Travel: A swan through clotted cream country: Jane Austen meets the Jurassic period on the rigorous but rewarding West Dorset Coastal path. Tony Kelly explores

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The Independent Travel
KATE and I were looking for a walk that had hills, things to see along the way and good places to stop for food and drink. We settled on the West Dorset Coastal Path and began at Abbotsbury, a honeypot village of thatched stone cottages which, since the Middle Ages, has been owned almost entirely by a single family.

Abbotsbury swannery has just celebrated its 600th anniversary: records of a managed herd go back to 1393, when it was owned by the local Benedictine monastery and produced meat for the monks; now the swans' only economic function is to provide quills, used by Lloyd's of London to record the names of sunken ships in the official ledger.

At least 500 mute swans live here, although they are free to come and go as they please. They are the only swans in Britain to nest in a large colony and the only ones in the world that can be visited at nesting time, from May onwards. Pairs return year after year to build their nests on the same spot, though recent tagging of cygnets has tended to dispel the myth that swans remain faithful for life - monogamous relationships do form but a new season sometimes brings a change of partner, too.

We visited it in August, shortly before the grey cygnets are taken from their fostering pens and released. It was the moulting season and some of the birds were looking sadly bald.

The swans live in the Fleet, an eight-mile natural lagoon stretching from Abbotsbury to the Isle of Portland and separated from the sea only by the narrow shingle bank of Chesil Beach. The Fleet is part salt, part fresh water, and is the least polluted inland water in Britain - the perfect breeding ground for swans, herons, cormorants and goldcrests as well as water voles, stoat and mink.

The long hours of sunshine, and the protection of Chesil Beach to one side and the Dorset hills to the other, have also created a thriving micro-climate for plants and the results can be seen in the Sub-Tropical Gardens.

We bought a leaflet and followed the short guided walk. After an hour we thought we had finished - then I read: 'The path leads out of the walled garden and through to the South American border . . .' (and we had not even planned to walk as far as Devon).

From the gardens you can follow the beach for six miles west, but flat shingle soon becomes monotonous and we chose the alternative inland route. It was worth it simply for the view from above Abbotsbury. From on high the village is dominated by the biggest tithe barn in Britain (now a museum of rural life), 270ft long and thatched with reed; it dwarfs both the church and the medieval abbey in whose grounds it stands.

The only building to compete is St Catherine's Chapel, a 14th-century sailors' beacon which stands alone on a cliff, blackened by wind and rain. St Catherine (she of the Catherine wheel) is the patron saint of spinsters, and women used to visit the shrine to pray for a husband - 'handsome, rich, nice, and soon'.

We climbed to an Iron Age hill fort and walked across fields to the village of Puncknowle (pronounced to rhyme with 'tunnel') for a pub lunch, then back down to join the coast at West Bexington. The first day's walking ended at Burton Bradstock, another golden-stone village equipped with a cafe serving real clotted cream teas and a pub serving real cider.

This was merely the prelude to the serious walking, an 11-mile hike the next day over the cliffs to Lyme Regis. It began easily enough, a flat section dropping gently to the Freshwater Caravan Park, where a notice regretted that 'single-sex groups are not admitted'. I pictured a party of Women's Institute members on their annual seaside holiday, being turned away and told to find themselves some boyfriends.

The path crosses the harbour at West Bay, then climbs up and down - relentlessly up and down - from clifftop to beach and back, each cliff seemingly higher than the last, until you reach Golden Cap - at 618ft the highest point on the South Coast. This is one of several places along the route where you can trace your entire walk from Abbotsbury to Lyme - on a clear day the views stretch back to Weymouth and Portland Bill to the east, and down over the clear blue waters of the crescent-shaped Lyme Bay to the west.

This section of coastline is maintained by the National Trust; it has abundant gorse and heather, and provides a habitat for numerous unusual flowers and butterflies. We watched a party of National Trust volunteers sweating in the hot sun as they constructed a series of steps towards the peak; it almost made me feel guilty about the picnic of Dorset Blue Vinny cheese that we enjoyed nearby.

Golden Cap was the peak of our walk in more ways than one. From here the path descends and we found ourselves looking more towards the rural scenery inland and less out to sea. After Charmouth, a popular beach resort, erosion on the clifftop forces you to deviate inland, along a road, across a golf course and finally down into Lyme Regis. After six hours of walking, our thoughts were more focused on the anticipated cream tea than on the scenery.

Lyme's literary history encompasses Persuasion and The French Lieutenant's Woman, and you can learn about these and much more at the Lyme Regis Experience on the seafront. A 'magic lantern show' (do not be fooled as I was - it just means a slide show with voice-over), narrated by the official Town Crier, guides you through the days of pirates and smugglers, Lyme's period as a fashionable bathing resort, and on to the town's obsession with fossil-hunting.

The cliffs around Lyme contain Jurassic clays which are constantly yielding new specimens. It was here in 1810 that Mary Anning discovered the first complete fossilised ichthyosaurus. She found the first pterodactyl, too, and although the originals are in the Natural History Museum, her story and those of more recent collectors are celebrated at (inevitably) Dinosaurland, where you can take a 'gallery walk' from the birth of planet Earth to the extinction of the dinosaur.

Perhaps I was tired from our own walk, or perhaps I was really getting into this craze for 'interpretative' tourism. 'Are we going to do 'The French Lieutenant's Woman's Experience'?' I asked my wife. 'Sounds intriguing,' she replied.


Getting there: Abbotsbury is on the B3157 Weymouth to Bridport coast road. Both Abbotsbury and Lyme Regis are close to the A35. The nearest railway stations are Dorchester and Weymouth (for Abbotsbury) and Axminster on the Exeter line (for Lyme).

Getting back: If you follow my walk you will need to return to your car. Regular buses connect Lyme Regis with Bridport and there is one bus a day (9.35am) from Bridport to Abbotsbury; to connect with this you need to catch the 8.05am from Lyme.

Walks: The coastal path is clearly waymarked until the diversion at Charmouth. Use OS Landranger maps 193 and 194. There are numerous circular walks from Abbotsbury and Golden Cap, and West Dorset Tourism Centre (details below) sells various books/booklets on walks in the area.

Things to see: Abbotsbury Swannery (0305 871684), open daily Easter- October, 9.30am-5pm. pounds 2.90.

Abbotsbury Sub-Tropical Gardens (0305 871387), open 10am-5pm summer, 10am-3pm winter, closed Mondays. pounds 2.90.

Lyme Regis Experience, open daily March-October, pounds 2.20.

Dinosaurland, Lyme Regis (0297 443541), open daily Easter-November and winter weekends.

Accommodation: Linton Cottage, Abbotsbury (0305 871339) - B&B pounds 25 single, pounds 33 double; dinner pounds 9.50.

Nash House, Lyme Regis (0297 445393) - B&B from pounds 25 double in a listed Georgian house with sea views.

Further information: West Dorset Tourism Centre, Acland Road, Dorchester DT1 1JW (0305 267992).

(Photographs omitted)