I’ll start by saying that if you only ever do one walk on the South West Coast Path, make it this one! This is almost certainly the most stunning walk in terms of scenery on the whole coast path. Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove, where I ended this walk are probably the most famous coastal sights of the South West Coast Path and Jurassic Coast, and feature on numerous magazine and book covers. So scenically, this walk is a treat, but it is also demanding. In my opinion this is the second hardest walk on the South West Coast Path (Hartland to Bude I think is the toughest) so it takes plenty of time. Logistically, it also tricky, as there is a very limited bus service to and from Lulworth Cove. Despite this it is a walk I’ve done a number of times probably a good half a dozen times, despite it’s toughness, but I have selected this day as it was the time I walked it most recently with the best weather.
I started by taking the train from Christchurch to Weymouth. This got to Weymouth on time and is a useful service, because traffic in and around Weymouth can be a problem and parking is very expensive. The downside of going this route is that I need to make sure I don’t miss the bus at Lulworth Cove, as it was the last one of the day I was planning to catch (and there are only about 3 buses, anyway).
I arrived in Weymouth on time and headed down to the sea front. Although March, the weather was quite warm and sunny. Looking out to sea it was quite clear and I could already see the chalk cliffs I would be walking over later.
I could walk along the promenade, this is the official route, but I headed down onto the sands of the beach because the tide was out so there was plenty of hard sand to walk on. The beach at Weymouth starts off with very fine sand at the southern end of the bay (nearest the harbour), but becomes gradually coarser as I head north, with a ridge of pebbles soon at the back of the beach. The town is very traditional in terms of architecture, with rows of Victorian houses behind the sea front all originally hotels and guest houses I think – many still are. Further along, the cream building you can see built partly over the beach ahead is I think the sea life centre.
In fact the sea was so far out I was able to get a nice view of some of the houses reflecting in the wet sands.
Looking back, the town was now disappearing behind me.
After a while I got bored with the tarmac and returned to the beach to find a few patches of sand between the shingle to walk on. The coast path here soon heads up onto Furzy Cliff, but it was easy enough to just keep to the beach and look at the obviously very soft cliffs.
I’m soon at Bowleaze Cove. This is a large holiday resort, with a large hotel which is more the style of something you might find in Spain. I think it is now mostly self catering apartments, plus of course the usual array of caravans. The coast path makes it’s way through this complex but I was soon climbing the hill, glad to be away from it.
The path now climbs over an area of rapidly eroding cliffs, where there has been slumping of the cliff side. The cliffs are clearly eroding rapidly here, there are pools of water forming below the path too. Thankfully, the new England Coast Path has opened here and provides roll back so the path can roll back with the cliff edge – it will surely be needed here!
Reaching the top I am nearing the village of Osmington. This is famed for the white horse carved into the chalk downs.
The path undulates over this land but reaches a high point at Redcliff Point where I can take in the good view over Redcliff Bay.
The path beyond here heads around the coastal edge of a couple of cliffs and heads back to the coast by an Adventure Centre, which seems to be a different name for a holiday park.
The coast below has some interesting geology though. I think the lines are the old base of the cliffs from where they have eroded and collapsed – this is something you see quite a bit of in this part of Dorset.
I could look back and enjoy the view along the deserted shingle beach, although there are steps down, so it is possible to access it. I now had a fairly hard climb ahead, over more soft cliffs, to the top of Black Head. Again this is an area where land slips seem to be common so the coast path goes a small distance inland. I can look back over the bay to Portland, where I walked previously.
Ahead now, and largely out of sight in the valley is the village of Osmington. Beyond it, the chalk cliffs loom.
The path sadly heads a bit inland here and down to the (dead-end) road into Osmington. Here I turned south along the road and followed it to the coast. Despite it’s small size, Osmington is a popular place. I suspect this is partly due to the presence of a nice looking pub. In fact, the coast path heads quite literally through the beer garden of the pub. It was busy though, I hadn’t expected to have to queue to get along the coast path in March!
There was also access to the beach here, which I took but it is not the most inviting beach – boulders and large pebbles.
I now had a climb back up the other side of the valley although the cliffs are not (yet) high, but I have still gained enough height for a good view back where I came. Weymouth is barely visible in the distance now.
The cliffs soon became very low just a few metres above the beach and as I approached Ringstead and soon there were some steps down to the beach. I took these and sat on the beach for a late lunch.
The path soon passes through the hamlet of Ringstead. It is an odd place, it seems to be a private village (I suspect most of the buildings are holiday cottages) and the roads unmade gravel tracks. It heads a little inland on the inland side of the buildings and soon becomes more of a path than a track as it returns to the cliff above Burning Cliff. This oddly named cliff is so called because there are a lot of oil deposits and shale gas in the area. Therefore at some point in the path the cliffs caught fire and I believe burned for some time. The area around Poole harbour in fact has some oil wells.
It was a tough and long climb out of Ringstead passing some more spectacular scenery.
On reaching the top I was rewarded with a fine view back over Ringstead Bay and over to Portland harbour.
Thankfully at the top the path levelled out and passed through the tiny hamlet of Holworth, a very isolated place located at the top of these eroding cliffs. There is now a nice easy section of the walk along the near level path along the top of the cliffs, for around 1 mile, to reach an isolated terrace of cottages called Whitenothe Cottages. I suspect they were once coastguard cottages but they are far from anywhere now, I am not even sure if there is a road to them.
However what is ahead is more what draws my eye.
It’s not very flat, is it? It looks (and is) absolutely stunning though. In hindsight this walk might be a good one to do in the other direction as here the toughest part is saved to last, where as soon as you reach the cliff top, you descend almost to sea level, only to climb straight back up again.
First there was a fairly gentle climb up to the top of West Bottom and then a very steep descent almost to sea level. I’m not sure if this photo makes it clear quite how steep the path down is!
You could probably ski down it! And as you can see, it’s straight back up the other side.
Here is the view nearing the bottom. Then it’s straight back up again!
Still there is a good view back. I like the way the waves have made little indents in the beach, making a near pattern. The beach looks good, but I don’t think there is any access except by boat.
It was, as you might expect, another climb back up to Swyre Head. But at the top I had a wonderful view. This is the beach at Durdle Door and the famous rock arch is just ahead, you can just see the gap through the cliff, even from this angle.
The view back too gives a good idea of the height of the cliffs – it is a long way down, but what a stunning bit of coast.
It is soon another steep descent (and I mean very steep!) back to almost sea level. I must admit I was tempted to see if there was a way down to the beach here, but there isn’t, so it was up that next hill now. Not as steep as previous ones, but I was getting tired now.
Here is the view from the top, back to the valley. The chalk cliffs is Bat’s Head and I can see there is another little rock arch forming under the cliffs.
From the top it was certainly worth the climb – what a view!
Soon though, as you may have guessed it was back down again. This time into the amusingly named valley of Scratchy Bottom. Since leaving Osmington, I had hardly seen anyone so far but I could see things were going to change ahead. The path was now very busy, as there is a car park close by and Durdle Door is such a magnet.
It was another steep descent to the Scratchy Bottom and then back up the other side. This bought with it the famous view of Durdle Door. It is interesting but very few of the public seem to make it beyond the viewpoint over Durdle Door (you can see the crowds by the fence on the top of the cliffs ahead), so despite the stunning view it is still uncrowded here.
Zooming in here is the impressive natural rock arch of Durdle Door, that has appeared in so many publications over the years!
Onwards it was soon time to reach the crowds at the famous viewpoint. From here there are steps down both to the beach at Durdle Door (which were closed for many years, but happy re-opened again) and in the other direction there is another beautiful and perhaps less known beach, Man-o-War Bay.
Again, it is extremely beautiful. It was another climb up many steps to the top of the next cliff to Hambury Tout. This gave me a view back the way I had come, with Swyre Head and Bat’s Head visible behind.
Ahead, the crowds and busy car park came as something of a shock after the miles of virtually deserted path.
The walk down from here is something of a walkers motorway, wide and surfaced with steps and a drainage ditch down the side, I think a lot of money is spent here to keep the path from eroding too much as the stretch of the coast path from Lulworth Cove to Durdle Door is I suspect by the far most walked of any part of the South West Coast Path. The size of the car park (and the number of cars parked in it), even in March gives an idea to the popularity of this place.
It was however now an easy walk so I was glad it was the final hill! Ahead you can see the almost circular beach at Lulworth Cove, another of the famous sights of this part of the Dorset Coast. As it happened I had made good time – I had about half an hour to wait before the last bus. This gave me time to walk down to the cove itself. The village at West Lulworth is small but the road from the car park to the beach is clearly set up for tourists, being almost entirely cafes, pubs and shops, and there is a stream running down the side of the road.
Soon I head reached the cove itself, and time for a quick paddle!
The cove itself has very interesting geology, with the cliffs seeming to be folded at the far end, and it acts as a good natural harbour, several boats being moored up in the bay.
Still the sun was now getting low in the sky and it was time to head back to the bus stop. Given the popularity of Lulworth Cove, it always surprises me how limited the bus service is. During the school summer holidays, there is a a direct bus a few times a day (X43) to Weymouth, but for the rest of the year, the bus only goes to Wool and Wareham, which is where I was headed. Despite the crowds, I was the only passenger getting on at Lulworth. We headed through the pretty village of West Lulworth, passing the edge of the army ranges to reach the small village of Wool. From here I could catch the train back to Christchurch.
This is a direct journey but must rank as one of the most passenger unfriendly train journeys! This is because the trains between Weymouth and Bournemouth are normally 5 carriages long (luxury, after the two carriage trains of First Great Western which serve most of the coast further west). However the trains are busy and continue through to London. At Bournemouth therefore it is common, as happened here, for another 5 carriages to be added to the front of the train to cope with demand. However, Christchurch where I was going, has a platform that only has room for 5 carriages. So the train company (South West Trains) only open the doors on 5 of the carriages there – the front 5 of course. This means if you get on west of Bournemouth, you are now in the back 5 carriages and the doors don’t open. So you have to move to a different part of the train from where you got on, in order to get off. I think this is the only train journey I have done where although a direct train, you are still required to change carriages! Needless to say, it is not always made clear and sometimes the fact that another 5 carriages have been added to the front of the train is not even announced, so you must feel the bump of it happening, or lean out the door, to determine if you have to move forward to get off the train.
Still I’m aware of it now, so I didn’t have any problems but I expect it must catch out a lot of tourists. This is a stunning walk with I think the most spectacular scenery on the whole South West Coast Path. The Dorset coastline is a World Heritage site now, and it is not hard to see how it got this status, it is well deserved. As I said at the start, if you do only one walk on the South West coast path, make it this one – you won’t regret it!
Here are the details of the public transport needed for this walk:-
Sadly doing this walk outside of the school summer holidays using public transport, is now very tough because the last bus from Lulworth Cove is now at 13:08. My suggestion is therefore to park at Lulworth Cove, the end of the walk in the morning and travel to Weymouth by public transport to start the walk. To do this take bus 104 which departs at 09:19 (except on Sunday) from Lulworth Cove, at the road side of the visitor centre to Wool (rail station) arriving at 09:38. Then take the train from Wool at 09:44 arriving at Weymouth at 10:09. This should give you just enough time to buy a train ticket at Wool, but if not you need to buy one on the train (all the trains have a guard, and there are ticket barriers at Weymouth, so you need a valid ticket to get out).
During the school summer holidays (only) route X43 runs direct, seven days a week between Lulworth Cove and Weymouth and also serves Osmington on the route. Note that this bus stops at the entrance to the car park at Lulworth Cove.
Or if you want a later start there is another bus at 11:32 (arriving Wool at 11:44) but you will then have nearly an hour wait at Wool (until 12:35) for the next train to Weymouth. Also note that the bus between Lulworth and Wool station is normally small – only around 18 seats (and no standing), so not a good idea to try to do this walk with a large group, as you likely won’t all get on the bus.
South West Trains London Waterloo – Weymouth : London Waterloo, Clapham Junction (not all trains), Woking (not all trains), Basingstoke (not all trains), Winchester, Southampton Airport, Southampton Central, Brockenhurst, New Milton (not all trains), Christchurch (not all trains), Bournemouth, Poole, Wareham (not all trains), Wool (not all trains), Dorchester South and Weymouth. Trains run twice per hour Monday – Saturday and hourly on Sundays. It takes a little under 3 hours from London Waterloo to Weymouth. Although not all trains stop at all stations, generally there is at least an hourly service to all the stations listed above, including Wool. Some smaller stations (which I have not listed) are also served by some trains.
Dorset Community Transport bus route 104 : Wool (Rail Station) – Winfrith – East Chaldon – Durdle Door (main road) – Lulworth Cove – West Lulworth – East Lulworth – Coombe Keynes – Wool (Rail Station) – Bovington – East Stoke – Wareham. 2 to 3 times a day Monday – Saturday only in each direction, but the last bus from Lulworth Cove is at 13:08. This bus departs from the road end of the visitor centre at Lulworth Cove.
Damory route X43 (go to page 22) : Weymouth – Preston – Osmington – Winfrith Newburgh – Durdle Door (Main road) – Lulworth Cove – West Lulworth – Wool (Rail Station) – Wareham – Stoborough Green – Norden Park & Ride – Corfe Castle – Harman’s Cross – Herston – Swanage. 4 times daily (including Sunday) during the school summer holidays only (late July to the end of August). No service for the rest of the year. This bus departs from the entrance to the car park in Lulworth Cove.
Dr Ian West from the University of Southampton also has an excellent website on the geology of this part of the coast, with a large section covering the area around Lulworth.