Wednesday, 6 October 2010

South West Coast Path Section 52 West Bay - Abbotsbury

West Bay Cliff
It never dawned on me that I would be back on the coast path so soon, but a quick perusal of the weather forecast suggested that the outlook wasn’t great in the South East.  The weather forecast for Bridport on the other hand was fantastic so I needed no second bidding!  Now I have headed a little further east along the Jurassic Coast these day trips are not so arduous, especially on a Sunday morning when the road to Dorset is so empty and I can be down there in a couple of hours.
West Bay

As happened with my first of these day trips I hit the line of cloud somewhere in the Southampton/ New Forest area and from that point the sky was azure blue without a cloud in the sky.  I can’t help but be excited for the walk ahead when the conditions are so fabulous!  I wished that I had had these conditions when I had walked the Golden Cap section a few weeks earlier.  I managed to reach Abbotsbury almost exactly two hours after leaving home and about half an hour before my bus was due.  I was pleased about this as it gave me the opportunity to have a little look around in the village and with no panic about catching the bus (the service runs every two hours from here to West Bay).
West Bay Cliff View

The bus, when it did arrive, was quite full and I noticed a number of people donning walking boots and all probably with the same idea as me.  When I got out at West Bay there were only a couple of others that alighted though, suggesting that the others were heading much further westwards.  I stocked up on provisions at the shop on the dockside and had a peer at the boats before setting off for East Cliff.  I was tempted by the Tea Station, visited at the end of my last walk but thought that a tummy full of bacon sandwich/ coffee might not be the best thing to help me get up the steep climb of the cliff.
Empty Beach

Plodding up the side of East Cliff was a bit of a shock to the system so early in the walk but I comforted myself with the knowledge that this was likely to be the hardest climb of the day.  The view from the top was compensation too; I had picked an extremely good day to be doing this walk and the views extended to far beyond Torquay on the Devon Coast, some 70 miles away in one direction and the formidable lump of the Isle of Portland 20 miles in the other direction.  The great sweep of Lyme Bay was calm and deep blue and full of shipping seemingly idle and quite possibly enjoying a day’s rest on the sunshine.  All through this walk the sea has been on my right hand side (making for fairly easy navigation!) and sometimes it is easy to forget the views and activities going on at the left of me.  As I looked out across West Bay, the sweep of the old railway line to Bridport was pretty evident and the Tea Station seemed to be filling up with visitors quickly.  In the distance the pine tree crowned Colmers Hill stood out as possibly the most famous landmark in this part of Dorset.  Immediately next to the path now was the Bridport and West Dorset Golf Club, very busy today as you might expect on such a sunny day.
Scenic Golf Hole

As it was still pretty early in the morning I now faced the sun as I headed towards Abbotsbury.  This made for slightly odd picture taking as it meant that I had to take pictures retrospectively all the time, giving the impression that I was walking in the opposite direction.  However, the light and clarity of the air were so fantastic that I didn’t really mind.
Bleak Caravan Park

After walking along a level piece of cliff top for awhile, the path dipped into a hollow that was occupied by possibly the most scenic golfing hole in all of Dorset.  I suspect many golfers come to this course to play this hole, for it really is spectacular (although I’ve no doubt an absolute pig if it is windy!).  It was a testing little section for me too as the steepness of the path both sides of the hollow made me think hard about how to approach it.  One slip and it might have been curtains for the rest of the day’s walking!  Fortunately both the golfers and I made easy work of our respective requirements today and I continued along the cliff edge at high level for another half mile or so.
Lazing Around

The next dip down to sea level was rather different as I was this time faced with a fully fledged river valley blocking my way, albeit that the river was little more than a stream and couldn’t possibly have carved the valley before me.  However it was really formed, its natural beauty was rather sullied by yet another caravan park (is there really that much demand for staying on these bleak facilities?).  This one seemed to be even more functional looking than others, and little attempt had been made at blending it into the countryside.  It’s a funny thing – before walking along the coast I didn’t much care about caravan sites but now I am beginning to despise them.  For all its prettiness the Jurassic Coast has been spoiled by the number of parks allowed so close to the water.
River Bride

I got a better view of this park than most for my way up onto the next set of cliffs was barred by the small stream rather enthusiastically called the River Bride.  The path dog-legged around this obstruction by means of a bridge a couple of hundred metres upstream.  Far more interesting than the exploits of the remaining holidaymakers left at this late stage of the season were the geological processes going on at the mouth of the river.  This was like the forthcoming Chesil Beach in miniature.  The mouth of the river had been blocked off by the shingle bank that had been deposited probably as a spit at first, but which now formed a natural dam.  On the way to the bridge over the river I passed through a field of donkeys, looking very chilled out on this Sunday morning.  Most of them were laying down half asleep, maybe they knew something about the weather that I didn’t?  On the other side of the river were the remains of several pillboxes, suggesting that the authorities were concerned about the security of this lonely stretch of the Dorset Coast.  I suspect that an area like this would have been far more vulnerable to invasion than the locations most of us would think about.

Looking back down the coast from the adjacent cliff was amazing – the blues of the sea, sky and river were different in their intensities but made for some spectacular contrast.  I climbed the short climb to the top, by now realising that as I headed east each of the cliffs were getting a little shorter.  Walking along Burton Cliff was a joy, with views across to the village of Burton Bradstock inland and the breathtaking view opening up towards the Isle of Portland ahead of me.  As I got closer to Burton Beach the path had obviously been re-routed in a number of places to deal with the erosion that is a constant feature of this coast.  This issue was particularly pronounced as I reached the clifftop hotel by Burton Beach, where it looked like several attempts had been made to deal with the problem.
More Caravans

Burton Beach was particularly busy although most of the visitors had confined themselves to the coffee shop on the beachside.  Seeing how many people were there I thought better of sticking around and pushed on along the coast.  The next cliff was barely noticeable for height, but more pillboxes were in evidence using what height did exist to give a little better view out to sea.  It seems strange to think that this piece of coast was so well protected, but the evidence is there for all to see, even though these structures are generally unloved these days.
Beginning of Chesil Beach

A little further out from Burton Beach and as I approached the end of the cliffs for the day I was confronted by another gulag-like caravan site, this time on the top of the cliff and seemingly stretching on forever in military precision rows.  There were few tourists in evidence today, apart from a young family outside playing ball and enjoying the view across Lyme Bay.  This marked the end of cliff walking for me today for a short distance later I had dropped down onto the shingle that marks the beginning of the remarkable Chesil Beach, at 18 miles the longest stretch of shingle in the country.
West Bexington

I got a bit caught up in the moment as I approached Chesil Beach and missed the sign for the coast path, which actually pointed to the landward side of Burton Mere, the small reed filled lagoon cut off by the shingle beach.  I managed to walk a few hundred metres before I realised my mistake.  The prospect of walking an extended distance on the shingle probably saved me and I retraced my steps and regained the ‘right’ side of the Mere.  It was a relief since the path this side was devoid of shingle although sadly it was devoid of views too and for a mile or so I found the walking a bit ‘blah’, saved only by the continuing gorgeousness of the day and a brief interlude walking along a boardwalk through a small wood.
Waiting for the Enemy

I eventually reached West Bexington, a rather odd little village that is strung out along one road heading inland and notable only for the presence of a public loo (which was very welcome!) and an attractive looking café just set back from the seafront car park.  The Coast Path splits at West Bexington too – an inland route by-passes the Portland Peninsula and heads off across the South Dorset Ridgeway to Osmington Mills.  Not a coast path perhaps but offers a great view of the coast nonetheless – this will be a future day out for me. 
South Dorset Ridge

Today though I headed along the coast and just beyond the car park the path becomes a shingle road with a warning to vehicle traffic that there are deep ruts and shingle, suggesting that the road is impassable.  Yet, despite the implied warning there was a van about a hundred metres in that seemingly had been abandoned, having got stuck in the deep shingle.  From here the path followed what looked like it had once been a well-used coastal road that had not been maintained and left to fall into disrepair.  I saw signs showing passing places every so often and tarmac had clearly been laid at some point although there wasn’t much left.  It is a sparsely populated stretch of coast, with the only buildings of note are old coastguard cottages and the odd farm building.  Additionally there was quite a collection of pillboxes, further underlining how difficult it must have been keeping a watch out for the enemy in World War II.
Welcome Tea

Eventually the road gained some tarmac once again as I approached Abbotsbury and I came upon a largish car park.  More importantly there was a café, which was a very welcome sight as I was gagging for a cup of tea.  I ordered a pot and a bacon sandwich.  The latter was fantastic, made with local bacon and very tasty.  The pot of tea though was a blast from the past, served up in a plastic (yes, plastic!) Typhoo teapot that I hadn’t seen since the late 1980s when they were all the rage for awhile in motorway service stations!  Still it was a welcome cuppa nonetheless and fortified me for the last mile and a half into Abbotsbury.  Before heading to the village I took a last look up close and personal at Chesil Beach, for the path heads inland here.  This is a blessing for I can’t imagine anyone wanting to negotiate mile upon mile of shingle.  I did want to get a feel for the scale of the beach though and headed up onto the shingle bank.  It was an impressive sight, curving away gently towards the Isle of Portland.  My enjoyment of the view was rather distracted by the presence of a camera and broadcasting crew on the beach.  I edged over to see what was going on and realised that the main focus of the activity was Stuart Maconie, famous walker and radio personality.  I wanted to speak to him, but seeing that him and his crew were hard at it, I thought better of it.  I later learned that he is walking the Jurassic Coast section of the South West Coast Path with Mark Radcliffe for a radio programme.
Approaching Abbotsbury

After my encounter with such famous people it was back to the last part of the walk into Abbotsbury.  This is a beautiful village inland from the coast and hidden from view until the last minute by a hill that houses the famous landmark of St Catherines Chapel.  Rather than slavishly follow the official route I took the opportunity to head up the hill and have a look at the chapel more closely.  I was most glad that I did, for the view from the top was magnificent.  The chapel was interesting to look inside, albeit that the building is mostly a shell now with no pews or altar inside.  Across the village the remnants of the once extensive Abbey can still be seen even though the institution was one of the victims of the dissolution of Henry VIII’s reign.  On the Chesil Beach side of the hill I could also see the famous swannery, an unusual managed colony of mute swans.  Maybe a closer look at this beckons on my next trip?
St Catherine's Hill

From St Catherine’s Hill, it was a short descent into the village, which although catering for a tourist audience these days has managed to retain much of its charm.  I hurried back to the car having heard a car alarm from the top of the hill that I suspected might be mine!  You can imagine my relief when I found that not to be the case on my return.

This was easily the least taxing walk along the Jurassic Coast so far, for apart from the short cliff section (not even comparing with previous sections), it was flat for the majority of the walk.  The bus connection was easy and took only twenty minutes, although some planning is required as the X53 only runs every 2 hours.  I was super lucky with the weather – it was easily the best day we had during the whole of September!  Refreshments and toilet facilities are also surprisingly easy to come by on a relatively sparsely populated stretch of coast.  All in all a joy.  Now when can I get down here again?


  1. I walked this stretch of coastline in 2005 from Weymouth to Burton Bradstock, staying at the cliff top hotel you mentioned - a convelescent home in a previous existence. I certainly recall the caravan sites, the cliff erosion and the crunching shingle - hard work!

    This walk linked up with one I had done with my wife over 30 years ealier between Burton Bradstock and Charmouth.

  2. Thanks Tom. Funnily enough I can imagine that building as a convalescent home more than a hotel. It's a fine building but needs a little tlc