I recently walked the Dorset section of the famous South West Coast Path – the longest footpath in England – from Poole to Seaton. This stretch makes up oh maybe 3/4 of the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and slice of fucking paradise. To learn more about the path from people who are not hopeless like me, there’s a great site here. Let me tell you about my walk.
The appeal of Dorset, especially since this was going to be my first solo adventure, was that it offered easy-mode adventuring. Yes, I’d be on my own walking considerable distances every day, but I’d also be within shouting distance of another human at almost all times. You can’t escape them out there. You’ll be walking through some dark, overgrown forest trail, feeling like the last person left on Earth, then you turn a corner and find an old man walking his dog, or a young couple pretending that they weren’t just totally making out. It’s comforting in its way; solitary but never isolated. I never needed to carry more food than a sandwich and a snack. I ended each day in a cosy bed with a cup of tea, usually within a couple blocks of a pub. And then back out into the wonders of Mother Nature the next morning. It was the perfect balance. (Obviously the writings of Bill Bryson influenced this decision, too…)
I had two policies along the way:
- Use every public toilet I found, whether I needed it or not.
- Choose Adventure™
The first is self-explanatory…the second meant that, when faced with any choice (fork in the path, engaging strangers in conversation, etc.), I had to choose the option that seemed like more fun, even if it presented greater challenges. This often resulted in me dragging myself over some towering hill instead of around it, pushing myself along with thoughts of how great my butt would look in the end. (Pretty much the same, it turned out, but my calves are monstrous.) But I highly recommend both these policies. The first begets comfort and the second begets stories.
Here’s how it went:
Day 1: Poole to Swanage
This day built steadily from mild stress and discomfort to elation. Actual, tears-in-eyes elation. Poole seems like a pleasant if unremarkable seaside town. I didn’t spend much time there, but my lovely AirBnB host took me on a little walk along the High St. and down to the quay before seeing me off. I circled round the harbour and took the weird ferry across to Studland, where the coast path actually starts. This enormous ferry is like a quarter the width of the harbour mouth. It’s pulled across by a chain, and it takes about 5 minutes. I got off the ferry, found the starting-point of the coast path, started walking, and immediately lost the path.
Still not entirely sure where I was supposed to be, I walked the length of Studland Beach, along a sandy path (uggghhhhh sand) through thick heather and gorse. I learned that while heather brushes gently against your legs as you pass, gorse (and all the other thorny bushes they have there; 98% of English plants are covered in thorns, I learned) will tear them to shreds. I had big ol’ strands of thread hanging off of my pants the entire rest of the trip.
Studland also has a nude beach, but it was chilly when I was there, so unfortunately I can’t make any bush jokes.
Things really looked up after that beach. For starters, there’s a café and WC at the end of it. I found the path at last, and it took me up and around the south end of Studland Bay to Old Harry Rocks, where shit gets real. The towering white limestone cliffs that characterise this end of the coast path begin, and they’re stupidly beautiful. Vertiginous. This was the first of many moments that were slightly tinged with sadness at the thought that soon I’d have to turn my back on this and keep walking.
Carried on west along a hilltop until Swanage appeared below. The ridge I was on continued inland, with a very inviting path stretching off through impossibly green pastureland. Since I needed to veer off the coast the next day anyway, I resolved to follow that ridge-top path wherever it would take me. Choosing Adventure™, you see.
Descended into Swanage, bought some fish and chips and a cider along the seafront, had a lovely chat with my awesome AirBnB hosts, and slept like a log.