J and I have always loved walking and picnicking, and ever since we first met more than twenty years ago we have been striding out together. In our life Before-Children when we used to holiday as a couple in Dorset, much of our time would be spent coastal walking. We would pack a picnic and a couple of cold beers in our rucksacks and off we'd go to spend the day hiking up and down those cliff paths. Coastal walking is tough, no doubt about it. The Ups are very, very Uppy! The paths are steep and strenuous, and even the downward stretches take a lot out of your legs, but oh boy, the glorious views more than make up for the sweat and toil. Over the years (we were together for nine years before babies entered our lives) we have walked much of Dorset's coastline, and it really is the most amazingly beautiful place to stretch your leg muscles.
One morning last week when we were pondering what to do for the day, I was hit with the sudden realisation that after many years of not being able to consider coastal walking as a holiday activity, it might now be back within our grasp. Little B has always been a strong walker and you may remember us taking him for his first Proper Walk last year when he was just three and a half. He has energy and vitality radiating of his little body and so when I asked him if he would like to do a Long Walk with some big climbs, unsurprisingly he was full of enthusiasm.
We chose a 4 mile circular route which starts at the National Trust shop/information centre on top of Stonebarrow Hill. This is part of the Golden Cap Estate (Golden cap is a clifftop hill, the highest point on the south coast of Britain), and although the walk didn't actually involve the tough climb up Golden Cap itself, it did involve descending from a height of 190 metres down to sea level, then ascending the same height on the return leg of the walk. It was a hot summer's day, about 11am when we set off. The footpaths are easy to follow and stretch out across coastal farmland and meander down pretty little tracks and lanes, past idyllic looking farms and rural cottages. Of course, the first part of the walk was mainly downhill....
...and the going was pretty easy. We chatted and ambled along, admiring the scenery, The Little People keeping a constant check with their Dad as to where we were on the map and how soon would we be at the beach? We were going to stop down at the beach for a picnic lunch you see, at a scenic point on the coastline known as St Gabriel's Ledge.
This is St Gabriel's Wood, a small patch of ancient woodland that leads from the isolated hamlet of Stanton St Gabriel....
....it was a welcome relief to briefly find ourselves in the shade of these old trees after a good few hours of walking in the baking heat. We knew at this point that we were fairly near to the sea, but we also knew that we were still quite high up above sea level.
We had been given "The Knowledge" about the descent down to St Gabriel's Ledge by the old ladies in the National Trust shop before we set out on the walk. We were told in no uncertain terms that we would need to be wearing shoes with good grips (Little B had worn out old crocs on, they probably didn't really pass the grippy test). They said that children would need to be closely supervised (Little B, are you listening carefully?) and that this descent was not for the infirm or faint hearted. It could apparently also induce vertigo (Oh deary me, J??? Will you manage????)
We were slightly panicked by all this worrisome information, but decided that the lure of the beach and a cooling dip in the sea would make it worth a go..............
.....Oh. My. Word. Welcome to St Gabriel's Ladder. Ninety shallow wooden treads heading down a near vertical drop of blue clay cliff side. Cripes, this descent is steep indeed! The ladies were right, it was not for the faint hearted or the infirm, and yes I totally understood the vertigo-inducing thing, even though I am not afraid of heights. Jeez. It was tough!
However, despite the initial worry, we made it down relatively easily, although my knees were knocking a little by the time I gratefully stepped off the last tread. From the beach there is a fabulous view of Golden Cap ( which J and I have climbed several times in the past), and oh our picnic lunch tasted really great!
The pebbles on this part of Chesil beach are large as you can see, and although they are fabulous to look at, they are in fact excruciating to walk on in bare feet. It makes the appealing business of paddling in the sea a total endurance test. You sort of have to hobble your way slowly to the water's edge, trying not to wince and look pathetic, smiling whilst inwardly cursing the damn pebbles to high heaven. It was a challenge, but we all managed a little paddle and some cooling down before facing the ladder again. Oh yeah, The Ladder, I had temporarily forgotten about that whilst eating my lovely picnic lunch and cooling my feet in the sea.
Just in case any of you are ever in this area, and are ever tempted to do this walk, please know that ascending the ladder is very much harder than descending, so be prepared. It is especially hard if you have a four year old in your charge who, half way up on the 47th step, says he really needs to sit down and have a drink. Turning the both of you aorund to sit down whilst perched on a 6inch wide wooden plank high above the ground is nerve wracking, but hey-ho, we managed, and are still alive to tell the tale.
The second half of the walk back up from sea level was blinkin' hard work. It's basically a solid climb the whole way up, across hot dusty fields and up slippery, flinty tracks. Thank goodness for the views which kept me happy when I felt ready to lay down in the dust and give up, and thank goodness for bottles of cold water and a pack of wet wipes. It was tough, but do you know what? The Little People didn't once complain, and by the time we arrived back at our starting point at 4pm I think we all felt more than a little bit proud of our day's walking achievement. Incidentally, later that day we found an OS map of the area and traced our exact route, working out that we actually walked 6 miles and not 4 due to the fact we got a little bit lost at one point and added a whole extra dog leg onto the circular route.
The second walk we did last week was shorter and altogether a whole lot sweeter, not nearly so much of an endurance test. For starters, we began by sitting our backsides on the sun warmed decking at The Watchhouse Cafe, fuelling our bodies nicely for the walk ahead.....
....gosh, yes, eh-hem....well, one does need to be properly fuelled with energy-giving carrots and errr cream cheese protein in order for ones legs to perform steep cliff-climbing activity.....
...yeah, see, I told you these cliffs were steep! I would never have made it up there without the carrot cake and cappuccino, really I wouldn't.
So this is me, back on my childhood turf, walking a walk that I have walked many times as a kid. I had been SO looking forward to introducing my own Little Peeps to this walk which I have very fond memories of, and they really loved it too, much to my delight.
We are climbing up the steep side of east cliff at West Bay.........
....higher and higher......
...giving us fabulous, amazing views of the beach and coastline down below. It feels exhilarating when you reach the top with your heart pounding and your blood pumping and the sudden breeze whipping up your hair, I love that feeling so, so much!!
These cliffs are high, maybe 40-50 metres above the beach below. The cliffs are made of soft sandstone and are constantly under attack from the elements which means that each year a little more of it erodes away. The coast path up here is at times frighteningly near the edge (!) and if you have dogs and/or wayward children you need to keep a close eye on them. I remember as a child my mum having a complete hissy fit one time when our dog ran right to the very edge and looked over, I thought my Mum was going to pass out she went so white and was paralysed with fear I think. The dog was oblivious of course, and perfectly safe, but it was a bit hairy.
The views from up here just take my breath away, honestly, it is so beautiful looking out across that expanse of perfect, perfect summer blue. I will never, ever tire of horizon gazing, I find it both serene and exhilarating, it lifts my spirit and fills my soul with a huge dose of Happy Feelgood.
So this cliff walk....it's not terribly long, maybe only a couple of miles, but does involve not one but two ascents. You go steeply up, then the clifftop levels out, then about half way along you suddenly drop steeply down again almost to sea level but not quite, then up you go again (climbing up wooden steps this time) before levelling out again and finally descending all the way down to the beach.
It is heavenly on the beach here. The tide is out and we lay our picnic blanket down on the smooth expanse of fine, warm shingle/sand and breathe in the sights and sounds of the sea. Paddling our hot walking feet in the cool surf is truly pleasurable, our feet sink luxuriously into the wet sand (hooray, no big hurty pebbles here!!) The Little People are all wearing their swimming things and go right into the water, it's a joy to sit and watch them lark about. They swim and jump and roll about in the surf, big happy grins on their faces with the pleasure of it all.
It is lunch time, but due to the additional cake-breakfast we had before setting off we aren't really that hungry. We have ice cold bottles of water and a packet of oaty hobnob biscuits in the rucksack though, and that's enough fuel to tide us over until we can enjoy a late lunch back at base.
I don't know how long we stayed here swimming and loafing about, maybe an hour? But after a while we were all ready to begin the walk back along the shingle beach.
The cliffs here really are very distinctive and are unlike any I have ever come across anywhere else along the coast.
We keep looking up to the top and exclaiming to each other that We Were Up There A Short While Ago!!!! It seems impossible that we were up that high!
Just now I went searching for some information about these cliffs and found an interesting blog which details a lot about the history and the science behind them, if you like that sort of thing. There are some great pictures too.
The return walk is leisurely and happy. We walk in bare feet, partly in the surf and partly on the compacted shingle/sand. The air is so clear that we can see right along the west coastline all the way to Devon. Oh look, in the above photo you can follow the line of east cliff and see where the footpath descended and then ascended again half way along. We walked that!!! Still feeling exhilarated by the memory of it :)
Such happy times, thank you so much for sharing it with me, and for your lovely comments on my last few posts and your own memory shares in return (I do love reading your comments very, very much, thank you for taking time to write). Tomorrow I have one last installment of Holiday Tales for you, I'm going to invite you to the beach for dinner. Bring a blanket and something chilled to drink, see you then......
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