"A short break in Dorset"

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March 12th 2010
Published: March 14th 2010
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‘Is there a path, Dad?’ I holler. Ahead of me, an intrepid figure - beneath an old man’s cap marked “Sports” - flails among impenetrable brambles. ‘Yes, if you’re a badger,’ he yells back. Blood is leaking from his left forearm.

We are trying to walk the South West Coast Path in Dorset: from Charmouth to Eype. But part of the path is closed - the first part, as it turns out. So we are forced to head east along the beach instead, marvelling at the Jurassic coastline. As we crunch along the shingle from Charmouth car park, signs advertise hourly rates for hiring fossil hammers and deckchairs. Other signs warn: “No digging in the cliffs without permission”.

Hammerless, we find a fossil within seconds. But my sister, Josephine, grasps the flawless ammonite - perfectly preserved for, oh, about 180 million years - rather ham-fistedly. The clay crumbles; the specimen is ruined. Still, this is the best place in the whole of the UK for fossils, and we are quietly confident of finding another.

We proceed towards Golden Cap, the highest sea cliff in southern England, thirty metres higher than Beachy Head. At a lofty 191 metres, it is hardly a mountain, yet it looks pretty imposing when being tackled by foot from sea level. ‘I can’t see Gabriel’s Mouth,’ announces Dad, unfolding an Ordnance Survey map in the wind. That was supposed to be the point at which we rejoined the Coastal Path. ‘Make your own way up that clay bank,’ he decides instead, hedging his bets. ‘The path can’t be too far inland.’

The bank proves a little soft. All four of us - Dad, Josephine, and her partner Robbie - seek different routes across this formidable tract of land, some faring better than others. Take me, for example: never one to shirk a challenge, I am faced with considerably softer ground than the other three have negotiated. Dashing across a short stretch of quicksand, however, has never fazed me in the past. Nor, incidentally, has climbing icebergs, but that episode didn't end too rosily either.

‘You should have put your feet down more lightly,’ says Robbie helpfully, ‘as though you’re dancing.’ As though I’m dancing? Pah! With one Wellington boot submerged to the hilt, I fail to see the humour. But then my thoughts turn to Namibian, and the predicament we could potentially have found ourselves in. My mood instantly lightens. OK, so he wouldn’t have set off on a seven-mile walk in the first place, but stick with the hypothesis for just a second. Can you picture the Coast Guard rescue helicopter, the custom-built stretcher and the industrial winch? Ha ha.

My boot is buried entirely, a salutary reminder of nature’s triumph over man. I need assistance, and I need it immediately. With unyielding rectitude, my family members lunge for their cameras, capturing the inelegant pose on digital film for posterity. Almost as an afterthought, a steadying hand is offered. Honestly, these youthful bouts of derring-do are really no way for a man of 34 to behave, are they? On paper, at least, I’m supposed to be a grown-up.

Coo, this clay is heavy. After a good deal of waggling - or is it wiggling? - my lower leg, it is once again mobile. But simply lifting the mud-caked foot requires the strength of a superhuman; the weight of the boot - needing both arms to lift it - is like constantly dragging a medium-sized child around with you. I’m sure you all know how that feels.

Yet at least we had sea views while languishing in the clay bog; the next stage of the “walk” is beset with inviolable Dorset jungle. As Dad thrashes a passage through a particularly dense thicket - a route that perhaps no man has ever walked before - the rest of us begin to climb trees. On reaching higher ground, I think I can safely say that we’re doomed. There is still no path in sight.

A full twenty yards of battling with vines and cougars, at ground level, ensues. OK, the latter is an exaggeration, but we all breathe a sigh of relief at reaching fresh air and sunshine. ‘Whoopee! Civilisation!’ cries my sister, on spotting a man-made stile. We have mobile phone reception - did we ever not? - and feel safe once more. There is seldom a more appropriate time for the thermos flask to emerge. And quite frankly, I think the ordeal warrants a hot cross bun with our coffee.

‘It was a bit of a risk,’ admits Dad airily, as though his offspring have been subjected to nothing more than a game of cards. Each of us examines our wounds. Dad is scratched, Robbie and I have jeans frayed beyond recognition, and querulous Josephine is worrying about sunburn. Dad unfolds the map again as his words trigger childhood memories of amphibious treks at high tides. We plod up Golden Cap for cheese-and-pickle sandwiches before it begins to rain.

Descending the other side, there is a welcome sight: a pub. Could it be a mirage? No, it really is the Anchor Inn, nestled between soaring peaks. Sitting with rewarding pints of ale, we make a toast and take a group photograph using the self-timer function. ‘Want a hand?’ offers a friendly rambler. ‘No, that would be far too easy, thank you,’ replies Dad. The camera wobbles on the makeshift platform - Dad has used the camera case and a flowerpot - and the shutter clicks. Three out of four of us are in the picture.

Talk about kicking a man while he’s down: as the last of the clay falls off my boots, a passing gull launches excrement straight into my lap. Great! Then, still miles from where we’ve left a second car, it begins to rain like stair-rods. Our final flask of tea - yes, with another bun - is savoured in Morrison’s supermarket carpark in Bridport.

In the comfort of Dad’s house later, we have a little look at a map of New Zealand - he is planning a trip for next winter. As we pore over the beauty of Milford Sound, Dad pulls out a red-and-white neckerchief, with a huge knot tied in the middle. This is a generational, if curious and eccentric affectation; supposedly the knot signifies a reminder to do something. ‘Now why have I done that?’ asks Dad rhetorically, rubbing his screwed-up eyes in thought. ‘And do you think they’ll have brambles in New Zealand?’

The following day, I decide to discover a little more about fossils. If you are passing Lyme Regis, pop into The Fossil Shop for a journey back in time. From behind a replica shark jaw - replete with real, 250-million-year-old Florida shark teeth - emerges a shopkeeper. ‘All right?’ he asks cordially, and proceeds to explain how the fossils are created.

‘The word ammonite comes from the Greek for ram’s horn,’ he begins, as I warm to the theme. ‘The shell is like a diver’s buoyancy jacket, but when the animals die, they lie on their side.’ He demonstrates with a plastic sea creature, its tail curled into a spiral. As the layers of sediment gradually cover it, the weight crushes the soft shell, leaving a perfect specimen. He briefly digresses into stupid tourists being rescued from the coast, up to their necks in mudslides. ‘Idiots,’ I nod knowledgably, glad that I’d washed off the mud and changed my jeans.

On the wall, a newspaper clipping tells of a recent find here: a 60ft long pliosaur, with a bite four times more powerful than a T-Rex. It is the biggest-ever sea killer found on a UK beach. ‘They reckon there's a hole in the seabed down at Portland Bill,' continues my newfound friend in The Fossil Shop. ‘It’s probably full of ammonites, but it’s too dangerous to get them out.' Well, I think I’ll head down there then for a look. 'Have a crab sandwich for me,' he chirrups.

En-route I have cause for an emergency stop. Sarah, a 22-year-old photographer, is sitting on the road at a bus stop, looking a little forlorn. Her feet hurt, which is hardly surprising as she walked 29 miles of the South West Coast Path yesterday. I don’t really like to mention the paltry seven I managed, but then I seriously doubt whether she almost vanished into quicksand. Anyway, without applying the handbrake, I open the passenger door and leer with wanton perversion. ‘Need a lift?’

Cor, her feet must really be sore, because she tosses her rucksack into the rear seat and climbs in next to me. Are girls supposed to accept rides from strangers nowadays? Well, as it turns out, Sarah turns out to be the perfect girl to have lunch with - she doesn’t want any! Nibbling on a meagre flapjack, she gazes out to sea while I cram in a rather good crab sandwich, savouring each delectable morsel.

Unfortunately the lighthouse is closed, but this is a pleasant couple of hours exploring what seems like the end of the earth - the calm before the storm, if you like. Half an hour later, the car runs out of water and grinds to a halt in Asda, Weymouth. ‘It’s the only Asda in Dorset,’ says a supermarket shelf-stacker when I ask for an address to give the mechanic. Well, let’s hope those directions are enough, then. Oh, and I never did find that swirling vortex at Portland Bill. Perhaps I shall have to go back to this gorgeous part of Britain another time..


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