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Friday, 30 May 2014

Dorset Folkore 5-The Chesil Beach mermaid


Dorset's long coastline and an ancient seafaring tradition makes it inevitable that tall tales of a fishy variety often circulated amongst the locals.
One of these relate that in 1757  the people of Portland spotted what they took to be a mermaid. The creature was eventually washed up at West Bexington and named Veasta.
Unfortunately for local fantasists she was even less of a looker than the local maids; being 13 ft long with a head that was a cross between a man and a hog and possessed of a  set of ninety six pearly gnashers. To top things off she had fins that resembled hands...not the sort of things to have running through your hair.
An even earlier sighting from Portland described a creature resembling a cock appearing from the sea. It posessed a great crest on its head, a red beard and legs half a yard long. After having a good old crow it finally disappeared from whence it came...still, as they say,  its all the same with a bit of batter on.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Beaches of the Jurassic Coast Pt. 2

Church Ope Cove-The only real beach on Portland and only reached by foot. It has no facilities except, mercifully, a toilet. A peaceful spot presided over by a ruined castle and church.
Weymouth on one of its quieter days

Weymouth-The Naples of Dorset certainly lives up to its name in summer. A beautiful azure sea curves away to the chalk cliffs of the Purbecks shimmering in the heat haze.
The fine sand is unequalled for sand castles (ask the sand sculptor who has a pitch on the beach). The shallow water is perfect for toddlers... in fact it is the quintessential English resort with donkeys, swing boats and candy floss. It has a wide esplanade for promenading. Its biggest blight, though, is the traffic, and parking is always at a premium; so plan to get there early.

Ringstead-An unspoilt beach with just a few holiday bungalows and a tearoom. It is a wide curve of shingle beach with good safe shallows and a decidedly upmarket feel. Once again, lovely views of Portland, and gentle walks on to the cliffs when you have finished frying. The eastern end tends to be used for discreet nude sunbathing.

Durdle Door early morning
Durdle Door-Two long shingle beaches are separated by the rockoutcrop of Durdle Door. Access is down a long path from the car park at the edge of a caravan park and the nearest WCs... Avoid loading yourself with too many deckchairs etc.; it is a long haul back to the top.

Lulworth Cove-Like Durdle Door, Lulworth is an icon of the Purbecks. The beach forms an almost full circle broken by just a narrow entrance. It is mostly shingle and child friendly. Although it gets crowded where the road finishes, a short walk along soon shakes off the hordes.

Kimmeridge at twilight

Kimmeridge-A long lane brings you to this wide cove backed by low cliffs. Rocky outcrops make it one of the best places for rock pooling. Constant activity surrounds the jetties as it is a popular destination for divers. There is a marine centre and WC. An ice cream van in the summer is the only source of food so bring a picnic.

Studland-A four mile stretch of gently shelving sandy beach owned by the National Trust. Superb for children. At the far end is a nudist beach for those who like to feel the sand between a bit more than their toes.

Swanage-Traditional holiday resort. A wide esplanade fronted by a long, sandy beach perfect for children. Pedalo hire is available.Bournemouth-The smooth sandy strand stretches for several miles all the way to Poole. It is backed by a wide car-free promenade along which you can walk or cycle (except in high summer) and refuel where necessary from the many kiosks and snack bars when you've had your fill of sand and sea. It is also just a short hop from sea front to the high street and its large department stores.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Beaches of the Jurassic Coast Pt.1


Here's day one of a quick two day whistle stop tour of the Jurassic Coast's best beaches...

SIDMOUTH-A long and mainly pebbly beach with sand at Jacobs Ladder to the west. Here you can find rock pools at low tide to explore. Wide traditional seafront ends with the distinctive red-hued Triassic cliffs.

Ladram Bay
LADRAM BAY-A small shingle beach dominated by distinctive rock formations...kayaks for hire if you want a closer look.

WESTON MOUTH-Only accessible via footpath from the village of Weston. It is a peaceful and isolated beach. Isolated enough to be a popular beach for naturists. It is listed as one of nineteen nudist beaches in the UK.


BRANSCOMBE-A lovely wide, wild strand of shingle. Not too wild, though...The Sea Shanty serves everything from fry-ups through to cream teas throughout the day.

BEER-Small, picturesque cove. Under the chalk cliffs are beach cafes serving everything from all day breakfasts to homemade cake. After you’ve had your fill, laze away the afternoon in one of the rows of deckchairs while staring at the little fishing boats puttering towards the horizon or drawn up on the pebbles. If you’re feeling particularly energetic, fishing trips leave from the sloping pebble beach.

-Wide seafront similar to Sidmouth. A long curve of pebbles is backed by a wide promenade. Sand at low tide.

Lyme Regis
LYME REGIS-The main town beach is a steeply sloping pebble beach which shades into a sand near the picturesque Cobb Harbour.. To the east and separate from the main beach is the smaller, quieter Church Beach, pebbles with sand at low tide. To the west, beyond the Cobb Harbour is Monmouth beach; its white flinty pebbles give it an almost Mediterranean feel on a bright summer’s day. Low tide creates a paradise of rock pools for children to explore while an investment in a fossil hammer could give you your very own dinosaur to take home.

CHARMOUTH-The long beach in Charmouth lies about a quarter of a mile from the village centre. It is a mix of shingle, stone and sand divided by the river Char. Apart from beach activities there are fossils to look for as well as rock pools to explore at low tide. The Heritage Centre gives you a fascinating insight into the area and has a cafe.

SEATOWN-Peaceful with shingle which shelves quite steeply.
West Bay

EYPE-  Shingle beach with a backdrop of Golden Cap. Dorset's highest headland to the west. 

WEST BAY-Two wide shingle beaches, East beach and West Beach divided by a small harbour

BURTON BRADSTOCK-Long clean sandy beach overlooked by cliffs and farmland. Strong point: the award-winning Hive Beach Cafe when hunger bites.

CHESIL BEACH-An eighteen mile bank of pebbles which is one of the wonders of the natural world. Currents and a steeply shelving beach make bathing unwise. Behind it lies the Fleet, an enclosed area of brackish water which is now an area of special scientific interest and was the inspiration for the classic story Moonfleet by J Meade Faulkner.
The beach pebbles are naturally graded by the currents; from gravel in the west to large pebbles in the east. In previous centuries fishermen used this phenomenon to guage exactly where on the coast they had landed.


Monday, 26 May 2014

Almost Dorset- Church of All Saints, Sutton Bingham

Just across the Dorset border in Somerset close to the reservoir of Sutton Bingham there stands the tiny church of All Saints.
Sutton Bingham is mainly known for its pretty reservoir and the birds it attracts. The church hides almost unnoticed at the end of a narrow lane just a stones-throw from the lake, its humble exterior giving no hint of the riches hidden inside.

Acclimatising to the gloom you become slowly become aware that the interior is richly decorated with medieval paintings   dating from the 13th and 14th centuries. Whitewashed over during the reformation they were only rediscovered in the 1860's. They looked particularly beautiful the day I visited. Bright sunlight shone, throwing lattice patterns across these ancient artworks.

The most noteworthy is painted on the north wall of the nave, and shows two scenes from the death of the Virgin, while through the beautifullypreserved Norman chancel arch is a scene of the crowning of the Virgin. Painted figures even decorate the window reveals. It is a timeless moment especially so when in a museum such venerable art would be securely behind glass.

Crowning of the Virgin
Outside take yet more time out for contemplation.

Of the two bells hanging in the open belfry, the right hand bell has been dated to 1250 and is believed to have been cast by an itinerant bell founder on this very spot 750 years ago. The other bell is but a fresh faced youngster and dates from 1688.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Dorset's Invisible monument


3,300 years ago, the Neolithic inhabitants of Wiltshire began building Stonehenge for the English tourist board. Not to be outdone the men of North Dorset set about building their own tourist attraction, one of titanic proportions known as  The Dorset Cursus.
It took the form of parallel chalk banks five feet high, six feet wide and spaced 300 feet apart flanked by deep ditches that snaked across the rolling downland of Cranborne Chase for a distance of six and a quarter miles. It has been estimated that it took around half a million man hours to construct.

Route of the Cursus seen from Martin Down
...So why aren't coach loads of sheep queuing up to get an eyeful? The reason is that it is nowhere to be seen. Blame it on dodgy building materials...unfortunately its earth and chalk construction proved less durable than stone, so that while Stonehenge still wows the public most of the Cursus has long since disappeared beneath the plough. Much of what is known about it is as a result of aerial photography and geophysical surveys.
The results of these investigations show that its course originally meandered across the gently rolling countryside between Bottlebush Down and Martin Down.

From the lofty viewpoint of Martin Down Nature Reserve (see walk below) you look down on the course of the Cursus. From here it takes just a little imagination to conjure those gleaming banks of white chalk stretching to the far horizon and to realise what an amazing monument it must once have been.

As to why the Cursus was constructed... no one really has any idea though theories abound, of course. Some say that it was a processional way or  even a Neolithic Aintree…hence the name 'cursus'. What is definite, though, was that the second bank seems to have been built some time after the first and meandered rather drunkenly across the countryside seemingly using the first bank as a guide. It also incorporates two long barrows built into each end.

A walk in Cursus country
Martin Down and along Brokerly Ditch (7 miles approx.)

This exhilarating walk takes you across Martin Down Nature Reserve and along Brokerley Ditch, a high bank and ditch dating from the bronze age and probably built to mark territorial boundaries. The Earthwork was enlarged after the Romans left, possibly as a defensive barrier against the invading Saxons and the structure still remains impressive to this day.

The far-reaching views from the top of the down  mark the beginning of the Cursus 

Monday, 19 May 2014

Kayak Dorset 1-Ringstead bay to Lulworth cove via Durdle Door


Ringstead Bay and Portland in the distance
This trip gives you stunning views of the Purbecks that you could never hope to get on land.
Ringstead Bay is reached by a long narrow track and except for the essential tea room is quiet and uncommercialised.  
You leave Ringstead with the blue silhouette of the Isle of Portland ever-present on the horizon. Nearing the end of the bay the terrain rises steeply above you creating the turf covered cliffs of White Nothe. From here on the dazzling chalk cliffs undulate away into the distance as far as the eye can see. Beneath them deserted beaches provides perfect deserted picnic spots.

Durdle Door- Early morning
After passing the iconic Durdle Door you soon reach the narrow entrance of Lulworth Cove.
In contrast to Ringstead Lulworth is a tourist honey pot but impressive all the same.  Time to scoff a cream tea to build vital strength for the return trip...

This is quite a long trip and though you can land quite easily there is no way up the cliffs until Durdle Door so take obvious precautions; make sure you're equipped with buoyancy aid, water and have checked the weather.

Return journey a minimum of 4hrs 
OS Explorer OL15

Sunday, 18 May 2014

By George! George III's holiday snaps pt.7

Holidaytime isn't all fun and frolics- never more so than when second homer George III visited his Weymouth pad.
There were an awful lot of people who would have liked to get their evil mitts on that plump royal personage. Those Frenchies, for a start, were everywhere. As a result the town, the bay and surrounding hills bristled with military might...

William Pitt the wily PM

Then there was the tedious business of running the country-First thing every a.m there would be the PM...

... and discipline was not just confined to refusing the second ice-cream.

Friday, 16 May 2014

The Hidden Chapel

Close to the village of Abbotsbury a footpath wends its way to the centre of a small wood and a stone arch, all that remains of a medieval chapel. 

Unmarked by any signpost it is an evocative spot, standing above a tinkling stream and dappled by the sunlight slanting through the trees. In May bluebells carpet the ground with purple blue.

Within the ruined precincts lichen covered slabs commemorate recent landowners. An altar is crowned by a beautiful wooden crucifix, stained an  irredescent green by the damp. Across is surface lie the scattered offerings of coins or flowers left by passers-by.

It a spiritual place, a place for contemplation whatever your faith. A place to listen to the sounds of silence.
Grid ref: SY556 878

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Mrs Coade and the Everlasting Stone

Above Lyme Regis stands an elegant Georgian villa, once the home of the renowned novelist, John Fowles. Two centuries earlier it was the summer residence of Eleanor Coade.
Mrs Eleanor Coade was a rare species of woman almost unheard of in Georgian England; a female entrepreneur (the title 'Mrs' lent an air of respectability as she never married). 
Coadstone Manufactory at Lambeth
Born in Lyme in 1733 she moved to London as a young girl and in 1769 bought a struggling artificial stone manufactory on the banks of the Thames at Lambeth. In two years she had transformed the business by perfecting a product that  revolutionised the architectural landscape of Georgian England.
Atmospheric pollution from growing industrialisation was attacking the natural stone used to embellish buildings. To combat this Mrs Coade's factory created a new material that proved impervious to this harsh new environment, Coadstone. Coadestone was not only very resilient but retained extremely fine detail, making it perfect for the statuary and fine decorative friezes with which the Georgians loved.
13 ton South Bank Lion, 150 years old and
still in perfect condition stands on Westminster Bridge
The clue to Coadestone's unique properties may be found in its original name 'lithodiyra' meaning 'twice fired' in Greek. Whereas other artificial stone required a chemical reaction to set, Coadestone was a ceramic material made from a mixture of 'fortified clay' fired twice over a period of four days.
The new material was soon adopted by the finest architects of the day such as Nash and Soane; while landscape architects including Capability Brown used it to embellish the country parks of the wealthy . The firm also gained royal approval, Coadestone embellishing both the Royal Pavilion at Brighton and Buckingham Palace. Examples have been found as far afield as Russia and the Caribbean and range in size from 1 inch to 16 feet. 
Coadestone statues adorning St Pancras Parish Church
Mrs Coade died in 1821 and strangely, given the popularity of the product, the manufactory was to close less than twenty years after her death. Today the Royal Festival Hall covers the site of her factory and until recently the recipe for this seemingly indestructible material was lost. 

Unfortunately Mrs Coade did not prove to be as indestructible as her beloved Coadestone. Her final resting place in Bunhill Fields Cemetery, London was obliterated by German bombs in the Blitz.
On the other hand, Belmont, Mrs Coade's Lyme Regis retreat remains, still richly decorated with the artificial stone which made her famous. After lying forlorn and empty since John Fowles' death it is now being lovingly restored to its former glory by the The Landmark Trust .
Statue commemorating George III Weymouth

Monday, 12 May 2014

Dorset Museums 11- Dorchester County Museum

The next time you pay for that ice cream with an old bent pfennig and congratulate yourself on having got one over that simple Dorset pedlar, think again... especially when those old knee pains, back pains, eye pains, ear pains, you name it pains suddenly reappear.

Sticking pins in wax effigies is well known and though not confined to Dorset serves as a warning never to mess with the locals.
Thomas Hardy records it in his novel the 'The Return of the Native'
'From her workbasket in the window seat the woman took a paper of pins. These she began to thrust into the image in all directions, with apparently excruciating energy. Probably as many as fifty were thus inserted, some into the head of the wax model, some into the shoulders, some into the trunk, some upwards through the soles of the feet, till the figure was completely permeated with pins'

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Riding high on the X53

The 85-mile route of the X53 threads the Jurassic Coast from end to end, as nearly as a bus route can, soaring over open uplands, diving through woods, and touching the shore at the few openings between the cliffs.

Along the side of the double-decker bus runs a wavy band of names: Poole, Wareham, Weymouth, Abbotsbury, Bridport, Lyme Regis, Seaton, Beer, Exeter. It's worth travelling this route in either direction, preferably at the upper front window, and stopping off at some of these places.

Watch out for the conical little hills around Bridport, one of them crowned with five pine trees. Either side of the valley in which Chideock nestles are beautiful hills, one of them being the back of the famous Golden Cap.
The view that takes in as much as possible of the route in one glance is from a spot called Wears Hill. As you come to it from the direction of Burton Bradstock, a great vista opens: almost hidden below is Abbotsbury with its sub-tropical gardens and swannery, from which stretches the huge lagoon called the Fleet, which is separated from the sea by the ten-mile curve of shingle called Chesil Bank, which touches in the distance the "Isle" of Portland.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Dorset Museums 10-The Philpott Museum, Lyme Regis

She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore 
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells

Mary Anning has become to fossils what bacon is to eggs... so notorious that she has even inspired the classic tongue twister written above.
Not everyone thought so as this letter displayed in the Philpott shows. It was sent from the British Museum in 1935 rejecting the offer of her 'commonplace' book (a miscellanea of personal writings) with the words -
'They are just the sort of extracts and jottings which a young lady of the period might be expected to make but have no lasting value' 

Could this be the man who also turned down the Beatles?...

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Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Dorset walks Pt.1-Lyme Regis circular walk.

6 miles 3hrs approx OS Explorer 116 Lyme Regis and Bridport
This easy walk can be wrapped in a morning leaving time for the beach in the afternoon.
Start at the excellent Town Mill then follow the Lim first by road then footpath along the old pack horse trail past Middle Mill. The route continues through fields and along footpaths eventually passing Rhode Hill House. This was originally the home of Alban Woodroffe, Lyme's great benefactor.
Further on the view opens up to give you a distant and unexpected view of a viaduct of monumental proportions.
Cannington Viaduct
This is Cannington Viaduct which was built in 1903 to carry the Lyme branch line from Axminster. 
It was the first viaduct to be built completely from concrete rather than brick. Like its classical Roman predecessors it now stands as a derelict symbol of another age and sold by the railways several years ago for the grand sum of a penny.
The route returns through leafy glades by the Lim.

6 miles 3hrs approx OS Explorer 116 Lyme Regis and Bridport

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Dorset Villages Pt1 - Moreton

T.E.Lawrence. Great man not such a great  motorcyclist
Good old Lawrence of Arabia? He's right up there with Corfe Castle as an esteemed tourist attraction...And he doesn't take a penny for it...fine chap..!

His mortal remains lie in the pretty village of Moreton near Dorchester. Looking down on his humble resting place, bear in mind that you would very probably have looked down on him as well. 
Unlike the popular filmic image; Lawrence was actually a rather squat little tiddler, measuring just 5'2," though still a giant of a Renaissance man; archaeologist, writer philosopher, warrior etc. It was sad then that it was his motor bike skills that would let him down in the end. 

After paying your respects the nearby church of St Nicholas is worth a visit its stained glass windows, destroyed by a bomb in World War Two, were replaced with clear, engraved panes; lending it an unusually light and airy quality. The engraving was carried out over a period of thirty years by Sir Laurence Whistler, brother of the painter Rex Whistler. Sir Laurence was originally a poet but turned to glass engraving and produced work for both Salisbury Cathedral as well as the Oxford colleges. 

The village also has a private walled garden open to the public and an award-winning tearoom set in the old schoolhouse.

For your ghoulish delectation, the cake trolley was the bier that carried Lawrence to his final resting place. 
Don't they say it's a rocky road to Heaven?