Well, I have a whole new appreciation for why they call it ‘the Rollercoaster’….
Day 1 took me from Studland along several miles of soft, picture perfect white sand right from the off. On the one hand, this was a fitting start to a coastal adventure, but I quickly realised that the downside was having shoes and socks almost instantly filled with what felt like half a beach, and all the attendant sock-and-foot grating that went with it. A few adjustments didn’t help so I kind of accepted that it would be a trial by fire (or sandpaper) to start us off, and carried on towards the Purbecks, my first big obstacle. Fortunately I’d had the privilege to run and hike a lot of the first day’s route at Love Trails Festival last August, so it was something of a delight to be able to revisit Old Harry Rocks and Dancing Ledge, among so many other spots with such good memories attached to them.
My memory seemed to have blanked out quite how improbably huge some of the hills were however, so after a short detour to the Scott Arms in Kingston (another Love Trails nugget of useful information) I was deeply grateful to arrive in Kimmeridge Bay, feeling very proud of myself for having made it so far with a much heavier pack than I was used to.
Downside – this was pure hubris, as the lovely ladies in the marine centre informed me that the army ranges were shut, and with them the entire section of trail planned for my next morning heading into Lulworth. The detour involved opening more than one fold of the OS map, and there was no way I’d make it without going way out of my way. Upside – my first experience on this adventure of complete strangers being unexpectedly kind; one of them offered to give me a lift as far as Lulworth as it was on her way home, which I gratefully accepted and thusly found myself deposited outside a very fine local pub, 300 yards away from the local YHA. Winning.
The win was even bigger as I fell asleep to the sound of repeated gunfire over the ranges, and in the morning when I woke in my nice warm bunk to torrential rain and wind fit to shake the walls. With around 6 miles taken off what had been planned for day 2, I conferred with my training partner Charlotte (who is a wonder of planning and organisation, and has been acting as remote support so far), and we agreed that I may as well do Portland as well as Weymouth instead of leaving it to day 3, since it was only a short hop across otherwise and would make the following day far more manageable.
All well and good, and with “only” 18 miles to do I waited until the rain had mostly done, donned full waterproofs and hit the hills.
And what hills.
There is a reason that this section is called the Rollercoaster. It was spectacular. Durdle Door was beautiful in the grey. White Noethe stood out like a beacon.
In terms of actually getting to Weymouth, there were a good few points where all I was able to do was stagger up a few metres, rest my legs, look up, stagger on a few more metres, pause, swear, and repeat. Calling it a run would be lying. Calling it a hike would be kind. But by hook or by crook I kept crawling forward, running as best as I was able where I was able, hating the shuffling gait I was having to adopt to keep moving, and counting down the miles to get to my mid point, which I arrived at by around 2pm, and promptly celebrated with a can of the red ambulance (coke) and a resuscitation cream tea before even contemplating the loop of Portland.
The Isle of Portland felt like a different world. Attached by a long sandy causeway partly taken up by the main road connecting it to the mainland, stepping onto the shore of it felt like crossing an unspoken border. Here, we are not like you. Here, we remember.
The trails towards the Bill were scattered with evidence of quarrying and settlement dating back to the stone age, limestone and flint making the paths hard and unforgiving until they spat me out at the lighthouse. It was like reaching the end of the world, only the hard shoulder of the Isle behind me and nothing but ocean to be seen in front.
I paused at the waymarker on the headland point, marking the miles counted done and those left to go to get to Minehead, and staggered my way back to the Portland YHA, feeling almost like I had gone through some kind of rite of passage, a toll to be paid to those who made the path I walked and ran on and who had permitted me to continue on my journey.
The entire third day this feeling did not shift.
Starting out from Portland I hit the mainland trails and made good time towards Abbotsbury, enjoying the practically flat gradient and the chance to open out the stride and run more than the previous couple of days. The route took me through deep farmland and, spectacularly, fields of bright yellow rapeseed, occasionally peeking back to the water’s edge where I could see the long pale line of Chesil Beach which I was following from the inland side of the lagoon. A quick stop in Abbotsbury to refuel, adjust the kit and steel myself for the next section, I was quite looking forward to the next section which the Coast Path guide had labelled as “9.3 miles, easy”.
The guide book lied.
Rather than the expected short hop over to my end point of the day, what I got was 12.5 miles of knee deep grass, sinking stones on Chesil Beach proper, and finally the almost comically steep ascent of Thorncombe Beacon (complete with large brazier, ready to be lit) before I finally dropped down into the little village of Seatown which boasts a magnificent pub right on the Coast Path, which was where I chose to hole up and recover before making camp for the night.
The final day brought thick mist rolling over the clifftops, just in time to hit Golden Cap – the highest point on the south coast. Naturally I saw nothing, and so pressed on to Lyme Regis through a series of detours and diversions to avoid sections where the cliffs had subsided completely. As it was only 7 miles to the mid point, I took a long pause to have a slice of cake and check out some of the fascinating geological history of this part of Britain, and then went on to the next section which would take me over the county border and into Devon.
This section of the Coast Path is known as the Undercliffs and is one of the most remote parts of the route. It follows a series of woodland paths where the cliffs slumped down and as there are no easy “offs” there were very few people to be seen for most of the way. And what a way! It was pure singletrack heaven, snaking up steep stairs and through banks of wild garlic and bluebells, through thick claggy mud and over rocks, peeking out every so often to offer breathtaking views of white pebbled coves and deep blue water.
And it was there, somewhere in this deep green borderland, that I finally found that rhythm of the run again.
It’s something often said by trail runners, that to follow these rocky, rooty, uneven tracks is not really running but dancing, and on that sunny afternoon my feet learned to dance again after 3 days of trudge and shuffle.
Maybe it was slow going. Maybe I couldn’t open up and race through the way I would have done fresh and without the backpack. But as if they knew that they were coming on to home soil, my legs found new strength and I found myself laughing for sheer joy all the way through to Axmouth, where I saw the first sign – probably on a bin, knowing my luck – that I was, indeed in Devon.
I was coming home.
Note – This is the first in depth write up, but regular updates are also posted on Facebook at Poet on the Run