SOUTH WEST COAST PATH NATIONAL TRAIL
Stage 3: Kingston to Lulworth Cove
Saturday, April 27, 2013
Returning to Kingston by bus, I alighted on the main road near the creeper-clad Scott Arms pub (picture 1). A short walk up West Street brought me back to the diverted route of the South West Coast Path by St James Church (picture 2), which was built in the 1870's in the gothic-revival style.
It was a rather windy and cold Saturday morning, but I set out with a sense of purpose, as this was the only day for at least the next fortnight when the public would be allowed to walk through the Lulworth Army Ranges which provide the last two thirds of the day's walk.
The diverted route follows West Street out of the village, through a wood and between open fields. After a kilometre, a stone gate on the left leads into the estate of Encombe House, though the house itself remains out of sight some distance downhill nearer the coast. A path bears right and climbs up to the corner of Polar Wood, where I was engaged in conversation by a local gentleman who told me he had come up to scatter his wife's ashes in the wood, as this had been one of her favourite places. It wasn't difficult to see why, with views over the coastal peaks as far as St Aldhelm's Head (picture 3).
After fifteen minutes I set off again, following the stone wall beside the wood (picture 4), which follows the edge of a ridge that curves around to a sharp point at Swyre Head.
A round barrow at the tip of the headland is a good vantage point from which to survey the view across fertile farmland to Kimmeridge Bay, where the diversion rejoins the Coast Path, and beyond along the coast as far as the Isle of Portland (picture 5). From Swyre Head, the diversion follows a stone wall northwest along the edge of the escarpment, passing through a couple of gates between fields before a third, labelled "Heaven's Gate" takes the path onto a rutted farm track. The track keeps following the edge of the escarpment for another two kilometres with constant views over Kimmeridge Bay (picture 6), before finally reaching a minor road above the village of Kimmeridge.
Following the road downhill and turning sharp right at the next junction took me into the middle of the village, where I then turned left to follow the main street past pretty thatched stone houses and then across fields to rejoin the official route of the Coast Path in a carpark below the Clavell Tower (picture 8).
The four storey tower was originally built on the 100 metre high Hen Cliff in 1830 by a Reverend John Richards Clavell. By 2008 it was in a semi-ruined state and in danger of falling over the eroding cliff edge. The Landmark Trust sponsored an 18 month project to disassemble the tower brick-by-brick and then rebuild and restore it 25 metres back from the cliff edge. The building is now rented out as a holiday home to fund its upkeep. With 360 degree views of the Jurassic Coast, it's hard to imagine a more spectacular place to stay.
From the carpark below Clavell Tower, the Coast Path runs along the low, grassy clifftop (picture 9) to the far side of the bay, from which the view back to Hen Cliff is rather memorable (picture 10).
After passing a line of cottages, the path heads to the left of a fenced compound containing a "nodding donkey" oil-well. The rocks around the bay are predominantly shale that is rich in oil that has risen from older rocks further underground. The oil-well pumps oil up from within those older rocks, around 500 metres deep. and has been producing around 12,000 litres of oil per day since 1959.
At the end of the fence the path reaches a gate on the boundary of the Lulworth Army Ranges, which contain the next ten kilometres of the Coast Path. Since World War II, the Army has used the ranges for live firing exercises, and outside of school holidays the ranges are only open to walkers on selected weekends. With no useful public transport at either end of the walk on Sundays, I really had to seize my opportunity on the Saturday or take a long detour inland to circle around the entire range.
The path through the ranges is well-marked by yellow poles and there are numerous signs reminding visitors to stick to the safe path and avoid any metal objects in case they turn out to be unexploded ammunition.
The first kilometre of the path inside the ranges is fairly level, following the cliff edge along the western side of Kimmeridge Bay before taking a shortcut across the next headland, Broad Bench (picture 11), and then returning to the clifftop above Hobarrow Bay and around the next point into Brandy Bay (picture 12). That would be the last level walking for quite some time.
Ahead to the right is the peak of Tyneham Cap, which initially appeared to be some distance inland from the cliffs (picture 13). As I got closer it became apparent that landslides had eaten into the side of the hill and the path has to climb about half way up before scrambling across a rather vertiginous path that looked certain to disappear with the next landslide (picture 14).
Regaining a much safer looking footing after 100 metres, the next two kilometres of the path run along the back of Gad Cliff (picture 15), where the ground slopes steeply away from the clifftop into the sheltered Tyneham Valley, which separates the crumbling limestone cliffs from the chalk ridge that runs east to west across the Isle of Purbeck (picture 16).
About a third of the way along Gad Cliff I took a planned diversion from the Coast Path, following a path that zigzags steeply down into the valley for about a kilometre to reach the village of Tyneham (picture 17), abandoned in 1943 when the Army took over the Lulworth Ranges. The abandonment was originally supposed to be temporary, and the 252 people displaced from the village and the surrounding valley expected to return one day, but after the war the military decided to stay and the village has been empty ever since. Archaeological evidence suggests that the village had previously been inhabited for almost 2,000 years since the Roman occupation of Britain.
Most of the stone buildings in the village have been damaged by shelling -- the ranges are used, among other things, for tank and artillery training -- and have lost their roofs and upper floors. The row of four cottages in the picture were originally two storey buildings. Information boards in each one describe the families who lived there, including data from the 1901 census showing 13 people living in one of the small cottages.
Only two of the buildings in the village remain intact, the school house and the small 13th-century church (pictures 18 and 19), both of which have been restored as museums.
After an hour wandering around the village it was time to return to the Coast Path which required a steep climb back up to Gad Cliff. Towards the western end of the cliff the path begins to descend steeply to Worbarrow Bay, where the round peak of Worbarrow Tout sticks out defiantly into the sea (picture 20).
The Coast Path descends behind Worbarrow Tout to the edge of the bay (picture 21) where a small community of fisherman and coastguards once lived, though little evidence of their village remains today.
Almost immediately the path starts to climb Rings Hill (picture 22), the path getting ever steeper until it must have been close to 45 degrees. This was quite a difficult climb, particularly as the path consists of a random pattern of little steps worn into the chalk over many years by countless feet, and the top part of the hill is devilishly curved so that you can't see how much farther there is to climb until you're within a few steps of the top. It took me about 25 minutes to progress about 500 metres, eventually reaching the top with burning lungs and calves, and barely able to hold my camera steady as I tried to capture the view back across Worbarrow Bay (picture 23). The view was definitely worth the effort though.
On the top of Rings Hill is Flower's Barrow, a large Iron Age hillfort rather than a burial mound -- or more accurately, half an Iron Age hillfort, as the other half has fallen victim to coastal erosion over the 2,500 years since it was built. That fate will befall the rest in time.
The Coast Path heads over the double ramparts (picture 24) and along the cliff edge inside them, where each successive landslide reveals more about the ancient inhabitants of the fort, including the hut circles of Iron Age Britons and artifacts left by later Roman inhabitants.
Crossing the ramparts again at the far end of the fort, there are far-reaching views both ahead (picture 25) and inland beyond the military firing range to Lulworth Castle (picture 26).
Almost immediately, all the height that was so strenuously earned is surrendered as the path descends back to sea-level at the little cove of Arish Mell, with the sight of the next challenging climb of Bindon Hill testing one's motivation up ahead (picture 27). Off to the right is a graveyard of old military vehicles and tanks, most of them twisted and burnt out, presumably serving as targets for the gunners who are trained on the ranges (picture 28).
The climb up Bindon Hill was almost as steep and almost as high as the previous climb, though there are at least some proper steps to make the footing a bit easier for part of the way. The path runs across the back of the steep slope, a few metres down from the crumbling cliff edge, so there are only inland views for the first 500 metres until after the path crosses above a large grove of trees to a more level section of the clifftop. Both Bindon Hill and Flower's Barrow are continuations of the same chalk ridge that runs across the Isle of Purbeck. The distinctive shape of the hill, sloping away from the clifftop, is due to the sea having eroded halfway through the ridge.
As I walked along this path, a band of very dark clouds swept in from over my right shoulder and within five minutes the bright and sunny scene had changed to much darker view over Mupe Bay to the jagged Mupe Rocks (picture 30). The dark clouds were very soon accompanied by driving rain, forcing me to stop and pull on my waterproofs.
The shower lasted just long enough to distract me from the correct route, which turns left off the main path to descend beside Mupe Bay into lower-lying land on the southern side of the chalk ridge. Instead I managed to continue along the top of the ridge, from which I got my first view of the famous Lulworth Cove up ahead (picture 31). Before realizing my mistake, I managed to get as far as a little stone pyramid near the summit of the ridge (picture 32), which turned out to be a memorial to soldiers of the Royal Armoured Corps, whose ashes were scattered in the surrounding area.
Returning to the correct route, it took me about 25 minutes to follow the path along the edge of Little Bindon and out of the Lulworth Ranges to reach Pepler Point on the eaatern side of Lulworth Cove (picture 33). The path then skirts around the side of the almost circular cove (picture 34) before climbing very steeply up the chalk ridge behind it for the third time in the afternoon.
Once again the lung-bursting effort was worth it for the superb views over the cove from above (picture 35). Pausing to regain my breath at the top of the climb, I started chatting to a French couple who turned out to have been walking the Coast Path in the other direction from Exmouth. That walk had taken them a week, navigating the old fashioned way with just a set of Ordnance Survey maps.
The Coast Path follows the ridge across the back of the cove beside a wire fence, eventually descending on a narrow enclosed path through some dense scrub to reach the beach on the western side of the cove (picture 36).
Lulworth Cove was formed by the sea wearing a narrow opening in the band of hard limestone on the seaward side, and then eroding the softer clay and sand behind until getting as far at the harder chalk at the back of the cove. Waves that come through the opening fan out into a curve, and that phenomenon is responsible for the circular shape.
From the little beach, the Coast Path climbs up some concrete steps and cuts across the point on the western side of the cove. Looking back I could see another band of dark clouds sweeping in from the north-east (picture 37), and these were soon accompanied by several loud peals of thunder.
The path goes up some more steps to a large standing stone bearing an inscription that commemorates the World Heritage listing of the Jurassic Coast in 2002 (picture 38). Turning right, the path passes Stair Hole (picture 39), where the sea has worn several arches in the weathered limestone and has begun to erode the clay behind, giving a perfect example of how Lulworth Cove was formed.
Finally, a chalky path heads across the grassy slope to the little Lulworth Cove village (picture 40), where I left the Coast Path for the day. According to my GPS I had walked a total of 22.5 kilometres for the day, 20.2 of that on the Coast Path, including the diverted route before Kimmeridge Bay. The GPS also showed that I had climbed nearly 900 metres during the walk.
After stopping at the visitor centre to shelter from the rain and enjoy a well-deserved ice-cream, I was able to catch a bus up to the town of Wool and then a train back to my accommodation in Bournemouth.
With all the climbing this had been a very strenuous stage of the walk, so I was quite pleased to have finished it with some time to spare before the last bus of the afternoon and to have been able to take my only opportunity on this trip to walk through the Lulworth Ranges and to visit Tyneham.