Updated: Feb 26
The view back across the ranges
I had carefully planned the first few days of this walk so that I knew that I would be setting off on the right foot. Somewhere to stay? Check. Start and finish points planned for each day? Check. Everything I need in my pack? Check. Lulworth Ranges open to walkers? Check. But even the best-laid plans can go wrong…
I had planned to be here earlier in the year, but been delayed - first because of the coronavirus lockdown and then because so many people travelled down to the South West for their summer holidays. It was only the day before I set off that I remembered about the ranges. I re-checked the footpath opening times, and they were planning to have live firing the day I wanted to walk through. Maybe not such a good idea then!
Luckily, my husband Mike is pretty flexible, so he barely batted an eyelid when I told him that we would need to leave home a few hours early so that I could walk this section of the path the day before I officially started.
It was the last day of August, still in the school summer holidays, and it was heaving. My excitement mounted as I smelt the seaweed, but there were also distinct undertones of barbecue and sun cream. The sun glistened off basking bodies as well as the shimmering sea. I was worried. How was I going to manage social distancing if it was as busy as this?
I needn’t have been so concerned; as I walked past the oil well’s nodding donkey, I left the crowds behind, a pattern that was repeated time and again on the path as I passed tourist hotspots.
Having spent some time talking to Sarah at the Wild Seas Centre about how climate change is already having an effect on our coast, it was a bit of a shock to walk past an active oil well, only a few hundred metres away.
The nodding donkey at Kimmeridge Oil Field has been pumping continuously since 1961, and is part of Parenco’s Wytch Farm oil field operation, Europe’s largest onshore oil field. It is currently producing around 14,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, which is a lot of oil – and a lot of associated greenhouse gas emissions.
After passing the donkey, I walked towards the extremely utilitarian and ugly gate marking the boundary of the ranges. It is, of course, uninviting by design; two metal mesh gates – one for vehicles and one for walkers, both topped with loops of barbed wire and razor wire.
Last time I was here, as a teenager, I remember being blown away by the meadows. There were colourful grasses and flowers as far as the eye could see, with clouds of butterflies flitting around them. I had never seen anything like it before, and I haven’t since. It was too late in the year for meadows to be in flower this time, but I was still hoping to see some wildlife magic on this land that, in my memory at least, was left untouched, except for when it was being bombed.
So, as I pushed through the ugliest gate in the world, I was expecting to have a Narnia-like experience. In reality, I was confronted by what appeared to be normal farmland pasture. My heart dropped like a stone. How disappointing. I’m not quite sure what I expected in this version of Narnia, but it wasn’t that.
I walked on, wondering whether my memory was playing tricks on me. But then, as the route of the path turned inland, the magic started. First, it was a herd of fallow deer, sauntering across the valley in front of me without a care in the world. Around 15 does followed a stag with magnificent antlers.
And then, there was a strip of woodland along the side of the stream leading from Tyneham village down to the sea. I didn’t see any fairies or mythical beasts peeking out from behind the trees, but I could certainly imagine them living there.
I was so pleased that the path had been diverted inland, otherwise I would have missed both of these magical moments.
The views of the coastline and inland in this area are spectacular. Chalky white cliffs rise and fall, and the footpath follows. Grassy slopes lead back down to the rolling hills inland, giving views that go on for miles. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I was thinking beautiful sunny thoughts until I was jolted back into reality. There was a large lump of jagged metal on the grass, just downhill of the path. I looked around and realised that I was surrounded by the sharp remains of exploded shells, a reminder that the world is not always so beautiful. A long way below me, at the bottom of the steep grassy slope, I spotted the targets - half a dozen bombed-out, rusty hulks of metal, barely recognisable as the tanks they once were.
I met up with my husband Mike on Bindon Hill, perhaps the most spectacular cliff of the whole journey. The chalk cliff rises 145 metres almost vertically from the beach, then drops precipitously on the landward side, with the path following the top edge. The route back down the cliff is steep and treacherous, but then follows a wide flat ledge around to Lulworth Cove.
As with so many honeypots I walked through on this trip, Lulworth Cove looked very picturesque, but was far too busy for my liking, so we skipped on through as fast as we could.