Looe to Poole
Three trains and a bus get me back to Looe after a few days break. Everyone seems dour on an overcast day in town and out towards to Seaton. Rain develops and after a few miles I settle into a B&B and start to plan the last section, trying to time my arrival into Lulworth Cove for the opening of the Army Ranges. That’s 10 days away, but I have a more immediate problem – a sequence of estuaries crossings where one missed ferry will result in major delay. First of all, I walk through Plymouth, a historic cityscape, with grand views across The Sound and The Breakwater and marks the entry back into Devon, to a cosy B&B in Wembury.
The following day I have to cross 3 successive river estuaries, The Yealm, Erme and Avon. The first is quickly dispatched, but the second requires a taxi, as the tide is in. I have to march quickly for the third past Bigbury-On-Sea and Burgh Island. The ferryman sees me running down the hill, my walking poles waving away, and kindly waits for me. He is a big down-shifter, having been an executive in a large corporate. He is now clearly a relaxed and easy going character, recommending the Hope & Anchor at Hope Cove. I arrive later for a deserved pint.
Now I have plenty of slack in my schedule and can relax too. The weather has not improved, but I am happy walking in the rain, as long as I stay warm. 23 miles today into Slapton via Salcombe. This section has more dramatic coastal cliffs, especially at Gammon Head and Start Point. Hard rough going, but very rewarding. I meet up with Andy at a excellent chippy in Slapton Sands, he has walked the same that day, although I’m an hour faster on time. I must be really fit now, daily average mileages are up and I do not feel as weiry each evening. Gorgeous character B&B with chatty landlady in Slapton, plus an excellent pint and light meal at The Tower.
I walk along Slapton Sands the next morning, reflecting on the WWII tragedy that unfolded there in 1942 as preparations were made for D-Day. 749 servicemen lost their lives in tragic circumstances. Dartmouth arrives soon, and I cross the ferry for a section of tough walking into Brixham. Berry Head reveals another coastal vista to complete. It is Sunday tomorrow and I am expecting even tougher walking through crowds of holidaymakers in Paignton and Torquay.
My luck is up. It is raining heavily and no one is about, so I have the beach and coast path to myself. Everyone is indoors, peering out through their net curtained B&B’s at the weather. Only a few brave dog walkers are about, cleaning up their doings. The path is clear and the sun comes out as I stop at a nice cafe to dry out. Then on to Teignmouth, where I meet Rebecca, who is walking the SWCP and has stopped for a cigarette. Her matches are damp, but I cannot help. She is tearful, but I daren’t ask why, as she is clearly alone in her thoughts. Hope she was ok. I cross by ferry into town to stay at a B&B run by a Danish Morris dancer, for a change.
Back into shorts, the sun is out. I walk alongside the railway line, sometimes buried in the cliffs, sometimes exposed to the sea. I reach Dawlish and then to Starcross, where I can sneak lunch before catching the ferry to Exmouth. Budleigh Salterton is a gem of a town, nice cafe, relaxing. I take it easier into Sidmouth, in no particular hurry, for a good B&B and lovely Indian Vegetarian Restaurant.
Now I am on the UNESCO jurassic/heritage coast, as if there is a difference to what I have been walking for weeks. The MSC Napoli, a container ship undergoing salvage can be clearly seen from the coast path. Early in the year you could salvage a free motorbike from the washed up containers. The walking is strenuous, more so than the guide book suggests, as I reach Branscombe and the wonderfully named village of Beer. I then enter the surreal and mysterious world of the Undercliff as I leave Axmouth, a stretch of landslip leading into Lyme Regis with no escape route for 6 miles. The going is heavy through the jungle like woodland, like a scene from Lord of the Rings, but I reach Lyme Regis to another B&B, they seem to be getting more expensive as I travel east.
The next section of coast is very familiar to me, as I often camp in this area. Day walks then seem strenuous, but I seem to eat up the coast path at a rate I do not recognise. I reach Golden Cap to views along the length of Chesil Beach and Portland, my destination tomorrow. The Dorset coast is wonderful and the going easy, unless you choose to take the pebble beach optional routes underneath the dangerous cliffs. I meet a backpacker as I enter Abbotsbury. He is planning to walk the coast of England and this is Day 5! He is carrying a mountain of gear and even has a frontpack to complement what looks like an 80 litre backpack! Andy, I am sure you lightened your load.
Another cosy B&B before setting out for Portland, bypassing the Swannery. I am skipping the optional inland route for a walk around the Isle of Portland, which was only recently designated as part of the SWCP. This is an excellent days walking to the lighthouses on the southern most tip through the Portland Stone quarries. The Trinity House marker dated 1844 is a great place to stop and watch the wind opposing the tides to create huge standing waves. Views across Weymouth Bay from the prison are superb as I descend to the YHA, full of cheapskates catching the Weymouth Ferry to France the next day. I am propositioned by a buxom lady just as I arrive, which makes me check I have the correct address.
Breakfast is good and I chat to a brummie couple. His wife repeats everything he says verbatim, which is an amusing habit. A very amusing habit. Weymouth is quiet in the morning sunshine as a healthy Force 5 has the windsurfers out in droves. Durdle Door and the classic Lulworth Cove come into view. Time to relax and enjoy the splendid geological features before arriving too early at the YHA. Quite a few walkers turn up that evening and there is a nice buzz in the kitchen and lounge. We exchange walking stories and I meet the Hart Road Runners, a group who have been on annual adventures together for 27 years.
I am up early to arrive at exactly the right time for the Army Range to open. It has been closed for quite a while for exercises, so I am sure to be one of the first to walk the full section that month, or possibly that year. The Army Landrover is just disappearing down the road as I arrive, having pulled down the red flag, so I set off through the ranges and a series of stunning roller-coastal hills. This is my last full day of walking and my fitness levels are high as I yomp up and down the steep slopes towards Kimmeridge. The ranges are full of wildlife, particularly red deer, in contrast to the burnt out tanks and target wreckage. I stop briefly for lunch at St Aldhelm’s Head, before arriving in Swanage 7 hours later. What a day, even The Square and Compass pub in Worth Matravers couldn’t divert me from the pleasure and joy of approaching the finish.
A late and lazy breakfast and a chance to buy a few presents for the family, before setting out on the last 7 miles to South Haven Point. The B&B owners are into walking and running and share my infectious enthusiasm for the SWCP. The view from Ballard Down, to the finish along Studland Bay makes me want to stop and turn around. I don’t want this to end. After a last cafe, I dawdle along the beach to be joined again by the Hart Bay Runners, who have taken a different route from Lulworth Cove. We walk together to the final marker near the Sandbanks Ferry where they congratulate me on my achievement and take a few photographs. We all catch the bus and train, where they disembark at Basingstoke.
I cannot believe I have walked 630 miles and almost 1.5 million steps, in 37 days. I am a happy as can be as I start to reflect on the last 6 weeks. This is going to take a while to sink in. Even today, I recall and reflect on events 7½ years ago. It seems that walking pace fully absorbs experience.