Does the traveller choose the road, or does the road choose the traveller?

29/01/2017 – Studland to Swanage

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Click for a 3D map of today’s walk on laptop or desktop, use the Ctrl key to manipulate the map and scroll to zoom in or out.

I drove from my home to the ferry on Studland, where I know there’s a really good car park, on a rather cold January morning. The weather promised to be clear and unsurprisingly, the roads were really quiet on this Sunday morning. I decided to take the main road in since it was fairly dark still and I know I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the drive at this early time before sunrise. When I reached the junction to Studland just before Corfe Castle I decided to turn left, as opposed to driving on to Swanage and then to Studland from there. Both of these routes are equally pleasant, but the views on the direct route are just stunning and I had planned to go back over Swanage at the end of the walk. The road was completely clear, apart from the odd car coming towards me. The sun had started to really light up the sky by the time I got to the top of the hill and the large lay-by from where you can see all of Poole and Bournemouth, even to Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight in the distance. Poole harbour appeared like a large puddle in between the city itself and the nature reserve close to where I was, with Brownsea Island in the middle. Poole harbour is so large that from this point, you would be excused for thinking that the Purbecks really are an island, cut off from the mainland of Dorset. The countryside in between where I was and the expanse of water in the distance looked very inviting to walk in itself, but I already had plans for the day, so decided to set off again, direction ferry.

The last part of the road made a beeline for the ferry like it had given up on the fun it had before and wanted to get straight to its destination in the shortest time possible. The road was surprisingly busy this early, and quite a few cars were parked up along the roadside already. The land on both sides got less and less expansive until there was a narrow strip of heath left on either side, quickly dropping off onto a narrow strip of beach and then the expanse of water. Poole harbour estuary on the left and the channel on the right, with and expanse of gorse and dunes offering a temporary reprieve from the water. I decided to park in the main National Trust carpark on the right just before I would be committed to taking the ferry.

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After changing into my walking boots and taking my backpack out of the car I walked towards the beach across the long wooden bridge, not sure of where the actual official start of the coast path would be. I decided it would need to be as close to the ferry as possible. The tide was out so I had plenty of hard sand to walk on, rather than the soft sand further up the beach and in the dunes. It did mean I had to find my way through a myriad of puddles and channels where the sea had left some of its water, as if to make sure to come back to pick it up again. I eventually found the first road mark and the large metal sculpture that marked the end point of the South West Coast Path, which for me would be the beginning. I’m not sure why you are meant to start the other way round, but there it is. The ferry was gobbling up a double decker bus and another line of cars that had formed while I was parking up and getting ready to start my adventure. By the time I had looked around and had started thinking about whether to walk along the beach or along the dunes, it had headed off to the other side of the narrow entrance to Poole harbour, like a grumpy employee made to do the same boring task all day. The chain it uses to get across clanging in the early morning air like a manacle it could never break free from.

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I chose to walk along the beach, as that would give me the more interesting experience. It would also be easier to walk on now the tide was out. I turned around and started to navigate my way back through the warren of puddles and channels to where I had come out of the dunes to get to the starting point. There’s no point in not seeing the official start, even if it means walking the same stretch twice. After a short while I decided to head off into the dunes because the beach path proved more challenging than I had anticipated. I reached a higher point and could see my destination protruding out into the sea with Old Harry Rock standing proud and away from the mainland. The dune path turned out to be a diversion in more than one way as I would have to walk along the beach long enough later on. My dune path was more and more difficult to follow, so I descended back onto the beach where the fine sand was more difficult to walk on, but far easier to navigate. People had warned me there was a nudist stretch of beach, but at this time of the year there would be no chance I would come across anyone bold, or stupid enough to have a picnic in the nude. So I passed the sign without hesitation.

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By now, the sea seemed to come in again, so the strip of hard sand had got a bit narrower. The beach was making a wide arch to prepare for turning sharply left and growing into a hill with cliffs a couple of miles on. I came across hardly anyone, apart from a couple of dog walkers. The wind was strong enough to be fairly brisk but not so strong as to make the walk unenjoyable. The sun was warming me up nicely but you could tell it wasn’t mid-summer. The few rising waves would catch the sunlight reflecting back a gorgeous shade of jade topped off with the wide crests of frenzy.

Coming to the end of the beach, there was another car park and more people and dogs darting along the winter beach. Passing the deserted beach huts I came across the car park entrance, the size of which indicated how busy this beach would be in the summer. Looking back it was easy to see how far I’d come already and the curve of the beach looked even more exaggerated, like the tip of it was trying to reach out to Old Harry, from this side. The beach was getting really narrow and I could see a boat ramp in the distance. I planned to walk up it and then make my way up on the hill on the left. I hadn’t taken account of the rising tide however and could just about make it across without a wave soaking my socks. After that it was easy to find a way up and forward. Climbing up I gradually gained a better view of the path ahead of me onto the Studland peninsula.

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After a short climb and very enjoyable walk I came across the bunker where Churchill and top military brass from the US and the UK oversaw the preparations for the D day landings. This is where the tanks were tested that were to land on French beaches from landing craft. There is a very interesting information board where you can read up on the story of what happened and it’s well worthwhile going through the bunker itself and have the same view of the bay. The entrance is very, very narrow however and one can only wonder how Churchill made his way in and out of this structure. I spent a couple of minutes at the memorial, where someone had put two wreaths of poppies not too long ago. It’s easy to be full of admiration for what those people in the second world war went through and the courage they showed, but at the same time I felt a sadness on why this had to happen and how humanity could be so inhumane as to cause a lot of misery through war and concentration camps. Hitler and his cronies have a lot to answer for and let’s hope this doesn’t happen again, though I realise it’s going on all over the world as we speak.

I continued my way up the path and past a rather large country house with a funny sign on the gate. My end destination looked really close now and I could clearly see the Isle of Wight in the distance. I knew I had a way to go still before I reached the peninsula through. Eventually the path lead away from the sea and turned into a dirt road which was easy to pass. I passed through the gate at the end and turned left and down to meet the main road. I continued on past the public toilets and then turned left again up the steeper path that lead up to the rocky outcrop I was aiming for. The walk lead me through a forested area and then past fields on the right, where scouts had pitched their tents. The camp looked abandoned, they must have headed off to some activity already. With the several car parks I had left behind and from which people had headed off on the same path, the walk gradually got busier. This is the first really nice day since long and one could be mistaken for thinking it was April or May already, if it wasn’t for the lack of leaves on the trees. Gradually the path opened up and got less steep, but I was aware that at the same time, the cliffs were gradually closing in on the left. What had looked like a gentle hill in the distance now turned out to be a cliff path with a sheer drop and stunning views if you only diverged from the path a little bit. The path itself is completely safe, though, but there are signs to be careful to let your dog off the lead as some dogs have been known not to notice the cliff side and jump over!

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Finally I reached Old Harry Rocks which offered breath taking views all around. Some of the young people took the risk of walking right out to the end, but I decided it wasn’t worth the risk. A couple of years ago I had come here by kayak and this offered a very different perspective from up above. You couldn’t see the different caves that had been hewn out of the cliff at sea level by the battering salty water over the years and centuries and it’s amazing how something looks completely different once you change your perspective. The top of the cliffs is a wide expanse of meadow with wilder low shrubs behind it and it didn’t feel crowded at all, but there were a lot of people enjoying the spectacle up there. I could feel the warm sun on my skin and spent quite a bit of time taking it all in and enjoying this rare treat in what is usually a cold January. It was still early and I decided to head off towards Swanage, in spite of having some misgivings as to whether I would be able to get there. I thought I’d turn back if it got too late or too difficult and I would set off from Swanage on a much shorter walk next time. I just wanted to make the most of today. I set off on the slow climb towards Swanage before the path splits and dips steeply to meet the town below. I took the path left of the fence, which got narrower as I went along, but it was far less busy than the main path. It follows along the top of the cliff for a while and runs parallel to the main path. This is the official South West Coast Path but it’s just as well possible to follow everyone else and then turn left later on. After a while the path is squeezed between gorse and the cliffs on the left and fields on the right, descending down steeply in a slow zig zag, like it was laid by someone after a drunken Saturday evening out. The walk itself was very enjoyable but I wasn’t looking forward to climbing all the way up again on the way back.

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Once down I crossed a field of grass with benches on it, offering a splendid view out over the bay. You can imagine this being a picnic meadow in warmer times. I left the field behind and entered the housing estate, finding my way out again towards Swanage Beach. The road out of the estate feels a bit strange, like you’re encroaching on people’s private space, but it’s well marked. I finally reached Swanage beach, which, given that the weather was more spring like than winter weary, was quite crowded. I had a lovely picnic on the beach and a good rest, making the most of this wonderful day.

After lunch I walked along the beach towards some rocks and steps I had seen on my way down. I found where I needed to go without difficulty and the decision to take a different route had been a good one. The road back had to be more or less the same as the road out, there wasn’t much option, and any diversion was welcome. The steps lead up through a mini gorge and through some low trees. It was no doubt cut out by a small river. After five minutes or so I met the road I had passed through on earlier that day. I made my way back up the steep path, taking occasional rests as and when I needed to. On the way I met two runners. I really don’t know how they do it.

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The walk back to Old Harry Rocks offered me a reverse perspective so returning the same way looked more of a blessing than a curse. With it being later in the day there were far more people up on the cliff path now, so I decided to skirt the top of the field along the fence on the left, meeting only a couple of friendly dog walkers. I eventually found the passage through the fence I was looking for an followed the path through a grove, which in spring would be full of wild garlic and wild flowers. I eventually reached Studland Beach again, which was now full of people, and I mean full. Everyone in the area seemed to have made their way there. I could clearly see all the way back to where I had set off in the morning and I slowly edged my way closer to the car park. I realised more than ever that I would be doing the coastal path twice as I had to get back to my car every time. The way back initially seemed very long, but turned out to pass quickly. Because of the number of walkers it was the less enjoyable part of my walk. I reached my car again, tired but very satisfied about what I had achieved on my first day walking the coastal path and the lovely day I had. I also had made it a lot further than I initially had intended.

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