SOUTH WEST COAST PATH NATIONAL TRAIL
Stage 1: South Haven Point to Swanage
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
To reach the start of the South West Coast Path, I caught a bus from Bournemouth to Sandbanks, where I had finished the Bournemouth Coast Path almost a year before. At North Haven Point on the end of the long sandspit of Sandbanks, the bus drives onto a chain ferry (also called a "floating bridge") for the short crossing of the mouth of Poole Harbour to South Haven Point on the tip of the National Trust-owned Studland Peninsula. The ferry is one of only eight chain ferries still operating in the UK and saves a road journey of 45 kilometres around Poole Harbour. The vessel hauls itself back and forth across the harbour mouth on two massive chains which lay on the bottom to allow other boats to pass in and out of the harbour between ferry crossings.
During the 45 minute bus ride the weather had steadily deteriorated and by the time I disembarked at South Haven Point, a very cold wind was blowing fiercely enough to have little clouds of sand swirling around my feet in the rather gloomy light.
A short distance along the ferry's access road is a large metal sign marking the official start of the South West Coast Path and depicting a few of the many sights and a little of the wildlife waiting to be encountered over the next 1014 kilometres (picture 1). The path immediately leaves the road and sets off along the soft sand of Shell Bay. With just the howling wind for company as I walked along the beach, the bustle of Bournemouth was soon forgotten until I reached the point on the far side of the bay after almost a kilometre and looked back (picture 2).
Around the point, the long sweep Studland Bay stretches out ahead (picture 3), with the prospect of another three kilometres or so of walking on the soft sand making me wonder whether heavy hiking boots were really the wisest choice of footwear for this stage of the walk.
A short distance along the beach is a large area set aside for the use of naturists; the only such area in the National Trust's entire property portfolio. On this particular day there was no need to avert one's eyes however, as the biting wind and lack of sunlight were conspiring to ensure that even fully-clothed beachgoers were few and far between.
Indeed, the only sign of human activity was a large military helicopter that began to fly back and forth across the bay, repeatedly lowering and picking up an inflatable boat, presumably as part of some kind of training exercise (picture 4).
Once the helicopter had headed off to another part of the bay to repeat the exercise, there was a good view across the bay to Old Harry Rocks (picture 5), which the path would be visiting a little later. First, I needed to complete the long walk down the beach (picture 6), past the National Trust visitor centre and a line of beach huts to a ramp leading up from the end of the beach and past the Middle Beach Cafe in Studland Village.
The path soon turns left along Manor Road, which winds its way along the edge of the village and past the 16th-century Bankes Arms pub (picture 7), home to the Isle of Purbeck Brewery. It was still well before opening time however, so I pressed on, turning left a short distance beyond the pub to join a chalky path that runs for one and a half kilometres above the southern side of Studland Bay towards The Foreland (picture 8). Along the way I passed by the only group of people I would encounter on the day's walk, a rather noisy party of children on a school field trip.
At the end of the Foreland, the path arrives above Old Harry Rocks, a group of ragged chalk stacks that stand at the end of the chalk ridge that runs east to west across the Isle of Purbeck. Many thousands of years ago, this ridge was part of the same one that now forms the spine of the Isle of Wight. The two were eventually separated when rising sea levels and erosion after the end of the last ice age allowed the waters of the Solent to break through the chalk ridge, an event that also created the chalk stacks of The Needles at the western tip of the Isle of Wight. (Unlike the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Purbeck is still attached to the English mainland, but in some ways it does feel like an island, especially when arriving by ferry.)
Old Harry Rocks marks the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, which covers the next 180 kilometres of coastline to the mouth of the River Exe in Devon. The geology of the Jurassic Coast covers around 185 million years of the Earth's history. Generally speaking, the rocks get older as you travel west along the Jurassic Coast, starting with chalk formed in the Cretacious Period (65-140 million years ago), then the limestone of the Jurassic Period (140-200 million years ago) and finally the red sandstone of the Triassic Period (200-250 million years ago). There are a number of places along the Jurassic Coast where important discoveries of fossils, including dinosaurs, have been made as the cliffs have eroded.
From Old Harry Rocks -- reputedly named after a famous pirate -- the Coast Path turns sharp right to follow the cliff edge south-west. A projecting part of the clifftop a short distance onward gives a good view of the seaward side of the rocks (picture 10). Here I also spotted a seagull that didn't seem to mind me getting close to take a picture (picture 11). This was also a good vantage point to see a couple more chalk stacks, known as the Pinnacles, below the next part of the cliff (picture 12).
Above the Pinnacles, the Coast Path climbs steadily for almost two kilometres up to the windswept summit of Ballard Down (picture 13). About two thirds of the way up, the Coast Path passes by a milestone where an arm of the Y-shaped Purbeck Way ends, having come across from Corfe Castle in the centre of the Isle of Purbeck.
From the trig point that marks the highest point of Ballard Down there would normally be good views across Swanage Bay and the town of Swanage, but on this day the area was swathed in low cloud (picture 14).
A little further along the path I passed by the first of the distinctive Coast Path milestones that are generally used instead of fingerposts on the Dorset section of the Coast Path (picture 15). The trail then begins its descent from Ballard Down, quite steeply at first, with the aid of a long flight of steps through an area of scrub, before joining a worn path along the edges of several fields leading to the residential area of New Swanage (picture 16).
Just before reaching the first houses, there is one more obstacle to negotiate, the deep coombe of Whitecliff, where the path descends a steep flight of steps, crosses a small wooden footbridge and then climbs just as steeply up the other side (picture 17). From here the path winds it's way through a housing estate via Ballard Lee, Ballard Way and Redcliffe Road to reach the main Ulwell Road, which runs downhill from New Swanage to meet the Swanage seafront (picture 18), becoming Shore Road as it runs alongside the beach.
A little more than half way along the beach I reached the Swanage Tourist Office, which stands in front of a small hill that is topped by the town's war memorial. As it had started to rain, I decided to end the day's walk here, though it was barely lunchtime, having completed the first 12.2 kilometres of the Coast Path.
Before heading for the shelter and warmth of the local pubs, I first climbed up for a closer look at the memorial (picture 19) and the view back across the bay to Ballard Down (picture 20). As well as remembering the local men who lost their lives in both World Wars, the memorial also has a plaque for the soldiers of the US 26th Infantry Regiment, who stayed in Swanage while preparing for the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944.