop for the night. The coast path also starts to get a bit more lumpy from this point onwards and the hills are longer and steeper than we had experienced so far. With our legs starting to tire breaks became more frequent and progress slowed.
Reaching Arish Mell we looked up at the slope that takes you up above Mupe bay and across Bindon hill to Lulworth cove and pretty much agreed there was no chance we were climbing it. The map I’d borrowed for this trip showed there were other ‘range walks’ that went in the general direction of Lulworth cove further back from the coast edge so we turned north between the yellow markers to try and find them. The only problem however was that the map was 20 years out of date! Our only alternative marked range walk took us north from the coast and left the ranges at Lulworth Castle on the edge of East Lulworth. On a positive note we were now outside the ranges, however turning to continue west we were bounded by the ranges to the south and the Lulworth estate to the north so there was no option to stop and set up camp just yet.
We walked for a few miles along the road with the sun setting ahead of us (sadly not in view though) which brought us to a T-junction a mile and a half north of Lulworth Cove. Consulting the map I decided that the best course of action was to head straight at this junction up a farm track which would take us onto the hill above West Lulworth village. Naturally you would expect this to be deserted at this time of night as twilight descended however pretty soon we heard voices ahead. It appeared some people were also camping out on the hill but in a van. Making lots of noise and with the headlights on they didn’t notice us as we slipped past turning left and descending down the footpath towards the village beneath the crest of the hill. Before the incline became too steep, tired and with muscles starting to ache we rolled out our bivy bags pretty much on the footpath at the edge of a field of wheat.
Naturally being camped on the side of a hill (eat you heart out Alastair Humphreys) the view was better than the first night and with a clearer sky there were also more stars to complement the lights of Portland and Weymouth to the west. Admiring the view we tucked into a delicious packet of cold curried chickpeas. I’m not joking they were really tasty. We had forgotten utensils though so ‘credit cards’ were used as spoons to shovel it into our mouths. Clearer skies meant more of a drop in temperature than the previous night but we were both warm enough although I am glad I added the warmth of my down jacket to the 2 season sleeping bag I’d packed for the trip.
When I sleep in a bivy bag I often find that I wake up every so often and register the sky above me before changing position and then going back to sleep. This meant morning broke slowly as the clear view of the milky way dissipated with the slow creep of dawn. I was tired and slept late only really rousing when suddenly a dog appeared by my head. I always find it amusing when walkers apologise for disturbing you asleep in a bivy when you’ve essentially just set up camp on a footpath or bridleway and in theory are in their way. Morning pleasantries exchanged with the dog walker we packed up and set off down the hill to Lulworth for breakfast.
With our muscles feeling the exertion of the previous two days it was a lazy start for our final section of walking. We sat by the cove for a short while chatting and watching the world go by before a cooked breakfast to fuel us for the morning. A bail out plan of walking the four miles to the station at Wool was briefly discussed but rejected in favour of pressing on to Weymouth. To be honest I think I might have taken the bail out if I had known what was coming up in the next few miles.
The section of coast path between Lulworth and Ringstead was probably the most challenging of this hike. There are a number of steep climbs and descents although you are rewarded with great views and landscapes including the Durdle door rock formation. With weary legs we rested often and I was definitely starting to wonder if we had bitten off more than we could chew. However eventually we descended into Ringstead and stopped for some food at the cafe there. To be honest it wasn’t great food. I may have myself to blame as I ordered chips with beans and cheese but the chips were undercooked and the cheese was two cheese slices! With hopefully some more fuel and energy we set off again for the preantepenultimate push to Weymouth.
The coast path especially in the tourist hotspots was much busier on the Sunday and so felt less peaceful overall. As we neared Weymouth this was amplified as the path passed through a beer garden in Osmington Mills and a campsite at Redcliffe point. Eventually our perseverance paid off and the path brought us out at Bowleaze cove. From here to Weymouth involves a flat mile or so along the seafront to the centre. I had been dreading this all weekend as I knew from memory that it was fairly dull and would seem like a slog at the end. So with the feeling in our legs and feet now starting to shift from ache to pain we didn’t walk it and got the bus. This was definitely the right idea as it meant we made it to Weymouth station for the 17:48 train back to Poole (sadly with no celebratory pint) and then back to my Parent’s house in time for Sunday dinner.
Before embarking on the trip I did have doubts about whether I was up to walking forty plus miles over three days but figured that my fitness from cycle touring would carry me through. However I don’t think either of us had factored in carrying packs with bivy gear and the extra impact weight on your back makes on your legs. So although we made it to the end – sort of – the final stages were tough, definitely type 2 fun. I would definitely recommend this stretch of the coast path though for anyone fancying a walk. The scenery is truly breathtaking with fantastic open views, incredible rock formations and yet also a lot of variety. We walked in woods, across open hills and crossed beaches. The wildlife was abundant and although it is far from deserted on certain sections it is quiet enough that at times you do feel like you are miles away from the nearest human being. Sleeping under the stars in a bivy bag certainly added an extra dimension and removed having to find anywhere big or flat enough to pitch a tent. Mainly though this trip has reminded me of the natural beauty that is right there on the doorstep in the UK. An ‘adventure’ doesn’t need to go to exotic lands, the UK countryside provides scenery and wildlife to rival anywhere I’ve been in world.