Rugged Tales

Wherever my feet may take me…


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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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Stone cold

Today’s stage was a circuit of the Isle and Royal Manor of Portland, Gateway to the Jurassic Coast. I was puzzled as to how a place can be a ‘gateway’ to somewhere it’s in the middle of, but at least this conundrum gave me something to think about during the tedious three mile trudge along the edge of the A354 that links the island to Weymouth.

When I arrived in Chiswell another, physical, gateway greeted me, more traditionally placed at the entrance to the island, and I went over to read the inscription.

“By the great generosity of the brethren of the six Portland Lodges of Freemasons under the auspices of…”

Wait a second – the tiny Isle of Portland has six Masonic Lodges? Who would have thought a population of just 13,000 people would support so many? Perhaps the Freemasons have more to do with masonry than I previously realised; quarries were by far the most striking feature of the island. At one time there were apparently over 80 working quarries whose products can be seen in numerous impressive edifices including the National Gallery, the British Museum and, most famously, St Paul’s Cathedral. It is still a major industry but many of the old quarries are now abandoned and the Coast Path runs right through them.

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The discarded blocks and abandoned faces of Tout Quarry have become an al fresco gallery, adorned by numerous sculptures left there by the departing artisans. I would have liked to spend longer pottering round the quarry looking for them, but the weather didn’t encourage me to linger. Cool, windy and drizzling it was a day for brisk walking not dawdling. And after a few heavy showers I started to wonder whether I wanted to walk at all. My guidebook makes the Isle of Portland sound almost optional, and as I approached Portland Bill I saw there was a tempting bus service directly back to Weymouth – but not for another 45 minutes. To kill time I walked down behind the lighthouse to explore the tip of the Bill and saw a Coast Path marker: Minehead 581 miles to the left, Poole 49 miles to the right.

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I hadn’t realised how close I was to the finish line! I decided not to cheat after all: after coming so far I could surely manage another 49 miles, especially if I had a good lunch. With that in mind I headed into the Lobster Pot restaurant for ham, egg and some excellent chips. As I ate I noticed a sign advertising cream teas, based on their famous award-winning scones made to a secret recipe handed down through the generations. How could I pass that up? But how could I fit one in when I’d just eaten such a large lunch?! Fortunately, it turned out they did a takeaway version for just this eventuality. Relieved, I popped one into my rucksack for later and set off up the east coast of the island.

It was an interesting route, beautiful in places, that I would have enjoyed in better weather. As it was, by the time the path rose to the highest part of the island I was walking in thick fog and couldn’t see a thing – ironic, given that on a clear day you can apparently see a quarter of the Coast Path from Portland Bill, more than from any other point. In the swirling mist I couldn’t even see Portland Harbour – one of the largest man-made harbours in the world – directly below me. I hastily skirted the old Verne Citadel, a fortress until the end of the second World War, now a medium security prison and an eerie desolate place to be this afternoon and hurried down to the harbour where a more cheerful sight greeted me. Osprey Quay and the adjacent athletes village were decked out in party colours ready to host the Olympic sailing next week, a welcome splash of colour on a grey, miserable day.

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Less welcome, however, was the detour round the security cordon: back out onto the main road again. Still, since there’s only one way on and off the island it was coming sooner or later. Of all the sections of the Coast Path to have to walk twice, this had to be one of my last choices, but spurred on by the thought of the cream tea in my bag I made it back to the tent in double quick time. Chilled and tired after the damp 16.5 mile walk my take-away cream tea hit the spot and the scone was just as good as they’d claimed. But the logistics of eating it out of a box with only a spork and a folding pocket knife to assist me were a challenge. Several hours later, still discovering crumbs in my sleeping bag, I concluded that cream teas are better enjoyed in a proper tea shop.


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Size matters

More landslips, and consequently diversions, made for a vexatious start today. Having walked inland on the roads from Lyme Regis we finally regained the beach at Charmouth only to be signposted straight back inland. The brief glimpse of Charmouth’s sea front car park hardly justified the effort of walking out to the coast and back again and I’d have been just as happy to forgo that pleasure and link the two diversions together by staying on The Street instead. I’ll know for next time.

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But once we had climbed over Stonebarrow Hill and back to the cliffs I forgot my frustrations in my enjoyment of the views along the coast, spectacular despite the cloudy day. The most prominent feature was Golden Cap, the highest cliff on the south coast of Britain, although – ominously – we also had a clear view of the Isle of Portland in the distance, apparently a sure sign of rain tomorrow.

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After ten years in Calgary, a stone’s throw from the snow-capped peaks of the Canadian Rockies, Rob was unimpressed with a cliff just 191m high. But when faced with climbing over half a dozen of them in the day I think that small cliffs have their advantages. And, in addition to its height and distinctive two-tone appearance (with a base of dark grey mudrock topped by a triangle of Upper Greensand, a sandstone that turns golden as it weathers) Golden Cap had one other unique feature. In years of walking all around the UK I don’t think I’ve ever seen a double his ‘n’ hers stile before!

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By the time we arrived in Eype’s Mouth the sun had finally broke through, providing a great view back to the cliffs we’d just walked over.

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It was so exciting to see the sun for a change I decided to stop in West Bay for a celebratory cream tea. Taking the recommendation of the very helpful couple supervising the Eype’s Mouth car park we headed to Haddon House Hotel, which they told us served one of the best cream teas they’d ever had. It came on a ceremonial tray, doily-topped plates nestled on a bed of deep red napkins: undoubtedly the best-presented of the trip. But, while tasty, it wasn’t quite a prize-winner – the side plate of chocolate biscuits added variety but I would have traded it for a second of the lovely but rather small scones, and a larger pot of tea.

From West Bay there was just one more cliff to climb before our campsite at Burton Freshwater. Where my scone had been a little small, the camping pitch I’d booked turned out to be enormous. Promised “a small walkers pitch just big enough for a two man tent” the spot we were allocated would easily fit ten tents the size of mine. It makes me wonder just what equipment the other backpackers in this area are using…


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Feet of clay

The weather this summer may not be good for hiking but it seems to be just the thing if you’re a slug. At the campsite in Shaldon I had to remove three or four small grey ones from my Crocs every time I wanted to get out of the tent. At Ladram Bay, the big black kind were more common, and we removed a number of them from all around the tent before setting off for Seaton.

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It was a tough start to the day with the path over High Peak to Sidmouth the worst yet. It ran through a woodland that had recently been logged and the passage of the heavy machinery over the sodden ground, followed by another day of heavy rain yesterday, had destroyed it. We both had near misses, almost standing on ground that wasn’t as firm as it looked, until eventually the inevitable happened and Rob sank into mud right over the top of his boots. Luckily he had the drawcord round his trouser cuffs tightened so they acted like gaiters, but when we finally came out onto more solid ground, having taken 45 minutes to pick our way through half a mile of quagmire, Rob was more skeptical than ever about hiking as an enjoyable leisure pursuit!

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Fortunately that was the worst of the terrain behind us, but after so much rain more paths were muddy than not. We climbed up and down the cliffs accumulating a colourful collection of different muds on our boots as the surface rocks switched between the deep red Otter Sandstone and Mercia Mudstone, and the creamy white chalk and Upper Greensand. At least my latest toy – the Jurassic Coast iPhone app – allowed me to revel in a new-found geological prowess as I slithered along! But in spite of the condition of the paths it was an enjoyable walk, and with the consumption of a tactical cream tea and the help of a fortuitously placed tree, we dodged the heaviest rain showers and stayed pretty much dry all day.

As we made our way round the delightfully named Beer Head, we had great views back over Hooken Undercliff, formed by an enormous landslip in 1790, under the stormy sky.

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And although my allergy to yeast prevented me indulging in a pint once we arrived in the village of Beer itself, I’m happy to report that the Anchor Inn had an excellent selection of alternative beverages (including specialty gins, single malts and a variety of wines) to refresh us after a very muddy, hilly walk.


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Birthday presents

It was my birthday today! But it didn’t get off to the best of starts. I woke up tired and a little grumpy after a terrible, night’s sleep. Some little creature(s) left over 50 bites across the small of my back while I was walking yesterday – an unwelcome early birthday present – and they itched infernally.

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Uncomfortable as it was to put on my backpack, I manned up and set off around 8am since the forecast was for light rain to move in late afternoon. As I passed Strete I met a man from the village walking his dog, who told me he thought the rain would hold off. I liked his optimism and happily shared it – right up until it started to rain heavily as I approached Stoke Fleming half an hour later. I took shelter under a tree, hoping it was just a shower: after 15 minutes standing there, however, I got bored. Deciding to push on into the village and find a cafe to wait it out I dug out my coat and headed into the deluge.

It turned out my tent is not the only thing that’s sprung a leak. In the 10 minutes it took to walk through the downpour to the village shop then onto the Stoke Lodge hotel, my shoulders, back and chest were soaked. I drowned my sorrows in a full English while I dried off. Two hours later it was still pouring, and I noticed the Met Office forecast had been updated to heavy rain most of the day and all night. Presumably someone had looked up from the computer models and out of the window! I decided to take my sister and brother-in-law up on their excellent suggestion of a hotel room for the night as a birthday present and, being already in a nice hotel, checked in there and then.

The good thing about having such a small tent is that it’s easily dried even in the confines of a hotel bedroom. With my damp belongings spread over every available surface I borrowed a golf umbrella from the hotel and caught the bus to Dartmouth in search of waterproofer for my coat. Mission accomplished, there was just time for a quick cream tea by way of a birthday cake while I waited for the return bus. When the plate arrived I was startled by the size of the Dart Cafe’s scone; it was probably the largest I’ve ever seen in my life! But I felt a small qualm: my researches so far had suggested that smaller scones generally prove the best. But you can’t judge a book by its cover, and the mega-scone turned out to be excellent: tasty and crumbly without being dry. While not quite enough to knock the current leaders from their perch it was definitely a cream tea I was glad to have eaten.

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Back at the hotel I spent the afternoon washing and reproofing my coat. While Andy Murray fought for a place in the Wimbledon final I battled in my en suite. As the manufacturers had suggested when I phoned them in distress after my soaking this morning, I washed my coat in normal non-bio laundry detergent, then in Nikwax Techwash, and finally Nikwax reproofer, all with copious rinsing in between. Then I did it all again for my tent footprint, figuring I might as well give it a try while I was at it.

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It was a long and arduous process. By the time Andy and I had triumphed I’m not sure which of us was tireder! I can see why people invented washing machines. It seemed an ideal moment to restore the bath to its rightful function and get into it myself for a long, hot soak. After walking some 470 miles of the Coast Path I’d almost forgotten what it’s like not to have slightly stiff legs and slightly smelly feet; neither condition being readily cured by a quick shower, however much soap you use. But after the bath I was as good as new. I even blow dried my hair!

Emerging from the bathroom I caught the tail end of the news. The Met Office had revised their forecast again and issued a red weather warning – the first ever – for heavy rain in the South West, with the area affected almost directly centred on where I am. With widespread flooding expected the Environment Agency was apparently touring campsites to warn people. Excited as I was to be in the area on this momentous occasion I was very happy not to be experiencing it from the increasingly limited shelter of my tent. After a three course birthday dinner in the hotel restaurant – a nice change from all the instant mash and pub grub I’ve been eating lately – I curled up in my warm, dry bed, reflecting that it’s much nicer listening to the rain pouring down from inside.


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Running up that hill

Today’s stage was an enormous 19.5 miles, not counting the mile and a half to get back to Salcombe from the campsite and another mile or so to get to the campsite at the other end. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk quite so far in a day with all my gear, but I figured I’d give it a try and see how it went.

After an uninspiring walk along the A381 to get to the campsite last night I went back by the route recommended by the farmer’s wife instead. A vast improvement, it wound down the side of the hill and along the edge of the estuary: a relaxing and picturesque start to the day. The ferry ride across to East Portlemouth and the subsequent woodland path round Mill Bay carried on in the same vein, but if I was going to get to Stoke Fleming by evening I needed to keep up the pace. There was so much to see, however, I didn’t feel like hurrying past it all.

The rugged path to Prawle Point was similar to the walk I’d enjoyed so much yesterday, and the scenery was just as fabulous.

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Then I had lunch at Kate Bush’s house. Or at least, on a cliff-side bench with a view of her house. Although it may not have been Kate Bush’s house at all; I only have the opinion of a local guy I’d bumped into earlier on the path on that point. Still though, it was a good spot for lunch with a good view of Start Point as well as possibly-Kate-Bush’s-house.

Start Point, when I reached it, was one of my highlights of the whole Coast Path so far. The anticipation began with a sign about a mile beforehand asking walkers to “Please exercise extreme care when using this section of the coast path.” What could be ahead??! It turned out to be a relatively narrow unfenced ledge, which wasn’t especially dangerous in the dry, calm conditions today but I can see could be risky in bad weather. The headland itself – one of the longest in Britain – made a dramatic sight as I approached it: a spiny ridge dropping down into the sea.

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And as the path went up and over the ridge-line, suddenly revealing the wide expanse of Start Bay, the glorious unexpected vista took my breath away. Start Bay is an ever-changing coastline, it’s particular geology channeling the energy of winter storms in such a way as to continually change the contours of the shore. Human activities interact with these natural processes, of course, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. I walked past the ruined village of Hallsands, almost entirely destroyed by a storm in 1917 after decades of shingle dredging eroded the beach that protected it. The last remnants of the village clinging to the base of the cliff are a poignant reminder of the tragedy, for which the villagers were never properly compensated.

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Sobered, and a bit tired, I arrived at the village of Torcross where a board on the sea-front advertised ‘The Best Cream Teas’. Clearly, that was a challenge I could not ignore! And the Sea Breeze cafe’s claim was no idle boast. de Wynns in Falmouth have met their match, though I’d be hard pressed to say which was the winner. I will have to declare it a tie until I can sample them both again…

Reenergised by such top notch refreshments it was an easy, relaxing walk to the other end of Slapton Ley, the largest natural lake in the West Country. With just five miles left to Stoke Fleming I started to think I’d actually be able to do it, and phoned ahead to book the campsite. Lucky I did: their field was flooded by all the recent rain and they weren’t taking anyone. No problem – the map showed another campsite at Strete a couple of miles closer. I googled for their phone number, just to check, and in the process discovered it was in fact naturist campsite. I entertained the idea for a moment: as Arnold Bax is reputed to have said, you should try everything once in life except incest and morris dancing. But I decided it was too cold. So I found myself staying in Slapton – my emergency fall back location if I didn’t think I’d go the distance – after all. But with a lovely pitch with a sea view, my laundry done and a belly full of homemade chicken and ham pie from The Queen’s Arms I can think of many worse places to be stranded for the night.


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Déjà vu

Another rainy day, another tea shop… With it forecast to rain hard all day through the fog – a forecast that certainly seemed accurate when I woke up – there didn’t seem much point in walking. I fell back on my alternative, bad-weather activity: eating. There is only one tea shop in Bigbury-on-Sea, the Bay View Bistro and Cafe, so it was lucky for me that it’s a friendly place with good food, and quiet enough that I could keep a table all day. At least I had a good view of Burgh Island to look at through the sheeting rain.

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Home to an exclusive Art Deco hotel where Agatha Christie famously stayed, and subsequently used as a setting for a couple of her books, the hotel was used as a location for the TV adaptation of one of them (the Poirot story Evil Under the Sun). The hotel also runs a pub on the island, The Pilchard Inn, and as I sat in the cafe more adventurous patrons, who’d been across to island, told tales of the log fire there. It sounded good, but as they had also returned soaking wet from the walk back I decided to stay where I was.

I watched the tide finish going out over the sand bar that connects the island to the mainland, turn, and come back in again, in that time consuming:
1. A pot of tea
2. Fish and chips (really excellent)
3. A coffee and a slice of Millionaire’s shortbread (both very good)
4. A large cream tea (rather disappointing – lucky I ate all the other things!).

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As the tide cut off the island from the mainland the bizarre-looking ‘sea tractor‘ started up to ferry passengers back and forth during the high tide. I quite fancied a ride in it, but it didn’t look to offer much more protection from the rain than I would have had by walking.

When the downpour finally paused – for the first time since about 11am – it was well after 5:00 and I thought I should use the time to get back up the hill to the campsite. Moving slowly from the weight of all that food, the rain started up again before I was half way back, and when I reached my tent I found a small puddle (perhaps 3″x1″) had formed on the floor. Fortunately, it was in the place I’d expected given last night’s drips and my sleeping bag and other gear had stayed dry but I still felt a bit depressed as I mopped it up. Poor tent! Poor me!

Fortunately, my lovely neighbors Rachael and Martin came to my rescue again. They chastised me roundly for bringing them whiskey to replace what we’d drunk yesterday, insisted I stay and help drink the new bottle, and invited me to join them for dinner (the tastiest meal of the day). After a fun evening setting the world to rights with them things didn’t seem so bad.