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The Dorset Walk — Puncknowle and West Bexington

Matt Wilkinson and Mark Bauer explore Chesil Beach and its hinterland

The parish church of St Mark in Puncknowle
The parish church of St Mark in Puncknowle

Puncknowle, where the walk starts, is perhaps not as superficially pretty as its neighbours in the Bride Valley such as Litton Cheney and Long Bredy, but stay in the village long enough and you become aware of its pleasant, peaceful atmosphere. Its two best-known features are, perhaps, the pronunciation of its name (to rhyme with ‘funnel’) and the fact that members of the 1950s Portland spy ring would rendezvous in the village pub.

The route skirts the back of its neighbouring village of Swyre, the birthplace of Major-General Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842), who developed the battlefield weapon that bears his name.

After enjoying views from the ridge, the walk descends to Chesil Beach, the extraordinary line of pebbles that extends from Portland to Burton Bradstock (or the full eighteen miles to West Bay – it depends on which definition you take). The small size of the pebbles underfoot on this walk shows that we are towards the western end: not the least remarkable thing about Chesil Beach is that the sea grades the pebbles by size, the largest being at Portland and the smallest at Burton Bradstock (or West Bay).

Sunset on Chesil Beach
Sunset on Chesil Beach

In the 1930s there was a plan to develop West Bexington as a major resort. Most of the bungalows and houses date from then, but the scheme never got off the ground and what is left is basically one street running down to Chesil Beach and creating one of Dorset’s odder villages. The Manor House, now a hotel, dates from the 16th century.

On the way back to Puncknowle, the walk diverts to the Knoll, a landmark on the coast road with its tiny house on top, from which coastguards once kept watch. The view from here is the whole sweep of Lyme Bay from Portland to Start Point; turn round and you can look inland over most of the West Dorset hills. It must be one of the county’s outstanding viewpoints.

The walk is comparatively short, but the going can be muddy after wet weather, the pebbles of Chesil Beach don’t make for the easiest conditions underfoot and the climb up from West Bexington is a steep one. You may find that it takes you as much time as a route which is a mile or two longer.

Distance: About 4½ miles, including the ½-mile diversion to The Knoll.
Start: Park considerately on the village street in Puncknowle, near the church and the Crown Inn. OS ref SY535887.
How to get there: Take the B3157 coast road between Weymouth and Bridport. By the Bull Inn, about 4 miles from Abbotsbury and 3 miles from Burton Bradstock, turn north into Swyre. Follow the road round to the right at the end of the village to enter Puncknowle.
Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset); OS Landranger 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth).
Refreshments: The Crown at Puncknowle, the Bull at Swyre and the Manor at West Bexington. There is also a café by the car park at West Bexington.

The Knoll is one of West Dorset's landmarkse
The Knoll is one of West Dorset’s landmarks

1. Walk along the village street with the church on the left and the Crown on the right. Ignore a public footpath on the left, signed ‘Knackers Hole, Open Space and Clay Lane.’ Continue for 80 yards to a path on the left just beyond the old Wesleyan chapel, signed ‘Swyre and Bull Inn’. Pass to the right of a barn and cross a stile into an open field. Turn right and follow the field-edge round to the far right-hand corner. Here turn right, down onto a semi-paved track, and turn left. Follow the track straight ahead as it becomes an enclosed grassy path. This leads to the main road, with the Bull Inn immediately on the left. Turn right and, ignoring the first signpost to ‘Chesil Beach and Coast Path’ almost immediately on the left, walk carefully along the main road for 175 yards.

2. Turning left onto a track at a similar sign, just before a farm drive on the right. Follow the track as it bends to the right and continues with striking sea views to the left. In about 1000 yards, turn left onto a wide grassy path down the left-hand edge of a field; it is the first field-edge off the track that leads all the way down to the beach. Near the bottom of the field is a comparatively well-preserved World War 2 pillbox with impressive fields of fire. At the bottom of the field, go through two gates in quick succession and turn left onto the pebbles of Chesil Beach.

3. Walk along the beach for just over a mile to West Bexington. On the other side of the car park, turn left to walk up through the village. As the road swings to the left just after Tamarisk Farm, continue straight ahead up a stony track. Its signpost to ‘Hardys Monument 6 and Osmington Mills 10′ seems rather bizarre until one realises that it is the inland alternative to the Coast Path. Follow the track right up to the main road, where continue straight across onto a lane.

4. Shortly after the first rise, cross a stile on the left and follow the right-hand field-edge straight ahead, up and round to The Knoll. Admire the views and wonder at the way of life for the coastguard in this tiny lookout, which nevertheless had a fireplace and a privy at the back. Retrace your steps to the lane, turn left and walk for ½ mile to the Puncknowle village sign. Immediately beyond it, turn left onto a track and follow it as it curves round to the right. It leads downhill and through the buildings of Manor Farm to reach the village street. Here turn left to return to the church, the pub and your car.

The view south-east from the Knoll
The view south-east from the Knoll

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