A journey across the delightful Dorset countryside following the ancient Wessex Ridgeway from Tollard Royal to Lyme Regis.
What is it about recent Saturdays? It always seems to rain when I least want it to. This was the case as I left home to drive down to Dorset ahead of the main group so that I could set up camp. Ann Jones provided company on the journey and we picked up her sister, Kath, en route. Our priority, on arrival at The Inside Park camp site, was to get the shelters up and organise the kitchen and dining areas before putting the tents up. Light rain focused the mind and it was not long before the shelters were up and everything was in place. The rain even ceased long enough for us to get eight of the nine tents up before the heavens really opened. The only one not up in time was mine and Angela’s, so not entirely a disaster.
Our pitch at The Inside Park
The Inside Park is an excellent site with plenty of space that can accommodate a lot of people. We were on a flat plateau at the top of a hill, adjacent to to some woods and although it was quite a trek to the facilities it was a good spot. Clearly, this had once been part of a large country estate. It might still be so, but apart from out buildings, now converted into bathrooms etc. there was no large house to be seen. The OS map indicates that there is a house well away from the camp site. Some of the trees are magnificent and must be several hundred years old. The grounds were well cared for and it proved good value.
With time to spare, we boiled the three kettles, got cake on the table, the wine chilled and chilli con carne bubbling away on the stove, all in time for the arrival of the rest of the group. How good is that? Despite the rain, spirits were high, and we were reliably informed by BBC Weather and a variety of other weather related apps, that it would be fine when we set out on our 62(ish) mile walk in the morning. With good food, plenty of wine and beer, everybody was happy.
It rained all night and was still raining when we began to stir, thinking of getting up and preparing for the day ahead. The rain, heavy at times, meant that sleep for many was punctuated. Hooting owls and low flying helicopters on military exercises ensured that, even when the rain was easier, we still had reasons to be awake.
A hearty breakfast of bacon and egg set us up for the walk, from Tollard Royal to a care park on the edge of Blandford Forest. My bit of string stretched across the route on the map suggested it was 12 miles or there abouts. Others might argue it was a bit longer!. Finding Royal Tollard in the high hedged, narrow lanes proved to be a challenge in itself, but find it we did and, after the customary start of walk photo we set off.
Just like the minibus ride, we soon found ourselves wandering around a field, scratching our heads as we tried to work out the route. This proved to be a problem from time to time as the signage was sometimes confusing as there were different routes for walkers, horse riders and cyclists. A bit more head scratching, we realised our mistake and corrected it. Judith seemed to like head scratching; she was raked across the forehead by an overhanging bramble but fortunately there were two doctors in the group to attend to her injury. It was hardly visible once the blood flow had been stemmed.
Harvested fields showing the downland nature of the route
While the walk was varied, a mixture of farmland and forest, rarely did we feel we were on a ridge. Occasionally we climbed but height was never maintained for very long. Ashmore Wood, with many tracks criss-crossing through it and dubious signs proved a bit of a challenge. I thought we might have seen more wildlife on this journey but here was the only place where we saw deer, and that was really only the privilege of those at the front.
Further route confusion occurred where farmers had ploughed across the path, forcing us, sometimes, to walk around a field rather than across it. This naturally added a little to the distance covered.
Despite it being cloudy for most of the day it was extremely warm and humid, particularly noticeable on the up hill stretches.
Normally on these walks we have a “Wally” Award each day with the recipient having to carry and look after something appropriate for twenty-four hours. Being in Cerne Abbas Giant country it seemed appropriate to have “Dick of the Day” but to expect people to carry something of that nature was clearly inappropriate, so we just had the title awarded each day. During the course of this first day we met a very likely candidate, the leader of a South Dorset Ramblers group. We walked the same route for a while and he did not want his group talking to us. He kept berating them for being slow and constantly put them under pressure. Unlike me. Somehow, after dinner that evening, I was awarded the “Dick of the Day” award for losing my walking poles. I’m still not convinced I did.
Dorset is a county of beautifully named villages. Sometimes, they can’t make up their mind what to call a village so they give it two names. Such is the case with Iwerne Courtney, also known as Shroton. Here we stopped at The Cricketers for refreshments before embarking on the last section, and arguably the most beautiful, of the day’s walk. The cricket field has an interestingly steep section to one side of the square, I suspect making boundaries difficult to come by.
Reaching the trig point on Hambledon Hill
Climbing out of the village, we ascended the ancient fort of Hambledon Hill, which gave us far reaching views along the ridgeway, and, for once, gave us the impression of us walking along an escarpment.
From the hill we had just one last descent and a further ascent into Blandford Forest, the other side of which was our end point of the day.
We set out to do a twelve mile walk but according to those with the technology it was a couple of miles further. Even taking into account a few extra meanderings where the route was not entirely clear, I struggle to understand the discrepancies. What I did get right was the timing. Just as we finished and climbed into the minibus the rain fell from above and continued on and off throughout the night.
One of the disappointing aspects of any walk of this nature is that, for whatever reason, it becomes necessary to walk some stretches along roads, most often very quiet country lanes, but roads nevertheless. While this speeds up progress it is hard on the feet. So it was at the start of Day 2 and while we covered some distance quite quickly it numbed the mind. There were little highlights. The overnight rain had given a sheen to everything, foliage, flowers and cobwebs, of which there were a great many.
We also came across a pig farm, which in piggy terms was five star quality. Dotted around the field were pig yurts for them to pop into and sleep in. Otherwise they had the run of a very extensive field. They were friendly, too, coming over to investigate us as we stopped to admire their piggy luxury. Further down the field a farmer was loading some pigs into a trailer and the impression of luxury was lost when a loud voice rang out over the hilltop in a delightful Dorset accent, “GET IN THE FUCKING TRAILER!”
Leaving the road we crossed the top of Bulbarrow Hill, another ancient fort settlement with commanding views over the surrounding countryside. This whole area is littered with Iron Age forts and more recent Roman forts, making the walk fascinating on so many different fronts.
Shortly afterwards we met a remarkable woman, Vyv Wood-Gee, and her two Cumberland fell ponies. These beautiful black horses are quite short but really strong and sturdy looking. Vyv and her horses were 1200 miles into a 1500 mile journey connecting all the historical horse sites in the country. She started on the 18th June and is due to finish on the 2nd October when she rides across Tower Bridge. She is raising funds for MacMillan Nurses and Cancer Research UK. Do visit her at www.horselandjourney.uk
We walked the same route as her for a while, she riding one horse while the other carries her kit. She has a tent but has not had to use it, always being fortunate enough to find or be offered accommodation. Her pace is similar to that of a person walking but is often slowed down by having to negotiate gates, constantly having to dismount in order to get the two horses through together, and then remounting. It was good to talk to her, to learn of her exploits and to give her a bit of support, both financially and morally.
Having made good progress earlier in the day, we slowed during the time we were with the horses. However, at the Dorsetshire Gap, a cleft in the ridge, we parted company and we were able to increase our pace a little, so much so that we reached our final destination, Giant Head Farm, ahead of schedule. It was only a further two kilometres into the village of Cerne Abbas, where a cream tea was tempting us and where we would be able to get a decent view of the Cerne Abbas Giant with his thirty foot appendage.
“Dick of the Day”
The cream tea was most welcome, although up to that point we had not yet seen the giant, even though we had walked very close to it. The shape of the hill prevented us seeing more than just part of a foot. So, after we finished our tea, we went to the viewpoint on the edge of the village to see what all the fuss was about. I expected him to be much whiter and stand out more. The rock was yellow and quite muted. The ladies in the group seemed unimpressed by his magnificent attributes. He certainly was “Dick of the Day”.
Approaching Sydling St Nicholas just after early lunch
Day three saw a change in tactics. In order to sustain energy, i decided that we would have two lunches, and early and a late. Early would be around midday and late around two. This would also mean that we did not eat too much in one go and make us feel lethargic in the afternoon. I also broke a rule and I would like to thank Mike Wilson for that. In Sydling St Nicholas, just after early lunch, we visited the pub in the village. Mike said, “I’ll have a beer if you do.” How am I supposed to respond to that? If I chose not to, Mike would feel upset, denied of something he desired, so I gave in to temptation and had a beer with him. It took me ages to come to the decision, about as long as it takes to blink.
We had been promised wonderfully warm sunshine but it never really materialised. It was certainly very warm but the cloud struggled to clear. On the top of the ridges there was a light, cooling breeze, but in the valleys it was airless and sticky.
We ended the day at Lower Kingcombe and a craft centre, nature reserve and cafe that served wonderful ice cream despite the fact that we arrived twenty minutes after it had closed. Thank you Lower Kingcombe.
Relaxing in Weymouth
We then had a day off so that while I moved camp to The Dorset Hideaway at Whitchurch Canonicorum, Angela took the group to Weymouth for a day on the beach. The sun did shine and it was an extremely pleasant day if you were on the beach relaxing. Not so if you were pitching ten tents. I did have some help with the shelters from Chris and Trevor before they went off to be little boys in the tank museum. To be honest I was happy doing what needed to be done and was pleased with the uniformity with which I had pitched the tents. I was disappointed to learn that nobody took advantage of the opportunity for a swim in the sea. A few paddled but that does not count.
The Dorset Hideaway is a new campsite in its first season. The pitch is very flat and the facilities, although not numerous, were really good. There is also a spa at the site offering lots of different treatments. It seems a very odd combination because campers are usually not too bothered about how perfect they look, particularly when they tend to enjoy the outdoor elements so much. Certainly, the day I spent at the campsite setting everything up, there were no queues of people looking for treatments.
The fourth day was again sunny and warm from the start and in many ways was the best day’s walking out of the five. We spent most of the day relatively high, enjoying the elevated expeience for the views it provided and for the breeze that cooled us slightly. When we weren’t high we were walking through wonderful beech woods on tracks that were sunk between two tree lined banks. You had a feeling that these tracks were very ancient and had been walked by travellers for hundreds of years. How many feet had travelled along them over the years and who did they belong to? I am sure that there are many interesting tales to be told.
Dropping into Beaminster between lunches, we gave ourselves half an hour free time to wander about the small country town. Mike led me astray again and we spent the time supping a pint in the Red Lion. Naughty Mike.
After Beaminster we climbed up Gerrards Hill and then remained relatively high for the remainder of the day, crossing the sites of a number of forts, the last being Pilsden Hill just to the north of where we were camping
Tree in the mist
The following morning we were greeted with low cloud and dampness in the air. Returning to Pilsden Hill, we had to work our way across it to pick up the Wessex Ridgeway, but this proved, in the conditions, to be a little more difficult than expected. Once sorted we then began to make good progress, largely because there was very little to see. It was a case of heads down and let’s cover as much distance as we can, in the hope that the weather will improve as the day goes on.
The weather did gradually improve but the navigation, at times proved to be difficult. Not only were we walking the Wessex Ridgeway, but this area saw a number of paths converging, The Jubilee Trail, The Monarchs Way,The Liberty Trail. Where the trails merged there became a confusion of signs and sometimes no appropriate signs at all. Sometimes the signs were hidden by dense undergrowth. But for all the challenges it set, none was more testing than crossing the A35. This busy trunk road, where the traffic travels at the top end of the legal speed limit, and beyond, has no facility for walkers to get safely from one side to another. How this has been allowed to happen is beyond comprehension. If we had been rare toads or endangered hedgehogs, provision for getting from one side of the road to the other would be there. It is only a matter of time before an accident occurs.
On the end of The Cobb
The final couple of miles took us gently downhill through beautiful forest to the outskirts of Lyme Regis. It is a very pleasant coastal resort, quite small and not spoilt with rows of arcades and stalls selling nothing but cheap tat. We walked along the front to the Cobb, the official end of the walk. Although the weather had improved considerably, the wind, for once, was quite strong and occasionally a fine spray came drifting over the Cobb. The windsurfers and kite boarders out in the bay were certainly enjoying the conditions.
In the evening we celebrated by all going out to The Five Bells in Whitchurch Canonicorum for a celebratory meal and a drink or two. It had been a very enjoyable few days, not least because of the company. The Dorset countryside is delightful, without being spectacular. It is quintessentially English, with rolling hills, quaint villages with thatched cottages, narrow country lanes, a sense of history, birdsong and so much more. And whether it was 62 miles or somewhat more, it really did not matter; every one of them was a pleasure to walk.
Somehow, that evening, back at camp as we celebrated Stella’s wedding anniversary and Chris’s birthday, I was awarded the accolade of “Dick of the Week”. How harsh is that? Ann entertained us with another of her observant and very humorous poems. If she does not let me have a copy before this is published I will do a separate entry.
During the night it rained, heavily, the wind blew, so much so I feared for my shelters. They survived. It continued into the morning as we packed up camp, loading sodden tents and equipment into the van, all needing a good clean and a drying when I got home. What is it about Saturdays that it always seems to rain?