I walk along the promenade, through Weymouth. The sun is shining and it promises to be another hot March day. It is a Monday morning and the beach is comparatively empty.
I reach the mouth of the River Wey and the entrance to Weymouth’s marina. Here a beautiful large sailing ship is moored, close to the huge twin hull of a vehicle catamaran ferry. Ferries leave for the Chanel Islands and for St Malo from here.
On the quayside, I find a sign for a much smaller ferry, just as marked on my map. This would take me across the 50 yard stretch of water to the other side of the river mouth. I wait for 10 minutes but there is no sign of a ferry-boat, on this side or the other. Shame. It’s not far to walk around and cross by the bridge, maybe a mere 1/2 mile. And the ferry would have cost me a quid. But it would have been a cheap price to pay for the experience. I love ferries. One of the joys of walking round the coast has been finding all the little passenger ferries, marked as ‘Ferry P’ on my ordinance survey maps.
I walk along the waterfront, past fishing boats and nets and pots, past pubs and restaurants. On the day I arrived in Weymouth (Saturday) the waterfront was crowded with people spilling out of pubs and cafes and enjoying the warm sunshine. Today, on this Monday morning, there is hardly anybody about. And I cross over the bridge. The bridge seems to be able to open to let larger ships sail through. But today it is covered in scaffolding and closed to vehicle traffic, although you can still cross on foot- much to my relief. I wonder if it is being renovated for the Olympics.
Some friends of mine have a ship they keep here. I look out for its name, but I can’t see it and I wonder if they have moved it, as they planned to.
(Later I discover another huge area of the marina adjacent to this section – jam-packed with sailing ships. I would never have spotted theirs among the hundreds moored!)
I walk up to Nothe Fort. This old fort dominates the south side of the river mouth and is surrounded by parkland. But the coastal walk through the path is closed. They are re-tarmacing the surface. But the workmen let me through anyway.
Apparently the man with the machine is in another area of the park at the moment.
At the end of this lovely path is a great view over Portland Harbour and a newly constructed promenade area, over which waves are crashing, despite the sea being very calm today. I wonder what it will be like in a gale and I suspect this gleaming new promenade will become damaged by waves and won’t last long.
On the promenade, I manage to take a timed photo of myself.
The views of Portland Harbour are spoilt by the brilliant sun – dead ahead. The harbour itself is an immense area and seems empty of boats. This is where the sailing Olympics will be held.
I meet a man who is interested in photography and asks me about my camera. He has a Nikon and uses it mainly for taking macro photographs of coins. I have a Canon EOS 550D. We discuss lenses and lighting.
The next section of the walk clearly signposted as the official South West Coast path and cycle route. Unfortunately, is incredibly boring, being long, straight and bordered by high banks and bushes so there is little to see of the sea.
I might have had more fun if I had simply tried to stick as close to the shore as possible, because I did see some old footpaths along the water’s edge. But these were narrow, overgrown and poorly signposted. I thought they might simply peter out and leave me stranded.
When I come across this old station sign, I realise the path follows an old railway route, perhaps explaining its unrelenting straightness and lack of views.
There is worse to come.
I reach Ferry Bridge. Here a road bridge crosses over the narrow stretch of water between Portland Harbour and the inner waters of East Fleet. Once over the bridge, the causeway that leads into Portland begins. And here is my first sight of the famous Chesil Beach – an uncompromising bank of shingle, running for ten miles along the shore and continuing down the side of the causeway and merging into Portland.
But I don’t walk along Chesil Beach. If I had thought about it, I might have tried, but I am hot and tired and keen to reach Portland quickly. The shingle bank is bare of vegetation, bleak, stark, high, and – well – shingly. It doesn’t look very encouraging. And if I stick to the road, I can visit the Visitor’s Centre on the causeway and use their toilets.
I walk along green grass – an area of common land – running to one side of the road. The Visitor’s Centre is clearly visible but, as I approach, I see it is shut and there are construction works in progress. Perhaps this is renovation work to be competed in time for the Olympics?
At the other end of the causeway, the entrance to Portland is not particularly scenic. There is a new marina area on one side. The back of the shingle bank stretches along the other side. Between the two are some industrial units, an empty patch of wasteland and some fenced off areas.
Here I walk along a busy road, along a horribly narrow bike path that doubles as the only walking route into Fortuneswell and Portland proper. Cars, lorries and coaches thunder past. The wind of their passing nearly knocks me off my feet and I am glad my eyes are protected from flying grit by sunglasses. When I meet a cyclist, there is not enough room for us to pass and I have to leap off, into the shingle on the side of the path.
The most annoying thought that occurs to me is this: I didn’t have to do this. Portland is an ‘island’ and, according to my own walking-round-the-coast rules, I could have bypassed it completely.
Finally my ordeal ends. I am in a place called Victoria Square. I walk up alongside a park, where I stop for a snack, a drink, and to get my bearings. I also hope to find some public toilets, but there is no sign of any open.
From here there is a great view across the park, over some modern houses below and along Chesil Beach, which stretches into the distance. I can’t see the end of the beach, it is lost in the haze in the distance.
Later I learn that the modern looking ‘town houses’ beneath me are newly built and this is the official Olympic Village.
Climbing upwards, I walk up the road, up the steep hill of Fortuneswell and further into Portland. I am lost at this stage but I plan to pick up the official South West Coast Path as it heads towards the east coast of Portland.
I stop at a pub and ask for food. It is a local bar, with five or six regulars at the counter. The person who does food isn’t there (his name might be Mushy, since the food section of the bar is called ‘Mushy’s Cafe’) but the bar lady rustles up a burger and chips. Straight from the freezer into the deep fat fryer. It is very kind of her. Unfortunately, I have indigestion for the rest of the day. But at last I can go to the loo.
Now I head up a very steep hill and follow footpath signs that take me off the road. The signs are promising, but I end up in a stony wasteland. There are old fortifications, ruins, a rock strewn landscape, quarry workings and a brooding bulk of a young offenders institute in the distance.
Multiple tracks criss cross the ground. It is hard to know which to follow. Where is the footpath? I follow one well-worn track but it stops in a dead-end, having led me to what appears to be the edge of a steep drop into a working quarry below. [Looking back, I wonder if this wasn’t an active quarry, but a new construction site for the gas storage project? – more about this later.]
Where is the official footpath? There are a few figures about in this desolate place. Ahead I see two people without dogs or rucksacks in the distance. Immediately, I begin to feel uneasy. People without dogs or rucksacks? What are they up to? I nearly turn back. Just when I decide to abandon my search for the proper coast path and return to the road, I spot a footpath sign. I follow an old, disconnected road that once led to a quarry area, I think- now abandoned. But I am surprised to come across men working on this road with a tarmac laying machine.
Then I see a sign and I realise that this is where they are constructing a huge storage site for liquid gas. I remember hearing about this huge Portland gas project on a TV programme, Country Tracks or Coast, I can’t remember which. When it is finished, 1,000 million cubic metres of liquid gas will be stored under pressure in giant caverns underground. I wonder what disruption such a huge storage facility will bring to this quiet island. [Later I learn the gas will be piped underground from here to where it will enter the national grid, somewhere inland and north of Dorchester.]
Finally, I almost catch up with the people walking without dogs or rucksacks. They are a couple of middle-aged strollers, not so scary close up. And, best of all, I find some official sign posts for the South West Coast path. The strollers turn inland but I continue along the path
The South West Coast path leads right behind the forbidding young offenders institute, running alongside its high fences and huge gates.
Beyond here, the landscape becomes friendlier, but only just. I walk across an open landscape of old quarry works, past flat rocks and shrubs. Below me, in the blue bay, is Portland Harbour. From up here, I realise how enormous this enclosed Harbour area actually is.
A sign tells me that a native breed or British goats have been released here, to keep the vegetation down. I perk up. Perhaps I will spot a goat. But I don’t see any.
Then, suddenly, the walk turns scenic. The ground slopes down. The prison is left behind. There are bushes and a twisting path through rocks, running above a blue sea. I meet a couple of proper walkers – the first I have met all day.
I reach an old ruin – the remains of Rufus Castle. I meet more walkers. Signs point upwards and I can visit an old church if I want to. I decide not to detour and stick to the coast path. [Later I learn the church has a graveyard where local smugglers and pirates are buried. Their graves are marked with skull and crossbones signs and I was sorry I hadn’t visited it.]
The path is narrow and winds down a cliff to a beautiful bay called Church Ope Cove.
I am surprised to see this pretty place, tucked away in the harsh rocky landscape of this part of the coast. The beach is shingled and at the bottom of the steep slope are some brightly painted beach huts. Above are perched static caravans. But the cove is very scenic, a lovely curve of shingle, framed by fierce rocks.
The path winds up, steep and close to the edge of the cliff. I wish I had brought my walking poles. This would not be a good place to slip or turn an ankle.
I climb up and meet the road. Now there is a short walk into Southwell. Traffic is light. I pass more quarry workings.
I spent some time researching bus timetables before setting off this morning, because I am relying on a bus to get back to my hotel in Weymouth. I know there is no bus to Portland Bill, the far point of the island, because it is still officially ‘winter’. However, I do know there is a bus back from Southwell and I am pleased to see a bus stop with a timetable that informs me a bus is about to arrive in a couple of minutes.
After waiting for 20 minutes at the bus stop, I re-read and finally understand the small print on the displayed timetable. The letters NSCH means ‘not on School Days’. Since today is a Monday and a school day, that means not today.
No buses run today!
Across the road, I see a group of people getting into a taxi. Maybe I should call a taxi? I have brought numbers of taxi firms with me, just in case. I pull out my mobile phone. There is no signal. I begin to panic.
How am I going to get back to Weymouth.
I walk further along the road, hoping to find a mobile signal. Here I find another bus stop and a young man waiting. An electronic display board tells me the next bus is due in eight minutes and is going to ‘Debenhams’. The young man confirms that a bus for Weymouth stops here every twenty minutes or so. He seems surprised I don’t know this.
The bus is bumpy and becomes increasingly crowded as we near Weymouth. The bus driver shouts ‘hold tight – lock and load’ every time he sets off. And gives us all a running commentary on the behaviour of car drivers along the way. I am enthralled and I miss my stop. He stops the bus especially for me.
(One thing I have learnt about public transport in Weymouth, nearly all buses end up at the back of Debenhams. The only problem with this simple system is this: you need to know where Debenhams is.)
I walk back along Weymouth beach, looking lovely in the late afternoon sunlight. At the far end of the bay there is a strange white tower, or chimney. Later I find out this is a special viewing tower and is being constructed as a tourist attraction in advance of the Olympics. Today, I have no idea what it is- it just looks rather odd.
Miles walked = 11
High points: Seeing Chesil beach. Finding Rufus Castle and the lovely Church Ope Cove beneath it.
Low points: The boring straight footpath to Ferry Bridge and the unfriendly entrance into Portland. Oh, and traipsing around the abandoned quarry landscape, trying to find the unmarked coast path.