In case it’s not obvious from my blog I’m one of life’s planners. For me, planning a holiday is half the fun; I like to know where I’m going and what I’m going to do when I’m there. I’m not so good with spontaneity. But sometimes I manage to ditch the plan.
Our trip to Chesil beach was one such occasion. My original intention was to visit Portland Bill lighthouse on the Isle of Portland then go for a walk on Chesil beach.
We duly arrived at the lighthouse only to find a two hour wait for the next tour. Our stomachs were already rumbling and we hadn’t bought any food with us (sometimes I forget to plan the obvious things). I knew that hanging around wouldn’t be a popular choice. Instead we settled on a quick circuit of the lighthouse before retreating to a local cafe for lunch.
But what to do after lunch? I’d seen what appeared to be a mini-Stonehenge standing in the middle of a roundabout when we’d driven through Portland Heights previously. A quick Internet search revealed the existence of Tout Quarry, a sculpture park, so we hopped in the car and headed back the way we’d come.
We ended up parking near the Olympic Rings viewpoint and braving the main road in our attempt to access the quarry. There is, I discovered later, dedicated parking on a nearby industrial estate but I missed any signs pointing this out. Which is rather indicative of the site in general. It’s low key approach to attracting visitors suited me just fine.
Tout Quarry sculpture park began in 1983 in an abandoned stone quarry. Portland stone is still quarried in other parts of the island; it’s perfect for carving and has been used in many grand buildings, including St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace.
Although we found an information board detailing the sculptures we were either really bad at finding them or they’ve changed since the board was installed. We ended up just wandering the paths and clambering over rocks looking for works of art. There are 70+ sculptures to find, ranging from butterflies to a huge drinking bowl to a hearth; there’s even an Antony Gormley creation.
The quarry runs close to the cliff edge. ‘Tout’ actually means lookout, an understatement of the fabulous coastal views from the edge of the quarry.
Tout Quarry is also a nature reserve. The only other person we saw was a butterfly spotter who appeared oblivious to the sculptures. Fortunately it was the perfect day for butterflies.
If you’re visiting Tout Quarry with young children you’ll need to keep a close eye on them. There are plenty of drops and edges to keep back from. But for everyone else it’s great fun!
From the Olympic Rings viewpoint on Portland we’d had a birds-eye view of Chesil Beach. It’s a long spit of shingle stretching from Portland Island to West Bay; the saltwater Fleet Lagoon separating the beach from the mainland.
Chesil Beach (or tombolo, as I later found out), was exactly how I imagined. Pebbles as far as the eye can see. Eighteen miles of them.
Walking along the shingle of Chesil Beach was one of my UK bucket list challenges. At one point I’d considered walking the full distance. What a mad thought. It was hard enough walking a few hundred metres from the Visitor Centre to the beach (and some of that was on a boardwalk). I’m so glad I realised it was a tad ambitious!
Instead we just sat on the beach enjoying the sunshine and listening to the sound of pebbles being washed by the sea. It’s not advisable to swim or even paddle as the bank shelves deeply into the sea and there’s a strong undertow. Despite this the beach was busy with holidaymakers and fishermen.
We didn’t stay long. Mainly because we’d only put two hours on our car parking ticket. And we’d already spent rather a lot of that time in the visitor centre cafe!
Tout Quarry is free to visit and always open.
Access to some parts of Chesil Beach is restricted, primarily due to bird nesting sites. We parked in the Pay & Display next to the Chesil beach visitor centre and cafe (open daily).
A couple of years ago we visited the ghost village of Imber which was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence in the Second World War. Tyneham is a similarly abandoned village, taken over by the military in 1943 and used as a training ground for the D-Day landings. The Army compulsorily purchased the land after the war and its 225 residents were never allowed to return.
Although the Army still own the land the village and range walks are open to the public most weekends and holidays. We combined a visit to Tyneham with a walk to Worbarrow Bay.
Whilst there are obvious similarities between Tyneham and Imber there are differences too. Although the houses have succumbed to nature the school and farm house have been restored at Tyneham. The village is peaceful and no longer used for active training, unlike Imber where Army training continues.
We wandered around the ruined houses, stopping to read the poignant display boards with their stories and photographs of the families who once lived there.
The recreated schoolroom harked back to a different era. There’s a nature table and exercise books, filled with records of flower and butterfly sightings. Not a fronted adverbial anywhere, how times have changed.
The best part of the day was the walk up to Gad Cliff and along the South West coast path.
Leaving Tyneham we followed the yellow posts that mark a safe route through the firing ranges. There are plenty of signs telling visitors not to pick things up off the ground; a timely reminder that this is still a live firing area.
You almost forget how close you are to the sea. That was until I reached the top of the hill and realised I was standing on the edge of a cliff. The coastal views are incredible but it’s hard to ignore the Danger signs on either side of path. One warning of cliffs, the other of a military firing range!
Pondfield Cove and Worbarrow Trout
The path dropped steeply down to Pondfield Cove, its small stony beach tucked into the promontory of Worbarrow Tout.
We walked onto the beach past several concrete structures. I later found out these were tank barriers, constructed in World War II to make it difficult for invaders to leave the beach.
I’m not sure why anyone would want to leave it. I could almost imagine I was on a Greek beach. Blue skies, crystal clear waters and sun, it was almost perfect. Pity there wasn’t a taverna!
We eventually dragged ourselves the short distance from Pondfield Cove over to the shingle beach of Worbarrow Bay. Sea mist rolled in over the cliffs, an unexpected sight on such a warm and sunny day.
There were a few people sunbathing and picnicking on the beach, but nothing like the numbers we experienced at Durdle Door later that afternoon.
I couldn’t resist a paddle out to a large rock a few feet offshore. The water was freezing! Yet further down the beach a couple of brave souls were swimming.
I’d originally planned to walk along the beach and up to Flower’s Barrow hill fort before returning to Tyneham. However heat and hunger got the better of us so we cut short our route. Instead we took the direct path back to Tyneham, passing lots of families heading in the opposite direction. From our track we could see the rusty shells of military vehicles littering the hillside, an indicator that it’s not always a peaceful place to visit. Fortunately we’d had a great morning; particularly as I managed to tick off another place on my UK bucket list!
Check the Tyneham website for opening dates before you visit. It’s free to visit the village and beach, car parking costs £2. There are no shops or refreshment facilities.
Back in January I picked up Country Walking’s guide to Long Distance Paths. It was the perfect antidote to a wet New Year’s Day. I’ve always had vague plans to walk a long distance path but the logistics and lack of spare time put me off. However when I realised we could walk the 100 mile South Downs Way in four weekend stages I immediately started planning.
Fast forward three months and we’ve completed the first two days. How did we get on?
Winchester to Petersfield by bus
Most people start their walk in Winchester and head east, or in Eastbourne and head west. We did a bit of both due to the lack of public transport on Sunday. After parking in Winchester we caught the bus to Petersfield and then walked back to the city.
The downside? The number 67 bus takes 1 hour 20 minutes to reach Petersfield; twice the time it took us to drive to Winchester. At least we had an in-depth tour of the local villages en route!
Petersfield to Buriton (2.5 miles)
From the bus stop in Petersfield’s town square it’s a couple of miles to the South Downs Way (SDW) at Buriton.
I didn’t have a map for the walk to Buriton, relying instead on information I’d screenshot from the web. Fortunately it was a straightforward route following another long distance path, The Hangers Way. Or at least I thought it was. Turns out we didn’t end up on this at all but somehow took another route to the same destination. Don’t tell the family!
Buriton is a picture perfect English village with a 12th Century church, two pubs and a duck pond full of huge fish. It would have been lovely to sit beside the pond but time was already against us. We’ll be starting at Buriton when we walk the second stage so maybe next time.
South Downs Way: Day 1 – Buriton to Exton (12 miles)
From Buriton we picked up the trail into the wooded Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Despite lots of trail options it’s impossible to get lost as there are SDW signposts every 100m or so. Maybe they heard I was navigating?
The woods were busy with walkers, cyclists and a horse riding event. My son, who isn’t keen on horses, was some way back chatting (well, bickering) with big sister. Imagine his horror when several horses appeared, cantering along the path behind him. Big sister stepped up onto the bank out of their way. However he decided to run and catch up with us! I can still see the look of terror on his face as he sprinted towards us, closely followed by three horses. Fortunately they passed without incident but he’s even less of a fan of horses now.
By now the combination of our drive, bus journey and walk to join the South Downs Way meant it was already lunchtime. We’d bought a picnic which we supplemented with drinks from the conveniently located visitor centre cafe.
After lunch we crossed under the A3 and headed to the summit of Butser Hill, the highest point on the South Downs Way. We last visited Butser Hill several years ago when we watched egg rolling on an Easter Monday.
As we climbed the chalk hill towards the radio masts on top there were great views back of the A3. Supposedly of the Isle of Wight too, but I could only make out the sea. And traffic.
Summit ticked, we followed a quiet road and track for a couple of miles along a broad ridge with views across the Meon valley.
It wasn’t long since our earlier coffee break but I’d already planned afternoon coffee at the Beech Cafe, part of the Sustainability Centre. There’s hostel accommodation here too; albeit not the most aesthetically pleasing. This, in part, is because the site was once home to HMS Mercury, the Royal Naval Communications and Navigation School.
We walked on, through the ripening oilseed rape fields. At one point there were rain clouds in all directions except the way we were walking. Not just any rain clouds either. Torrential downpour clouds.
They looked particularly ominous as we neared Meon Springs fly fishery. It was a beautiful spot, complete with refreshment shed, but even I couldn’t justify another break.
Instead we took the uphill path towards Old Winchester Hill. I was keen to visit this Iron Age fort as it’s on my UK bucket list. So why was I underwhelmed? Perhaps it was the threatening clouds or the knowledge it was already 5pm and we still had a couple of miles to walk; we didn’t hang around. Maybe one day we’ll return and explore at leisure.
We upped our pace off the hill, trying to outwalk the rain. This was successful but meant there was no time to enjoy the trail which follows a pretty stream into Exton. Instead, relief as we reached the village knowing our first day was complete.
Overnight at Corhampton Lane Farm B&B
Corhampton Lane Farm B&B was exactly what we needed at the end of our walk.
The B&B is located in Corhampton which is slightly off route but the owner, Suzanne, picked us up from Exton.
As we walked into the house Suzanne pointed out a lemon drizzle cake for us to help ourselves to. We were eating out in less than an hour so I actually bypassed the cake. Completely out of character I know. Instead we sufficed ourselves with hot drinks.
Our family room was generously sized with its own private bathroom. Most importantly, from the kids perspective, it had Kit Kats on the tea tray and Wi-Fi!
Dinner at The Shoe Inn, Exton
I’d tried to book a table at the local pub, The Shoe Inn, earlier in the week only to be told it was fully booked. Thankfully Suzanne was one step ahead and had already reserved us a table. Phew! Even better, she kindly dropped us in and picked us up from the pub later that evening.
The food was excellent. I chose spaghetti with wild garlic, goats cheese and pesto whilst my other half opted for a pie. The kids ate from the children’s menu as the portions were huge. Our desserts included panna cotta, ice creams and crumble, albeit this was slightly let down by the incredibly sweet fruit.
South Downs Way: Day 2 – Exton to Winchester (12 miles)
After a good night’s sleep we fuelled up with breakfast. Once again Suzanne drove us back, this time to the local village shop so we could buy snacks for the walk ahead.
Shortly after leaving Exton we tackled the main climb of the day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we walked to the summit of Beacon Hill.
A little further along we found the first bluebells of spring; pretty impressive for the start of April.
We stopped for a late morning drink at The Milburys Pub. I wasn’t impressed with the service; smiles and pleasantries were in short supply but it was lovely to sit outside in the sun.
Leaving the pub behind we walked for another couple of miles before stopping next to an old barn for lunch.
Afterwards we walked over the wide open Gander Down. This was my favourite part of the second day despite it coinciding with my son having a grumpy moment (or two).
This section of the SDW was by far the busiest. I hadn’t fully appreciated the SDW is also a bridleway (with some diversions). Cyclists easily outnumbered walkers. That was until we passed a huge group of scouts and cubs on an afternoon hike.
The natural amphitheatre of Cheesefoot Head is a couple of miles from Winchester. I’d hoped to find an ice-cream van in the car park but no such luck. Cheesefoot Head is probably most famous as the location where General Eisenhower addressed the American troops before D-Day. Although I prefer its alternative claim to fame as a crop circle location.
Arriving into Winchester, via a footbridge over the M3, was an anti-climax. It’s usually the start or finish of the SDW but for us it was just the end of the second day. Although it was the perfect weather for a celebratory ice cream before our drive home.
How did the kids do?
A couple of people have asked how the kids coped with the walk. As they’re 14 and 12 years old they’re both capable of walking the distance, particularly as we already walk a fair amount anyway.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Our feet were hurting at the end of the second day and the last couple of miles were hard-going for all of us. We walked a total of 15 miles on day one (or 42,566 steps according to my son’s Fitbit). Day two felt longer although it wasn’t. I don’t think we’d have coped well with a third continuous day of walking.
In addition to sore feet there were also sore shoulders. I’d overseen the rucksack packing but a few extras were added to my daughter’s bag. And, being a teenager, she wasn’t going to listen when we suggested taking things out!
As always, snacks and brief stops worked wonders for all of us.
We used the Cicerone guide ‘Walking the South Downs Way’ as it describes the trail both west to east and east to west. It includes OS maps of the trail but have a back up plan if you need to walk off trail e.g. for public transport or accommodation.
Woo hoo, I’ve completed the first of my British bucket list challenges, a walk to the top of Box Hill in Surrey. At 224m Box Hill would be a mere pimple if it was in the Lake District but down in this part of southern England it’s one of the higher hills.
The first part of the walk, alongside the busy A24 dual carriageway, wasn’t the tranquil stroll I hoped for. However it was a necessary evil to get us from the railway station to the foot of Box Hill.
Fortunately, as soon as we stepped off the main road we were away from the traffic noise and fumes. Instead we faced a steady climb uphill, the wet chalk underfoot making for a gooey path. We stopped a couple of times, looking out across Denbies Wine Estate, the largest vineyard in England. The estate attracts around 300,000 visitors per year with a visitor centre, cinema, restaurant and art gallery all appearing to contribute to the wine making experience.
Further on the hill levelled out and we were able to see cyclists tackling the famous Zig Zag Road to the top of Box Hill. This hill climb has been popular since the 1880s but achieved widespread fame in the 2012 Olympics cycling road race events. Given its proximity to London its a cyclist’s mecca, and particularly appeals to a certain cycling demographic.
National Trust cafe and visitor centre
We reached the top of the hill pretty quickly. At which point I realised how busy the Country Park gets. Although most people seem to drive to the top and then go for a walk rather than tackle the hill from the bottom. I’m sure that’s cheating!
I can understand why though as this is where the visitor facilities are located; toilets, information kiosk and of course a cafe. Albeit one that was heaving with small children and middle aged men in tight cycling gear. We’d bought a picnic with us but I couldn’t resist sharing a brownie with the children. Followed by a flapjack. Both very tasty. As was the picnic that followed.
Natural Play Trail
After lunch we wandered over to the Natural Play Trail. Whilst the kids have grown out of more traditional playgrounds the National Trust encourages everyone, not just youngsters, to enjoy its Natural Play Trail. Think stepping stones, balancing logs and trees to climb. Not that I saw any adults climbing trees.
The kids enjoyed it for about five minutes. Until my son slipped and flew, rather spectacularly, backwards off a tree trunk. Luckily he only had his pride, mud and a sore shoulder to deal with. The perils of natural play!
With the playground out of favour we continued with the walk, heading towards Salomons Memorial.
Salomons Memorial isn’t the highest point on Box Hill but its viewing platform is a target for most visitors. The view stretches more than 20 miles southwards and commemorates the donation of Box Hill by Leopold Salomons (or possibly Salomon, depending on whether you trust Wikipedia or the National Trust).
Whilst I enjoyed the view the kids had a mad five minutes, chasing each other up and down the steep grassy slope. When they rejoined me we followed the route down off the hill through some wonderfully shaped trees. I’m glad we chose to descend this way. The 275 steps made it seem a lot steeper than the route up.
Down at the bottom we reached one of the highlights, stepping stones across the River Mole. I smiled when I read the stones were temporarily removed in World War II as an anti-invasion strategy. If an invading army was deterred by the lack of a few stepping stones I doubt they’d get far anyway!
Once safely over the river we rejoined the A24, following the traffic into Dorking. Box Hill might not be the most exciting or adventurous option on my bucket list but it’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for a while. A good choice to complete as my first challenge. Now, which one next?
Box Hill is open to the public from dawn to dusk. The National Trust cafe, shop and discovery zone are usually open from 10am-4pm except Christmas Day. Check the National Trust website for full opening details and links to walks.