Those of you who follow me on Facebook will know that I have just been on a short (well 50 miles) wild camping trek along the Dorset Coast – well I thought I would blog this amazing trip. This is Day 1 when I walked from Weymouth to Abbotsbury.
The day was hot, really hot, and I got off the train and made my way to the seafront. I have completed this walk numerous times and each time the day starts the same – with a bacon bap and cup of tea on the seafront overlooking the beach. This sets me up well for the walk to come. I sat under the shade of an umbrella.
Leaving the beachside cafe I made my way around the beach to the harbour where my next transport awaited me – the rowing boat ferry that crosses the harbour entrance. This ferry saves a mile or more of walking to reach the nearest bridge but for me, it is much more about the quirkiness of being rowed across to the other side. Its just such a great start to the day and is worth more to me than the £1 it costs.
Reaching dry land again, I made my way through Nothe Gardens and around the headland with views across Portland Harbour entrance. This was once a major Naval Base and still retains the features that were at one time so important to its operation.
Military connections continue for a time as the next feature on the walk is Sandsfoot Castle, built by Henry viii in 1539 to protect this part of the coast. The now derelict castle has recently been made safe so that visitors can walk around it, and it is surrounded by the most beautifully colourful gardens, including a tea room. Resisting the temptation, I walked on!
I joined the Rodwell Trail that follows the old railway that once ran from Weymouth to Portland. This was easy walking along a tarmac track until reaching Ferrybridge where I finally left civilisation behind and joined the winding track that follows the shoreline of The Fleet, a nearly landlocked tract of brackish water separated from the sea by the famous Chesil Beach.
The Fleet is fed by the sea at its eastern end and by a number of streams along its 8 mile length. It is therefore almost a lake but rises and falls with the tide. Its southern shore is straight and bounded by Chesil Beach, its northern shore winds in and out of various coves and inlets, as well as one or two military establishments including a firing range and a bridge building centre where the army practices building bridges. One of its most noted military connections from the past is that it was an early testing area for Barnes Wallis’ famous bouncing bomb.
For the most part these days it is just the most beautiful and peaceful place to walk. The walking is flat and easy with much to take in along the route, including a number of old jetties. The most photographed of these is the one at Langton Hive Point which sadly now has few timbers remaining. I decided to stop here for an early lunch with lovely views out across The Fleet with numerous rowing boats moored along its shore.
The early afternoon sun was becoming hotter still and I was having to drink copious amounts of water to keep hydrated. With nearly 20kg on my back, the walk was tiring despite its flatness – I knew though that there were hills aplenty to come before my 50 mile trek would be complete but the forecast suggested that it was to cool over the coming days. I hoped so!
I always think one of the most interesting features along this stretch of the Dorset coast is the hamlet of Fleet which has an interesting and somewhat tragic past. In November 1824 there was an almighty storm and the sea breached Chesil Beach that had until then protected the tiny hamlet. The devastation was massive as huge waves washed inland destroying many cottages and most of the church. Only the chancel of the old church was left standing. A local boy observed the scene and wrote:
“At six o’-clock on the morning of the 23rd I was standing with other boys by the gate near the cattle pound when I saw, rushing up the valley, the tidal wave, driven by a hurricane and bearing upon its crest a whole haystack and other debris from the fields below. We ran for our lives to Chickerell, and when we returned found that five houses had been swept away and the church was in ruins.”
The hamlet and what is left of the old church is delightful and I always stop here for a time of reflection. It is so peaceful that it is hard to imagine the events of 1824.
Aside from those catastrophic events, the village has been immortalised by J Meade Faulkner who based his book Moonfleet on the area.
Leaving ‘Moonfleet’ behind I continued along the shore and met another backpacker walking the other way. We fell into conversation and the girl, a young Swiss student, told me how she was walking the entire South West Coast Path having started some 5 weeks earlier. She was on the latter stages and was to finish the walk the following weekend after 630 miles and 6 weeks of walking. I was impressed, not only that someone so young should take on what is a serious undertaking alone, but that she chose to backpack it, sleeping in a tent each night. Most people choose to use hostels/B&B, and use baggage transfer companies.
We stood looking at the view below chatting for probably half an hour before parting to continue on our separate ways. These brief meetings along the pathways are partly what makes these walks so interesting. Common interests are shared albeit briefly and most people are so friendly, creating a real camaraderie that you find in few places. Afterwards I wished that we had swapped contact information as I find myself wondering whether she finished and how her last few days went.
Leaving my Swiss friend, I walked on, passing Fleet House, built in Georgian times, now the Moonfleet Manor Hotel. Skylarks serenaded me as I made my way around the last part of the Fleet Lagoon before reaching the point where the path turns inland.
From here, the route took me across farm land to climb steeply onto the inland ridge which would take me the remainder of the way into Abbotsbury. As I climbed higher, the views opened up all around me.
Abbots bury is a town that sits at the west end of The Fleet and it is a delightful town with honey coloured buildings. I passed the entrance to its world famous swannery, its ancient tithe barn, its derelict abbey, its tropical gardens, and its beautiful church, dedicated to St Nicholas. I paused for a moment of reflection at the gateway before entering the town itself as I was nearing the end of my first days walk.
With the exceptionally hot weather, my water was spend so I called at one of the pubs to buy some bottled water and to ask if they would fill my water bladder. One of the problems with wild camping is that there is often no water supply so I knew I would have to take enough with me to last overnight and through the next day. I carry an emergency water filter which is so useful but the streams I was passing on this walk were all low level and on farm land, making them less than ideal.
Having replenished my supplies, re-hydrated myself and splashed some water around my face (there would be no washing facilities where I would be sleeping), I made my way on through the village. I still hadn’t any idea where I would spend the night. One possibility was to climb up to the ridge inland of Abbotsbury and look for a flat grassy area there, another was to continue along the coast path and hope I would find some flat grass there, a third was to spend the night on Chesil Beach although I was not sure how comfortable shingle would be to lie on! Ultimately I decided anyway to climb up Chapel Hill to have a look at St Catherine’s Chapel before deciding which way to head.
With the sun now getting low in the sky, the chapel looked absolutely beautiful standing proud high on its hill like a beacon of hope to the world below. The slanting sunlight picked out the strip lynchets that run along the hillside which would once have contained crops. Half way up I turned to look back to the town with its own church tower standing sentinel over the surrounding cottages. Around me were sheep and cows grazing the hillside. It was such a delightful scene and it entered my mind that maybe that would make a good stopping point.
I continued to the top to look around this stunning chapel, standing seemingly solid against all the elements that had been thrown at it over the centuries, its delightful warm coloured stone standing out so clearly against the deep blue of the sky. I went inside the empty and disused chapel with its equally solid door – I say empty although it was in fact occupied by a dole of doves (yes, that’s the group name). It seemed totally fitting that this place of peace should now be occupied by doves, the symbol of peace.
There are no records of the construction of the chapel but it is thought to date from the 14th century. It was built as a place of pilgrimage and retreat by the monks of the Benedictine Monastery that once stood in the village far below and it seems to have survived the Dissolution although the abbey itself did not. It was dedicated to St Catherine, the patron saint of spinsters, and became a place of prayer for those seeking a husband. Occasional services are still held there.
Outside, I settled myself down on the grass in the still warm evening sun and over the next couple of hours I passed the time of day with a number of visitors to my lofty bed place. One couple, strangely also from Switzerland, spend the evening picnicking there. They told me they were on holiday travelling around the UK and that they were staying in Abbotsbury.
There was a lovely cooling breeze gently blowing across the hilltop and there were amazing views in all directions. In addition to human visitors, I shared my hilltop with sheep, cows, doves, rooks, and mayflies – there were hundreds of them flying about.
I watched the sun set, with the sky turning gradually orange, then pink, then deepening red until the light finally faded. I was left alone on my hilltop and the words of the poet, Thomas Gray, came to mind, ‘And all was left to darkness and to me’. I spread out by sleeping bag and with the chapel sheltering me from the now cooling breeze, I lay watching the nearly full moon rise across the valley.
Today has felt like a pilgrimage and this ancient holy place seemed a fitting place to end my day. The moon provided a little light and the stars were a canopy over my head. What could be better than spending the night in this awesome place on a balmy night such as this. I drifted off to sleep, contented and wondering if tomorrow could possibly better this!
Thanks for stopping by and I hope you have enjoyed today’s pilgrimage and that you will join me for another great day tomorrow.
Until next time,
Your friend The Dorset Rambler
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