Legging it in Dorset — East Chaldon and White Nothe
Rodney Legg explores Powys Country and its white cliffs
Published in September ’09
|Distance: 9 miles.
Terrain: Serious ascents and descents from sea level to 500 feetbut on firm well-marked tracks.
Start: East Chaldon, in the vicinity of the village green. OS map reference SY791833; postcode DT2 8DN.
How to get there: Turn south to East Chaldon from the A352 between the roundabouts at Warmwell Cross and Wool or come over the hill from West Lulworth and turn left beside Winfrith Newburgh parish church.
Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset); OS Landranger 194 (Dorset & Weymouth).
Refreshments: The Sailor’s Return in East Chaldon is at the start/finish of the walk with holiday facilities en route on the approach to Durdle Door.
East Chaldon, the village of the chalkland parish of Chaldon Herring, is writ large as a literary landscape. It is primarily Powys Country, for numerous overlapping connections from the lives and works of the multi-talented Powys brothers. The great local classic was Mr Weston’s Good Wine, by Theodore Francis Powys, in which God visits rustic Dorset in the guise of a wine merchant driving an old Ford. The title comes from Jane Austen’s Emma: ‘She believed he had been drinking too much of Mr Weston’s good wine.’
The walk passes essayist Llewelyn Powys’s clifftop home on White Nothe (which he called White Nose). The precarious public footpath downhill from it (too risky for the route of our walk) features as the smugglers’ escape route in John Meade Falkner’s children’s adventure Moonfleet. Smuggling as the local industry also brings Thomas Hardy mentions, such as Daggers Gate, which appears as Dagger’s Grave in The Distracted Preacher, which was based on events on this coast between 1825 and 1830.
Even the public house, The Sailor’s Return, encapsulates an unlikely classic, as the setting and title for a novel by David Garnett, which was ahead of its time in 1925 in having a black heroine. Other barriers were challenged and broken by lesbian lovers and writers Valentine Ackland and Sylvia Townsend Warner. Those associations are balanced by the promiscuously heterosexual antics of Bertrand Russell and his harem, who shocked the natives by adopting Newlands Farm for their love-nest between the wars. The literary set mix with the artistic in East Chaldon churchyard. Sculptor Elizabeth Muntz and her sister, eminent medievalist Isabelle Hope Muntz of Golden Warrior fame, were both born in Toronto.
Visually, it is an old landscape, with village valley being overlooked by a Bronze Age barrow cemetery known as the Five Marys. The name needs explaining. For a start there are six mounds – but six is not a magic number – and the ‘Mary’ element is a corruption of the Old English word ‘mere’ for a boundary. There are other solitary burial mounds, and a couple of concrete pinnacles known as beacons, which line up as navigation markers to point the way along the main ship channel into Portland Harbour.
This is the heart of the Jurassic Coast and its World Heritage Site, with classic landform geology from the great uplift caused by the African tectonic plate colliding with that of Eurasia, at a time when our global position was much closer to the tropics. The chalk deposits comprise billions of microscopic fossils from an earlier era of warm seas. These are the white cliffs of Dorset, with a detached chalk stack at Butter Rock, and outer ragged ribbons of projecting limestone.
The walk arrives on the cliffs beside the icon Durdle Door rock which takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘thirled’ for ‘holed’ (the Dorset dialect renders ‘th’ sounds as ‘d’). Durdle Door frequently features on film, from Sergeant Francis Troy’s fake drowning in John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd of 1967 to the delightful Nanny McPhee in 2004.
The walk turns inland from the Burning Cliff, which takes its name from a very different geological happening, between 1826 and 1838, when oil-impregnated sulphurous shales were in spontaneous combustion. All now is quiet and green on this western front, with the name appearing on a National Trust omega sign.
1. Set off along the lane towards Winfrith Newburgh and approach the village sign from the rear in 600 yards.
2. Turn right up a stony track and pass a bungalow in 50 yards. Continue along the track around two corners and into a dry chalkland combe. Fork left in 500 yards, following the main track up the valley, and go through a gate in 75 yards. In 250 yards, go through another gate, along a grassy path on the left-hand side of the hedge. For the next length the farm track remains parallel, on the other side, and then the route enters the next valley.
3. Climb up a chalky track to hilltop Sleight Buildings. Here turn left to barns down in the valley at Daggers Gate. Turn right, up the road, to the bend and house on the corner in 350 yards.
4. Turn right, via Newlands Farm and the caravan camp, to the downland slope overlooking St Oswalds Bay and Man o’ War Cove in 800 yards. This offshore ribbon of rocks was notorious for shipwrecks.
5. Turn right along the coast path. Pass the projecting limestone rock-arch of Durdle Door, to a skyline backdrop of the English Channel and Portland, almost detached from the white chalk cliffs. Next, in 400 yards, drop almost to sea-level at Scratchy Bottom and then climb the next wave of chalkland up and over Swyre Head. Offshore are a series of limestone rocks from the Bull and Blind Cow to the Cow and Calf, with the inshore Butter Rock being a chalk stack in 600 yards.
6. Pass the stubby Bat’s Head peninsula, which is perforated by the natural arch of Bat’s Hole. In 1 mile, after the slopes of The Warren and Middle Bottom, the path through the long grass passes navigation markers in West Bottom which were provided for mariners to line up behind them, to guarantee the safe deep-water passage into Portland Harbour. A column of cliffside chalk is known as Fountain Rock (among a series of coastal features yet to be given their names by the Ordnance Survey).
7. The next landmark is man-made. Whitenothe Cottages were built by the Victorian Coast Guard service. Standing at 495 feet above sea level, plus 30 feet of western elevation, these are the highest homes on the Dorset coast. Beyond, in National Trust land, follow the clifftop path down to a stile in 750 yards. Continue straight ahead across the coastal downland, between the wood on the Burning Cliff and the hilltop house.
8. Beyond, in 600 yards, cross a stile in the corner of the pasture and join the gravel track. Follow it straight ahead for 75 yards and then turn right to head inland. The track becomes a concrete farm road and then a tarred public highway on passing through the gates at North Holworth Farm in 1 mile. Banks and closes of the medieval lost village of Holworth lie in the field to the right.
9. Continue straight ahead, passing the pond, up and over the hill, for 750 yards. Just over the brow, where a Bronze Age round barrow is scrub-covered to the left on Owermoigne Down, turn right, which is eastwards. Go through the left-hand of the two gates (ignoring a single gate to the right).
10. Then follow the hawthorn hedgerow straight ahead, along the ridge, with a wide view of the Frome valley to the left. Go through double gates at the end of the field in 600 yards. Follow the hedgerow for the length of the next two fields to a concrete emplacement and Lord’s Barrow in 800 yards.
11. Cross the road to a bridleway gate on the other side and follow the fence for 1000 yards. Proceed straight ahead across the next road, for 50 yards, and then fork left along the ridgeway which passes the Five Marys barrow group.
12. In 300 yards, reach a fence and turn right. Follow the path downhill into the scrub in 150 yards. In a further 50 yards the path emerges on a tarred road.
13. Turn left (S) to return to East Chaldon via the Sailor’s Return on the next ridge. Beyond, in 150 yards, is the village green.