SATURDAY 9TH SEPTEMBER 2017
The Coastal Path between Lulworth Cove and Worth Matravers is graded ‘severe’; by the end of the day, we know why.
Rain is predicted from midday so we want to make a swift start, but trying to get out of Lulworth proves easier said than done. We walk from our B&B in West Lulworth back down towards the cove to pick up the path a quarter of a mile before the Lulworth Crumple Stair Hole, with caves under the exposed striated rocks, which a group of teenagers clambers up and jump from, shrieking before they hit the water.
Another quarter of a mile takes us down to the cove, which is dazzling turquoise in the mid-morning sun. We follow the signs back up the road, before thinking that we have gone too far and walking back down again. The guide book tells us there are steps up from the cove, but we can’t find them. After much searching, we realise they have been blocked off due to cliff erosion; the diversion signs that we had passed earlier now make sense. There is an option to walk along the beach, but the waves are lapping up to the cliff edge of the nearest section and we don’t fancy walking in wet boots for the day, so head back up the road again to pick up the Coastal Path diversion signs. By the time we have rejoined the proper path high above the cove, it is nearly 11am – so much for our early start.
Our consolation is that the Cove looks stunning, the waters inviting blues and greens. The waters continue to entice as we enter the Ministry of Defence land that is only accessible at weekends and during school holidays and which will form the majority of the day’s walk. We walk through a Fossil Forest (although don’t see any) and round to the first of the day’s severe ascents, Brandon Hill, yielding stunning views inland towards Lulworth Castle, from where the sounds of Bestival reach us.
The day and the views remain glorious as we climb up and down to Warbarrow Tout and round to Gad Cliff. Every climb gives us views of the festival – and the impending grey clouds, which finally unleash their rain as we approach Tyneham Cap. As we begin the descent towards Kimmeridge Bay with its black rocks and cliffs, the fierce rain is accompanied by thunder and lightning.
We knew that this stretch of the path was unlikely to offer anywhere for refreshments, but given the weather, we optimistically scan Kimmeridge for somewhere to sit it out for a bit; there is no-where so we opt to push on, even though we are both hungry. Fortunately, as we climb the hill out of the bay the rain eases; even better, The Landmark Trust are holding an open day at Cavell Tower, a four-storey folly that is normally rented out as a holiday let. There is a platform round the tower which is shielded from the worst of the weather by a balcony above, so we opt to sit on the balcony to eat our lunch as the only dry area we are likely to find to sit on. We have just started sipping our soup when the next onslaught starts; it is then that we discover that the protective balcony has gaps in it, which allow water to cascade down on us. We grab our stuff and huddle in a doorway eating the rest of our lunch.
The rain eases enough and allows the sun to break through to create a rainbow so low that it hangs over the fields. The kind people from the Landmark Trust refill our water bottle and we continue along the severe stretch of coastline, now made even more arduous by the rain; the claggy black mud clings to our boots so our feet are more the size if a shire horse and we need to dig two walking sticks in deep to stop us slipping downhill and sliding backwards when we should be climbing. At one point I slip backwards so violently I think I am about to pull a muscle, and all I can think is that I can’t let that happen as I have a marathon to run in six weeks.
There is a final down pour at 4.45, which arrives with blue skies behind it. The weather forecast had said the rain would last from 12-4pm; at exactly 4pm, the rain overtakes us and we are bathed in sunlight again, but the cloying mud and our wet clothes and packs make the ‘severe’ walking even tougher. The guide book has promised one more tough ascent before we reach the village of Worth Matravers; by the time we reach the top of Houns-tout Cliff, I am feeling defeated. It must be written across my face, because a family who had been enjoying the view from the top vacate the only bench for us.
Worth Matravers is a mile inland, with a choice of footpaths leading to it; the shortest route is another 2+ miles, the longest is about five more, but would reduce our time walking on our final day, which is predicted to have even worse weather. After some tea and an emergency bar of chocolate, we agree it will be prudent, given how hard the walk has been, to cut our losses for the day and take the shortest option. Unfortunately, the footpath we want is confusingly signposted to another village; we have gone about a quarter of a mile beyond it before we realise our mistake.
At this point, the path has relaxed into an easy cliff-top stroll and the evening sun is delightful, so we opt to push on rather than retracing our steps. Unfortunately, the easy stroll is soon superseded by another steep valley, which saps the last of our energy. Back up on the cliff top, we round St Aldhelm’s Head, with its ancient chapel, and finally lose sight of the Island of Portland.
The final two miles round the headland and up the valley from Winspit to Worth Matravers are comparatively easy going, but by now my blistered feet are hurting with every step and I rely on my sticks to help push me forward. There is a final reward from the weather with amazing sunset clouds when we turn to look back towards Winspit, but the last push towards the village seems relentless. It is nearly 8pm by the time we reach our B&B.
Our hosts offer to make us a cup of tea, but we are so tired we want to get to the village pub before we lose the energy to go out and get some food. We change out of our wet, mud-sodden trousers and boots and go straight back down the hill to The Square and Compass. It is a pub like no other I have ever been in, and at odds with the Farrow and Ball exteriors of the stone houses. The door opens onto a narrow, poorly lit corridor that takes you straight to the bar, which is no more than a door, around which the staff emerge to take orders and then disappear to fulfil them. There are a dozen local beers, but only two food options: steak pasty or a slab of cheese and veg pie, served on paper plates. Another narrow corridor runs in two directions away from the serving hatch, we turn left and come across a crowded room with two free seats at one of three large tables.
The room is painted in a variety of shades or burnt orange, with the woodwork haphazardly varnished. There is barely enough light to see our food, but we attack it ravenously: the cheese and veg slab is the most delicious pie I have ever eaten, zinging with layers of spicy seasoning. I begin to feel better as it warms me.
The crowd around the table departs and a new wave filters in, filling all the stools, commandeering more, until the room is heaving. People arrive in twos and threes of different ages, some in their twenties, some retired, but they all appear to know one another. Coats are passed across the table to be piled on a stuffed badger in the window. The atmosphere is of a ramshackle student party.
And then the singing starts. It is kicked off by an older gentleman sitting next to me in a clear, unfaltering voice; everyone joins in the chorus. Then a younger man sitting in the fireplace takes the lead, then someone behind us, then a woman. One man plays a guitar, but mostly the songs are unaccompanied apart from hands and feet keeping time. Most of the songs are known to the crowd, but occasionally someone comes up with a new offering. There are a lot of miners’ songs and a few about class struggle, interspersed with folk ditties and rumbustuous singalongs. We had planned to go straight back after eating to shower and collapse in bed, but the craic (there is no other word for it) is so good that we buy more drinks and stay for a couple of hours.
One of the songs is the most poignant:
“They’re closing down the old pubs,
They’re closing down the old pubs.
Plastic is all the rage these days,
So they’re closing down the old pubs.”
“At least we’ve still got this old pub,” someone mutters after the final chorus is sung.
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