Wednesday, 17 February 2010

South West Coast Path Day 50 Seaton - Lyme Regis

Back to the Coast Path
I fancied a break from the ‘burbs today and wanted my lungs to be full of sea air for the first time since the autumn, rather than circling urban areas as I have been doing on the LOOP.  With my ambition of completing the South West Coast Path beginning to nag once again and the prospect of more reasonable weather out west, I got myself going for the necessary early start down to East Devon.  Fortunately, for a winter’s day, the next section of coast path along the Jurassic Coast is a short one, weighing in at only 7.5 miles.  I had considered extending the day to Charmouth, but then I would be faced with the unappealing prospect of the diversion route away from the coast for the last couple of miles.  I therefore plumped for dealing with this at the beginning of the next section as this would be less soul destroying.
Seaton Seafront

The X53 bus makes for a nice easy public transport link to Seaton from Lyme Regis, so long as you check the timetable first!  If you miss one it can be quite a while waiting for the next one, although to be fair, there are a lot worse places to wait than Lyme Regis.  It pays to use the long stay car park at the eastern end of town as it is only £1 to park all day.  The nearest bus stop is right by the car park.
Seaton Harbour

After getting to Seaton I headed along the seafront towards Axbridge.  Sadly, the seafront of Seaton has been rather spoiled by some fairly hideous 1960s buildings and the walk along the promenade is rather disappointing compared with other seaside towns in South Devon.  Ahead the cliffs loomed once again and I could see from the map that my route would take me along the so-called Undercliffs for virtually the whole way from here to Lyme Regis.
Pioneer Bridge

I turned away from the seafront as I approached the River Axe and headed for the lowest bridge available to cross the river.  I soon found that the road bridge crossed at an angle, cutting off an earlier bridge that crossed the river at right angles.  This I assume had been by-passed because of the rather sharp corner this created on the other side, not to mention the narrowness of it.  Although I initially took this to be a masonry bridge, I was surprised to find a plaque at the top of the arch proclaiming it to be the oldest concrete bridge in Britain.  The builders were obviously a little embarrassed by this early use of concrete, since they made it look as though it were made of stone!
Looking Back to Seaton

Before leaving the river behind, I couldn’t help but notice the large pile of rubble on the other side that marks the remnants of Seaton station, once the terminus for a short branch line that led here from the main London to Exeter railway line and which would have once been the main means of access for holidaymakers.  A sad sight now, and nothing had changed since I last came down here at Easter 2009.
Coast Path Warning

Having crossed the river I began the steep climb up through the golf course to reach the top of the headland overlooking Seaton.  Rather frustratingly I couldn’t get a decent view of the town from here as I had done with Sidmouth on the last section.

Once I had cleared the golf course I set off down a track for a short distance before having to turn onto a track heading down to the Undercliff.  At the start was a warning sign telling me that I could not stray off the path and that there was basically only forward or back along the path between here and Lyme Regis.   Undaunted I carried on and by now the rather grey morning showed signs of breaking out into sunshine after all.
Blue Skies

A couple of fields later and I came to the top of a set of steps leading me down into the strange world of the Undercliff.  The geology of the area gives rise to this strange feature, with chalk and greensand cliffs overlying softer clays.  After heavy rain the join between these rocks becomes lubricated and the weight of the harder rock means that the clay cannot sustain it and the cliff slides down, creating a valley that is richly vegetated and almost completely cut off from the outside world.
Into The Trees

At first the walk was quite open and there were good views back to Beer and the cliffs above.  These were created during the most famous of the landslips, which took place during Victorian times, when a huge chunk of cliff gave way on Christmas Day in 1839, giving rise to a huge chasm and a feature now known as Goat Island, a displaced piece of chalk.  Apparently this was so complete at the time that the locals were able to harvest the crops growing on the top!  The feature became a bit of a tourist attraction too, with hundreds of Victorians coming up here to look as this marvel of nature.  I couldn’t imagine them getting up here in their huge dresses and three piece suits!  Typical of the Victorians though were the other attractions provided for visitors such as a tea house, which supposedly operated right into the 20th Century.  I would love to know who had the job of supplying it!  Allegedly you can still see the remains of the tea house, but I wasn’t sharp eyed enough to pick it out among the undergrowth.  I might have been distracted though, for I was rather surprised to pass several people in quick succession around this point.  These were the last people I would see for over an hour.
Fungi Colony

Soon the path became more densely wooded and although initially I enjoyed the loneliness, after awhile I found it a little disconcerting.  I knew I wasn’t lost of course, for there were no opportunities to take a wrong path, but neither could I pinpoint exactly where I was on the map either.  At least during the winter months I had a sense of the outside world as I could see through the trees without foliage, but in the summer even this isn’t possible.  Every so often I would get tantalising glimpses of the sea, but as it was very calm I couldn’t even hear the waves below me.  This part of the walk reminded me of the feeling I had walking from Culbone Church to Foreland Point although the vegetation is a little different here as the underlying soil is not sandstone as it was on the Exmoor coast.

This section of coast wasn’t always so lonely.  I soon came to a break in the trees and next to the path were the ruins of an old building.  Little more than the foundations survived so it was difficult to envisage what it once looked like.  However a little further on I found a chimney left as a remnant and now bereft of cottage.  An interpretation board told me what I needed to know – that this was once a cottage and pumping station, no longer of course working and just a reminder of what was once here.  As I continued on my way, another ruined cottage came into view a little further on (although this one had a bit more to it), and then remains of other pumping stations.
Former Pumping Station

Although the cliffs above me showed themselves from time to time, it was quite clear that in most cases there wasn’t a lot of action going on.  The scene at Pinhay Cliffs at the eastern end of the reserve was quite different.  Here there was a large fresh looking cliff face, courtesy of a large landslip which had taken place only a few years ago.  It was a reminder that geological processes are still very active in this area, and any of the previous few miles could change at any time if another event occurs.  Because this area is still quite active, a break in the trees allowed a great view eastwards and I could see that by now I was approaching Lyme Regis, with the Cobb coming into view and Golden Cap (not looking very golden today) looming ahead of me.
Pinhay Cliffs

A little further on and the signage warning walkers about not straying off the path started appearing for those travelling in the other direction and I knew that I was thankfully approaching the end.  Although there weren’t any great climbs like I had experienced on the last two stretches of this walk, it was nevertheless quite taxing, on account of the mud, tree roots, steps and constant up and down nature of the walk that made it a lot harder than I expected.  Somewhere around here I symbolically passed from Devon into Dorset.

I had one last little detour to make before descending into Lyme Regis and that was to scale Chimney Rock, an outcrop that lives up to its name.  The ‘birds eye’ view trumpeted by the signage below was quite disappointing though and not as good as the view I had had from Pinhay Cliffs a little further back.
Ruined House

From Chimney Rock it was a short trip down into Lyme Regis.  I initially headed for Monmouth Beach, named after an abortive uprising by the Duke of Monmouth, who had hoped to overthrow James II.  He landed his small army of troops here, but the rebellion didn’t amount to much and the Duke only succeeded in getting himself executed and his army were either executed or transported to the West Indies.  It was easy to see why the Duke chose this as a place to land, for it would have been a bit off the radar for government forces.  Unfortunately, customs officials had spotted him and ridden post haste to London to break the news to the King.  Since the South West Coast Path was originally set up for customs and coastguard officials, I suppose it came into its own on that occasion.
Lyme Regis Approaching

The Cobb is the dominant feature of the coast here, and allowed Lyme Regis to operate as a port even though the coast here isn’t really set up for harbours.  The walled harbour has been a feature of Lyme Regis for many hundreds of years, although the present breakwater only dates from the 1830s.  Only a few small craft were in evidence, with most of the attention being drawn to the aquarium that is now housed in the cottages at the end of the wall.  By now my nostrils were filled with the smell of fish and chips and for a cold cheerless February day I was surprised at how many people were milling about.  I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like on a summer’s day.
Chimney Rock

The promenade at Lyme Regis has had some investment in recent years, befitting its popularity.  There are still some outstanding projects though and I couldn’t help but notice the interesting artwork on the beachfront shelters, diverting attention from the fact that they need some refurbishment.  The kids had done a wonderful job though and it’s refreshing to see that some effort had been made to keep up appearances even if the funding to carry out the refurbishment is not currently available.  The buildings along the promenade add a lot of character, but I had mixed feelings about the fact that most of them seem to be holiday cottages.  Great that the ambience and views can be shared by so many people who come to stay, but not so good for the wider community when they are empty for several weeks during the year.
The Cobb

Anyhow, for me it was job done today.  It was an interesting walk, but I didn’t really get the lungfuls of sea air that I had craved.  The microclimate of the Undercliff saw to that.  It did give me the appetite to come back again soon though and tackle the next section to West Bay.
Lyme Regis