SOUTH WEST COAST PATH NATIONAL TRAIL
Stage 7: Abbotsbury to Seatown
Saturday, May 4, 2013
I returned to Abbotsbury on a rather cold and misty morning, a little unsure of whether it was going to be worth going for a walk. Before putting myself at the mercy of the weather, I decided to climb up to the top of Chapel Hill to check out St Catherine's Chapel, which had been a prominent landmark towards the end of the previous day's walk.
From the top of the hill there was a good view over Abbotsbury and the surrounding hills (picture 1) and on a clear day there would be views in both directions along the coast. With the wind absolutely howling across the exposed hill, the solidly-built stone chapel (picture 2) provided some welcome shelter. Inside the four foot thick walls, the chapel was empty, and turned out to be rather smaller than the external appearance would suggest (picture 3). Several of the little alcoves contained flowers and little notes left for the departed.
The chapel was built in the late 14th century by monks from the Abbotsbury Abbey. The abbey was mostly destroyed during the Dissolution in the 1530's, but the chapel was spared due to it's importance as a navigation aid for shipping. Returning down the hill to the town, I passed by the few remnants of the abbey; a few ruined stone walls and the intact tithe barn (picture 4), which is the largest in England.
As the mist had cleared noticeably since my arrival, I made up my mind to set off as planned and walked down to the little stream where I had left the Coast Path the previous afternoon, from which the path heads around the lower slopes of Chapel Hill. The path runs through the small Chapel Coppice before emerging into an open field with views over the western end of the Fleet Lagoon (picture 5).
A well-worn path curves to the right around the contours of Chapel Hill, passing a World War II pillbox as it follows the edge of a field downhill (picture 6), passing a second pillbox before meeting a farm track where the Coast Path turns left and follows a track down to converge with Chesil Beach (picture 7). By now the morning mist had well and truly cleared and it was turning out to be a nice day after all.
For the first 300 metres the route heads along the pea-sized shingle behind the high bank of the beach to reach a carpark where a boardwalk takes most of the hard work out of climbing up to the top of the bank for a look across Lyme Bay (picture 8).
From the corner of the carpark the going is much easier, as the Coast Path follows the narrow Burton Road, which runs along the back of the beach. The road is quite sheltered at first, but the shingle bank soon loses height and the path has some good views across Lyme Bay. Over the next three and a half kilometres the road passes several more pillboxes built on the beach (picture 9), heading through an area known as Greenbanks (picture 10) before reaching the village of West Bexington (picture 11), where a carpark is built on the beach, suggesting that the shingle bank must be quite stable here.
The Coast Path crosses the carpark, then continues ahead on a shingle path along the back edge of beach, sheltered from the sea by a sizeable shingle bank once again. The area to the right of the path is the West Bexington Nature Reserve, a series of reed beds and flooded fields where some swans had taken up residence (picture 12).
After about two kilometres the path bears away from the beach to pass behind a large reed bed called Burton Mere, part of the National Trust's Cogden property. Halfway along the back of Burton Mere, the path follows a long boardwalk through a band of trees (picture 13) before a field-edge path leads to Cogden Beach (picture 14).
A path along the edge of the beach gradually rises with the low cliffs to pass in front of the Old Coastguard Holiday Park (picture 15), where about one hundred chalets are clustered around a row of old coastguard cottages.
The clifftop path gains some more height beyond the holiday park before descending to Hive Beach (picture 16), part of the town of Burton Bradstock, the bulk of which lies about a kilometre inland.
The cliffs to the west of Hive Beach are made of soft sandstone and after a cliff fall in 2012 the Coast Path has been permanently diverted around behind a clifftop hotel. From the beach, the Coast Path now climbs steps to the left of the beach café, then bears left towards a gate in a stone wall behind the hotel. The route crosses a field diagonally to another gate where the path turns left to cross the next field diagonally back towards the cliffs, crossing the hotel's access road at the far corner to join a path about ten metres back from the edge of Burton Cliff (picture 17). This cliff was used for training British commandos for the D-Day landings in World War II and their modern counterparts are still required to scale the cliff during their training.
A kilometre along the clifftop, the path descends steeply to the beach in front of a massive holiday park at Burton Freshwater (picture 18). The small River Bride reaches the sea here (picture 19), and the path has to turn sharp right behind the cliff to follow the river bank back towards Burton Bradstock for about 250 metres to find a footbridge. The Coast Path then follows the opposite bank back to the beach, through a part of the holiday park reserved for campers, who were arriving in large numbers for the three-day Bank Holiday Weekend.
Regaining the beach, the path runs in front of a long line of chalets (picture 20) to find some steps at the beginning of a steep climb up to East Cliff.
East Cliff is occupied by the Bridport and West Dorset Golf Club, and on its way along the edge of the cliff the Coast Path dips steeply to cross the end of a coombe where I can only assume that a lot of golf balls end up in the sea below the cliff (picture 21).
Beyond this, a level path runs along the clifftop for a little while before there is another steep descent to West Bay (picture 22), which fans of the recent TV series Broadchurch may recognise as one of the program's main filming locations.
Until 1884, this seaside town was known as Bridport Harbour, an offshoot of the larger town of Bridport, which lies about three kilometres inland along the valley of the River Brit (picture 23). When the railway arrived, the town was renamed as West Bay to make it sound more attractive to Victorian tourists. This early marketing ploy may not have been completely successful, as the line closed in 1930, though the number of people on the beach suggests that West Bay is a popular destination today.
After the steep scramble down from East Cliff to the beach, which is the western limit of Chesil Beach, the path turns inland across a carpark to Station Road. The road is followed across the back of the harbour (picture 24) and over the River Brit, before the Coast Path turns left along the western edge of the harbour to join the short seaside Esplanade. The area around the harbour was very busy with some kind of festival and quite a few people seemed to have decided to accompany me on the long, but relatively gentle climb out of the bay from the end of the Esplanade up to West Cliff, making progress along the narrow, chalky path quite slow.
Set a little back from the top of West Cliff is another large caravan and camping site, the Highlands End Holiday Park, and beyond this the crowds thinned out as the path began a lengthy downhill run to Eype Mouth (picture 25), where a tiny stream has carved out a little gorge that the Coast Path negotiates via staircases on either side.
On the other side, the Coast Path immediately climbs again, passing behind a little clifftop lodge and in front of another caravan and camping site before continuing to climb along the seaward edge of the National Trust's Down House Farm. This was to be the final climb of the day, but also the most exhausting, gaining 157 metres in the kilometre up to Thorncombe Beacon, the last section being particular steep (picture 26).
My effort was rewarded when I reached the beacon, with magnificent views back along the coast as far as the Isle of Portland (picture 27) and ahead past Golden Cap and far along the coast into the neighbouring county of Devon (picture 28).
The last couple of kilometres of the day's walk were much less demanding than the climb up to Thorncombe Beacon. The path crosses a shallow coombe to the lower peak of Doghouse Hill (picture 29) then skirts around the back of a steeper coombe where a small herd of cattle were grazing on the steep slope above the crumbling cliffs (picture 30). From the next little peak of Ridge Cliff, it's downhill all the way to the little village of Seatown with Golden Cap looming ahead (picture 31).
Just above the beach is a small carpark from which a footbridge crosses a little stream to the Anchor Inn (picture 32), where I left the Coast Path for the day, with another 20.3 kilometres completed.
The nearest public transport to Seatown is in the town of Chideock, about 1.3 kilometres inland along the narrow Sea Hill Lane, which was quite busy with cars heading down to the caravan park behind Seatown. Chideock is on the main bus route between Exeter and Weymouth, passing through Bridport and Abbotsbury on the way -- quite a scenic eighty-minute journey in evening sun.