...And striding out for a beer

country walks Worth Matravers, Dorset
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The Independent Online
The south-west coast has one of England's most spectacular long- distance walks, stretching for 500 miles from Poole Harbour to Land's End and back along the Bristol Channel and into Somerset. For those without a month or so to spare to follow the whole route, this four-mile walk around St Aldhelm's Head in Dorset will give at least a taste of the experience.

The large car-park in Worth Matravers, complete with information boards and public toilets, suggests that tourism has long replaced quarrying or Purbeck stone as the most important local industry. Once the crowds of summer visitors have gone, however, the Isle of Purbeck can seem curiously remote and bleak. Walking from the car park past the Square and Compass Inn, the village centre, with its pretty little duck-pond, looks far too cosy to belong to such a wind-swept landscape.

The route down to the coast, signposted to Winspit, passes by a row of cottages before leading through a gate out into open fields. The sea lies straight ahead, the horizon framed by grassy hills, East Man and West Man, their steep slopes terraced with the contours of medieval lynchets. Beside the path, a stream-bed, densely overgown with hawthorn, ash and ivy, cuts an ever-deepening gorge down to the sea.

The coastal path to St Aldhelm's Head is clearly marked above the shore at Winspit, but it is worth pausing to explore the old stone quarries that honey-comb the cliffs. Gigantic galleries, 100 feet or more in depth, are cut into the rock-face, supported on slim columns of uncut Purbeck stone.

Returning to the coastal path, the route climbs steadily towards St Aldhelm's Head. In places perilously close to the cliff edge, with unwelcome glimpses of the boiling surf 300 feet below, this not a walk for those without a head for heights. Even meeting other walkers can occasionally challenge the conventions of good manners through a fear of stepping out politely into space with a final cheery comment on the view.

From the coast-guard look-out on St Aldhelm's Head, some 50 miles of coastline can be seen, from the Isle of Wight to Portland Bill. There is a most unusual Norman chapel: square, unadorned and massively constructed to withstand the elements. Deeply etched graffiti on the stonework of its dim interior suggest that "tagging" was a well-established custom even in the 18th century.

For those whose need for exercise is waning by this point, a straight and level track provides a short-cut back to Worth Matravers. Continuing along the coastal path, the more determined walker is rewarded with some stunning views of wild cliffs and wooded valleys; an enormous and unblemished landscape as fine as any to be seen on the south coast. The closer prospect is rather less appealing; a steep descent almost to sea level, followed by a weary climb back above 300 feet.

The route back to the village diverges from the coast path just inland from Chapman's Pool, a sheltered bay of clear, still water far beneath the cliffs. At Weston Farm, the path becomes a tarmac lane leading back to the familiar duck-pond and, far more importantly, to the inn-sign of the Square and Compass.

This pub was once a favourite hang-out of Augustus John and is still defiantly eccentric in both its management and decor. Farmyard fowl peck around the outdoor tables, perching on assorted lengths of rope and driftwood that fall somewhere between installation art, an adventure playground and the collection of a ship-wrecked sailor. Indoors, there is nothing so newfangled as a bar; just a serving hatch and rooms the colour of tobacco, with benches round the walls. The landlord, Charlie Newman, is the fourth generation of his family to run the Square and Compass and shows no inclination to alter its atmosphere. Food is very basic, but the homemade pasties are delicious and the beer beyond all criticism. With a view across the valley to the sparkling sea beyond, it is a memorable destination for a walk.

Worth Matravers is signposted from A351 between Corfe Castle and Swanage. The car park is to right of road on entering village.

From the car park, follow the lane down into village, bearing right at Square and Compass inn.

Bear left at the duck pond, following the sign to Winspit.

Twenty yards down the lane, turn left down a drive in front of terraced cottages.

Follow the footpath sign through a gate into open fields.

Continue for one mile until you reach Winspit quarries.

Returning, 100 yards from quarries, follow waymarked path to St Aldhelm's Head.

At St Aldhelm's Head, continue along the coastal path for Chapman's Pool. There are easy shortcuts back to Worth both from the headland and the bottom of steep valley.

Above Chapman's Pool, turn right over the style on a waymarked path to Renscombe Farm.

Cross the farm lane and continue on the footpath past Weston Farm to Worth.

Continue past the duckpond to the Square and Compass (01929 439229).