In 2021, it took 26-days to walk from Cromer to Chichester – much faster than expected and helped by the use of ferries and avoiding the Isle of Sheppey. I am noting islands and estuaries missed on the ECP and will return when the full paths are implemented, rather than hack my way through fields only to find bridges yet to be built and access granted. Now the weather seemed reasonable and I have a few weeks spare, I wanted to make a start on the 2022 walking to see how far west I can progress. Many ferries are not running in March, but at least the accommodation will be reasonably priced out of season.
Using coastal bus services is a sneaky trick. The Coastliner 700 dropped me off at Fishbourne and within moments I find myself walking through the marshland coastal paths around Chidham and Bosham, saying hello again to the Brent Geese. The winter light is magical when the skies are blue, and the weather fine enough for the Itchenor ferry to be running at the weekend. Luckily the tide is out and I can choose pebbly seaweed shortcuts under the seawalls. The bus has me back to Havant for cheap accommodation, before circumnavigating Thorney Island the next day – a place familiar to me for the 5-years I spent living there in the 1970s. I have vivid memories of camping, sailing and exploring these estuaries and reflect on how privileged and grateful I am for the experience.
I skip Hayling Island, as the Hayling ferry is not running and a 6-mile cycle path there and back doesn’t appeal. It is another note in the book to return, to walk the Langstone Harbour circuit when the ECP has implemented a path. Farlington Marshes more than compensate, with rich winter fowl birdlife. I wish I had brought my binoculars. Much of the eastern section of Portsmouth has major coastal defence work in progress, but the Southsea promenade is busy on a sunny Sunday. I catch the hovercraft service to Ryde the next day, the last remaining year-round scheduled service in the world. The Griffon 12000TD hovercrafts are new (2016) and significantly quieter and very comfortable to what I remember.
The Isle of Wight is peaceful, lacking any tourists as I weave through the promenade furniture before heading inland to Bembridge and a harbour at rest from the summer madness. It is just possible to take the pebble beach to the lifeboat station at high tide, but recent storms have ravaged the coastline, bringing down trees and rearranging the seawall. Even though the sun is out, the cold easterly bites through my thermals. I am glad of an open cafe at Sandown and the later train to Ryde for accommodation. The trains are the same as used on the London Underground, even the announcements and door alarms are the same. I have to blink to make sure I am not on the District Line going to work.
The Landslip path at Bonchurch is closed and a dangerous insanely steep ascent and descent on slippery steps takes time to negotiate until I reach Ventnor for easier paths, other than the blue slippery clay on the ridge into Niton is like an ice rink. I am glad of my walking poles and improving cross country skiing style, before an easier grass path beyond St. Catherine’s Point.
Huge Chines (water cut steep gorges) cut into the crumbling coast, requiring detours. The soft soil erosion is extensive over huge cliffs, more than I have ever seen. It is horrifying to see sections of paths crumble and broken below – so I keep a healthy distance from the edge. I walk inland to the quaint village of Brighstone and catch a bus to Newport to see friends that evening, before returning again to walk the chalk cliffs to Freshwater Bay and ascend on to Tennyson Down.
I am the only walker and have the grass runway to myself along the most exhilarating section of coastal path in southern England, with the sea to each side of the ridge. The thrill terminates at The Needles and I can just pick out Old Harry’s Rocks on the Isle of Purbeck as if the great chalk backbone has been severed under the sea. The walk to Yarmouth is clumsy and victim to more erosion. I am glad of a comfy pub for the night before the ferry to Lymington.
The pretty port and marina lead to another extensive wildlife area at Pennington Marsh. The weight of the binoculars would have been forgotten, as the winter wildfowl are amazing, with many species I have not seen before. A birder mentions a possibility of a Slovenian grebe, and I can see Pintails and Shovelers in abundance alongside the Brent Geese. Notice boards suggest sightings of Sea Eagles, recently introduced near the IOW, they have developed a taste for wildfowl to supplement a fish diet.
Beyond Keyhaven I find a perfectly timed cafe for brunch, just as it starts to rain heavily, and stops just as I leave (how often does that happen!). The path into Christchurch is easygoing, made more so by the open estate paths at Highcliffe. I am too early for the Mudeford Ferry, so walk into Christchurch for another cheap Travelodge before continuing to Swanage after exploring Hengistbury Head. It is a long promenade walk through Boscombe and Bournemouth, counting the highest beach hut numbers I have seen. It is warm enough for shorts and the walking easy, other than to avoid the diggers clearing sand from Storm Eunice. It is £1 for the Sandbanks Ferry and a short walk to Studland. I consider booking in for a sauna at a mobile beach hut style hut before walking to Old Harry’s Rocks to just discern the Needles I had walked 2-days before. The hostel at Swanage is cosy and friendly and I will need a rest as tomorrow the walking will become more strenuous.
I timed my departure at Chichester to schedule the arrival at the Lulworth Ranges for the weekend. The walk to St. Aldheim’s Head is muddy but compensated for by the tremendous coastal vista ahead. There is no doubt I am on the SWCP now and walking it for the second time in the opposite direction. As I study the map I search for any place name ending in combe, for this signals a seriously steep descent and ascent, which has woken my legs from a flatland slumber. Even as I reach the oil rig at Kimmeridge and slide through the open gate on to the military ranges. Now it is severe walking and stunning coastal landscapes. A tall ship anchors in Worbarrow Bay, and for a moment I am transported back to the 18th Century, the view would have been identical. It is busy with walkers, and one team of ultra-runners who are researching the route for an upcoming race. I walk with them for a while to exchange intelligence on landslips and diversions. I am exhausted but exhilarated to reach Lulworth Cove and camp at Durdle Door. The easterly still has a freezing cold bite, but I sleep well after a good meal to restore the fuel used on a 22-mile tough day.
The wind still cuts through my jacket, but at least it is a tailwind. The Sunday 10k runners at Weymouth struggle against the headwind and I am glad of shelter at a chippy for lunch. The early start rewards with people free views of Durdle Door and walker free paths. I can take it easy to Portland and my hostel for 2-days. It is a pleasure to walk pack free around Portland in a fast 2.5 hours and on to Abbotsbury, and easy 23-mile day, other than for deep mud around the firing ranges at Charlestown. I catch the Coastal X.53 service back to Weymouth and a local bus to the hostel, before returning to walk to Lyme Regis, along sections of Chesil Beach where it is impossible to avoid the pebbles. The chuff-chuff through the stones drains your legs of energy and it is a delight to reach firmer paths at Burton Bradstock, and on to West Bay for lunch, before the ascents of Thorncombe Beacon and Golden Cap, past recent cliff falls at Seatown. I have the luck of low tide at Charmouth to walk the beach to Lyme Regis, to the sound of enthusiastic fossickers, tapping rocks with their hammers in the hope of finding perfectly preserved ammonites within.
I spend a lonely 3 hours walking through The Undercliff the next morning, a dream-like wild landscape with unusual flora. The birdsong is intense at 7AM, with tunes I do not recognise. I see Roe Deer ahead and herd them along the path for a while. The 6-mile lonely pathway is almost a spiritual experience before you enter Seaton through a golf course. The afternoon is spent climbing through more combes to Sidmouth, more severe than the map suggests. I am happy to rest in an old fashioned hotel for the night before a gentle day into Exmouth to meet a friend who will put me up for the night in Exeter. The Starcross Ferry is not running, so I catch a train to Starcross Station, where the ferry would terminate and spend a wet morning walking through a torrent of a south-westerly gale at high tide. I have to take the high route to Exmouth, but can just get through the Sprey Point (aptly named). It is not something I would repeat as the waves smash into the seawall and drench train and walker alike. The ferry at Teignmouth is not running and I decide to bail out and catch a train home. There is a sequence of ferry services beyond Salcombe will slow progress and I am happy with the distance covered. I can return in April/May – a perfect time to enter Cornwall and follow the SWCP to Minehead and beyond. 39-days done.
Read about my other adventures along the National Trails.
Tales from the Big Trails, in print on 2nd September 2021, available now for pre-order from Vertebrate Publishing. Featuring all 15 National Trails in England and Wales, and the 4 designated long-distance Scotland’s Great Trails. This is the story of the people I meet, the landscapes and coastal scenery and the sheer joy of walking these iconic long-distance routes in the UK. Click on a link below for a copy.