Thursday, 31 March 2011

Bournemouth Coast Path Section 1 Sandbanks - Bournemouth Pier

Sandbanks Ferry
At the Poole end of the South West Coast Path the journey ends for most walkers after their 630 mile trek from Minehead, but really keen coastal walkers can continue their journey along the fairly short Bournemouth Coast Path which follows the coast through this famous old seaside resort and beyond to Milford-on Sea where it then makes an end-on connection with the Solent Way (see the excellent website for more details). The total distance is a mere 20 miles so I am not sure if it qualifies as a long distance path as fitter walkers could undoubtedly walk the full distance in a day. I had long thought it would make for a good winter project, but an unexpected opportunity arose when I had a couple of hours to spare at the end of my conference in Bournemouth and I had some fabulous weather just begging to be enjoyed!
Hand of a Giant
I took the bus over to Sandbanks, the very end of the ‘Bournemouth Coast’ (actually in Poole and reputedly the area with the highest house prices in the UK). The bus stopped by the ferry terminal where it had to wait for the return of the chain ferry that would take it across to Studland and enable it to complete its journey to the final destination of Swanage. It was a most pleasant bus journey, especially as I rode in the upper deck of the open topped bus that plies the route!
Castles in the Sand
Before setting off on my walk I waited for the old chain ferry to clank across the half mile or so stretch of water that it services. I have a certain fascination with these ferries – they are like real old school transport solutions that no-one has found better technology to replace! After watching just one of goodness knows how many loadings and unloadings that take place on the ferry, I headed off towards Bournemouth Pier. Initially the route wasn’t hugely promising, following the sea wall around the bottom of the very expensive dwellings that command such eye-watering amounts of money. Around the base of the sea wall were the usual large boulders placed to dissipate the force of the waves. What did catch my eye was a very unusual boulder, which had been carved into the shape of a hand. Someone obviously had a sense of humour! As I headed around the sea wall I got a closer look at the coastline around Swanage, some miles to the south west of my position and which someday I hope to enjoy on one of the legs of the South West Coast Path.
Sandbanks Harbour
As I rounded the end of the spit that forms Sandbanks I found myself on a sandy beach, one which continues all the way to Bournemouth and beyond and the coastal feature that has really helped in the development of this coast. There were quite a few people out enjoying the sunshine, but nothing compared to the summer when I bet this coastline is absolutely heaving! Most of the visitors were elderly people walking their dogs, although there were a fair few runners as well. With a fairly empty beach I was able to enjoy the patterns in the sand made by the wind and waves that were largely undisturbed. A solitary oystercatcher was playing chase with me – every time I got near it, the little fellow would fly off across the sea for a short while before coming back just out of reach of my camera. I think he was just teasing me!
Sandbanks Beach
As I got to the end of the area of housing on Sandbanks I took a quick detour across to the other side of the spit to take a look at the wide expanse of Poole Harbour. This natural harbour really is quite remarkable and all the more so now it is full of boats as far as the eye can see! Back to the coast and I started the long traudge along the promenade towards Bournemouth Pier, said to be six miles away (not sure it is along the prom considering how little time it took for me to complete!). It is hardly a challenging walk, but I did enjoy my surroundings considerably, with the oystercatcher keeping me company. Along the promenade I became fascinated by also slightly appalled at the plethora of beach huts that had been constructed. Fascinated because there were many different types and appalled because most of them were hideous concrete monstrosities and not the traditional clapboard type ones that most people know and love. The exclusivity of the huts also became apparent, with many of the walkways behind them to some of the better view points being for beach hut users only. Luckily for me most were out of action due to the earliness of the season and so I ignored many of the signs as a result!
Another feature of this stretch of coast is the unusual cliffs that are made of soft sandstone and clad in gorse and other trees and bushes. I am not aware of any other coast like it, apart from a short stretch on the Isle of Wight, which in effect is just an extension of here anyway. Every so often the cliff line would be breached by a small stream that had carved its way through. These steep gorge like features are known as chines and the first reached today was the rather impressive Branksome Chine, where a very attractive garden had been planted in the slightly gloomy valley. Being so early in the year, I am sure I didn’t this place at its best however. A little way past the chine and I passed the remains of a fossilised tree, which had managed to attract an interpretation board but which wasn’t the most impressive specimen I have ever seen. The next chine at Branksome Dene was full of beach huts and visitors, although apparently behind these is a nice nature reserve.
Poole Cliffs
A short while later I crossed the boundary from Poole into Bournemouth and the character immediately changed from a resort that seem to be a Johnny-come-lately to one where you can feel the tradition. Almost immediately the style of beach huts changed to a crop that were more in keeping with my expectations. Sadly the very warm sunny weather that I had enjoyed in Poole also changed to more overcast conditions and the temperature rather dropped too. This was a shame as the Bournemouth coast is very photogenic and I could see why so many people flock to these parts in the summer. By the time I reached Alum Chine I had rather tired of the promenade and longed for some height so took the opportunity to head up through some tropical gardens to the cliff top to continue my walk.
Beach Hut Line Up
Now at height I could appreciate the sweep of the bay that characterises this holiday coast. Far off in the distance to the west of me were Old Harry and the Swanage Coast while ahead was the Isle of Wight and the twin piers at Bournemouth and Boscombe. It made for an impressive sight! As I climbed to the top of the Chine the first spring flowers such as hellebores and daffodils were all coming into bloom, gladdening my heart after all those dark winter months. I was also getting lungfuls of the coconutty aroma given off by the gorse blossom that dominates large swathes of the cliff faces. This is a smell I love so much and have really grown to appreciate all the more on my various coastal walks.
Botanic Gardens
At the top of the cliff the path switches between green space and roadside. Due to the topography of the landscape the road has a good deal of trouble maintaining any distance along the cliff top and as a result behaves like a zig zag to and from the coast as it tries to maintain a steady height past all the chines. Being on foot I didn’t have to worry too much about this and it gave me the opportunity to have a bit more exercise than if I had rigidly stuck to the promenade for the whole journey. As I got closer into Bournemouth though I opted to finish the last little stretch along the promenade once again. The number of people using this stretch of coast got significantly greater as I got towards the Pier, which made this section quite enjoyable due to the happy atmosphere generated by the families enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. Eventually I reached Bournemouth pier, not one of the more attractive in Britain it must be said and I didn’t trouble myself too much with a visit, preferring instead to visit the central gardens, which run like a spine up through the town centre. These were impressive, even this early in the season and knocked spots off the pier!
Bournemouth Pier
All in all an easy and enjoyable afternoon stroll along this holiday coast. There are numerous refreshment opportunities and the bus service is regular, making a short walk quite achievable without expending a lot of time. Perhaps next winter I shall finish the remaining part of the walk through to Christchurch and Milford-on-Sea beyond.
Bournemouth Pier Close Up

Monday, 21 March 2011

South West Coast Path Section 53 Abbotsbury - Weymouth

Abbotsbury Church
I can scarcely believe that six months have passed since the last outing on this path, but it felt really good to have another opportunity courtesy of attending a conference in Bournemouth the following couple of days.  It turned out to be almost exactly the same sort of weather as my last outing along the path, a bonus indeed after some fairly indifferent weather in recent days.  I parked up in Weymouth (beware – this is an expensive proposition) and caught the bus over to Abbotsbury, arriving just half an hour later.  In winter the Jurassic Coast bus starts and stops in Weymouth and on Sunday there are only a few journeys, so I didn’t want to get caught out by not getting the bus journey out of the way first.
Abbotsbury Priory Remains

March is a strange month for walking.  The air temperature often suggests that the winter months are finally behind us and yet few of the bushes and trees have any ‘clothing’.  Daffodils aside, there are also few wildflowers about meaning that the landscape still has a bare feel to it despite the obvious rise in temperature.  So it was today.  For the first time this year, I clearly didn’t need a winter coat on, which is always a relief.
Looking to end of Chesil Beach

I didn’t linger in Abbotsbury this time, feeling that I had done the place some justice on my last trip.  I headed down towards the Swannery, stopping briefly to have a look at St Nicholas Church (where a service was going on, precluding a look inside) and the remains of the old monastery that was one of the victims of Henry VIII’s dissolution in the 16th Century.  Eventually I reached the Swannery and was slightly relieved it was closed (would have been a tempting diversion).
Odd Trig Point

The path doesn’t meet with the shore of The Fleet for a few miles further, going instead along what I took to be the former coastline a mile or so inland.  The reason for this is apparently to provide the birdlife that rely on The Fleet with a bit of peace and quiet.  It does make for a welcome diversion nonetheless, and the height actually allows for a good overview of the day’s walking, with the Isle of Portland brooding on the horizon as a distant goal.  Once up on the ridge, I had distance signs every ¼ of a mile or so reminding me that I was getting ever so slightly closer to the significant waypoint of Ferrybridge, about two miles before the end of my day’s walking.  It seemed a bit overkill at first, but of course the first time one didn’t appear I continued heading straight along the ridge when I should have left it for lower ground.  Typical!  I passed a strange trig point, hidden behind a hedge and not the usual focal point of the hill.  If you pass this on your travels, know that you have gone too far!  I managed to put myself right by taking a different path and although I cursed a little, in truth it didn’t cause me too much bother and I soon regained the right route.

Unusually for a sunny Sunday, I didn’t encounter too many walkers to begin with but when I finally did reunite with The Fleet I met up with a young family out with their dog.  It was quite an interesting dynamic in the family, for one small boy clearly didn’t want to be out even on such a fabulous day and lagged behind considerably.  The others didn’t appear to pay too much attention to him, with the result that he cut a rather sad and lonely figure.  I was thankful to be past them though, as they were rather too loud for my liking and I certainly wasn’t going to witness too much bird life while they accompanied me! 
The Fleet

As I arrived at The Fleet, apart from the family, I was also greeted with the fresh coconutty scent of gorse that I love so much.  The shores of The Fleet were covered in the stuff, making for a very colourful view.  Once I left the family behind I also had the sound of curlews filling the otherwise silent countryside.  Walking alongside The Fleet is a slightly surreal experience; what should be a coastal walk doesn’t feel like it as for the most part you are too far from the open sea to hear the waves as they hit Chesil Beach.  On such a calm day there probably wasn’t much sound to them anyway!
Fleet Boat Park

Due to the poor access to Chesil Beach, there were many small boats parked along the shore of The Fleet, in various states of repair.  I suspect that many are just used to get to Chesil Beach, which seems to be a popular spot for offshore fishing.  The path around The Fleet wandered around every cove, which presumably accounted for the extra mileage from Abbotsbury (the distance by road is only about 7 miles).  It was a pleasant walk, although to be honest after awhile it got a little samey.  I reached The Moonfleet Hotel, named after the J Meade Faulkner novel about smugglers.  Considering its proximity to the coast path, I was rather surprised that it wasn’t more welcoming towards hikers.  In fact, I wasn’t even sure if it could be accessed from the coast path and there was certainly no signage.  I instead focused on the large number of swans congregating on The Fleet, perhaps free of their Swannery obligations?  The path also became very swampy here and picking my way through wasn’t terribly easy.  I was glad when a little further on I found that a boardwalk had been provided but couldn’t help thinking that it was just a little bit late!

A little further on and the character of the shoreline walk changed a little to a much more open and grassy area.  I was rather alarmed by the signage which suggested that I ought to watch out for galloping horses and it soon became clear that this was because there was a racehorse training track adjacent to the path.  There was no activity today though thankfully.  Neither were the pillboxes of much concern now, although I did notice that the numbers were increasing as I got closer to the naval port of Weymouth.  I guess that these pillboxes were probably guarded or semi-guarded most of the time during WWII in case of a surprise attack.

In The Fleet, there were yet more swans, with some of the cygnets-soon-to-become-swans flexing their muscles in the group while others were taking the opportunity to preen while the sun shone.  It made for a fascinating few minutes while I took a breather.  A little further on I was joined by The Hardy Way, which I have now learned is a large circular walk around the countryside made famous by Thomas Hardy in his 19th century novels.  Maybe a future project?

I rounded yet another bay (I’d lost count by this point) and came upon a rather strange looking football pitch.  It took me a few minutes to realise that it wasn’t actually a proper pitch (although the very bent crossbar on the goal should have given me a clue), but a kick around park for a local campsite.  Anyhow, all was quiet as I passed through.  Despite the fabulous weather it was simply too early in the year for casual campers to take a punt on the weather and come over for the weekend. 
Goal Hanger

I rounded Chickerell Hive Point (passing by yet another landing stage well frequented by boats) and entered a ‘danger area’ next door to a firing range.  These are rather common along the South West Coast Path and I was relieved to see that it wasn’t in use today, for the detour would have been long and annoying.  The military did their best to keep prying eyes out, by having plenty of bramble bushes carefully positioned between the path and the firing range.  The path headed around Tidmoor Point where the dog walkers started.  I guessed that I was by now coming towards a settlement and I was sort of right in that the ‘settlement’ was an ubiquitous caravan park (although to be fair it was the first of the day). 
Rifle Range

By now the mileage signs were getting more numerous, but I couldn’t help but think that they were rather mocking me as some of them actually showed a distance that seemed to increase at the next sign a few minutes later!  Certainly the last couple of miles to Ferrybridge seemed awfully long!  Before reaching my destination though I still had a couple of detours to make, with the most immediate being the large military station that barred further progress along the shore.  I was most interested to see what was going on inside, as it seemed to be a training camp for the Royal Engineers and the camp was full of half built bridges that presumably were there to show different building methods.  The camp was deserted and yet was still guarded by a somewhat disinterested looking bod in the portakabin that served as the gatehouse.  Opposite was yet another pillbox, although this one was almost completely overtaken by vegetation and was crumbling away on one side as a result.
Approaching Isle of Portland

Officially the Coast Path heads down the other perimeter fence to the shore once again, but by now I had had rather enough of the dog legs and took the opportunity to cut off the corner of the field and head down to the wonderfully named Pirate’s Cove.  No sign of any pirates, although there was a handily placed pillbox just in case any should head this way.  Unusually the path headed straight across the small beach at this point and as I made my way to the other side I was watched suspiciously by a couple of swans to make sure I didn’t encroach on their territory.  This was just about the last piece of countryside of the day as About half a mile later and I was negotiating another holiday village before finally arriving at Ferrybridge.  Although I had almost assumed this was the end of the day’s walking (having been signposted since Abbotsbury), I did in fact have some distance to go from here to get back to central Weymouth.  Ahead of me loomed the massive bulk of the Isle of Portland, but for me I was heading left into town.  The Isle of Portland will probably be tackled separately as it can be walked as a circular walk in one go.  It strikes me as being a fairly awkward place to live mind you, as Ferrybridge is the only link with the outside world, especially since the adjacent railway line has closed.
Sandsfoot Castle

At The Ferrybridge Inn I crossed the exceptionally busy road and met with the Rodwell Trail, a walk made somewhat famous by Julia Bradbury in her ‘Railway Walks’ series on BBC TV a few years back.  I followed the trail for about half a mile before leaving to head down to Sandsfoot Castle, a ruined edifice that never saw any serious action and whose biggest enemy was actually the sea, which eroded much of its foundation and rendering it rather useless.  I actually got my second wind along this stretch of coast, with the endless views of Chesil Beach, swans and The Fleet being replaced by a delightful townscape.  I actually get the impression that this part of Weymouth is quite well-heeled as I passed through an estate of some exquisite and very large houses. 
Nothe Point

I eventually reached Nothe Point, a headland occupied by yet another fortification albeit of rather newer vintage than Sandsfoot Castle.  The views across the harbour, breakwaters and the Isle of Portland beyond were quite magnificent and it was easy to see why this location has been picked to host the sailing events for the 2012 Olympics.  It surprised me how quickly I completed this last section as at Nothe Point I realised that I was upon the ferry port of Weymouth!  I’m not sure there are any winter sailings though – both of the high speed vessels that make the crossing to the Channel Islands were tied up at the port and had been for some time I reckon.  The little ferry that crosses the harbour here was also out of action, so I took the rather longer route into town via the swing bridge about half a mile away.
Condor Ferry

Nonetheless this was a most enjoyable detour, along the harbour sides where I took in the old world feel of the place and smelled the wonderful fish and chips.  I realised how hungry I was, having skipped lunch!  That was something I soon rectified after reuniting with my car about ten minutes later.
Weymouth Harbour

This was a really enjoyable and relaxing section.  After the rollercoaster nature of the coast in East Devon and as far as West Bay, a flatter section of the coast is rather a surprise and rather welcome as a taster for future expeditions this spring.  Route finding was very easy, with almost too many signs!  Be aware though that there are no refreshment stops apart from a couple of pubs anywhere between Abbotsbury and Weymouth.  It could be a thirsty trip if you don’t stock up!