Preparing for the West Highland Way or Four Go Down to Dorset

The title of this post may sound a bit strange given that the West Highland Way is in the northern half of bonnie Scotland and Dorset is almost as far south as you can go in England. All will be explained by starting even further away in Turkey. Why not?

Our favourite activity when we are in Kalkan is going out with the walking enthusiasts and exploring the mountain and coastal trails of Lykia. As I have said in earlier posts, apart from the stunning views, the best thing about our walks is the people we walk with. The conversations cover every subject: dealing with Turkish builders; life as an expat; and, where else do we like walking. It was talking about the latter with two good friends that the idea arose of walking the West Highland Way, a trail of nearly 100 miles through the Highlands of Scotland. The idea slowly moved from a pipe-dream to a serious project. Dates were set and detailed planning commenced.

Back in the UK we received a message from our friends saying that they would be staying near where we live and wondered if we could meet. So we arranged to meet for lunch in the White Cross, an old pub on the River Thames in Richmond. The White Cross has one special feature. At high tide the forecourt gets flooded and, if you have the misfortune to be inside when the tide comes up, you can get trapped inside for hours. On the day in question the tide was well out so we could choose our arrival and departure times at will.

We arrived more or less on time, climbed the stairs to the entrance and turned into one of the saloons. And there a sorry sight greeted us. At first sight the scene was dominated by a foot bound up in a large white plaster arrangement. Then we realised it was being worn by our friend and he called it his “orthopaedic bootie”. This did not bode well for the WHW project scheduled for just a few months ahead. And so it turned out. The quacks were not able to diagnose the precise problem but the prognosis was that a prolonged period of rest could well result in a complete recovery. Time for a Plan B.

When in the UK, our friends live in Dorset a short way from the sea. It’s an area with excellent coastal walks which can be as long or as short as you like. They suggested that, all being well with the problematic foot, we should get together at the same time that we had planned to do the WHW and do a few walks together. Apart from enjoying their company and Dorset and Hampshire scenery, it would be an opportunity for us all to try out our fitness over short distances and maybe over longer stretches as well. We had a Plan B.

So at the beginning September, the day after most schools had restarted in England, we drove down to Ringwood in time for a lunchtime meeting. The weather was set fair and the roads were quiet. What more could we ask for. Over lunch we had a lot of catching up to do about our various summer adventures. In their case it was a trip to Denmark to visit friends, a meander through Germany then an extended stay at their home in the French Alps. For us it was visiting our family in Little Rock, Arkansas with a side trip to New Orleans, followed by separate visits by our American grandchildren to London and interspersed with visits to Scotland to see my centenarian mother. So we had far more to talk about than one lunch could embrace and, in any case, we had to get on with the walking.

Day 1

The plan for the afternoon was a shortish walk along the shoreline to the south of Christchurch around a headland called Hengistbury Head. The walk started at an almost deserted car park, a good omen for a peaceful walk. The path went through some sandy terrain with light scrub and then came to the bottom of a small hill with the prospect of good views out to sea. And so it turned out, with the most prominent feature being The Needles off the western end of the Isle of Wight. From the top of the hill the path turned to look inland and now we could see the almost landlocked waters of Christchurch Harbour.

These waters are separated from the sea by a narrow channel called The Run after the dramatic tidal flows that pass through between the harbour waters and the Solent. Between us and The Run was a sandy spit of land covered in holiday homes.  To call them holiday homes is a bit of an exaggeration as they are really no more than glorified beach huts, but, as we learned, beach huts that command six figure price tags. They all seem to have but one room which serves as lounge, kitchen and sleeping quarters all opening out onto a small veranda. The huts have no mains services and rely on solar panels for electricity, a communal standpipe for drinking water and three blocks that provide toilet and washroom facilities. The huts were arranged in two rows, back to back, with one row having an easterly prospect and getting the morning sun whilst the other row faces to the west and would get the sunsets. If I were ever to contemplate buying one – very unlikely – the west facing would be my choice as you have the anticipation of evening light.

We walked as far as The Run and could see exactly why it is so named. Although it might be tempting, the thought of trying to swim across the 100 yds or so gap was quickly dispelled when you looked at the speed that the water was travelling. On either side the shoreline is dominated by two large buildings both painted black. The one on the south shore that we were standing beside is now converted into holiday flats but rumour has it that it used to be a boat building yard for smugglers. Turning back we came to a beach restaurant which offered a place of rest from the “ordeal” of our beach walk. Soon we were sitting at a comfortable table with a nice westerly view.

For our return, there were two alternatives, hug the shore line of the inland waters or take a small service road that skirted the hill we had walked over on the outward trail. As the tide was quite high we decided on the road as it was possible the shoreline path might be under water for some of its length. It turned out that our fears were relatively unfounded in as far as we could see.

So our first training walk was over. We had covered about 4 miles, equivalent to about 4% of the WHW. At least we were all none the worse for wear and raring to go for the next day.

Day 2

The following day dawned bright and sunny with high temperatures forecast. The plan was to drive to Studland, an interesting journey in itself, and walk part of the Purbeck Way. The drive took us round the outskirts of Bournemouth then through one of the most expensive places in the UK, Sandbanks. It’s hard to imagine why Sandbanks ranks so high as it feels like a place that will be inundated with tourists during the summer months and the mansions are not that secluded. Sandbanks is partly on the shore of Poole Harbour, a grander version of yesterday’s Christchurch Harbour. It is big enough to have a large wooded island, Brownsea Island, the birthplace of the Boy Scout movement.

Studland is on the other side of the mouth of Poole Harbour and the crossing is achieved by a chain ferry. But this isn’t any ordinary chain ferry, it is massive. To give you an idea one of our travelling companions was a double decker bus and that didn’t stop dozens of cars, vans and bikes getting on board. The bus, incidentally was a normal service bus. I can’t think of any other bus route in the UK that uses a ferry although we have been on a long-distance bus service in Turkey that boarded a ferry to cross part of the Sea of Marmara.

Once back on shore, a drive of about 3 miles took us to the Knoll Beach National Trust car park. It was time for today’s preparation walk to begin. Our boot laces were tightened, our daypacks were checked for snacks and water supplies, and we were off, taking care to turn right along the beach as, to the left, was a long stretch of nudist beach. Ahead of us we could see a very distinctive sea cliff feature which was our first target.

The most prominent high limestone column is known as Old Harry. A much smaller, severely eroded limestone column, is known as Old Harry’s Wife. They mark the most easterly point of the world-famous Jurassic Coast. The cliff edge has seen lots of erosion over the years so there is little temptation to get close and look down the sheer faces to the beach below. But we were in luck. There had been a rather annoying buzzing sound in the air which we hadn’t been able to identify but now all was revealed. The noise came from a miniature drone that was controlled from the cliff top, and which was flying along the cliffs over the sea. On board was a camera and we were able to look at the live footage. Quite fascinating. But time to drag ourselves away.

The Purbeck Way starts here on Ballard Down and heads westwards along a long, grassy, rounded ridge. As we began to climb up the ridge the panoramas to north and south were top-class. To the south the view was over the holiday town of Swanage, over some lower hills and out over the English Channel. To the north the view was dominated by the expanse of Poole Harbour, with its many boats and sailing craft, and, in the distance, over to the City of Poole itself. The walking was easy but the route finding was a little challenging. Many paths cross the terrain and, whilst some are sign-posted, not all are and this can make life a little difficult. Anyway our trusty guide, he of the orthopaedic bootie (now gone), had walked this way before and led us in the right direction.

After a mile or so of uphill going, we started a gentle traverse along the southern flank leading eventually to a busy road that cut through the hillside. This proved to be a real challenge to cross. It was the main road out of Swanage so it carried a lot of traffic heading to and from Bournemouth and Poole. The road was just wide enough for two vehicles and twisted through a fairly deep cutting. You couldn’t see more than 20 yards in either direction so it was literally a case of taking your life in your hands as one by one we sprinted across the road. The fact of my writing this post today proves we did make it.

From here it was a long drag up a steep, stony track to reach the high-point of our walk at 200 metres (approx. 650 feet). Now we could see the dramatic end point of our walk in the distance, Corfe Castle. It didn’t look very far away but as we walked it never seemed to get any closer. We sensed that our goal would be achieved as we started to meet people out walking their dogs and coming towards us, a sure sign that habitations would be not too far away. And so we found ourselves entering the very attractive and busy village of Corfe Castle, named after its most prominent feature. Unusually for a medieval castle built during the reign of William the Conqueror, Corfe Castle is built of stone. It was designed to command and control a gap in the hills that lead between the Channel and the heartland of England. It has stood as a ruin for the best part of five hundred years. Today it is owned by the National Trust and has many thousands of visitors every year.

However, the castle was not the true reason for being in the village. Our plan was catch the train from Corfe Castle to Swanage. This line is run by a band of railway enthusiasts and is an excellent example of re-establishing an old route. As we had walked along the Purbeck Way we had noticed the train passing to and fro along the valley to the south. Each train seemed to be made up of a motley collection of old rolling stock and, significantly, the locomotive pulling the train alternated between a steam engine and a diesel electric locomotive. Some of my older readers will not be surprised to hear that we timed our arrival at the station such that the next train would be pulled by a steam engine.

Whilst waiting at the station there was time to look around. Many features had been lovingly restored and everything had a well cared-for appearance. I was particularly drawn to a plaque beside the overhead footbridge. It read “The G.N.E.R. Volunteers Award presented to Swanage Railway Trust for Corfe Castle Station Footbridge by Rt Hon Gwyneth Dunwoody 2007”. I had been a humble foot soldier for Gwyneth in the days when she was MP for Crewe & Nantwich in the late 70’s and early 80’s. She was a real pleasure to work for as she was never short on praise for those who worked in her constituency. Crewe, of course, was one of the UK’s top railway centres making locomotives from the middle of the 19th century as well as being a major hub for the lines running up the western side of England to the North West and onwards to Scotland. Happy memories.

The train pulled into the station with all the attendant and familiar noises of steam and whistles. It really took me back. The carriage we got into probably dated back to the 1960’s. It was an open coach with four-seater tables down either side of the central aisle. The train chuffed along with steam puffing out of the chimney. The movement was rather sedate with no pretence of the high speeds of today’s railway. It was fitted with a tannoy system which announced the impending arrival at each station along the line. Unlike on a modern train the voice coming over the loudspeakers was clear and the information was delivered at a measured pace. Why can’t they do this on all trains?

After about 35 relaxed minutes we arrived at Swanage, the end of the line. As we got off the train we realised that no one had been round to collect our fares. On the platform, I looked for one of the volunteer train crew. When I found a uniformed volunteer and explained I would like to give them some money, he said they had put the ticket machine away but if we would like to make a donation that would be fine. So I handed over the equivalent of the fare and thanked him for the experience.

From Swanage back to the car park, we had planned to catch a bus. The next one was in about 40 minutes so we used the time to walk around the town centre and the sea front. Everything was a little dated and slightly seedy. The town had been the home to the Civil Engineering giant Mowlem and, indeed, there is a 60’s built theatre bearing the Mowlem name. But Mowlem has now been absorbed into a much larger company and the town seems to see tourism as its saviour. As we had discovered, the surrounding seascape and countryside is outstanding and there was a feeling of remoteness from civilisation which can be very appealing.

Back at the railway-cum-bus station a double-decker bus was waiting ready for its journey to Bournemouth. We climbed aboard using our “free” London bus passes and settled on the top deck for a short ride back over Ballard Down and on to the car. The route took us along the road that we had had difficulty crossing during our walk along the Purbeck way. It became clear that the bus had as little advance notice of pedestrians waiting to cross as we had had earlier about approaching traffic.

After about 20 minutes the bus stopped to let us off at the entrance to the car park. The car was now sitting in an almost deserted car park. The bustle of earlier in the day was long gone. Boots and packs were removed and a very short debate saw us driving back into Studland village to visit a local hostelry. The Bankes Arms is a National Trust property and has its own brewery. Ideal for refreshing ourselves after our walk of eight and a bit miles. We all felt remarkably relaxed having doubled the distance of yesterday and having now covered more than 12% of the WHW. Like the train we were clearly running on full steam.

Leaving Studland we crossed back by the chain ferry into Sandbanks and onto Bournemouth where our hosts knew a most excellent fish & chip restaurant. The dining area was fully occupied when we arrived but within two or three minutes we were seated at a table. The waitress soon took out orders and we then had a pause to look around. The place was obviously a favourite of the stars who came to perform in Bournemouth. The photo on the wall directly in front of me was of the now ageing rocker Adam Faith. The food was delicious and I couldn’t resist taking advantage of the offer on the menu. This stated that free extra chips were available. I’ve never come across that before. And then it was time to drive home, have a small nightcap and repair to bed well satisfied by our progress today.

Day 3

Our last day saw us driving east into Hampshire with the prospect of a flat coastal walk near Lymington. The drive took us through the western reaches of the New Forest which, contrary to its name, for the most part was open ground and thickets. Horses and deer roam the forest and we saw plenty of the former. In fact, they had a serious disregard for traffic and wandered across the road at their own pace. Fortunately there is a 40 mph speed limit which was well observed. These horses, or ponies, come in all shades of brown, black, and piebald, as well as in a lovely honey colour.

Lymington is an old harbour town that nowadays links to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight with a very regular vehicle ferry. It is also home to many sailing craft mostly towards the expensive end of the market. We were travelling in two cars so that we could leave one in the town centre and use the other to get us to the start of the walk a mile or so away. We could have walked to the start but it would have meant passing through a lot of housing, not ideal scenery for a ramble. The walk started down a narrow country road which gradually diminished to a track. As we progressed the hedgerows that bordered the road gradually disappeared and we were walking over level open ground. The land to either side of the road was fairly boggy in appearance with lots of bird life. Judging by the number of people we passed throughout the day who were carrying binoculars, this is a bird watchers paradise.

After about 3 miles we reached the small and ancient harbour at Keyhaven. The sailing craft moored here were on a far less opulent scale when compared to those at Lymington. From here our route did a U-turn and we joined a well-defined coastal path heading basically eastwards along the Solent. Over to our right guarding the entrance to this strategically important stretch of water was Hurst Castle. The castle lies on a spit of land that juts out into the Solent. From a distance it looks more like a ruin than the castle it was but, judging by the number of people walking towards it, it is still a tourist attraction.

To our left were the remains of the salt beds of two centuries ago. Sea water was flooded into large rectangular pits then left to evaporate to create a strong brine solution. This was then pumped by windmill power to ovens where the remaining water was driven off. In the 1800’s Lymington became rich as the primary domestic source of salt for the UK and also overseas to support industries such as the Newfoundland Fisheries. It only lost its status when salt was discovered below the County of Cheshire. This salt could be mined mechanically and, using the national railway network centred at Crewe, distributed throughout the UK. Cheshire is the centre of the UK salt industry to this day. Today, all that remains here are the banks that defined the boundaries of the pits. The tops of these high banks make excellent footpaths as we discovered. The only downside is that they do not provide a natural line towards our destination in Lymington. Sometimes you have to walk round three sides of a pit to make progress. As a result what could have been a three mile walk turned out to be five miles.

About half way along we sat down on the stone wall of an old landing point for boats taking away the salt. It was very comfortable and allowed us to observe the three car ferries continuously plying backwards and forwards between Lymington and Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. We became distracted by a dog that started in our direction attracted by the smell of food. We called to the owner to get her dog away but she resorted to the common cry of the dog-handler, “don’t worry he’s very friendly”. As if we cared, all we were worried about was our picnic. And our fears proved to be well founded when the dog grabbed one of our sandwiches, complete with clingfilm, took it some distance away and proceeded to eat it. Even this did not force much of a reaction from the handler. “Naughty boy, come here” was her limit. It was only when the dog had finished the first sandwich and was intent on getting hold of another that our continued calls got the handler to actually move towards the dog and take it away. I will say no more on the subject.

After our abbreviated lunch we continued along the trail to the luxury yacht marina that was now dominating the skyline with mast upon mast. We walked passed the yachts and the various support buildings on the shore till we came to a magnificent saltwater swimming pool. If we’d had our swimming gear it would have been very tempting, particularly as it only had a few customers.

Our walk finished along the gently rising ancient streets of the town centre. We were guided towards its newest shop, an ice-cream parlour. The ice-cream was locally produced and came in a wide range of tempting flavours. However the speciality of the house, at the most prominent corner of the counter, was a section devoted to ice-cream for dogs – this didn’t go down well with us after our very recent experience.

And so we headed back to our cars. Another eight or so miles of our imaginary West Highland Way had been accomplished. We had nearly completed the first quarter in three days. Clearly we would have to up the daily walking rate if we were to do the real thing in seven or eight days. Still we had all done well and felt we were ready for the challenge. Bring it on!!

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About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement divided between our flat in Richmond, London, our villa in Kalkan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and travelling mostly in the UK, Turkey and the US. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels.
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