The Dorset Walk 2: West Bexington
Teresa Rabbetts takes a stroll around West Bexington and remembers the threat of invasion
Published in June ’16
Dorset’s coast is littered with steadily disintegrating concrete and brick structures that are generally ignored by walkers who either do not notice or do not appreciate the significance of the archaeology that they are passing: in 1940 these crumbling blocks were a crucial part of Britain’s defences against Hitler. He had hoped that Britain would come to some sort of an agreement and simply surrender, but it soon became clear that was not going to happen.
On 16 July 1940, Hitler issued Directive Number 16, codenamed Operation Sealion, which detailed preparations for invasion stating:
‘The aim of this operation is to eliminate the English motherland as a base from which war against Germany can be continued, and, if this should become unavoidable, to occupy it to the full extent.’
Britain’s ability to defend herself was seriously compromised not only by her isolation but by the fact that so much crucial equipment had been abandoned during the hasty evacuation of Dunkirk. British High Command, realising that a rapid German invasion was imminent, planned a series of anti-tank lines. Inland, where possible, functional barriers such as rivers were used and where no natural barrier was available, anti-tank ditches were dug. Decoded messages revealed that German military advisers had identified the Dorset coast as the best place for the landing and so, as the first point of defence was the vulnerable coastline, the Directorate of Fortifications and Works at the British War Officer was set up in May 1940 to devise specific designs for small defensive constructions to be built along the coast. These little forts were called “pillboxes” a reference relating their shape to the small containers used by dispensing chemists to carry medicinal pills. The Dorset coastline and hillsides were soon dotted with camouflaged gun emplacements, observation points and pillboxes keeping watch on the Channel. The most common design was the FW3/24 hexagonal which was intended to provide a simple fieldwork standard defence post, designs were modified on a local basis but mostly consisted of common features – six faces with loopholes for all round defence, 12” thick bulletproof walls with a Y-shaped anti-ricochet wall built internally – other designs had enhanced shell-proof protection or were rectangular in shape (there is a rare type 26 square box near St Catherine’s Chapel, Abbotsbury), but most were of standard size which allowed for the mass production of items to aid their speedy construction.
The success of the Battle of Britain forced Hitler to indefinitely postpone his invasion plan and after the war the defences, that Britain thankfully never needed, were left to be demolished, gradually decompose or crumble into the sea. British Pathé have a fascinating selection of films on their website in a section called WW2 South Coast defences, sadly no films are clearly identified as Dorset but it does include a wonderful silent 1944 film called “Removal of Bathing Ban At Bournemouth” showing the south coast beginning to recover as people pack onto a small area of cleared beach.
In 1985 journalist Henry Wills published Pillboxes: A Study of UK Defences, which sparked renewed public interest and resulted in the ‘Defence of Britain’: a project that ran from 1995-2002, to try to record all known military defence sites. This survey estimated that 28,000 pillboxes and other hardened field fortifications were built here of which approximately 6500 still survived.
Distance: About 3½ miles
How to get there: Take the B3157 Abbotsbury to Bridport and turn left off the B3157 to West Bexington at Swyre opposite The Bull.
Parking & start: Start at the West Bexington Council Pay & Display beach car park.
Terrain: About 3 miles. Mostly easy and scenic walk; ground conditions vary from the Chesil pebbles, a section of tarmac and a muddy stretch; Tulk’s Hill is a steady uphill climb.
Maps: OS Outdoor Leisure 15 Purbeck & South Dorset, OS Landranger 194 Dorchester & Weymouth, Cerne Abbas & Bere Regis.
Refreshments & Toilets: The Blue Anchor cafe is a welcoming spot for a break providing essentials for walkers. There are toilets situated on the western side of the car park.
1. Leave West Bexington car park and follow the coast path (eastwards). Walk past The Old Coastguards and after a short distance look on the left for the South West Coast path stone marker.
2. Turn away from the coast and follow the route uphill (indicated Hill Fort) to East Bexington. There is the remnant of a World War 2 concrete gun emplacement on this corner.
3. The path rises straight uphill to a gate, follow the path as it continues around East Bexington Farm (there is a pillbox in the field in front of the farmhouse), the path runs to the right of the farm buildings and then turns left behind them (signposted Hill Fort) and then passes through a gateway into a field. The path forks right across the centre of the field to a stile and then goes through a small damp wooded area in front of Tulk House.
4. Cross the next stile where the path meets with a tarmac road; follow this for a short distance past Labour-in-Vain Farm. Past the farmhouse and at the end of the line of barns the route leaves the road and turns right – signposted uphill across a field (there is a green electricity station in the field). Walk straight to the top of the hill towards the barn.
5. Follow the route left (west) as indicated on the wooden signpost (Tulk’s Hill and West Bexington). The footpath heads across Tulk’s Hill and joins the South Coast Ridgeway which runs parallel with the B3157. Further along the path passes the site of a limekiln.
6. The signpost indicates West Bexington and leads you down Donkey Lane into the village. Follow the road through West Bexington and back to to the car park.