The Veterans’ Hub in Wyke Regis was started by Andy, a veteran himself, as a weekly meet-up for a coffee and a chat. But as he heard about more local veterans taking their own lives because of the mental health challenges they endured, he felt that he needed to do more. He leased an empty cafe and set up a full-time project, incorporating a cafe, which is open to everyone, an allotment, a remembrance garden, a contemplation room and a gym. The Veterans’ Hub provides a lifeline to any veteran who needs it, with a wide range of services and support available.
I was expecting conversation over breakfast in the café to focus on the sorts of issues that the hub is addressing. I couldn’t have been further off the mark. When I walked in just after opening time, the café was buzzing with relaxed conversation. I spent some time talking to Pauline, who served from 1978-1983, mainly as a radar operator. Our conversation spanned careers, love, losses and disappointments, as well as the fury she is currently feeling about how Dorset was trashed that summer.
Craig, another veteran, made sure that I knew the best route out of Weymouth because the coast path had been diverted due to erosion. Another man, whose name I didn’t catch, was impressed with my challenge – even though he has the daily challenge of living with the lower part of one of his legs missing. Andy wanted to make sure that I had enough food and that I knew where I was camping that night (I didn’t).
Essentially, they were all far more concerned with what was happening in the world around them and making sure that I was alright than in their own challenges. It was a strong reminder that we should not define people by just one aspect of their lives or one label that we have given them.
It was almost lunchtime before I tore myself away and headed back towards the path. My feet were still sore, but the pain was manageable, so I made good progress on the easy-going walk along the length of the Fleet Lagoon. For most of the day, Chesil Beach loomed on the horizon to my left with the sea hidden on the far side. The deep blue of the lagoon contrasted beautifully with the beach’s golden pebbles.
View along the Fleet Lagoon
A family sailed slowly past, reminding me of the children’s adventures in Swallows and Amazons. Their ‘sailing boat’ was two kayaks held together, with a makeshift mast holding what appeared to be a bedsheet being used as a sail.
I was surprised to reach Abbotsbury at the end of the lagoon after just four hours of walking. I had planned to finish there, but there were no obvious campsites and it was far too early to wild camp, so I walked back down to the beach and contemplated my options while sifting the pebbles through my toes.
The pebbles are much smaller at this northern end of the beach than they were at the Portland end, which is apparently because it uses less energy for the waves to move bigger pebbles. This means that that bigger pebbles travel further towards Portland, and the beach is graded in pebble size from one end to the other.
My feet were pretty sore by this point, and I had only been expecting to walk this far today, so I had to gee myself up to continue walking. I was looking for a suitable spot for wild camping later in the day when I sensed another hiker behind me.
This was when I met Arthur, another sort of veteran – one who has completed the South West Coast Path a whopping 23 times. For the next three and a half hours, we walked together and talked.
Arthur is around 20 years older than me, but he walks fast. At one point, I had to tell him that I couldn’t keep up with him. He seemed relieved – although he was perfectly capable of walking at that speed, he had been trying to keep up with me.
He regaled me with tales of long-distance walking and offered masses of advice from an experienced hiker to a novice. It was hard to take it all in, but over the next few days, I kept remembering things he had told me and made copious notes. From using socks to relieve rubbing from your rucksack to where to find drinking water, he was a goldmine of useful information.
He also made me laugh, despite my sore feet and tired legs, especially when it came to spending money. He told me about the time that he was walking across a campsite in the middle of winter when it was closed, and he stubbed his toe on a tent peg. Rather than just cursing and walking on, he pulled it out and popped it into his rucksack, thinking that it might come in useful. Why pay for a new one when you can pull a free one out of the ground?
He knew that I was looking for somewhere to sleep, and told me about a campsite on the path that we would be walking past. It was around seven miles further along the path than I had planned to walk that day, but he warned me – twice – that he didn’t know how much they would charge. Despite my exhaustion, that really made me laugh - by that point, I would have paid anything to be able to stop walking, set up camp and relax. I laughed even harder when the campsite reception opened in the morning and they only charged me £10. I only wish I could have told him!