Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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Cultural exchanges

When I first joined this trip I felt a little out of place in an overwhelmingly American group. Ten days down the line, having got to know everyone, I’m much more at ease but my ears nevertheless pricked up when a new trekking group arrived at our lodge in Debouche sporting familiar accents: fellow Brits!

They settled at the table next to ours and it was not long before ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ floated across the common area from their iPod speaker. One member of the group squeezed past our table with a cheery ‘sorry mate’ – an expression that’s formed the wallpaper of my life but now suddenly struck me as extremely British. Another sported a fine example of vibrantly-colored comedy head-gear. ‘Are those hats popular in the UK?’ one of the Americans asked. I confessed that, yes, for cold weather holidays, such as trekking and skiing, they were.

As dinner was served a blow-up doll (fortunately in surprisingly seemly attire) joined the party, the stimulus for a sumptuous array of risqué jokes. As it was cleared away, the group fortified themselves with cans of lager and a bottle of rum, and embarked with great gusto on a drinking game. We retreated to bed at 8pm, but their party lasted late into the night (or at least, 10pm, which is impressive by trekking standards).

I assumed at this point that they had a rest day, and hence a lie in, the following morning but no – at 7:50am they were mustered at the front of the lodge, ready to trek. Including the blow up doll.

Ten days in something of an American bubble had given me a fresh perspective on my compatriots. They seemed to be having an absolute blast, but as they set off up the path ahead of us I counted myself fortunate to be trekking with my largely American friends – I don’t think I could keep up with the Brits!


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Religious observances

As yesterday was a rest day some of us walked back up to Tengboche after lunch to listen to the monks at prayer. Tengboche is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, the largest in the area. It’s a building with a chequered past: founded in 1916 it was rebuilt once after being destroyed by an earthquake in 1934, and again after being destroyed by fire in 1989. Third time lucky…

Despite the loss of many precious books and paintings in the fire the restored monastery is an impressive building, and the splendour of the prayer hall (and the large compliment of some 60 monks) reflects its wealth.

The prayer hall at Tengboche Gompa.

The prayer hall at Tengboche Gompa.

Only six monks were at prayer during our visit but their dissonant chants were rich and other-worldly despite their small number. Although attempting to muster an appropriately spiritual frame of mind I was more than a little envious of both their thick red cloaks and the regular top-ups of tea from a seventh monk, as my breath steamed white in the unheated hall.

If only the other tourists, who outnumbered by monks by around 10:1, had shared their discipline. Our group was in place 10 minutes before the prayers started, sat quietly throughout and refrained from fiddling with distracting gadgets, as the notices had politely requested us. Many of the others, however, arrived up to 25 minutes after the prayers had started, walked about and fidgeted creating a background static of Goretex rustles, and provided an unwelcome accompaniment of clicks, chimes and beeps from an assortment of cameras. Lacking a monkish discipline myself, my irritation at this behaviour (which seemed a poor return for the privilege of observing the ceremony) disturbed my inner peace very sadly.

Fortunately, the peacefulness of this area, and the good company of friends old and new, restored me. With such a wonderful view from my bedroom window this morning, it’s hard to stay cross for long.

The soothing view from my bedroom window.

The soothing view from my bedroom window.


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Perilous paths

Whilst those climbing above Everest’s Base Camp will undoubtedly face greater challenges the trek is not without its hazards and we encountered a number of them on the way from Namche to Deboche. For the first half of the day the path wound gently round the hillsides, with great views of the mountains ahead.

A chorten errected in memory of Tenzing Norgay, with (left to right) Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam behind.

A chorten errected in memory of Tenzing Norgay, with (left to right) Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam behind.

This being the dry season, however, even the flat paths are very dusty bringing coughs and sinus irritations for the unprotected hiker. Most of the group walked with a Buff covering their nose and mouth to keep the dust out but I found that fogged up my sunglasses to the point of total blindness – more than a little risky on the narrow rocky paths. If I took my glasses off, however, my eyes immediately filled with grit. I didn’t try it twice! The climbers made the Buff-and-sunnies combo look effortless, but clearly the optimum arrangement is a technical skill that I will need more practice to master.

My feet also struggled in the thick dust, especially on the descent back down to the river at Phungi Thanga. My feet skidded out a couple of times – a challenge my balance barely met with my head slightly woozy from the altitude.

At one point the path passed below a suspension bridge. Not a problem…until a herd of dzopkios (yak-cow crosses used to haul items up and down the mountain) passed overhead. Stepping in dung from time to time is one thing but I was less enthusiastic about having some land on my head!

A couple of the group nervously eye the dzopkios overhead!

A couple of the group nervously eye the dzopkios overhead!

But the dzopkios were arguably less risky overhead than when I met them on a narrow section of path. As a small group approached I smartly stood to the side, remembering too late that I was supposed to have gone the other way – away from the drop-off to remove the risk of being knocked over the edge. The embarrassing prospect of a Darwin Award loomed in my mind, but fortunately the placid nature if the beasts (and, on closer inspection, the modest slope behind me) proved not to be so dangerous after all, leaving me happily still in one piece to tackle the steep 610m (2,000ft) climb to Tengboche. I felt I’d certainly earned the enormous, and very tasty, chocolate brownie, I put away in the bakery nestled beside the famous Tengboche monastery at the top.

Tengboche monastery (3,860m).

Tengboche monastery (3,860m).

From there, thankfully, it was just a short stroll downhill to our lodge at Deboche, a few flakes of snow drifting in the cooling air as we walked. We awoke to a light dusting (which quickly melted in the sun) and a much more relaxing day: toasting in the sun outside the lodge, watching the mountains appear and disappear again behind their cloudy covers, and the prospect of a trip back to Tengboche this afternoon to see the monks at prayer. Happily, today there’s not a peril in sight.


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Onwards and upwards

Fortified by a good breakfast we set off on day two, which promised to be significantly tougher than yesterday. After an easy start, criss-crossing the river (at least, for those not afraid of heights given the numerous suspension bridges) we found ourselves after lunch facing the 450m (1,500 ft) climb up to Namche. Although only around a third of the height of Ben Nevis (the UK’s rather modest highest mountain) it was at at least three times harder at an altitude of 3,400m.

One of the many suspension bridges on the way to Namche.
One of the many suspension bridges on the way to Namche.

But with a leisurely pace and lots of breaks we made it up to the town and settled into the Khumbu Lodge where we will stay for three nights to acclimatise. We got there just in time. As the afternoon drew to a close the clouds rolled in and as I showered before dinner I could hear the rain pouring down on the corregated roofs all around. If the shower had had the same volume of water coming down it would have been great! But given the relative temperatures I wasn’t minded to swap. And after a hot, dusty hike up the hill I was happy just to be clean. When the clouds cleared in the morning I could better appreciate what the effort of the climb had bought me. Without even getting out of bed the view was spectacular.

The view from our bedroom window in Namche.  It's a hard life!
The view from our bedroom window in Namche. It’s a hard life!

For our first acclimatization day our guides proposed ‘a short walk – maybe an hour?’ to the Everest View Hotel, followed by a further half an hour stroll to Khumjung where our sirdar (Sherpa leader), Pasang, had kindly offered to give us lunch. They neglected to mention that this involved a further 430m (1,400 ft) of ascent, and descent.

But while tiring, it was a great hike with wonderful views of Ama Dablam, Lhotse and – briefly – Everest itself. Pasang and his wife were wonderful hosts and it was a privilege to be a guest in their home. While in Khumjung we also had a chance to see the Hillary school – complete with a bust of its illustrious founder who set it up in 1961.

Our view of Ama Dablam as we walked down to Khumjung.
Our view of Ama Dablam as we walked down to Khumjung.

We walked home by a different route, and were treated to a great view of Namche itself before the final descent back to the town, and a well-earned rest.

Hiking back down to Namche at the end of the afternoon.
Hiking back down to Namche at the end of the afternoon.

Situated in a natural amphitheatre, Namche is much as I remember it from my last visit here in 2009. A little larger, perhaps, and with the addition of two more banks, an ATM and an authorised Mountain Hardwear dealer, the character of the town with its steep, narrow streets lined with trekking gear shops, souvenir stalls and lodges was not much changed. Being here on a Saturday we were fortunate enough to catch the weekly market. I’ve seen a lot of markets in a lot of countries but few could compare for the beauty of their setting, or the tolerance of the shoppers for our group (and others) getting in their way and snapping countless photos.

The famous Saturday market at Namche.
The famous Saturday market at Namche.

Along with all the usual vegetables, chickens, fuel and hardware my favourite product was ‘Close up’, ‘active gel – red hot, the closer the better’, a happy couple adorning the box. I was initially startled to see a crate of it prominently displayed – but it turns out to be a dental hygiene product. The meat market polarised the group. Some found the carcasses (in various states of dismemberment) fascinating, others couldn’t look. Personally, I could cope with the meat but was horrified to see a man selling dried chillies in bare feet. All the flip-flops were bad enough! Toes numb from the mere thought of it, I headed off for a hot drink to recover.So with our laundry done, final purchases made, email checked and good coffee guzzled we’re ready to leave Namche. Our Easter Sunday will be spent heading higher up the mountain to Deboche.


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White knuckle ride

Getting up at the crack of dawn would have been a lie-in compared to the time we were prised out of bed for our flight to Lukla. But the early start payed off: the streets of Kathmandu were virtually traffic free and half our group (including me) caught the first flight of the morning with the rest following an hour later. At this time of year, the weather is typically clear in the morning but clouds over in the afternoon, so there is a definite advantage to getting an early flight. Once we were packed into the aged twin otter, however, the relief that we’d got our flight as planned gave way to just a little anxiety. With Lukla rated the world’s most dangerous airport by The History Channel in 2010 it was hard not to feel slightly nervous as the little plane revved its engines before catapulting down the runway towards it.  I consoled myself that, despite some 36 scheduled flights a day, Wikipedia lists a major incident only every couple of years (and the latest, in 2012, was due to a bird strike immediately after take-off in Kathmandu, which was nothing to do with flying to Lukla…right?).  Even factoring in frequent cancellations, then, I consoled myself that the odds weren’t really so bad. The haze over Kathmandu initially limited the distracting effects of the views but as we neared the end of the flight the sight of snow capped peaks surrounding us was breathtaking, even from my position in the middle of the plane.  A central seat also gave me a great – though heart-stopping – view of the runway as we approached.  Just 460m x 20m with a sheer cliff above and below there is not much room for error!  Fortunately, out pilots were clearly pros and before I knew it we were safely down and drinking coffee while we waited for the rest of the team to arrive.

The plane carrying the second half of our group taxis to a stop at Lukla airport.
The plane carrying the second half of our group taxis to a stop at Lukla airport.

It was as chilly as I’d feared and I bundled on all my clothes, but it seemed I’d dismissed my flip-flops too soon.  They were a common sight amongst the Nepalis and Sherpas in Lukla so I would have blended right in – if I wasn’t such a wimp about having cold feet. Instead, snug in my hiking boots, I followed the others as they set off towards Phakding, out stop for the night.  “Follow” was the operative word as I stopped to take a myriad of photos of the glorious scenery bathed in sunshine.  Luckily, Viki is even more of a shutter-bug than I am so we dawdled at the back together.  As the day wore on the hot sun more than offset the cool air and I enjoyed a relaxing hike along the gently undulating path, through villages, across the river and round the many walls and piles of mani stones.

Wall of mani stones along the trail.
Wall of mani stones along the trail.

As we progressed, the embarrassment I’d felt over the flip-flops paled into insignificance compared to my embarrassment about my relative load-carrying ability.  Weighed down by nothing more than a half-empty 25L day pack I goggled at the heavy, bulky loads that are the norm for the porters.

A porter prepares to set off again after a short break.
A porter prepares to set off again after a short break.

Many used a traditional basket, piled high with sacks and boxes.  Those supporting our team took two of our big duffles each, and then strapped their own small packs on top, carried by a strap over their forehead.  At up to 27kg (60lbs) per duffle I’m not sure I’d be able to even pick up such a load, let alone carry it up a mountain.  Lucky for the sherpa who has my duffle, though, as it’s about half the size of most of the climbers’.  I’m wondering what crucial items I’ve omitted to pack….

My duffle (the small black on in the back row), with everyone else's (much larger ones!)
My duffle (the small black on in the back row), with everyone else’s (much larger ones!)


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Freeze-thaw

Having walked just over half of the Capital Ring (not that you’d know it, since I’ve only blogged about 10% of it – but still planning to catch up – eventually!), I’ve suspended that project in favour of a bigger and better one: trekking to Everest Base Camp.  More scenic, more interesting, more altitude, more…well…just about everything really, I am very excited to trade walking round London for walking around in Nepal.

The first improvement has been the weather.  When I left London it was -5C with the wind chill, and snowing.  On the shady roof-top terrace of my hotel here in Katmandu, prayer flags fluttering overhead in the balmy breeze, I am comfortable in cropped trousers and flip-flops.  It must be around 27C.  Bliss!

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True, the pumping baseline of a ‘Gangnam Style’ remix blaring from an adjacent building, with occasional interjections from a selection of barking dogs and honking car horns in the street below, might not be to everyone’s taste.  I’m just happy to be able to take my coat off.  If it’s any consolation, Kathmandu is more than usually dusty and dangerous to walk around at the moment as a major road widening project has replaced the pavements with rubble and some sizeable holes, forcing pedestrians perilously close to the rather ‘lively’ traffic.

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Nor is the prospect of a 3.45am wake-up call tomorrow in preparation for a 5am trip to the airport for our flights to Lukla likely to make my list of trip highlights.  Sadly, my flip-flops won’t be required in Lukla: today’s forecast predicts an overnight temperature of -7C and a high of 4C tomorrow, and it will only get colder as we climb. I suspect the coat will be going back on.

But I’ll worry about that in the morning.  Today is all about making final preparations – and then (hopefully) a bit of lolling to recover from a hectic last few weeks.  In the cause of the former we have already had a team meeting, my first opportunity to meet the guides and the rest of the group.  Unsurprisingly for a trip run by American company IMG, the majority of the 20 or so people in our group are Americans, with four Chinese and myself.  Around half, including my friend Viki, are climbers hoping to make it to the highest point on earth in seven or eight weeks’ time.  The rest of us are trekkers for whom base camp is the summit of our present ambitions, many of whom, like me, are here with a climbing partner or friend.  I’m looking forward to getting to know them all over the next few weeks.  Right now, however, I’m still processing being introduced to quite so many people who have (repeatedly, in some cases) and/or plan to climb Everest.  Listening to the guides explain the plans for the coming days and weeks, highlighting preparations that need to made, protocols we need to follow, and checking everyone has the gear they need makes me realise that all these guys have taken a mental leap that I – and probably most people – have not: from viewing ‘climbing Everest’ as a euphemism for an endeavor of such enormous proportions as to be almost impossible, to seeing as it as an achievable goal to be worked towards as I might plan to move house, or going travelling.  I guess to a certain extent we are capable of what we believe we are capable of.  Certainly, it will be a privilege to be along for part of the ride.  And so I’d better get back to making sure I’m ready to go…

My plan is to blog every few days as opportunities present, so watch this space.  You might also be interested in the official IMG blog which is updated most days.


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A perfect ending

As my journey drew to a close I met another hiker just setting out to walk the entire Coast Path in the opposite direction.  He did it last year, he told me, and enjoyed it so much he was back to do it again in the opposite direction. I couldn’t help expressing my surprise, and may even have included the phrase ‘glutton for punishment’, but he was confident I’d feel the same way.  “Not right away, of course, but give it a month or two. You’ll see.” he added, with a sage nod. Standing there on my sore feet, legs stiff and aching from yesterday’s exertions – not to mention those of the preceding 620 miles – I was more interested in finishing than in starting again, and the end was getting closer by the minute.

A few easy miles and a low hill brought us to Swanage beach, crowded with families excited that summer had finally started

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We joined the happy throng with my sister, brother in law and their two children. It was a lovely reintroduction to home life after so long on the road: eating a picnic lunch, chatting with my family, jumping over the waves with my niece and watching my baby nephew discover that sand is fun in your fingers but not in your mouth. I could have sat there all afternoon but there was the small matter of the last six miles to attend to.  Brushing the sand off my feet, I put my boots back on for the final time and headed back to the Path.

It was a perfect summer day, and as I climbed up to the top of Ballard Down I was grateful for the breeze to offset the heat of the sun and the walk up. Two paragliders launched as I approached the top, and wheeling low above my head in the thermals of the cliff we waved to each other as they glided by.  A little further and I rounded The Foreland, my final headland, Old Harry rocks shining bright white in the late afternoon sun.

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But my gaze was drawn the other way: to my first glimpse of South Haven Point, the end of the Path. I walked on to Studland and catching sight of a board outside the Manor House Hotel advertising Dorset cream teas in their stunning gardens overlooking Studland Bay it was as if fate had brought us together. I was in! But a quick call to check they were still serving revealed that, while they were open, they had sold out of scones and clotted cream after an unusually busy day. I was crushed! I walked on around Studland Bay, contemplating an ice-cream instead to console me, and there were plenty of kiosks: but my heart wasn’t in it.

When the National Trust cafe at Knoll Beach hove into view a flicker of hope was rekindled. I approached the door, hardly daring to look inside for fear of another blow: but yes!  There were scones!  I scanned the menu board, and there it was: “Dorset cream tea – Large (2 scones) £4.95”. Relief flooded through me; to have finished the walk without a final cream tea would have been to have left things somehow incomplete. The cream tea itself was not the best I’ve ever eaten: after a long, hot day the scones had become a little dry, and the queue to get them was tedious. But sitting in the sun on the back of the beach, just two miles from the end of the Coast Path, it was still an entrant in the cream tea challenge that will always have a special place in my heart.

Back on the trail, licking the jam off my fingers, I found the sands of Studland Bay were an altogether calmer affair than the happy chaos of Swanage Beach. Boules seemed to be the amusement of choice – I counted three separate games within 50 yards of leaving the cafe.  As I moved further away from the car park the crowds thinned still more until it was just me with the oystercatchers and stints probing the sand at the waves’ edge.  Oh, and some naked people.

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Studland Beach, it turns out, is a popular spot for naturists.  “If you’d been here a minute or two earlier I’d have posed by that sign for you,” called out a man pulling on his shirt a few metres away.  I told him I thought that was above and beyond the call of duty, but it was very kind of him to offer.  We parted on a less bold note – an agreement that it had been a really beautiful day – and in fact I couldn’t think of a better end to the walk.  As the tide went out a wide, firm, flat expanse of sand was left beneath the clear blue sky. It couldn’t have been better for walking. Rounding the final corner I felt I could go on for ever, or at least, until I got hungry again. I was almost sorry to reach the monument marking the end.  I couldn’t quite believe that, just like that, it was all over. The struggles, the frustrations, the appalling weather and the terrible conditions of the last weeks melted away under the hot sun of a perfect English summer day.  I looked at the sign pointing back towards Minehead.  Maybe….

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Up, up and away

Having walked a good bit of today’s stage before and loved it (it was one of things that made me decide to walk the rest of the Coast Path) I was really looking forward to the rematch: but also slightly nervous. I remembered the 10 mile walk from Lulworth Cove to Houns-tout Cliff being pretty tough and today, due to an absence of intermediate campsites, we were aiming to do nearly twice that, carrying all our gear. From campsite to campsite would be about 19 miles, with over 1,300 metres of ascent: equivalent to climbing Ben Nevis (the highest mountain in the British Isles) but about twice as far.

This was a walk that took no prisoners. From the first descent to Stair Hole from our campsite above Durdle Door, the roller-coaster chalk cliff line got progressively higher and steeper with each hill we climbed. But the views were worth the effort. The path up out of Arish Mell was the steepest of them all, but gave the most spectacular view back over the cliffs above Mupe Bay.

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The white chalk cliffs soon gave way to orangey-brown mud and sandstone, and then – thankfully! – to lower grey cliffs of Kimmeridge Clay, thin limestone ‘ledges’ radiating out from them into the sea. We passed the UK’s oldest continually producing oil well at Kimmeridge Bay and stopped for lunch and a welcome sit-down beside Clavell Tower, a 19th century folly and observatory about to fall into the sea until the Landmark Trust moved it back 25 metres to safety.

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The last challenge of the day was Houns-tout Cliff: not as steep as the hills this morning, but still tough for my tired legs. Fortunately I had the gorgeous view of Chapman’s Pool to take my mind off the protesting screams of my quads as I tottered down the other side.

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And with that, the worst was over: for the day, but also for my Coast Path walk. From our camp for the night above Dancing Ledge to the end of the Coast Path at South Haven Point is just more 12 miles of easy level walking. I can’t quite believe that I’ve come so far, or that the end is so close. Poole is, quite literally, just around the corner.

With its incredible variety of scenery and interest, its challenges and rewards, and not least the perfect summer weather, today has been one of my absolute favourite days. The route was as tough as I remembered it, but despite having my gear this time I found it easier. I guess 600 miles of walking has made me fitter! After all the wet, exhausting, demoralising moments when I wished it could all be over, after such a great day I don’t wan’t it to end. Ironically.


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Halt!

My walk came to an abrupt halt today at the command of the Army. A mile or two on from our campsite the Coast Path enters the Lulworth Ranges. The home of the Royal Armoured Corps Gunnery School, they apparently had their own use for the firing ranges today.

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According to my guidebook “The ranges cover some of the best coast in Dorset and it is a great shame to miss it.” We therefore resigned ourselves to yet another day off but while we settled back to relax and enjoy it the Army were clearly hard at work. We ate breakfast to the sound of distant gunfire, the tanks making an altogether more intimidating noise than the rifles we’d heard from the Royal Marines Ranges at Straight Point.

It made a pleasant change to have a day off where it wasn’t pouring with rain. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones who thought so. The upside of the terrible weather has been the deserted campsites. But the combination of an improved forecast and the start of the school holidays bought other tourists out in force. By the end of the afternoon our quiet pitch under the trees had become a melée of tents, cars, dogs, barbecues and children.

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We escaped the chaos and walked down into Lulworth Cove for dinner. Full of good steak and mellowed by a glass of red wine the sunset over Durdle Door was the perfect end to the evening.

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If only little Jacob next door could be persuaded to stop larking about – and periodically yelling – I could get some sleep…


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Golden arches

Another day, another diversion, this time to avoid the Olympic site in Weymouth. I was initially annoyed to be deprived of the walk around Nothe Fort, but the diversion took us past the Crow’s Nest Bistro in Hope Square where we enjoyed a fabulous cooked breakfast. As I walked on up to harbour, belching discretely, I reflected that in hindsight this was one detour I was pleased to have made.

The harbour was a lovely sight, bathed in sunshine, fringed with historic buildings and filled with boats of all types. I hadn’t realised Weymouth was so attractive.

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The Esplanade, with its B&Bs, deck-chairs and ice-cream kiosks stretching almost to the horizon, conformed more closely to my expectations but I was relieved to find that it retained more charm than Torquay. And once past Bowleaze Cove and up onto the cliffs the scenery got better and better as the low grey and brown cliffs gave way to the characteristic rolling chalk Purbeck coastline. I was thoroughly enjoying myself, despite the effort involved in getting up and down the increasingly steep slopes.

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And we saved the best for last. As we walked I excitedly told Rob all about Durdle Door, the spectacular rock arch I’d visited before on a family holiday to this area. “But that was 20 years ago, right?” he asked. “How’d you know it’s still there?”. “Of course it’s still there!” I replied, indignant.

Wasn’t it…?

Although I guess, in time, it is the fate of all rock arches to degenerate into stacks, happily Durdle Door is still standing for the moment, and if anything more impressive than I remembered it.

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I’ve seen so many rock arches along the Coast Path I’ve lost count but this one knocks them all into a cocked hat. Rob wondered where the other half of the doughnut was. And it’s true all those ascents and descents give you a good appetite!