Cows & Other Hazards

I had a good deal of friendly conversations with strangers while in England, and when it inevitably emerged that I was travelling alone, I was often met with raised eyebrows and a “wow, you’re brave.”

That’s a sweet sentiment, of course, and it warms the cockles of my ego, but this trip honestly required almost no courage. Good shoes, yes, and a resilient bladder, but my nerves were rarely tested. I described this trip earlier as easy-mode adventuring, and it really was. Here were the greatest threats I faced along the way, for what it’s worth, in no particular order.

Cows

Tell anyone that you’re going for a long-distance walk through the English countryside these days, and the second thing they’ll say (after “Oh cool!…why?”) is, “Watch out for the cows.” They are a known threat to life and limb. But, you know, they’re also just cows.

The Coast Path runs through countless pastures, and the Purbeck Way took me through countless more. You can’t avoid cows if you’re going to walk here. And in practice, this is usually fine; so long as you don’t do anything to alarm or irritate the cows, they’ll generally leave you alone. I learned this at some point after crossing through my very first cow pasture, though, because these ladies were grumpy.

cows1
Those dark specks a little ways ahead are the offending cows. There were more to my right, not causing trouble.

There were maybe 20 of them in this field, and I had about 200m to cross before I got to the next stile. No problem, I hummed a little song for them so they’d know I was there, stuck to the path, and with 50m to go none had even so much as looked up in acknowledgement.

Until that one asshole started mooing. She just stood there, looking straight at me, and mooed. The other cows in her cluster looked up, looked at me, and started mooing. Then the cows in another cluster I had passed a few moments earlier started mooing. They were all facing me, mooing angrily. Then two of the cows started butting heads for some reason.

This was the first time I busted out my ‘please don’t trample me’ song, which goes something like this: ‘I’m sorry I’m in your space/ I’m sorry for being human please don’t hate me/ Please don’t trample me I’m just trying to get through here/ Oh jesus just be cool guys’. I riffed a bit on the lyrics, depending where the inspiration took me. I leapt over that stile in a single bound and never looked back.

Later that day, my path took me through a large herd of cattle, including tiny calves (I’m positive there was at least one bull in there, too, which I thought wasn’t allowed???). These jerks were 100% in my way, including one calf just sitting directly in the stile at the other end. There were razor-wire fences all around, so my only choice was to walk through the herd, then find a way to jump the fence at the end.

These cows were eyeing me warily as I sang my song to them (not the greatest audience, though attentive), but overall didn’t seem to share their cousins’ bloodlust. Things got tense as I approached the stile. There was a calf there, which meant that one of the other cows was probably its mother, which meant that I wasn’t getting anywhere near there. So I clambered over a large fallen tree and two fences, cursing under my breath, while they all just looked at me. But you know what? I didn’t get trampled. I emerged in a pasture full of sheep who obligingly ran for their lives as soon as they saw me. I like sheep.

sheep
YES GOOD FLEE IN TERROR

Army

danger-signs
Ahhhh, the great outdoors

There are a couple of army firing ranges along the Dorset coast. I bypassed the one near Lulworth when I veered up to Wool, but did walk through the Weymouth one. It was clearly marked, and since there were no red flags up, I knew it was safe to walk through. But can I just point something out? Look at this:

red-flag-sign

My god, be sure to read the entire post carefully. If your eye merely skims over the right-hand column, you’re getting a very different message: “PROCEED IF RED FLAGS ARE FLYING”

GH-GH-GH-GH-GHOSTS!

Obviously, just about the entirety of England is haunted. You can’t chuck a stone without it flying straight through some transparent lady in a white gown waiting faithfully for her true love to return from the seas. And despite not actually believing in ghosts, I did manage to see one with my own two eyes. Look at how haunted all these places are:

My path took me into a good many dark woods full of mysterious rustlings, and past countless centuries-old abandoned edifices with chilly drafts that crept up the spine.

As I walked through that long lane lined with hedges pictured above, I spotted a shadowy figure walking toward me, maybe 50m away. I started to pull myself together to say hello, as one does, and continued walking as the figure approached. Something on the ground caught my eye. I looked back up a millisecond later, and the shadowy figure was gone. There was nowhere for him to go! There were thick hedges on either side! My tiny, exhausted legs made short work of the rest of that lane, let me tell you.

‘Fast Horses’

fast-horses

I’m actually a bit disappointed I didn’t get to see any of these fast horses…

My Idiot Self

I am 100% the greatest threat to my own safety & well-being, passing even cows in this category. I had failed to break my caffeine addiction before the trip, so I had to endure several days of withdrawal. (Tea is great and all, but it was not a match for my pot-a-day coffee habit.) I consumed enough clotted cream to cause a temporary supply shortage. I drank my weight in cider and made an ass of myself before an entire village (NO REGRETS). I gave myself a 9/10 hangover on the day that had the prettiest views and the most hills. I was hopelessly lost at more or less all times. And instead of getting my act together at any point, the more trouble I found myself in, the more excited I was to tell the story to my friends.

 

So really, the takeaway from this is that if you’re going to walk through England, you should be perfectly safe so long as you keep your wits about you, and steer well clear of cows and Janets. Can’t do anything about the ghosts, though.

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South West Coast Path: Day 7

Morecombelake to Seaton

day-7-route

I started the final day of my walk, fittingly, by getting lost one last time. You know, for old times’ sake.

I wanted to see the ruined St Gabriel’s Chapel (13th century, I believe?), which is pretty much due south from Morecombelake, and would take me for the most part back along the paths I’d used to get up to the village the day before. Easy. Except that I completely lost the path. Having startled a few cows, taken a stealthy pee in a wooded area when I realised I was still hours from finding the next WC, and pulled out my compass for the first time this trip, I finally stumbled upon the ruins in a little pasture. It was pretty neat; most of the structure is gone, leaving a crumbling shell, but you can still see some architectural features. If it weren’t for the cows, the place would be quite eerie.

Thence back down to the coast (skirting around the Golden Cap this time, thankyouverymuch), rejoining the path and carrying on to Charmouth.

Listen.

There’s a butcher in Charmouth that sells Cornish pasties. If you do nothing else in your life, you must get a steak & stilton pasty from that butcher. I don’t care how you feel about steak, stilton, or pasties. If you eat it while sitting on the beach, watching ducks ride the current of a little stream down into the sea, so much the better.

West of Charmouth, the coast path takes you up over the cliffs in a rather circuitous route, and I’m told it’s a bore. Instead, I stayed below the cliffs and walked along the Spittles (the Spittles!!), a beach connecting Charmouth to Lyme Regis. The terrain isn’t too bad here; the rocks are a bit slippery, and you need to be aware of the tide, but there’s also a good deal of hard-packed sand that’s easier on the legs. The area was full of fossil-hunters, and I became jarringly aware that I was among tourists when everyone I passed refused to make eye contact or return my chipper ‘hiyas’. HOW RUDE.

spittles-back

Lyme Regis was the site of the only Jane Austen fangirling I allowed myself this whole trip, surprisingly. We all know the scenes on the Cobb in Persuasion. (If you don’t, drop everything and read the book, then watch the Ciarán Hinds adaptation, then watch the Rupert Penry-Jones adaptation. I’ll wait. Hell, move over, I’ll watch them with you.) It was pretty neat, sitting on a bench next to the Granny’s Teeth (as the steps of the Cobb are called), looking back at the town, and reflecting that Austen must have seen much of this with her own eyes. Siiiiiggghhhhhh…

cobb
Not pictured: Capt. Wentworth

Wait, crap. Suddenly I have 3.5 hours till sunset, and signs are telling me I’m at least 3.5 hours from Seaton.

I shook myself out of my stupor and struck out for the Undercliffs, a hell of a way to end my walk. This final stretch, bridging Dorset and Devon, is unlike anything else I’d encountered yet on the Jurassic Coast. In fact, it reminded me very much of hiking through the Canadian Shield back home; very up-and-down, heavily forested, full of tree roots and rocks. There’s also no way out along the way, so once you’re in the thick of it, you’re on your own. I loved it. I tore through it almost at a run (the advancing sun provided some motivation here), with a smile on my face and a song on my lips. I encountered only one other person along the way. Just wonderful.

I emerged breathless an hour-and-a-half later and made short work of the final mile or two down to Seaton. There’s quite a long lane you walk down at one point, lined with dense hedges on both sides, where I TOTALLY SAW A GHOST. So watch out for that.

ghost
WARNING: GHOSTS

I arrived in Seaton just as the first rain of my whole trip began, a good hour before sunset; that magically liminal time that’s too late for tea but too early for supper. Almost everything in town was closed, and the pub I eventually stumbled into didn’t even have their kitchen stuff turned on. I somehow convinced them to let me eat the extra pasty I’d thrown in my bag with a pint of cider. Not a bad way to end it all, really.

pasty-cider

My kind, lovely AirBnB host picked me up in Seaton and drove me up to her place in Colyton, and thus ended my walk.

I estimate that I covered a respectable 85-90 miles (oh I don’t know – not quite 150 km?) in 6 walking days, lost a bit of girth along the way, unlocked a deep passion for cream tea, and gained one new friend in the Runner, plus a decent handful of friendly acquaintances. I wouldn’t change a single thing.

South West Coast Path: Day 6

Abbotsbury to Morecombelake

day-6-route

This time, I got to eat my enormous B&B breakfast. It was glorious.

breakfast
An English friend’s sputtering reaction: “Where’s the Heinz baked beans!!!”

I bought a new Ordnance Survey map for the final leg of my journey, and set off out of beautiful Abbotsbury. Once you get back down to the coast, the first few miles west of the village are pretty rough. The path goes along either the loose pebbles of Chesil Beach, or the road that runs parallel. Neither surface is ideal, so I found myself alternating between the two depending which joints were aching most emphatically.

I ran into the Runner again, happily. We had terrible (“honest but shit”) capuccinos and another lovely chat in West Bay, site of the famous Broadchurch cliff. I faced a tough few hours after this break. The terrain switches from pebbly to hilly around here. And when I say hilly, I mean take-a-break-every-10-steps hilly. These fuckers are steep, and this stretch was going to end with the dreaded Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast.

As I clumsily lurched up the Golden Cap, nose almost pressed into the slope, a merry young family laughed and cheered me on from the top. The kids seemed quite taken with my accent, an opportunity my ego couldn’t pass up. I gamely turned on the charm and cracked jokes through wheezing breath, while every muscle in my body cried out in anguish. Anything for my audience.

Then I got lost.

You see, having failed to find accommodations along the coast, I had to head inland from here to the village of Morecombelake. I knew that my AirBnB’s address had a name instead of a street number, and I knew that I had recorded that name somewhere (in my phone, I discovered, several days later), but I could not for the life of me find it. I had no internet access. The sun was setting, and the street was on yet another confounded hill, with no streetlights. In desperation, after walking up and down the street several times, I started knocking on doors. No one had heard of my host, not a promising sign in a place as small as this.

I came to one house that had a ‘beware of cocker spaniels’ sign on the gate. When I knocked, a rather confused old lady answered the door, followed immediately by two loud, furry tornadoes that exploded out of the house. The old lady began howling in distress, afraid that she had been bitten, and her beleaguered daughter came rushing out to try to recover the dogs. “Did you at least close the gate??” she called over her shoulder to me in greeting. “I think so?” I whimpered.

After several chaotic minutes, with dogs and mother finally rounded up and tucked away, I meekly asked the poor woman whether she knew my AirBnB host. She didn’t, but had a suspicion that it could be the lady who’d just moved in up the street. And here’s where that Dorset friendliness really shone. This poor woman, immediately forgiving all the stress and misery I’d just caused her, put her shoes on, grabbed a flashlight, walked me up the street, and knocked on her neighbour’s door for me. Without a word, my AirBnB host (for it was the correct place) grabbed my hand and led me to her backyard, where her family were watching the last rays of a glorious sunset. Oh thank Christ for these people.

There was no food to be had in the village, but I didn’t even care. All I needed in the world was tea, a bed, and the half-eaten sandwich I’d stashed in my bag some hours earlier.

South West Coast Path: Day 5

Weymouth to Abbotsbury

day-5-route
Missed a bit of the route at the bottom…You get it.

If you’re considering walking the Jurassic Coast but need to cut about 5 miles from it, may I suggest the area directly west of Weymouth? It’s hideous.

barbed-wire
look i found barbed wire

Lots of pavement, an army base, and then an army firing range. If you’re unlucky and the firing range is in use, you have to take a detour which I hear is even worse. I got lucky, at least, and got to pass through the firing range, thrilling quietly at the remote possibility that maybe they had just forgotten to put the warnings up before getting their guns out.

For the first time on my trip, I had violated my #1 policy (particularly important for those of us who pee sitting down, I’ll point out): use every public toilet, whether I needed it or not. I had skipped gaily past the last WC in Weymouth an hour earlier, confident that the several cups of tea I’d just drunk weren’t going anywhere. The situation was beyond desperate by the time I stumbled upon this:

pillbox
I am so. so. sorry.

There are dozens of these WWII pillbox bunkers dotted along the coastline. They’re kind of a neat piece of history, not much to look at…But what I’m getting at is that there was no other shelter anywhere to be found. Bushes were full of thorns. This was happening. I put my headlamp on, ducked inside, and did what I had to do.

Feeling like a new woman, I conquered the rest of the ugly stretch, and as the path veered somewhat inland approaching Abbotsbury, the scenery improved dramatically. The green fields glowed in the sunshine, fluffy sheep were dotted just so along the hills that rolled off in every direction…The banner photo at the top of this page is from this part of the walk.

abbotsbury-field
So here’s a less-good photo taken nearby

I made a friend here, a local runner. It’s polite in these parts to smile and say hello (or ‘hiya’, if you’re pretending to be English) to everyone you pass. Every now and then, you’ll fall into a nice little chat. Just occasionally, if you’re very lucky, you’ll find yourself absorbed in a delightful conversation that makes the last couple of miles into Abbotsbury sail by. So it was with the Runner, and I appreciated the break from myself.

We made it to Abbotsbury, shook hands, and he took off. I treated myself to a quick cream tea, which I’d promised myself as my reward for having to walk past an ugly army base and pee in a bunker. With the last few minutes of daylight, I trekked up to the abandoned 14th-century St Catherine’s Chapel, perched imposingly on a tall-ish hill overlooking the village. It’s pretty cool, and totally haunted.

Checked into my B&B, then strapped on my trusty headlamp to head to the pub because Abbotsbury doesn’t have any streetlights. Ate a hearty cottage pie, and after a single pint of cider, found myself regaling the two other patrons – patient, polite gentlemen, bless their hearts – with stories of Canada until I’d exhausted even my own enthusiasm.

English Names: What’s With All the Bottoms?

Warning: Here be rude words and double entendres. 

Let’s take a quick pause from the saga to reflect upon one of the qualities for which the English are most admired around the globe: silly names. What a delight it is to pore over a minutely detailed Ordnance Survey map, counting the ‘bottoms’ and ‘heads’, or to walk into a bakery and ask if they have any knobs. Just in the tiny stretch of this tiny county that I covered in my travels, I found quite a rich sampling to share with you.

Some names are more cute than rude, but can still bring enjoyment. The town of Beer, for example, which has so far failed to take advantage of the enormous tourism potential in its name. Black Head isn’t bad. Studland, fittingly, has a nude beach. The Spittles, a beach connecting Charmouth and Lyme Regis, will get you smiling indulgently, but you could still talk about it with your grandmother.

I mentioned earlier that my ancestors had come from a place called Puddletown, so-called because it’s a town on the River Puddle. I’ve been told by a reliable local source that the river was originally named the Piddle, and that Puddletown was accordingly named Piddletown. In preparation for a visit by the humourless Queen Victoria, the people of Dorset (tragically) had to clean up a few of their place names lest they shock the monarch. One such victim was the poor Piddle (though there is a local brewery called Piddle, so they remain in touch with their heritage).

You’re absolutely spoiled for bottoms along the way. Seacombe Bottom, Middle Bottom, and my very favourite, Scratchy Bottom. This is, in fact, a beautiful spot, and I recommend that anyone in the area budget some time to look at Scratchy Bottom up close.

In Morecombelake, I spent the night within view of Butt Farm and what I assume is its affiliate, Right Bottom. This must be a local strength, because the very next night, in Colyton, I was one street over from The Butts. A couple more favourites for you:

It wasn’t just the place names, either. A local delicacy is the Dorset Knob, for example, which I have sampled and am sorry to say I don’t like. I’m a huge fan of clotted cream, however, and have already claimed that as my porn name (Dorset Knob, as far as I know, is still up for grabs).

Last but by no means least, I’m informed by another reliable source that the local term for the shale on their beaches is clittage.

You’re welcome.

dorset-knob
Dorset Knob: underwhelming, messy

South West Coast Path: Days 3 & 4

Wool to Weymouth

day-3-route
Um, ignore the search bar…

Ohhhhhhhhhh noooooooooooooooo.

 

You know those devastating hangovers where you just know that you’re going to be in bed until 5pm? Like, there’s nothing else for it, you must stay in bed until 5pm or else you’ll actually die?

Imagine that, instead of staying in bed until 5pm, you had to get out of bed at 8am, converse politely with some very sweet strangers over a delicious breakfast you couldn’t eat, then climb hills for 7 hours. I had been looking forward to that breakfast for days, knowing that this was one of only two proper B&Bs I’d be hitting along my way. I ate a slice of bacon and half a piece of toast. There was a lovely couple from around Manchester who had been staying there as well. They had also been at the pub the night before, it turned out, but at least claimed not to remember my sloppy karaoke magic.

I implemented emergency Fuck Adventure™ protocol and took a cab back down to the coast. Absolutely no regrets.

hangover
Current mood

I found myself, bleary-eyed and distraught, at Lulworth Cove, the beginning of an absolutely stunning stretch of coastline. The immediate area around Lulworth was crawling with tourists, but they thinned out as soon as I got past Durdle Door. (In case you’re planning on visiting the area, make sure you go over the weekend, because a lot of the land around here is actually part of a military firing range and is closed during the week. Also, while we’re here, there’s an easier path a little ways inland that runs parallel to the coast path. Don’t take it; the views along the cliffs are worth any amount of physical discomfort. Choose Adventure™.)

Part of what makes the Jurassic Coast so special is that you can see geology with your own eyes. You can see the effects of erosion, the effects of land masses smashing together, and you can understand it in a way that photos and textbooks just can’t capture. And it’s beautiful.

There’s not much more I can say here, so have some photos.

There was one particularly melodramatic moment when I crested a hill and stopped dead  at the sight before me – towering white cliffs ahead, blue sea gently lapping at the shore below to my left, brilliant green hills rolling off to my right with shadows of clouds dancing over them – and thought, “This is the closest thing to heaven I’ll ever get.”

This place does that to you. Even when you’re hungover.

The distance to Weymouth isn’t too bad – about 12 miles – but it is somewhat arduous and my dehydrated ass just barely made it before sundown. I met my AirBnB hostess, snuggled with her cats, bought a curry, and slept the sleep of the dead.

cat
HELLO CAT

Day Off in Weymouth

I found that, while a day off after three days wasn’t all that necessary, I sure did appreciate the chance to pull myself back together after the Wool Massacre. My glutes ached, and I was still frankly a bit hungover because this is life post-30.

I blooted around Weymouth with no particular goals. Walked the Rodwell Trail, a pretty little path through town built over an old railway line. Looked at Henry VIII’s Sandsfoot Castle (crumbling slowly into the sea) and Nothe Fort (Victorian, still in use, not all that much to look at). Sat on the quayside and had my first scone with jam & clotted cream of the trip, which is just…a revelation. The trick, you see, is to do cream, then jam, then more cream on top because you know we’re all here for the cream.

Following an hours-long nap, I went back to the quayside for a peaceful fish & chips and reflected that I could get used to this life. The people of Dorset are so warm and welcoming; I felt comfortable wherever I went. I recently learned that I have ancestors from just north of Weymouth, in Puddletown (once named Piddletown, apparently; more on Hilarious Names in the next post). I guess it was nice to think that I was among my people.

Ended the evening with a nighttime stroll along the town’s beach, which has impossibly fine sand that feels a lot like packing snow. Felt refreshed and well-rested, and ready to tackle the second half of my walk.

South West Coast Path: Day 2

Swanage to Wool

day-2-route

This was a day. Yep, it sure was.

I had decided to take the ridge-top Purbeck Way inland from the coast, as I mentioned before, because I hadn’t been able to find accommodations closer to the coast path. I had to make my way up and over to Wool as a result, which is only maybe 15 miles by road, but noooo, I had to Choose Adventure™ and walk all the way there along winding hilltop paths and through muddy pastures  and past angry cows. My route wound up being something closer to 18 or 19 miles.

inviting-path-2
This doesn’t look so bad…

I left Swanage at 7:30am, heading back up toward yesterday’s ridge, and quickly got lost. After charming a lady at a campground shop with my accent and desperate joy at the sight of her vile Nescafé machine, I obtained directions and got lost again. By the time I had found the path and trudged halfway up a tall, steep hill, I noticed that the thorny bushes had stolen my favourite scarf somewhere along the way. Well, I wasn’t going back down for it. Onward, scarfless.

mud
Mud and prickly bushes. Not pictured: My dang scarf.

This inland path offered gorgeous views of the valley below, and the light, ever-present autumn mist gave everything a romantically mysterious cast. My heart was light and my bladder full by the time I descended into Corfe Castle, a picturesque village named for the picturesquely-ruined castle that towers over it. I wish I could have stopped and explored, but £9 for admission was beyond my budget. Sighing, I turned away from the castle and followed a sign for the public WC. After searching for some time, I stopped a nice old lady and asked her where it was. She chuckled indulgently and told me to go back the way I’d come, telling me exactly where to turn and where to look. I thanked her, and followed her directions.

Nothing.

No toilets.

Corfe is not a big place at all. I wandered around in increasing distress for 20 minutes, carefully retracing my steps, verifying the exact angle of the sign’s arrow to make sure I was going the right way. The nice old lady was stopped in the street, chatting with a friend, this whole time. I swallowed my pride and interrupted her, trying to lend as much American twang to my voice as I could. She blinked a moment, unsure whether she was capable of laughing this off. Then she pointed at a spot maybe 20 feet from where we stood, with a clearly-marked WC on it.

To be fair, it was NOT AT ALL in the direction the sign had pointed.

corfe
Corfe Castle. Not pictured: the dang toilets.

Refreshed, I put a paper bag over my head and escaped that cursed village, rejoining the Purbeck Way, which led me through some fairly isolated pastures and past some quite grumpy cows. I’ll write about Cows and Other Hazards another time, but there was a lot of clambering over obstacles and singing gentle ‘please don’t trample me’ songs.

cow-stile
HEY LET’S SIT IN THE STILE THAT IS OF NO POSSIBLE USE TO US. WON’T BE IN ANYONE’S WAY HERE.

Just south of Wareham, maybe 5 miles east of Wool, I ran out of footpath and had to follow a road the rest of the way. Walking on pavement sucks and it hurts and it tires you out about twice as fast as the soft, forgiving ground. And you have to be ready to throw yourself into the bushes in an instant, because these are tiny country lanes and people love to speed recklessly through them. When I finally crawled into my B&B and saw the size of the bathtub, I could have cried.

bath
I literally took a photo of a bathtub, so that I would never forget how happy it made me.

Here’s where things went wrong.

Freshly bathed, cradling a nice cup of tea, and sprawled on my enormous, soft bed, I thought, “Maybe I’ll go to the pub.” Sure, I ~wanted~ to go to bed right then and there, and going out would require all kinds of sacrifices such as taking my slippers off and putting clothes on, but I must Choose Adventure™, remember. What’s one drink? It would help me sleep. They would have food there.

I walked into the pub just as the entire population of Wool was starting to pour in, most of them rather eccentrically dressed. It was Oct. 30th, and I had stumbled upon the village Halloween party. There were decorations everywhere. There was a geriatric DJ setting up for the dance party and karaoke. I started chatting with some friendly locals, and when the lady at the bar asked whether I wanted a full pint or a half-pint of cider, I boldly requested the full pint. Then more full pints.

At some point later, I was dancing.

At some point yet later, I was karaokeing the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”.

At some point later still, I was back in my B&B, being violently and voluminously sick.