Andrew Bibby


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Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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Walking from Worth Matravers

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in The Independent, 1993

Plenty of people don't get further than the village. Once inside the Square and Compass in Worth Matravers, looking down over the Purbeck stone cottages of one of Dorset's most pleasant villages, it's admittedly all too easy enough to decide to stay put. Even in summer when Worth can be choked with visitors the Square and Compass keeps the feel of a traditional village local. And as an alternative for later in the day, there's the nearby tea-shop offering clotted cream teas.

But most Independent readers are, of course, stronger-willed than this. In any case, spending time in Dorset's near-island of Purbeck without going walking is criminal. Worth Matravers, in among the hills, is as good a place as any to begin a walk. A tempting network of footpaths run down from the village towards the English Channel less than a mile away whilst along the cliff-edge the official long-distance South-West Peninsula Path can be followed for as long as you like. Start at Worth and it's possible to finish up at Minehead 500 miles later.

My chosen route was a little more modest. I was making initially for the small gap in the cliffs called Dancing Ledge, with the plan of walking westwards along the coast around the point of St Aldhelm's Head to the small cove beyond known as Chapman's Pool. That would be about six miles or so - enough to work up an appetite. Minehead would have to wait for another day.

From Worth my path initially followed the Priests' Way, the old track which winds its way eventually to the holiday resort of Swanage. Its name comes from the time when the local incumbent had to trudge back and forth to his daughter church in Swanage. Now it's a farm track and bridleway.

I left the ghostly clergy behind at Eastington Farm, turning south towards the sea. Eastington is a walled farmstead, seventeenth century and like all the old farms in the area, made of Purbeck stone. The stone lies directly under the soil, and three centuries later continues to be an important local industry. Open quarries lie a few fields away.

The National Trust have helpfully created a concessionary footpath from Eastington south and then east through a series of sheep meadows until another path is reached, dropping down to the cliffs at Dancing Ledge.

It is the sea which does the dancing here, running and jumping up and down the stone platform which juts out into the Channel. There's no road access so I wasn't surprised that the place was quiet, though two parties of climbers had already arrived and were in the process of picking their way up the cliff-face.

Dancing Ledge has captivated many people, not least for its name. Derek Jarman called his autobiography after it, and in it he includes an entertaining account of a cold overnight attempt at film-making which he spent holed up with friends in an old quarry nearby.

The coast path westwards from Dancing Ledge past Seacombe and Winspit is well-walked and easy to follow. Half an hour later I'd arrived at St Aldhelm's Head (not St Alban's Head, as some maps tell you; St Aldhelm was the saint who mopped up Dorset for Christianity in the eighth century from his base at Sherborne). St Aldhelm's Chapel, the four-square building on the cliff-edge, was erected four hundred years after the saint, some time around the year 1200. It's a fascinating place, gloomy inside even on bright days, which may originally have been a chantry where priests could say masses for sea-farers. Anyone venturing in boats off this coastline needs all the help they can get, even today. The waters of the Atlantic and North Sea seem to meet head-on just off St Aldhelm's Head, a notorious stretch of water.

After St Aldhelm's Head, the corner is turned and the views open up. This is the moment for getting out the map, and counting off the landmarks. Close by are the cliffs of Houns Tout and Rope Lake, with the folly of the Clavell Tower at Kimmeridge also easy to spot. The distant white cliff is at Worbarrow where the Purbeck Hills chalk ridge reaches the sea, while just in front providing an obvious geological contrast is the dirtier limestone cliff of Gad. Both lie within the lost land of Tyneham, taken by the army in 1943 and still a military firing range.

I clambered back down from the cliffs to reach the old boat houses at Chapman's Pool, a semi-circular inlet with a stony beach and a quiet feel. Then, as the coast path carried on further westwards, I turned back up the valley to find the track back to Worth Matravers. Worth is a good place to start a walk; it's an even better place to finish one.

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