First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A brisk windy day across the Isle of Purbeck. From high-perched Kingston we looked north across the valley to a gap in the long ridge of the Purbeck Hills, neatly plugged by the ruins of Corfe Castle. It seemed against the laws of gravity that such tall slender fragments of wall would not have tumbled long ago.
We followed the road west out of Kingston between neat grey stone cottages. Guns thudded from the military ranges beyond the downs, as though a sulky giant were banging a lambeg drum. Larks sang over stony plough and spring wheat. Bluebells and wild garlic contended for mastery of the woods, a springtime splash of blue and white.
We followed a track up through pastures of fat lambs. Walls of thinly sliced stone curled away to reach the tumulus on Swyre Head, highest eminence of Purbeck. Here was a viewing point over downs, farmlands and a dramatic coast of crumbling chalk and freestone cliffs running westward to where the Isle of Portland, Thomas Hardy’s ‘Gibraltar of Wessex’, stretched its low wedge shape into the sea.
The path bent inland along a ridge of grass polished to a shimmer by the sun. The strong sea wind hissed in the gorse bushes, bringing scents of coconut. A trail of smoke arose from the trees around Kimmeridge, and when we got down there it was to find the cottages of the old quarrying village now primped to a sheen of perfection.
We passed the immaculate new Museum of Jurassic Marine Life and followed the road round the knoll of Metherhills to the shores of Kimmeridge Bay. These tilted strata of dark shale yield a harvest of oil, sucked up from nearly a mile underground by a nodding donkey pump on the cliffs.
We sniffed the metallic tang of the oil on the wind, then climbed to the curious Tuscan folly of Clavell Tower. The tower, built by a 19th-century rectorial squire, was moved back bodily from the cliff edge in 2008, a costly and complicated operation.
From here the coast path led east, crumbly and cracked, at the very rim of ash-grey cliffs footed on flat rock pavements among a litter of fallen stones. The wind battered and shoved us, the sea creamed in lines of breakers, and we swooped homeward up and down the cliffs in breathless exhilaration.
Start: Houns-Tout car park, West Street, Kingston, Corfe, Dorset BH20 5LH (OS ref SY 953794)
Getting there: Bus 40 (Corfe-Swanage). Road – Kingston is signposted off A351 (Corfe-Swanage); right at Scott Arms along West Street to car park.
Walk (9½ miles, steep climbs on coast path, OS Explorer OL15): Left (west) along road. At next car park (943793), left through gates on track (‘Swyre Head’). At Swyre Head (934784), hairpin right through gate; ridge path for 1½ miles, descending to road (919801). Left; at junction, cross road; signed path opposite down to Kimmeridge (917799). Ahead past Fossil Museum on road to coast. At end of road (911787), right past WC. In 200m, left up steps (‘Chapman’s Pool’); follow coast path east for 3 miles. At top of Houns-Tout cliff by stone seat (950773), left (stile, yellow arrow, ‘Hardy Way’) inland on path for 1½ miles to Kingston.
Conditions: Steep climb to Houns-Tout cliff; unguarded, crumbly cliff edge path.
Lunch/Accommodation: Scott Arms, Kingston (01929-480270, thescottarms.com) – cheerful, lively pub with rooms – sensational views.
* Christopher’s latest book, Ships of Heaven, The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedrals, published 11 April