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June 27, 2011

Dorset is Boo'iful, but . . . Lincoln Allison encounters jungle, desert and all too many shanty towns on the South Coast path

Posted by Lincoln Allison

How quickly traditions can be established: this is only our third long-distance walk (follwoing on from the trails of St Cuthbert and Alfred Wainwright), but I already think of it as an annual event. For many weeks I yearn for the simplicity of it, for the transcendent imperatives of getting there, staying dry, not falling over. Get thirsty, drink. Get hungry, eat, Get tired, rest. No complications, no dilemmas. The joy of dropping down from a green hillside into a honey-coloured village, wherein lie a bed and a pint and something to be taken with chips.

Where to go? A World Heritage Site would be nice; perhaps one with a great variety of landscape, including seven miles of jungle and eight miles of lagoon and cliffs of red, white and yellow - or, with a paint maker's pretensions to accuracy, russet, magnolia and mustard. And all without having to put up with foreign breakfasts and foreign beer? So it is off to the rebranded "Jurassic Coast" of East Devon and Dorset, Exmouth to Weymouth, seventy five miles in five days.

This walk offers a fairly thorough physical challenge. The first day, pottering through Budleigh Salterton to Sidmouth, was deceptively easy because it is relatively flat and undemanding. Budleigh, incidentally, is in the literal sense the sleepiest place I have seen since a good proportion of the humans present were dozing in the sun; it looks like a set for a Miss Marple story. But the third day lived up to the reputation of the South West Coast path. It is claimed that if you walk the whole 630 miles of the path you climb enough to get to the top of Everest three times and this stretch from Seaton to Chideock sucked the energy from us. It starts with seven miles of undercliff jungle which, uniquely in my experience, has you going up and down thirty or forty feet all the time - you are, after all, walking across collapsed, composted rubble, however well disguised by vegetation. After Lyme Regis there is a massive (and hilly) inland diversion followed by the sort of combinations of pebble beaches and steep cliff ascents - the highest being well over 600 feet up to Golden Cap - which make you think you will never manage another one, though you do.

The variety of landscape is extreme. Before setting out I vaguely imagined "cliff walking" and that describes a substantial minority of the walk. But there are many other land shapes including all varieties of meadow and downland, arable fields and woods of many sizes and ages. There were meadows with no flowers, meadows with only ox-eye daisies and meadows with every conceivable flower except ox-eye daisies. There is a sandy, shingly lowland stretch towards Abbotsbury where the predominant plants are wild onions and pungent wild cabbage. But the most unusual part of the walk is the dense, jungly woodland of the undercliff where the whole landscape slipped across a stratum of wet clay and broke, the largest piece on Christmas Eve 1839. I say "jungle" because apart from the narrow path it is an impenetrable mass of trees, bushes, creepers and undergrowth quite unique at this latitude.

There's a desert, too, in the unvegetated ridge of Chesil Beach. I must remark that my companion and I differed on the charms of the jungle: she found it claustrophobic and its constant undulations irritating. We differed also in our view of sunken lanes. I love the combinations of bank and hedge, typical of the west Country, where you see thirty species in as many feet: holly, honeysuckle, hazel, hedge bindweed - I won't bore you by leaving the letter H. It depends on how much you like plants.

The sea is always close, of course, sometimes very close, sometimes distant background, occasionally invisible. Compared with the connotations of English Channel - in my mind, at least - it seemed vast and placid despite strong winds. On occasion we seemed to be in a forest hanging over the sea in a quite unreal way. Cormorants and gulls flew over us, but the dominant birds in many areas were ravens, often using the wind to ascend vertically from the cliff with a twitch of their ragged wings. I tried the imaginative exercise of expunging the sea from the view and was left with an image of white crags and pinnacles looming out of dark green foliage like a range of small but exotic mountains.

The people of the walk are a mixture in their nature and frequency. It is not like the Coast to Coast where there are many long-distance walkers - though we did meet a Yorkshireman who turned inland to attempt the remarkable feat of (eventually) walking to Cape Wrath on a line as near as he could manage to the East/West watershed; nor is it like the loneliness of St. Cuthbert's Way. Some stretches are deserted, some are the territory of local dog-walkers and on some you overtake puffed out tourists attempting one cliff for the view. Almost everybody is polite and friendly: a single young woman with earphones in and eyes fixed ahead in the urban style strikes an exceptional note.

Bed, breakfast, evening meal. And the greatest of these is breakfast. The last time I saw a figure (from the Consumers' Association) it suggested that only 7% of the population and still sinking ate a traditional breakfast most mornings. But it seems to be something everybody wants on holiday, whether they are English or foreign, and in this new, leisured version the institution is having something of a golden age. I had beautiful smoked haddock with poached eggs; elsewhere there was lots of crispy bacon, mushrooms sautéed in butter and decent sausages. One B & B listed seven local sources on the back of the menu card. Some credit Tripadviser with a contribution to this improvement as it has made competition more real.

Unfortunately I cannot relay comparably good news about either accommodation or evening meals. We had one really good meal of original and tasty local food: scallops, asparagus, rabbit, lamb. But otherwise the renaissance of British food appeared to have fallen short of the coast and there was too much reliance on the depths - freezer and fryer. Rooms were much better equipped than they used to be, but they and the beds tend to be too small.

The towns and villages are mostly pleasant and small and well-preserved: we were a little disappointed with Lyme Regis, of which we had high expectations, but much impressed by Weymouth, which will show off to the world next year when it holds the Olympic yachting events. All in all, it was a walk we were glad to have chosen and which you might recommend to any overseas visitor as a fascinating slice of England that one can be proud of. With one massive exception.

One instinctively calls them caravans , but I am not referring to temporary parkings, but to fixed structures, whole shanty towns of prefabricated shacks. I have to confess that my reaction to them borders on the psychotic: I loathe them. As we walked through our first site in East Devon, appalled at its vastness, my companion tried to mitigate her own adverse reaction. We watched a man play with two small children on the grass between the shacks and the cliff. My companion said:

I suppose that if you lived in London . . . and hadn't very much money . . . and you wanted your children to see the sea . . . and have some space . . . and see rabbits in the wild . . .
(There were some not-very-wild rabbits messing about.) My head said she had a point, but my heart said heavy artillery: three days of bombardment then tow the mangled wreckage out to sea and watch the bubbles come up.

Is this just irrational elitism? Or aesthetic confusion? I don't have the same feeling about beach huts, which are nowadays considered extremely photogenic, nor about tents and by comparison, my attitude to mobile caravans is somewhat mitigated. Am I like William Wordsworth, who virulently opposed railways without realising that they would be seen by later generations as complementing rather than assaulting the rural scene? I don't think I am; I do think that if you are going to take seriously the idea of a World Heritage Site - or even a planning system, given how strict the authorities are with genuine householders - you have to get rid of this rubbish.

On reflection, it is the desire to own and tame a wild and exceptional spot which seems even worse than the shacks themselves and I hate the funny little mock-suburban lawns and clothes lines and dog kennels more, even, than I hate the shacks themselves. This should be a land of the boot and the rucksack, not of the car and the lawn. In England one is used to putting up with the dross alongside the class acts. As a friend of mine remarked recently,

That's what this country is about - on the one hand a bunch of chavs, on the other Radio 4, the Lake District, Pippa Middleton's arse . . .
But we could at least get rid of the dross in a World Heritage Site.

To put it in perspective, there are miles of pristine, uninhabited beaches along this coast and places (some of them owned by the National Trust) where you can stride among the gulls and the ravens without seeing a jarring artefact. But there are also dozens of large caravan sites which, on all the logic of development control, should not be there. At least I am not in the position of the late Richard Crossman, who revealed in his diaries that he had railed about seeing a new caravan site on a favourite stretch of coast only to discover that it was himself who had granted permission for it.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is My Father's Bookcase: A Version of the History of Ideas.

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