Seaside Special - Physical Geography: Dorset

Even by the outstandingly high standards set by the rest of this glorious coastline of ours, Dorset is special. As a snotty-nosed schoolboy sat in a cavernous, drafty classroom I can still picture my inspirational geography teacher Mr Douglas in the throes of a misty-eyed eulogy about Durdle Door, Lulworth Cove and Chisel Beach.

I have a lot for which to thank Mr Douglas. His genuine enthusiasm for the subject marked him out amongst his peers, most of whom were more motivated by clock-watching and time-marking. He was the difference between me leaving school at 18 as an immature, directionless waistrel, and me leaving university at 21 as a debt-laden immature directionless waistrel. 

In many ways Ken Douglas was ahead of his time. I can remember him raging against the wanton destruction of the environment and the folly of building six-lane motorways across bits of rural England long before Swampy and his cohorts took to trees to protect East London from the M11 link road in the 90’s. In one lesson he told us quite casually that the weekend before he had been driving across the Moors and had flashed lights and hooted horns at a car in front of him until it had pulled over. He marched up to the unsuspecting occupants – cutting quite the figure as a lithe, long-striding six-footer with a huge nose and hawk-like eyes – and leant in through their window to present a pithy lecture about the disgrace of the act they had just committed: lobbing a load of rubbish out of the car onto the heather. Bravo.

He was right about Dorset. It is a whole term's worth of coastal erosion theory packed into one ambling field trip, running from Poole's enormous natural harbour, across to Studland’s fluffy beaches and along the Jurassic Coast to Weymouth: sea stacks, caves, horseshoe bays, fossils, sedimentary deposits, longshore drift. Heck, there's probably even an oxbow lake somewhere nearby.

I've been lucky enough to stay in and explore the area a good few times. The first trip was back in the days before kids - just - when myself and a heavily pregnant Mrs A rented a thatched cottage at the end of a dusty track behind Wareham. The place had a cosy bird hide nestled at the bottom of the garden that looked out on to Poole Harbour. I had honestly not imagined until that moment how much pleasure could be derived from immersing oneself entirely in nature. That holiday was the first time I had seen hares, red deer and long-eared owls. From the hide, I learned about dippers, gulls and a host of wading birds named in honour of the colour of their legs, and all in full view in the shallows before us.  

By contrast, we've also stayed as an extended family in the tourist hub of Swanage. That's not a complaint. The capital of the Isle of Purbeck has a bit more diversity and buzz about it than some of those God's waiting rooms on the East Anglian coast. Here, young people are seen openly in public, doing outrageous things like frolicking in the surf and patronising amusement arcades. There's plenty of traditional chortles to be had for the older generation too...

The Victorian right-angled pier in Swanage is a fine example of the 80-odd similar structures that remain alive around the shorelines of Britain. From a high watermark of 150 in the middle of the 20th century, piers have become an endangered species. Saving and restoring them has become a bit of a national pastime. There are some innovative solutions to the problem. Further round the coast in Hastings, a community owned business has been set up and is now raising money to refurbish the town's pier. In Swanage, I had been involved in a Government sponsored funding initiative about five years earlier called Rural Challenge. 

Various local projects had to compete against each other to win the cash to complete their project. It was a bit like Dragon's Den for countryside regeneration. Except instead of Peter Jones and his tech investment track record or Deborah Meaden’s green business portfolio, community entrepreneurs had to deal with grey-suited faceless bureaucrats... like me. There wasn't much scope to deviate from the set questions, though I did sneak in this: "I'm going to the Cheltenham Festival next week. Why should I invest in you and not Rooster Booster in the Champion Hurdle?"

Anyway, the good people of Swanage had been successful in their funding pitch and had bagged £1m to restore the pier. (Rooster Booster went on the win the Champion Hurdle and I'm still not sure we made the right decision.) On this stay in Swanage I undertook a furtive site visit and checked that Her Majesty's resources had been disbursed appropriately. Whilst I’m happy to report that public sector money had been well spent (indeed I found a circular green and silver disc bearing our logo attesting to the fact), it appeared that the structure was once again in a perilous state. Over 40 of the timber piles supporting the boardwalk had fallen into critical condition, putting the Grade II Listed structure at risk. Again. It is now owned by the Swanage Pier Trust which needed to raise £100,000 to safeguard its future.

Part of their campaign was based on selling brass plaques with personal dedications at £125 a pop. This were fixed to planks in three lines across the crumbling pier, dog-legging out over the bay. Over 10,000 had been purchased at the time of our visit.  Some were polished and marked in memorium by bunches of flowers. Others were less well cared for and had become dulled by the salt air. Amongst the simple remembrances, raw sentiment and charmless football allegiances, there lurked a few cryptic comments that hinted at untold stories and flashes of humour expressed in even less characters than your standard Twitter missive. “Got Your Dosh. Bollocks to you, matey” declared one revengeful plaque; “Lainey. We are OK, it’s the rest of them we need to worry about” warned another, and most curiously “40 pigs ate the wood”. No, I’ve no idea.

In comparison with the geological wonders further west, Old Harry Rocks off the headland above Swanage wouldn’t have raised the pulse of my old Geography teacher. And yet, viewed from Ballard Down, the chalk stumps and stacks that form the easternmost point of the Jurassic Coast are full of dramatic impact. Geology rocks, (as I’ve said in possibly every post in the series so far). 

The scenic stuff abounded from up there on the Down and screamed for attention. Studland Bay’s soft, deep, dune-backed, sometime-naturist, National Trust-protected beach was a wonderful thing to behold. The distant, shimmering multi-million properties of Sandbanks across the water formed an exclusive, impressive backdrop. As we descending towards Studland village, the foreground became filled with the almost equally impressive sight of the Bankes Arms pub, brewery and eatery, whose beer garden sits on the South West Coast Path.

This path is the longest national trail in England and links all those beautiful places on the Jurassic Coast from Poole Harbour west.  

At the point where it approaches the stunning Worbarrow Bay, a worthwhile diversion (only if the MOD is compliant) is Tyneham, tucked into a fold of the valley just east of the bay and surrounding cliffs. It is what the guide books like to call a 'ghost village'. 

The villagers were turfed out in 1944 to make way for D-Day preparations because it adjoins the Lulworth firing ranges sweeping along this part of the coast. The story goes that the villagers had expected to return after the war. However, the MOD hung on to the sites. The valley was compulsorily purchased in 1952, including the firing ranges above the 102 houses that comprise the village. They are still in use today. Visits to Tyneham are only possible at times when the air is absent of the hum of live ammunition zipping overhead. Mostly, that means weekends. The same goes for this stunning section of the SW Coast Path, where there is no obvious or useable diversion.

Limited access was finally negotiated by the families of displaced villagers under the campaign slogan ‘Tyneham Died for D-Day’. Decades of arguments had ensued though, and this partial victory was only won in the 1990's. The campaigners original wish of reclaiming their village for good never happened.

Our self-guided tour around the decaying settlement was an odd experience unlike tours of other deserted villages because the occupants here left so recently – still just about within living memory. The school remained intact and was dressed up in a permanent snapshot of primary education circa 1944. A bit like an open-air museum at somewhere like Beamish, but pinching yourself to remember this was a real place. There was also an exhibition in the church. All managed by the MOD as a tourism sideline.

Talking of within-living-memory, I took a few recollection-jolts when we revisited Weymouth later on. The port was the departure point for some of our best holidays as kids to the Channel Islands. My Dad was employed by British Rail all his working life. One of the hard-won staff benefits the militant rail unions negotiated was 20-odd free travel days for employees' families across the network each year. In the 1970’s this also extended to Sealink, the nationalised operation's ferry subsidiary.

Dad, being an honest Yorkshireman with an unshakeable sense of value, used to take us on holidays that could be defined as ‘the furthest for the least’. The train from Malton in north Yorkshire (our nearest post-Beeching station) to Weymouth where we would connect with the ferry to Guernsey and Jersey was a perfect example.

In those days, the train branched off the approach to Weymouth station and rumbled along the banks of the Backwater and through the town to Weymouth Quay. My bruv and I pressed our noses up at the carriage window as it clanked and crawled a laborious route through the busy heart of town on unfenced tram-like rails seemingly inches away from shoppers, vehicles and terraced houses. The train pulled up at the Quay in spitting distance of the berthed blue-hulled ferries with red funnels adorned with the distinctive British Rail logos. Marvellous service.

Many years had elapsed before this return visit. The intervening years had seen Sealink sold off first to Sea Containers and then to Stena Line. The ‘Sealink’ name disappeared from their fleet in 1996. Weymouth Quay railway station hadn’t been used since 1987, though I was delighted to see that the tracks of the branch line were still embedded in the road.  

The town itself was suffering the same faded-gloryitis that afflicts many seaside resorts. Brewers Quay, once the pride and joy of the harbour-front has been empty and decaying for years. Now bought by a developer, the site awaits the unreliable fate of the planners’ progress. The fishing harbour was still busy though and we stopped for a coffee as an excuse to sit and watch the low-key activity on the pleasure craft and working boats beneath us. Despite the town’s tacky charm, outdated attractions and closed rail link, I still liked Weymouth.

Even more years later, I returned to the area to explore a bit more of the South West Coast Path. In between bouts of inconvenient work anyway. I’d come to Bridport to run a seminar on charity collaboration (the gigs just get better and better don’t they?). It was also my birthday. And Brian, my work buddy, happened to live in Bridport. I stayed with him and his wife Sue, where we ate organically farmed pork and tarte-tatin made with home grown apples.  

Bridport is about two miles from the coast. The ‘port’ bit of its name refers to a trading post rather than a coastal berth for boats. It was a good, solid town, acting as a market hub in distinctly rural area. The town was defined by its four flat-topped hills, two rivers and floodplain around which development had infilled. The architecture was typical of market towns: a few grand civic buildings and churches surrounded by shops and houses dating from the medieval period right up to their present in a pleasing hotchpotch. 

The place felt socially mixed, and more culturally diverse than many towns in these West Country parts. There was a whiff of the alternative about it. More watered down than the hippy-fuelled commune-like towns of Totnes or Stroud. But the presence of a Bohemian edge could be detected in the independent shops, folk-art culture and in the vibrant local action/campaigning groups. Notting Hill on Sea, some called it.

Later, Brian dropped me down to West Bay, the location for Broadchurch, that popular murder mystery drama from off the telly. He pointed out the best chippy in town before heading back up to Bridport, leaving me to explore.

The chippy was in amongst a little gathering of food huts overlooking West Bay’s pretty harbour, full of small pleasure craft bobbing on the incoming tide. I caused no little consternation by ordering my fish and chips from ‘Harbour Lights’ and then inadvertently sitting at a table reserved for ‘Snack Shack’. “Could you sit at Harbour Lights’ tables please?” The proprietor was fidgety and wouldn’t look me in the eyes. I wasn’t even sure he was talking to me at first, but I eventually got the message.

I shuffled off the picnic bench with my polystyrene cup of coffee and sat somewhere else in the knot of tables on the patio area. That was wrong too. ‘Reserved for Rachels’ said the spray paint on the table top. The next one I tried was only for ‘JBs’. I was getting a little anxious. A couple sat with a cone of chips underneath the ‘Snack Shack’ canopy helpfully pointed me to the other side of the wall, beyond the patio on the lip of the harbour. I felt like quoting Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The plans were on display "…in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’ ".

I had to shoo a mean looking Herring Gull off the table before I could sit down. My food arrived. The cod was obviously a distant relation of Moby Dick. God knows how the vendor had got the whale over to my table without it toppling off the summit of an alpine-like pile of chips.

Herbert the Herring Gull jumped up on the next table and cocked his head at me. He was chunky and gnarled. If he had been attired in a filthy hoodie and cheap bling on tattooed flight feathers, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Herbert kept squawking at juvenile birds around him. Marshalling them for a pincer movement on me, no doubt.  An elderly woman on the way to the loo spoke to me from within the depths of an oversized gilet. “That bird would mug you as soon as look at you!” She wasn’t wrong. I scoffed as much of the mountainous feed as I could in double-haste and binned the debris.

Brian was right. The fish was beautifully moist and the batter firm and crisp without that slight sense of sickliness after you’ve stuffed yourself completely and have become too full. Or maybe that’s just me?

I liked West Bay. Previously known as Bridport Bay, the small town was wedged in the dip between two sets of cliffs. Those to the west, heading away to Lyme Regis included Golden Cap, the highest cliff on the south coast. Away to the east, the orange sandstone cliffs were lower and more crumbly. And infinitely more dramatic - perhaps the settlement’s most widely recognised feature. Huge blocks of fallen cliff were nestled at its base. Brian told me that at least once a year someone would be badly injured or killed because they loitered in this impact zone, despite plenty of warning signs urging people to keep clear.

On one side of the harbour, in amongst pastel-painted fishing cottages and other dwellings, West Bay had a couple of sturdy looking inns, a smattering of restaurants and a few shops and coffee houses, but the only real nod towards seaside schmaltz was a discreet amusement arcade off the main square. There was also a heritage centre (closed Mondays) and an attractive weather-boarded beach cafe. 

The western side had a large but tidy caravan park tucked behind the coast road and a block of mid-20th century sheltered housing in prime position right on the seafront. Some much more recent apartment blocks with sweeping balconies overlooked the seaward harbour walls – the location of the police station in that telly programme. The informal  feel was appealing. The western cliffs had hinterlands studded with houses and bungalows strategically positioned for the morning sun.

However, it was the evening sun that struck me at that moment. Turning back towards the bay, the deep orange sandstone cliffs were lit up by the declining sun like a Himalayan salt lamp.

Beneath the illuminated range, the golden ribbon of Chesil Beach slid its way back to Weymouth and Portland Bill. Mr Douglas, my old Geography teacher, would have nodded approval. I remembered it was my birthday and I caught myself thinking, ‘Well if you have to work on the day, there are worse places to earn a shekel.’

Series navigation: Introduction - Excursions to the coast

Previous episode: Titanic emotions, Hampshire

Next episode: South Devon -  Mother Nature’s playground



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