It's been tricky to get away this year, as we all know (thanks COVID). As much as I've been appreciating the opportunity to explore my local area, I needed some headspace somewhere else. This week, finally, me and mum de-camped to Dorset to tackle a few more short sections of the South West Coast Path (SWCP).
After our last visit (and first ‘official’ section) from Swanage to Studland Bay earlier this year (write up coming soon), it was time to get in a few miles before winter really sets in. I was delighted to be able to get away, albeit briefly!
A base in Wool
We based ourselves in a self-catering cottage in Wool, Dorset, with two cars. Obviously not the most eco-friendly option, but the most sensible option in a time of COVID when public transport options vary and we are advised to not mix with strangers as much as possible.
My research tells me that in normal times buses are usually a good option to get around the SWCP route, and we have previously used taxis too (although they are usually less keen on the additional of the large wet/ muddy dog). For stages further along the SWCP route, we plan to use the train but this just isn’t an option on this stretch.
My sister has also joined us for a few days on this trip – Wool has a direct train line in London Waterloo, so she came down in the car, but when it was time for her to head off it was an easy journey back for her. Another random fact about Wool – apparently PETA ran a campaign for 'Wool' to rename itself 'Vegan Wool'...
Access to Lulworth Ranges
Our first walk on this trip was from West Lulworth to Kimmeridge Bay, mostly chosen because my sister was only joining us for one walking day and she wanted to go to Lulworth Cove. It’s really important to note that this section of the South West Coast Path crosses military land and is only open at certain times – something I was not aware of. As a general rule, it is open on weekends but there are some exceptions. You can find more information on Lulworth Ranges opening times here and there is a number to call to double check on the day you are planning on walking. The diversion if the ranges are closed is a long one and takes you right inland, so it would be a completely different experience.
We parked one car at Kimmeridge Bay (the lovely attendant on the toll road let us drive both cars down to the car park because its a bit of walk) and then we took the other to West Lulworth and parked it in the public car park on the hill there. Parking is pricey, but that’s to be expected really in such a popular location with limited parking options. It was, however, unexpectedly busy for October with hordes of people heading up the coast path to Durdle Door – luckily, we were there to walk in the opposite direction.
Joining the South West Coast Path
So far, we’ve mostly found that getting on to the Coast Path in the first place is the most problematic part of the navigation. At West Lulworth, the route does a weird mini detour up a short slope. I am assuming this it to take you up to see the impressive rock formation at the top before your descent to the Cove, but it did provide a bit of confusion at first as it seemed like we were walking in the wrong direction.
We arrived at Lulworth Cove at high tide and the beach is covered with quite large stones (Rory hates this sort of surface in his old age, so this was not ideal), but its a short stoney stroll across the pretty bay to steps that go up on the left most of the way across.
Heading to Lulworth Cove
Once you have gone up these steps, you follow the path around to the right where it splits, and then you take the left fork rather than going over the decking to the right. Thank goodness for the Viewranger app here, because it really wasn’t clear. But once you make this choice the rest of this section of the Coast Path is pretty straightforward to follow and well signposted. Because it crosses the MOD land, you are directed to walk between the yellow markers where it is not obvious where you should go.
You enter and leave the military land through substantial and obvious gates – walking from West Lulworth to Kimmeridge Bay we walked directly across it, entering a gate soon after leaving Lulworth Cove and exiting just before reaching the Kimmeridge Bay car park.
Exiting the Lulworth Ranges
Tackling unexpected hills
I haven’t tended to research the sections of the Coast Path before we walk them – instead just giving a cursory look at the OS map the day before to plan out how to get to the start and end points. This was definitely our downfall on this section of the path which is unbelievably hilly. If I’d taken a closer look at the map contour lines this would have been obvious.
Screenshot from my Viewranger app of the elevation graph from our walk
Essentially this section of the path goes down to sea level and then up to the top of 400-500ft cliffs and then back down again. There are four hills, so this is not ideal if you are not particularly fit, have dodgy knees or happen to be a 12-year-old dog being taken along by your hapless owner. The real killer is that the downs are steep, and are as tough on your legs as the upward sections. Turns out that by pure luck we did this route the ‘right way round’ for us, because the last few miles were pretty flat into Kimmeridge Bay – a last surprise hill would have put us all out of action I think.
We took it slow and steady, and everyone managed it without any major injuries. I had quite a sharp pain in my right knee for the final couple of miles after a particularly brutal downhill, but the next day it was gone. I think we were all a bit muscle sore for 24 hours, but considering the state of the hills we were OK with that.
One of the many hills on the West Lulworth to Kimmeridge Bay route
One of the nice things about this section is I didn’t feel particularly exposed for most of it – I was more worried about falling flat on my face than falling from a very narrow path off a cliff edge. A large proportion of it is quite substantially fenced, although don’t rely on it, there were some areas that appeared fenced but actually the fence then just ran out!
The first big hill we encountered heading up above Mupe Bay was probably the main place where I did feel a little uncomfortable, but having done more sections now I definitely don’t think it’s objectively the most concerning on the whole Coast Path from a safety point of view. I would advise keeping a close eye on your dogs, kids and dozy relatives – but I think that is just generally a SWCP rule!
Rory, on the hill, above Mupe Bay
The views along this section were my favourite (a benefit of the high cliffs!). I’m not sure if it’s being locked in the house for seven months or (more likely) that the scenery is otherworldly stunning. White-faced cliffs, interesting rock formations and wave-cut platforms, while on your other side are burnt-out army tanks, holes from shelling and views that go for absolutely miles over the inland landscape.
It helped that the weather was really on our side – as it was an October week we were expecting rain or at least colder coastal breezes. It was actually fairly mild (10 degrees) and no rain for this particular part of the route. Perfect walking weather!
The MOD and Tyneham
The area itself has an interesting history with the MOD. They actually took over the ranges in the Second World War and told the local residents that they would be able to have their land and homes back once the war effort was completed. This never happened, and the MOD eventually instigated a compulsory purchase order on the land. There is a village – Tyneham – that is a ‘ghost settlement’ created by this situation. Parts of it have recently been opened to the public when the ranges are not in use. We didn’t stop to visit this time, but this is also the point where you can shorten your Coast Walk if you wish by turning in land. It will save you some distance, but it is still about a mile to the village and car park.
It’s worth noting that because this area has been requisitioned the land has been untouched by development and farming (although not by gunfire or shelling), which has made it a haven for wildlife. I was recently reading about this phenomenon of MOD nature havens in the book Irreplaceable (you can read my review of the book here).
View across Lulworth Ranges
The route was measured on my Viewranger app as being about 7.3 miles, and it took us almost 5 hours with only a couple of stops to sip some water. We were slow as we stopped and waited for man or beast, whoever may have required more time – this is not a competition to see who can finish the fastest! Total ascent is listed as 1732ft and total descent as 1768ft, with a maximum elevation of 534ft and a minimum elevation of 12ft. (Did I mention it was hilly?)
Walk overview from Viewranger app
On-going food saga
After we finished and returned to get my car, we tried to get chips in West Lulworth and following the trend from our Swanage to Poole walk, we literally arrived as they closed (on the S to P walk, we arrived at the ice cream kiosk and toilets about five minutes after they had closed). Need to work on those junk food timings! In the end we drove to Wareham to buy chips to eat at our cottage in Wool (thank you Long John’s Fish & Chips, who also have a great COVID-friendly click-and-collect system going at the moment).
On the subject of food, I had a lovely vegan Sunday roast at The Castle Inn, West Lulworth on one of our rest days. They also do flatbread pizza (to eat in or takeaway), which we tried on another evening in – it was great.
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