Toiling up and down coastal cliffs from White Nothe to Durdle Door was breath-taking in more ways than one. But it was a piece of cake compared to what came next.
Spectacular views come at a price – at least for us – up and down, up and down, ‘and when they were only half-way up they were neither up nor down’. I felt like one of the Duke of York’s poor ten thousand men. Every step a lung buster, clambering up rugged steps and steep hillsides, only to reach the top and have to plunge down again. But oh, the views! Far over land and sea. Bright white chalk cliffs reared from limestone ledges. Waves lapped around rocks and onto shingle-beached bays, large and small, far below.
Underfoot were rocks thousands upon thousands of years old; Bindon Hill shelters the remains of a Celtic fort (400 BC) and it’s said the Roman army haunts the hillsides. Mupe Bay, Arish Mell, Worbarrow Bay – we huffed and puffed the eleven kilometres to the ghost village of Tyneham. We passed an old lady rooted to a spot on one of the steep descents. She stood leaning on her wooden stick, unperturbed, but she could go neither forwards, backwards, up or down. ‘I’ll be alright’, she said brightly when we asked if she needed help, ‘I just need to rest’. I sometimes wonder if she’s there still.
There were more spectacular chalk formations, stumps and stacks, and a much gentler walk further down the coast near Swanage. The Old Harry Rocks are named, perhaps, after the notorious local pirate Harry Paye, whose ship, it is said, lay in wait behind Old Harry to waylay merchant vessels leaving nearby Poole Harbour. Another more fanciful suggestion has it that the devil – Old Harry himself – once took a nap stretched out on the rocks. There is no doubt, however, that Old Harry is a real sight for sore eyes, dazzling, dizzy-making white; seagulls wheeling, and wild flowers adding dots of colour. Natural bling. The walk is easy, and people are many, but they add in some ways rather than detract. All that sea and sky, so wide, so empty, and we are so small, those rocks so old, and we so young.
After Old Harry we walked over Ballard Down, open grassland, grazing cattle, more mind-blowing views over Poole Harbour, seemingly as it always has been and always will be. We sat on a grand old stone bench; an inscription marked the year 1852 and the words ‘Rest and be thankful’. We did. We were. Very.