Threading My Way Towards the Needles
Limestone and chalk marvels, seaside resorts, switchbacks, torrential wind-driven rain, a ‘nodding donkey’, feeling overdressed, and completion of the South West Coast Path all feature in what has been a week of ‘unexpecteds’.
Weymouth, once a classical Georgian town was throbbing with fairground noise and screams of delight from children water zorbing and contorting themselves on bungee trampolines. Once a favourite town of George III, I suspect he would shudder if he could see it now. Looking up at nearby Osmington Hill, where a mounted George III is immortalised in a limestone cut-out, I’m surprised he hasn’t galloped off in disgust!
From here it was a roller-coaster walk along the cliffs to Dorset’s most famous seaward landmark, Durdle Door. As I approached the area it looked as if ants were crawling all over the nearby clifftops – such is the popularity of this spectacular limestone doorway, carved out by the sea. I took some pictures in the afternoon sunshine but quickly left, choosing to return early next morning before continuing to Lulworth Cove. Long before the car parks began to fill, I descended into this pretty oyster-shaped bay, which is a mix of limestone backed by chalk cliffs, before heading out towards Lulworth Ranges.
Confusingly, someone had left a red flag flying, but I was confident there was no tank training about to take place. My interesting route, waymarked by yellow poles, took me through a vast area of land, with some steep climbs thrown in for good measure. I’d planned to visit Tyneham village a little way inland - a place evacuated for military training during WWII and now deserted - but was beaten by the weather. Either I wasn’t fast enough, or the forecasters got it wrong because by now I was getting a thorough soaking, so decided to continue along the cliff path. Arriving at Kimmeridge Bay, through the pouring rain I spied what is known locally as the ‘nodding donkey’ – a beam pump working one of Dorset’s few oilfields.
Next day the weather had improved enough for me to admire Clavell’s Tower. Built as an observatory, but classed as a folly, the Tower had mixed fortunes. Until it was gutted by fire in the 1930s, the Coastguard Service used it as a lookout, and much later in 2006 it had to be relocated; the nearby cliff erosion meant it was in danger of falling into the sea. The Landmark Trust carefully dismantled the structure, brick by brick and relocated it 25 metres inland. Today it now serves as a unique holiday cottage offering views of Dorset’s wonderful coast.
Before reaching Swanage there were more ascents and descents, coupled with some stunning views. At Emmetts Hill, near St Alban’s Head, I sat quietly on the stone bench in the RM Memorial Garden, high up on Dorset’s cliffs. The plaque reads: ‘Rest awhile and reflect that we who are living can enjoy the beauty of the sea and countryside’. I did just that.
Other sights followed that afternoon before I finally rounded Peveril Point which pointed me into Swanage: another seaside resort, but perhaps less frantic than Weymouth. I noticed the survival of a quaint tradition - Punch and Judy shows are still held on the beach. Nearby the hiss and hoot emitted by engines running on the Swanage Steam Railway provided excitement for Dads and children alike.
My next day of walking should have seen me complete the 630-mile South West Coast Path, cross the mouth of Poole harbour and arrive in Bournemouth. Annoyingly, the chain ferry that works the route across to Sandbanks is out of action. By now we are used to ‘unexpecteds’ being tossed in our direction. My route was re-planned and for the sake of 400 yards of water, I had to walk an extra 25 miles.
Before that detour began, I tramped out to Handfast Point where the chalk white rocks of Old Harry dazzled in the morning sun. In the distance I could see The Needles on the Isle of Wight: these would have once been joined to the Old Harry Rocks on the mainland. After all this time I find it hard to grasp I’m able to see the Isle of Wight again – a thought that would have been incomprehensible a year ago.
This time last year I was climbing up the Rattagan Pass in the West Highlands of Scotland. Ahead was a cow: I know these things because I’m a farmer’s daughter. On getting closer I looked through the rear legs and realised I was approaching an enormous bull, complete with ring through its nose! Another ‘unexpected’!
My ‘unexpected’ this year was noticing a man in what I hoped was a pink wetsuit amongst the sand dunes on Studland Heath. As I got nearer, I didn’t need to be a farmer’s daughter to realise that the man’s pink wetsuit was nothing less than his birthday suit – and he wasn’t alone in his choice of beachwear. Unknowingly, I’d wandered onto a section of naturist beach. Feeling like someone wearing evening dress at a disco, I pressed on along the beach at top speed keeping my eyes fixed firmly on my bootst!
My 25-mile detour took me in a vast loop around the expanses of Wareham and Poole Harbour. For this it was a mixture of walking through heathland, on cycle tracks, through woodland, along the Frome riverbank to Wareham, and out onto streets and busy main roads choked with crawling holiday traffic. It was a relief to enter Poole where I was briefly delayed by the swing bridge being opened. I didn’t care – my detour was almost behind me as I moved onto the Poole Harbour Trail, which led me to where the chain ferry should have transported me.
I can’t say I enjoyed the concrete promenade walk beside Bournemouth’s lengthy stretch of beaches. Being high-season it was inevitable I’d be weaving my way past countless ice cream stalls, holidaymakers, dodging stray footballs, prams, children on scooters and avoiding being decapitated by kite strings. Branksome beach lacked much of this holiday activity as it was hosting the 2019 National Surf Life Saving Championships – surf boards, tents and athletic swimmers prevailed.
Finally, I emerged at Bournemouth’s east end to enjoy a walk out along Hengistbury Head, a peninsula of land that leaves enough room for a water channel into Christchurch harbour. Another ferry trip was required across to Mudeford, before I fled along the coast towards Highcliffe Castle. Nearby I clocked 5,400 miles but more importantly entered my final county – Hampshire. I’m still struggling to take in this fact.
After months of an exacting routine, regularly interrupted by ‘unexpecteds’, I feel almost disbelief that the end is in sight. During the thousands of miles I’ve tramped around the coastline, I’ve often wondered how I’d feel when this moment arrived. Now, as the end draws near, I realise I’m mentally tired: these last few hundred miles have probably been some of my most taxing. Coupled with adverse weather conditions and tough terrain it has been physically hard too. When we left Portsmouth, it took a long time for Spinnaker Tower to disappear from view. I’m now eagerly awaiting its reappearance, despite knowing that after the Walk we’ll begin a stressful chapter of moving out of the Victory Van and into a house that we haven’t yet found to buy!
See Photo Album No 85 - Threading My Way Towards the Needles