Far from the maddening crowd

Michael Hanlon strides out from Swanage at the start of the Dorset coast path ...
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The Independent Travel
At Poole Harbour, England's bungalow coast gives way to the ramparts of the South-west. For 250 miles west, there is a path which leads all the way to Land's End. Our ambitions were not so great - merely to take in the first few miles of Dorset shoreline along the precipitous Purbeck cliffs, have a dip in the briny and hopefully a pint or two in one of the many excellent pubs.

We started in Corfe Castle, a photogenic village consisting of a conical hill topped by the eponymous ruin, and a couple of hundred outrageously pretty limestone cottages, many doing sterling service as tea shops and craft emporia. My companion, Twiglet, an Irish Terrier, spotted a shop selling home-made filled pastries, and we stocked up on a freshly baked pork pie.

After the pie shop, to the Jurassic era. The tiny town museum is something of a glass-fronted showcase for the usual suspects - old paraffin lamps and the like - but it also contains a perfectly preserved set of dinosaur footprints, excavated from a stratum found in a nearby quarry. The experience showed that in aeons past, Dorset, or whatever Pangean shore it was then, was the Serengeti of the Saurian world.

The first part of our walk was in fact steam-powered. A preserved railway (dogs travel free) connects Corfe to Swanage, an odd resort some six miles away. It is odd because it faces east, the wrong direction; the sun is always where you least expect it to be. We headed out, climbing the grassy downlands that start at the car park near the derelict pier.

Here the South West Coast Path is confusingly marked. In some places a butterfly points the way. A hundred yards on, Queen Victoria urges you forward. Eventually the Empress takes a bow and the serious walking begins, indicated by an acorn. Now the cliffs are steep and severe. Every now and then we passed a climber, all ropes and tackle and chalky hands.

Five or so miles on, Seacombe Cliff looked a good bet for a swim. And sure enough, after some slippery clambering, a less than graceful immersion was experienced. The water, clean as anywhere, was dark and deep and not too cold. Twiglet sat on the rocks, eating her share of our pork pie lunch.

At one end of the cove is a sea-filled cave, cutting more than 100ft into the low cliffs. Great for exploring by boat, but a bit spooky for swimming, the tips of kelp fronds just poking above the surface, threatening unpleasant submarine leg tangling and slipperiness.

Man and dog cannot survive on pork pie alone, so we struck north, up a steep hill to Worth Matravers in search of a pub. From a distance, The Square and Compass beckoned. As we strode across the garden, thoughts of foaming tankards and sandwiches were uppermost in my mind. But our path was blocked by a surly youth. "We're closed mate". It was half past three, the sun was burning, and a good day's takings' worth of disappointed customers were milling around. The youth sped off on his motorbike. Only in England.

So, on to Kingston. Even prettier than Worth, Kingston lies a couple of miles further inland. This ancient village boasts a fairy-tale Gothic church, with patterned round towers. Kingston's pub, the Scott Arms, was willing to serve us beer and food at the ungodly hour of 5pm. While a tired dog slurped her half of ale, her owner put away a pint and a pound of cheese and pickle sandwiches, and contemplated the final two miles to Corfe. At least it was downhill all the way.


From Corfe take the steam railway to Swanage (two per hour, 35 minutes, pounds 3 adults, pounds 2 children, dogs free). At Swanage, walk to the south end of the seafront and turn right over the grassy hill by the pier. From here the coast path is fairly well marked.

We walked four miles to Seacombe Cliff, and turned inland here where a marked path leads to Worth Matravers. Dinosaur footprints can be seen in situ at Acton, a couple of miles back on the Priest's Road, an inland path running parallel to the SWCP.

From Worth, there is no clear path to Kingston. The marked track from Kingston to Corfe starts opposite the churchyard near the Scott Arms. Head down the hill, turn tight and then left through a signed gap in the fence. The path here has been obscured, but it is easy to find your way across the fields and tumuli to Corfe.

Length of walk: about nine miles

Maps: Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Outdoor Leisure map 15, Purbeck & South Dorset.