Bikepacking Dorset from Wareham to Weymouth
Two fat ladies waddled along the path blocking my way. ‘No cycling here.’ Grumbled a cranky old man, as I cycled slowly along the banks of the River Frome. I wasn’t feeling particularly enamoured by Dan’s choice of route. I dismounted, eager to get going, frustration rising inside me.
‘And obviously no fast walkers or hike-a-bikers either.’ I muttered as I approached the twin heavies.
We were in Wareham at the start of the Purbeck Way, Dorset on a footpath where cycling was not permitted. Soon we were off the path and spinning along permitted ways through moors and heath en route to Old Harry. I first met him last year when we sailed from Falmouth on our summer cruise.
We stopped at middle beach for an alfresco tea and cake in Studland Bay. Old Harry stood tall, a pillar of white chalk in an azure sea capped with a thin layer of short green grass. The last time I was close, we had anchored overnight to get a shove through the Needles the following day on a favourable tide. Looking out at Old Harry that night, I thought it would be an exciting climb for a rock climber.
The sun shone brightly. An artist at the next table sketched a drawing of the chalk stacks and arch quickly transforming it into a postcard sized watercolour.
A swathe of sapphire swept off the cliff where a photographer snuggled amidst the silent bells.
We rejoined the Purbeck Way along single track and paths. A steam train whistled in the distance. At the bottom of a hill bunnies hopped happily while I avoided rabbit holes and rocks. I heard the tune of ‘Bright Eyes’ in my head. Yet this was not Watership Down, Hampshire, this was Ballard Down.
Up and over hills and downs we went until the silhouette of Corfe Castle broke the skyline. We paused momentarily before a fun downhill run to the village.
Wheeling the bikes around the back of the Greyhound Inn, I saw a ‘Take That’ banner and heard Gary Barlow singing ‘Patience’. I looked around thinking what a stroke of luck it was. Then I noticed ‘Tribute Band’.
The gardens, though cast in shadow at evening time have a view of the castle. The villagers seemed to have a fondness for dressing in woollen blankets and some men wore leather purses and silly shoes. Our chips arrived served in a mini fryer along with two pints of lime and lemonade.
A medieval Beer festival was in full swing, though what connection Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow have to medieval times beats me!
I was frozen solid by the time we set off on another forbidden path behind the castle.
I hiked to the top of the ridge, chanting, “My bike is light and I am strong,’ I pushed, the going to steep to ride. I searched for tumuli, pits and crosses. I wasn’t sure if I found anything of importance but I had warmed up.
We set up camp at 200m with a view of Portland Bill.
Grange Arch, a National Trust Monument provided a fine windbreak. It’s an 18th century folly, built in 1789 by Denis Bond, then owner of Creech Grange. Its purpose; to enhance the view from the manor house in the valley below. Follies were de rigueur at that time. Great Wood on the north bank of the hill was carpeted in bluebells.
The temperature dropped off rapidly as the sun sank over Portland Bill. I ate pasta and soup as I sat inside the tent and turned in soon after.
We rose early. It was a misty morning and icy cold. The thermometer had fallen to freezing overnight. Nigel appeared. Nigel was an early morning walker, from Dublin. I told him we were just back from Donegal, from cycling the coast.
“Did you meet Eamon?” Said Nigel, stuffing his hands into his fleece pockets. “The lighthouse keeper”
We hadn’t, but we talked about lighthouses and bluebells and his wife who couldn’t walk.
We’d used too much fuel cooking dinner, so had tea and flapjacks instead of porridge. We agreed on Lulworth Cove for second breakfast.
Dan set off along the grass path eager to zoom down the slope. Following swiftly, I jammed the front wheel in a rut and ate the dirt. I called out, but Dan didn’t hear. I called again in vain. I stood up and spat out some grass. Bruised and shaken, I got on the bike and pedalled on.
Soon we were rolling along the road. Lulworth Range paths were open to walkers. They would not get shot, though cyclists might. It was another prohibited path. White flowers mingled with blue in a wooded glade on the eye watering run to the ghost village of Tyneham and the gateway to the coastal path.
Skidding to a stop in the car park, a sign on the gate clearly marked ‘NO CYCLISTS’. That is quite different to ‘NO CYCLING’. Dan continued as a pick up truck moved in. The driver, a man with hollow cheeks, pointed to the notice. I saw the words ‘Range Warden’ on a plate beneath the vehicle’s registration number. I cringed.
Dan and I stood together as a second ranger arrived.
“Sorry, but you can’t cycle on the range.” The second ranger announced.
“Shit! Are we going to have to go back up that hill?” I said. My heart and legs heavy at the thought.
“Even if you were allowed on the path, it’s not doable with a bike. We lost a couple of quads over the side recently. Too steep. It’s a tough enough climb for walkers.”
Dan unfolded the map. We looked at it, not really looking, but giving ourselves the appearance of finding an alternative route. We sat on a picnic bench with the map spread out fully on the table. The sun warmed our backs and we sipped some water.
We walked over to the rangers, to see what we could wangle. Dan asked if we could use another route. The ranger said that although cyclists were not allowed, it was early and as there weren’t too many people around, they would turn a blind eye.
“Go to the back of the church. Lift your bikes over both five bar gates and carry on.”
I was in no rush to face the steep slog to the top of the ridge, deciding to have a look around the abandoned village. On the 17th November 1943, Tyneham’s 225 inhabitants were given notice of eviction by the War Office. They had to leave their homes by 19th December but could return after the war. 69 years have passed and no one has lived there since. The promise was broken and a compulsory purchase order made by the Ministry of Defence.
Stone homes lie in ruins, but the old school house has been ‘preserved’ as if the children and their schoolmaster left in haste.
I pushed along the rocky chalk, not daring to look at the climb ahead stopping once to drink and remove a layer. Two walkers passed by. We stopped again at the top of the ridge where we shared a boiled egg I’d squirreled away.
Back on the quiet road, giant targets and warning signs reminded us that this was a military zone.
The hunger was getting to me. I felt weak and tired. I saw Lulworth Castle in the distance. Dan said there was a pub nearby. The castle was closed to the public as there was a private function and the pub didn’t open till noon. We carried on. Young boys in camouflage clothing marched along the road. A peloton passed in the opposite direction. We turned towards West Lulworth. There, a shop selling pasties and hot drinks called. I dared not continue to Lulworth Cove for fear of finding nothing to eat.
We sat outside on a picnic bench eating breakfast before continuing to the beach. Lulworth Cove had a selection of restaurants and coffee shops. Tourists filled every available seat and a queue stood on the small pier in the high tide. Disappointed by the volume of people, I turned around and faced the hills.
A tree, slashed into shape by the wind, a reminder of the fierce storms that whip this coast, hung low over the pasture. Paragliders waited patiently for thermals to take them away.
By the time we reached Osmington Mills, it was lunchtime. Said to date from the 13th Century and right on the Jurassic coast, we took a leisurely break at the The Smugglers Inn.
Well fed and rested, we set off for the South West Coastal Path. A poor choice, so overgrown in places there wasn’t room to push.
Stinging nettles did their thing and brambles scratched my arms and legs. I lost count of the stiles.
A knight on a white horse roamed on a hill. The sea view made everything worthwhile.
We lay down on a grassy, daisy speckled ledge, basking in the afternoon sun watching sailing boats and birds. Portland Bill lighthouse a dot on the horizon.
We reached Weymouth where the day trippers flocked like seagulls to the shore. Hundreds strolled along the promenade. Ice creams in one hand, mobile phones in the other.
“What time does our train leave?”
With my ’99’ in one hand, I reached into my bag, and pulled out my phone.