Last week I returned to one of my favourite hiking routes on the South West Coastal path, Lulworth Cove to Weymouth. A World Heritage Site, it’s one of the best Jurassic coastlines in the world, with striking geological landforms.
The route I took was about 12 miles long (20km), which taken on its own is a bit deceptive as it doesn’t really factor in the extra rigour involved in climbing altogether 4 very steep cliffs. But since the cliffs come relatively early on in the walk, it soon shifts into a very scenic and mostly relaxing walk, bar one or two more uphills.
I took a direct train from Clapham Junction to Wool Station. I made use of a summer promotion that saw all return tickets on that route go down to £20 – excellent value considering a normal return ticket is about £70 (notwithstanding the fact that they hiked the price up from £15 last year…that’s capitalism for you..). After a three-hour pleasant journey, I arrived at 10.40am just in time for the no. 104 bus that shuttles people from the station to Lulworth Cove.
I would usually walk this distance, but it seems that isn’t really an option – I did see some people walking up a path as we got closer to Lulworth, but for the most part there seemed to be no room for pedestrians along the very narrow B-road. On a previous occasion, the train was delayed by 8 minutes and I missed that bus – the next one wasn’t due for 2 and a half hours and I took a taxi. It’s all a bit too hit-and-miss, I think they need to rethink the bus timetable to allow for the (quite regular) delays on that particular train.
Lulworth Cove itself is very pleasant, a perfect spot for a day out at the seaside – there is a visitor centre, cafe, ice-cream stalls and B&Bs. Each time I’ve been there it’s so busy, and the lovely but small cove has been a bit too crowded to fully appreciate.
The way up to the Jurassic cliffs is via a paved slope uphill. You can see Lulworth Cove in the background behind, and the accompanying view of the sea on the left as you go up is refreshing; but even so, this bit is pretty tedious – and when you have warm weather it’s hard work with the heat reflecting off the concrete. Dozens of tourists are also making their way up with their families, picnic hampers and dogs. However, you’re soon rewarded with a fantastic view at the top.
You’re greeted by a perfect cove below lapped by vivid turquoise waters. This is the Man O War Bay. After that, your sight is arrested by the distinctive, prehistoric geological structures. This particular part of the cliff is Portland Stone, a type of Limestone that has low permeability, and in fact was quarried in the past to construct many of the old buildings in London. As you walk on along the path, you see the great centre-piece of this coastline: Durdle Door.
A huge archway carved out of the igneous stone by thousands of years of weathering and erosion. The word Durdle comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Thirl’ which simply means ‘an opening’. No matter how many times you see it, the view is breath-taking. The spot where Durdle Door stands marks the original coast-line where the cliffs used to be, but the softer chalk cliffs would have eroded at a much faster pace, receding to about 100m behind the more resilient Portland Stone.
In fact, the chalk cliffs are so unstable, rock falls are notoriously common; a massive rockfall occurred at this spot in 2013, when the stairway collapsed and the beach was buried under the rubble.
As was the case at Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door in the summer is teeming with visitors, even on a weekday. It does diminish the opportunity for peace and reflection at this spot, but I suppose it’s also really refreshing that tourists are coming from all over the world to see Britain’s natural landscape.
After stopping at Durdle Door for a bit, I continued along my way, ready to take on the 3 steep slopes ahead. These deter most of the visitors at Durdle Door, so you’ll find the coastal path suddenly becomes very quiet just 20 or so meters away from the famous landform.
It was, as expected, quite a strenuous uphill climb – especially with the heat of the sun that day. But it didn’t take too long, and I knew the views atop would make it all worthwhile. Here I was able to sit and absorb the majesty of the cliffs and rock formations below – the sound of people had been replaced by the sound of the waves.
Looking ahead due west, a smaller set of stacks, stumps and arches came into view. The worn down stack is called ‘Butter Stack’. In thousands of years, the small archway will also expand, until the roof collapses and forms a new stack. And thus the coastline is continuously, though very slowly, changing.
The holes in the cliff face are homes to coastal birds. A few times I spotted a bird of prey characteristically gliding and hovering low in the sky. I couldn’t make out exactly what it was, but it was brown and speckled so I’d hazard a guess and say it might have been a kestrel.
Here is a picture after climbing the third, slightly steeper cliff – views of the stack below.
One more notable climb ahead – shallower but much longer than the others. By this stage I was far away from any seasiders and only occasionally met other walkers.
I imagined what kind of fossils still lay waiting to be discovered on these cliffs and beaches. Some of the most famous finds include the first discovery of an Ichthyosaur, by Mary Anning in 1811. I came across a small tea shop on the hike, near the village of Osmington Mills, tucked away behind some hedgerows – most people were distracted by the sprawling pub, but the tea shop was a nice quiet haven away from the busy pub garden.
It was run by a lovely and cheerful couple; the whole shop was decked out with ammonite fossils, precious stones and even a few dinosaur bones that had been discovered by the owner, and amateur fossiler, Kevin Sheehan. It turned out he had discovered one of the most complete cases of a Plesiosaur Skeleton, now housed in Dorchester Museum and named after Mr. Sheehan! Various newspaper cuttings on the wall testified to the huge size of the beast. I’ll definitely try to pay the museum a visit next time and see it for myself.
The rest of the walk took me through some woodlands – providing welcome shade from the afternoon sun – and the fairly nondescript village of Ringstead, until Weymouth finally came into view in the distance. In August the last mile of the cliffs houses lots of campers, and you’ll see tents pitched up everywhere. But I went just before the campers descended, so it was still very quiet.
I descended the cliffs into the seaside town, and had about a mile along the promenade before I reached the station. I turned on to the main road, away from the sea. The sign of the fish and chip shop on the corner, heralded both Weymouth station and a well-earned dinner. Discretely located behind a big glamorous chippie boasting world famous haddock for extortionate prices is a much smaller one, whose fodder is just as good, if not better – they get my vote each time! A satisfying end to a wonderfully scenic hike 🙂 .