This part of the South West Coast Path I have done a couple of times as various circular walks, but only once as a through walk and it was a long while ago, when I was using an early digital camera, so the photos are not too good sadly.
This was a long day trip for me, I took the train from my local station to Weymouth, which takes around 2 1/4 hours. I had timed my arrival to coincide with the bus on to Abbotsbury, which at the time was just a local bus between Weymouth and Abbotsbury, now it is part of the longer “Jurassic Coast” bus service (X53) between Poole and Exeter. I walked the short walk from the station to the sea front and took the tatty little minibus that took me on to Abbotsbury.
Abbotsbury is a lovely village with honey coloured stone thatched cottages on the main street. After the long journey I was keen to get on with the walk however, so I didn’t stop to take a look around.
I headed west along the main street to pick up the path just beside the post office which heads south beside the hill on which stands St Catherine’s Chapel. This time I did not go up to the chapel, but admired it from a distance.
The path followed beside a little stream that flows out into the Fleet. This walk is heading behind Chesil Beach, Chesil Beach being a roughly 10 mile long stretch of beach, which has a natural lake behind it, The Fleet. Chesil Beach itself joins the Isle of Portland to the mainland, although there is also a road now, Ferry Road presumably so named because before the road there was a ferry. However Ferry Road is still a bridge in one place meaning that the Fleet is still open to the sea at the Portland end. Rather than walk miles along the shingle, the South West Coast path therefore routes a bit inland here beside the fleet. The Fleet itself is now a bird sanctuary, being sheltered from the open sea and Chesil Beach in front can only be accessed by boat or at either end, Portland and Abbotsbury. So this is a rather more inland walk than most on the South West Coast Path, and it begins even further inland, as this part of the Fleet is occupied by Abbotsbury Swannery.
Abbotsbury Swannery is itself unique, being the only managed colony of nesting swans in the world. The existance of the Swannery goes back until at least 1393. It dates from the abbey at Abbotsbury, where the monks managed the swans as a ready source of meat. Of course although the Swannery still exists it is no longer a source of meat and is largely managed as a tourist attraction being especially popular in the spring when there are many baby swans to be seen.
So to get around the Swannery the coast path soon heads away from the little stream and to the minor road, New Barn Road. I’m a bit surprised to see here that the coast path apparently has a 10mph speed limit! I don’t think I’ll be exceeding that. I’ve not seen this sign in recent years, so I can only presume it was a joke of some sort.
In theory the road I’ve joined, New Barn Road is in fact the most coastal route to follow and being only a minor road it is therefore a bit of a surprise that the coast path has been routed inland of it. Instead, the path goes off up a hill, Linton Hill on a footpath. The height gained does however result in a good view of The Fleet and Chesil Beach below.
Continuing east the path heads along the south edge of the top of the hill and gives a good view back to Abbotsbury. The folds in the earth around the chapel are clear to see, no doubt the earth works of a much older settlement.
You can also just about make out the white swans at the Swannery at the back of the fleet.
At some point the name of the hill appears to change from Linton Hill to Merry Hill and these cows seemed to be enjoying the view too!
Thankfully these cows were docile and did not give me any bother, or make any real attempt to move of the path! Near the end of the hill the coast path turns right to descend from the hill back towards the coast but before reaching the coast turns east again passing behind Wyke Wood and a farm. Past the wood the path becomes muddy as it goes next to a stream with some springs around too and eventually joins the side of The Fleet at Rodden Hive.
After all that inland walking it is nice to finally be beside water, even if it is not the open sea.
In the distance I can see Chesil Beach itself, but the height of the shingle means I can’t see the open sea beyond.
What follows now is a nice walk behind the Fleet, now sticking to the waters edge for the next couple of miles.Although the map suggests the path is flat, there are in fact some low cliffs. It was fairly easy going and soon I got far enough south (and gain enough height) to get a good view back where I had come. Abbotsbury is out of sight now, but the high cliffs at Golden Cap can still be seen through the haze.
At Langton Hive Point there is actually a fisherman’s hut (I assume) on the back of Chesil Beach. It looks quite big and I’m not sure if it used to store boats or if the fisherman stay over there.
Ahead there is a small little bay, which seems to be unamed. The water is shallow here and there is some reed and marsh at the back of the beach. A stream flows out to the Fleet here, but it is crossed via a footbridge.
The coast path cuts off the little headland of Herbury and soon reaches Gore Cove.
Just after this I passed close to the Moonfleet Manor hotel. This is one of those Country House hotels, which looks very nice indeed but I am not sure how welcoming they would be to muddy walkers – I didn’t stop to find out. I am sure the locals don’t come for the beach at Gore Cove though, it is mud.
There is another little stream to cross just past the hotel and after that the coast path gains a bit more height running along the top of low cliffs in the edge of the farmers fields.
After around 1 mile this turns the corner into Butterstreet Cove, another muddy little bay.
The path has to head a little inland at the back of this beach to cross the stream in the little hamlet of East Fleet. Soon back on the coast path there is now a shingle beach and some boats – it is beginning to feel as if there is more activity as I get nearer Weymouth and Portland.
As if to hammer home this point just pass this I am passing a camping and caravan park Past this I come to another point where there is a landing stage at Chickerell Hive Point, both on this side and the other side of the Fleet, presumably used by fisherman. It is said an experienced local fisherman landing on Chesil Beach at night can tell how far along the beach they are by the size of the stones and they presumably use slipways like this to get from there to the mainland.
The path rounds another little muddy bay, again unnamed but near Chickerell Camp. Just past this is Tidmoor Point which is part of an army rifle range. When this is in used, not surprisingly, there is a small diversion inland. Thankfully that wasn’t needed today although the path was something of a mud path for much of this stretch, which made the going hard.
There is another little muddy bay just past this, Tidmoor Cove. The suburbs of Weymouth are now close by to the left, and the path is soon passing another large holiday park, Littlesea Holiday Park. Presumably, Littlesea refers to the Fleet. Just past this height is gained again as there are low cliffs (and more mud) and The Fleet becomes very narrow, only around 100 metres across, so Chesil Beach is now close and there is another little hut on the back of the beach.
Sadly just ahead here there is another military base of some sort, I don’t remember it being signed but I do remember that it has high barbed wire fences all around it, and that the coast path heads around the inland side of it. Soon I am back on the cliff top and Weymouth and Portland are closed ahead now.
There is increasing activity both in the Fleet and more people walking the coast path, mostly dog walkers, as there is another caravan park ahead, this one Chesil Beach Holiday Village. Just past this I reached Ferry Bridge and the A354. This road is the only access (other than by boat) over to Portland. Beyond it, there is a little harbour (Small Mouth) with the open sea beyond and the Isle of Portland looming ahead.
The Isle of Portland of course hit the world stage for the sailing events of the very successful London 2012 Olympics, but at the time I did this walk I don’t think we’d even entered a bid for the games. The A354 is a busy road and the remote location of the island, coupled with the need for all the traffic to flow through Weymouth means Portland is a fairly poor area, but I think the situation has improved a bit since the Olympics.
From here the coast path went along the front of some new flats and then along an old railway path. This is because there was once a passenger rail service out to Portland alongside the road. Sadly a victim of the Beeching cuts, as with so many (wouldn’t it have been useful for the Olympics, too?) it is now the Rodwell Trail, a combined footpath and cycle path which is also the route of the South West Coast Path into Weymouth.
Sadly it is in a bit of a cutting making for limited views of the coast, but I popped up onto the grass bank at one point for a view ahead, where the ruins of Sandfoot Castle can be made out.
Nearing the castle I turned off the path for a coastal look, as the castle now forms part of a park. There is not a lot left though.
Sandsfoot Castle is in fact one of the forts erected on the command of Henry VIII. It was built around 1541. There is another castle built at a similar time, Portland Castle, which has survived better (and is open to the public). Most of the castle here has fallen into the sea because of erosion, hence there is not a lot left.
Onwards the coast path soon leaves the Rodwell Trail and takes to the road. The coast path from Portland east to Weymouth and Lulworth has been one of the first sections of the slowly progressing England Coast Path and more recent maps show the route as now the South West Coast Path and England Coast Path. I am not sure that much has changed really. One of the things the England coast path is meant to do is to provide more coastal access and automatic rollback so in the event of erosion, the coast path can just be moved back, rather than the often protracted negotiations with land owners that have to happen now.
On top of this, there is new open access. This is the area now shaded with a sort of pink hew and marked with pink blobs at it’s edge, but what access this gives is not really clear – at one area on Portland the pink shaded area includes a prison. Somehow I doubt unrestricted access is allowed there! The key on the latest Ordnance Survey maps includes this rather unhelpful statement:-
All land within the coastal margins is associated with the England Coast Path and is by default access land, but in some areas, it contains land not subject to access rights – for example cropped land, buildings and their curtilage, gardens and land subject to restrictions. Furthermore the coastal margin is often steep, unstable and not readily accessible. Please do not assume all the area shaded is accessible and take careful note of conditions and local signage on the ground.
So it is access land except where it isn’t. I’m glad that’s cleared things up, then….
Why am I mentioning this? Well part of this new access included the beach at Castle Cove just beyond Sandsfoot Castle. This is, unusually, a private beach. However the England Coast Path project created new steps down to this private beach, ensuring easy public access. It lasted all of 9 months, before a landslip occurred and the owner removed the steps – preventing access to the beach that the coast path was meant to restore. I’ve commented before about the maintenance of public footpaths in Dorset . So it comes as no surprise that the Council did not repair the access. Happily, a local group, the Friends of Castle Cove have now got an agreement to repair the steps themselves but it is a rather embarrassing failure of the improved access the England Coast path was meant to deliver.
Onwards with the walk then. The coast path beyond here at the time ran along the top of a thin strip of grass on the cliffs. This is the route I walked, but sadly erosion means this path is now closed and the coast path is now diverted along the nearest road, Belle Vue Road. At the end this comes out to a little park overlooking the main harbour wall of the huge Portland harbour.
You can now walk around the coastal side of this and the coast path now follow the back of Newton cove, on a new sea wall. This gives access to Nothe Point which is a public park and has another fort, Nothe Fort, at the end of it. Rounding the corner I now have a fine view of Weymouth and it’s harbour.
Until earlier this year, Weymouth was once the main port for ferries to the Channel Islands (and to St Malo in France, until a few years ago). Historically the ferries were run by the railway companies and the Great Western Railway was in strong competition with the London and South Western Railway (later the Southern Railway). Great Western Trains ran their ferry from Weymouth, giving a shorter sea crossing but a longer train journey whilst the Southern Railway ran from Southampton, giving a shorter rail journey but a longer sea journey. The companies competed to provide the fastest service from London to the Channel Islands. This racing only ceased after one of the boats crashed in fog where it was found to be travelling far faster than was safe in the conditions forcing the Government to step in with regulations.
The ferries continued to be operated by British Rail but after that and for many years, Condor Ferries have provided the service, basing at least one of their high speed catamarans at Weymouth (the other usually running from Poole) from where you could cross to Guernsey and Jersey taking around 2.5 hours, Weymouth being roughly the closest harbour to the islands (which actually are far closer to France than England). In February 2012, huge cracks were discovered in the quay and harbour wall, and it was declared unsafe.
Condor moved both their high speed boats used on the UK to Channel Islands route (the Condor Vitesse and Condor Express) to Poole pending a rebuild and committed to Weymouth and Portland Council that they were dedicated to the port and would return if it was re-built. With this commitment, Weymouth and Portland Council spent £4.5million rebuilding the quay. The work was completed and Condor returned in July 2013, as promised. Sadly the return was short lived. Just 9 months later, Condor dropped the bombshell that they were selling their two existing fast ferries and replacing them with a single larger boat (now called the Condor Liberation). This was too big to fit in the re-built berth at Weymouth. To re-build it to accommodate the new ferry would cost £10million, on top of the money already spent. It is very doubtful the council would have spent the money they had already spent repairing the existing quay if they had known it would only be used for 18 months or so. Another £10million of Council money could not be justified, so Condor switched their base from Weymouth to Poole, and the last of their ferries left the port in March this year. It is now vacant but the Council now seems to be hoping a new operator might start a service to Cherbourg instead. Time will tell, but the loss of the ferry is a huge blow for the town, as it provided many jobs both directly and indirectly (such as in the local hotels).
The people of Weymouth might have wondered if it was Karma when Condors new ferry crashed into the harbour wall at Guernsey on just it’s second commercial crossing, damaging the boat so it had to be taken out of service for repairs. Since then it has been beset with reliability problems and by late May the company admitted that only 60% of crossings with the new boat had been on time.
From Nothe Park the walk heads down steps behind the quay.
To cross the harbour there is a foot passenger ferry but the official route, which I took is to head a little further inland where there is a swing bridge across the harbour. It is a nice walk past the colourful and characterful buildings on the quay.
Once over the harbour I then turned right back along the quay towards the small port and finally the beach.
On the quay there are railway tracks embedded in the streets here and you might be forgiven for thinking they were used by trains within the port or trams, but in fact their usage was rather different. In the days when the ferries were run by the rail companies, they ran special “Boat Trains”, from London Waterloo to connect with the ferries to the Channel Islands. On reaching Weymouth they actually continued on these tracks through the streets of the town to the quay. As the railway line was not fenced the trains had to have someone walk in front of them, making the journey rather slow. I remember seeing the trains on postcards of the town, but I don’t think I ever saw them running. Sadly the trains stopped running in 1987 and the tracks are now disused, but they have been used by occasional charter trains since. According to Wikipedia the last of these was in 1999 and thankfully someone managed to capture the spectacle on video.
Imagine that happening on a daily basis! Weymouth has a good sandy beach but for this walk I didn’t linger, and headed back to the station for the train home.
This walk it has to be said is not the best that the South West Coast Path has to offer. It is wonderfully peaceful, but the sea is out of sight for much of the walk and the path often meanders in fields some distance even from the fleet. It is still an enjoyable walk, though.
Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk:-
First Dorset X53 : Poole – Hamworthy – Sandford – Wareham Station – Wareham – Wool Station – Winfirth Newburgh – Osmington – Preston – Weymouth – Chickerell – Portesham – Abbotsbury – Burton Bradstock – West Bay – Bridport – Chideock – Morecombelake – Charmouth – Lyme Regis – Colyford – Seaton – Beer – Sidford – Newton Poppleford – Clyst St Mary – Exeter. Only a few buses each day run the full length (Exeter – Poole), but between Abbotsbury and Weymouth the service is hourly seven days a week. The bus stops near the railway stations in Poole, Weymouth, Wool and Wareham.
Doctor Ian West from the University of Southampton also has an excellent website, with the following parts covering this stretch of the coast:-