First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Under a clearing sky and a brisk wind we set out among the cottages of Abbotsbury with their walls of deep golden stone under grey-green thatch. Chicken, duck and goose eggs were for sale at the farm in Rosemary Lane.
Stony, sunken Blind Lane led away uphill between horse pastures. From here we looked back over Abbotsbury and its steep guardian hill topped by St Catherine’s Chapel, the shingle bar of Chesil Beach enclosing the long inlet of The Fleet, and the leonine form of the Isle of Portland with its long back and tail sloping down into the dull sea. Half a dozen dark lumps lay beyond, giant container ships at anchor off Weymouth.
Up over the corrugations of medieval strip lynchets to the ridge, where the South Dorset Ridgeway ran out west along a bracken-brown bar of downland parallel to the sea. An ancient ceremonial landscape where Neolithic long barrows and Bronze Age round barrows lay side by side. The tribal leaders of 3,000 years were laid to rest on this high eminence overlooking land and sea.
On the ramparts of Abbotsbury hillfort a female stonechat sat on a gorse tip, her breast a soft buff pink, a bold dark stripe through her eye. Looking west from here we had a grand prospect of the Jurassic Coast all round the great curve of Lyme Bay, with the crumbling cliffs of Golden Cap shining a rich gold in the muted late-year light.
A cobbled green lane descended to West Bexington between hedges bright with fruit – hard red blackberries, shiny black dogwood berries, the burnished scarlet of hawthorn peggles, and old man’s beard draped over the stone walls.
The single street of West Bexington sloped down to the seafront, where beach fishermen cast their heavy leads in hopes of bass or codling. We turned east into the wind and crunched along a beach of pebbles almost as small as sand. Pale leaves of sea kale like elephant ears grew on the scrubby maritime sward, along with thrift flowers now dry and silvery.
On the seaward side of Abbotsbury we climbed steeply across strip lynchets to reach St Catherine’s Chapel, massively buttressed in thick dark gold stone on its hilltop. In medieval times the maturer maidens of Abbotsbury would make an annual pilgrimage to offer a fervent prayer in the chapel on the hill:
‘A man, St Catherine,
Please, St Catherine,
Soon, St Catherine!’
… following that with: ‘Arn-a-one’s better than narn-a-one, St Catherine!’
Flora: blackberries, dogwood berries, hawthorn peggles (berries), old man’s beard
Birds: female stonechat
How hard is it? 8½ miles; moderate; downland tracks, shore path, short steep climb to chapel
Start: Abbotsbury car park, Rodden Row, Abbotsbury DT3 4JL (OS ref SY 578853) – £1 per hour, signposted in village.
Getting there: Bus X53 (Weymouth-Axminster)
Road: Abbotsbury is on B3157 (Weymouth-Bridport)
Walk (OS Explorer OL15): Cross B3157; up Rosemary lane; left on Back Lane. In 150m, right beside Spar House up Blind Lane (578854, ‘Hill Fort’). In 600m, through gate (574859, yellow arrow), then another (blue horse). At ridge, left (571863, gate, ‘West Bexington’). Follow ‘South Dorset Ridgeway’ and ‘Bexington’ signs for 2¾ miles to West Bexington seafront (531864). Left along shore path, then road for 2¼ miles to road end (560846). Ahead along lower edge of car park. Follow ‘Coast Path’ signs for ⅔ mile to 3-finger post; right (568847, ‘Swannery’). In ½ mile, left at stone marker (575845, ‘St Catherine’s Church’). Steeply uphill to chapel (572848); downhill into Abbotsbury.
Lunch/Accommodation: Manor House, West Bexington, Bridport DT2 9DF (01308-897660, manorhousedorset.com).
Info: Bridport TIC (01308-424901)