30 Aug Far from the Madding Crowd: A three day walking tour in Dorset
Author Thomas Hardy captured the rural idyll of Dorset in the nineteenth century amongst the pages of his novels. Nearly 150 years on, this beautiful part of the British countryside remains remarkably unspoilt and peaceful – and perfect for escaping summer crowds. For an alternative way to explore the south west, consider a self-guided walking tour of Dorset, like we did.
Making the most of what we can do this summer has required a little imagination.
Whilst there have been moments when heading over to the continent has seemed enticing, the shifting sands of quarantine regulations ultimately helped us make a decision. We’d stay in the UK this summer.
We’re not strangers to exploring our home country, although we’d both admit there are plenty of places we’re yet to visit. But we knew we’d need to take a few different things into consideration usual when planning a trip.
Firstly, accommodation choices were limited. We were booking at relatively late notice and contending with both higher than usual demand and fewer options. Some choices, like hostels and certain campsites haven’t opened this year. Secondly, we wanted to focus on spending time out of doors. Indoor activities don’t appeal to us so much at present, and some options – like eating out – are more limited than usual. Lastly, we wanted our trip to feel memorable, even if it was more modest than usual.
The result? A plan to explore West Dorset on foot. A sixty mile (ish) circuit with two seaside stays – in Lyme Regis and at West Bay. And a chance to take in some of the most idyllic, unspoilt countryside and rural villages in this part of the country.
Our plan was to start and finish near Yeovil on the Somerset border. This was in large part thanks to having family here, which meant we had somewhere safe to park up for a few days. But it also gave us a chance to traverse the whole county right from the Somerset-Dorset border.
Our first day took us from Ham Hill to Lyme Regis mostly following the Monarch’s Way, a long-distance path that snakes it’s way through Dorset and Somerset. Our second day followed the South-West coast path from Lyme Regis to West Bay through Charmouth and Seatown. And our third took back to the Somerset border through the picturesque market towns of Bridport and Beaminster in part along the Hardy Way, for a loose literary connection.
It was ambitious, with 25 miles to cover on our first day, and heading towards 20 on our next two. But we’ve covered long distances before and knew that the weather forecast looked pretty good. This meant we could pack light, and enjoy the long evenings when we arrived at our destination each day.
If you feel inspired to try something similar, there are many ways to make it work with different starting points. There are regular rail services to Crewkerne, Chard and Axminster – each of which would make great start or finish. This would also reduce the daily mileage to a slightly more comfortable amount.
Day one: Somerset to Lyme Regis
It was a damp, wet summer morning, the sky heavy with cloud and the air full of drizzle. Not the most auspicious weather to start a long distance walk, but weather that really does bring out the best of the countryside. The woods were fragrant, hedgerows brimming with berries and the sea of fields beyond lush with greenery. It was a huge change from the crisp ochre colours of the week before at the height of a heatwave.
Whilst I would have preferred blue skies, in all honesty the temperature was much more comfortable and the countryside blooming again. And besides, I’m never shy of a bit of optimism. There was every chance it might brighten up later.
Ham Hill to Crewkerne
The first leg was relatively straightforward. A drop down through the woods from Ham Hill to the fields beyond, and then a meander through a series of pretty villages, all honey-coloured stone and orchards. Here it feels like Somerset, but as we progressed further south the landscape and buildings started to take on a distinctly Dorset feel.
We were following the Monarch’s Way, which wiggles all over southern England. It takes a sweeping loop through the Dorset and Somerset countryside, and provided much of the inspiration for our route overall. We pootled through Little Norton, Chiselborough and West Chinnock in a persistent drizzle, but enjoying the empty paths and lush green landscape. In no time at all, or so it seemed, we were on the edge of Crewkerne – the first major marker on our way, and gateway to Dorset.
Into the Dorset countryside
We stopped for a quick spot of lunch in Misterton on the southern fringes of Crewkerne. The rain was easing up and we picked up the pace once full of fuel.
The Monarch’s Way led us on to the villages of Seaborough and Drimpton and on towards Blackdown Hill. We barely saw a soul as we tramped across more fields, knee-deep in grass, and along tiny country lanes. With the sun trying to peep out from behind the clouds, we ventured off our trajectory and on the Wessex Ridgeway. Yet another long-distance path in Dorset that was new to us, this unlocked something a little different. Gone were the fields, we headed up to the line of hills that punctuates the Dorset landscape. Behind us, the countryside swept down towards the Somerset Levels. Ahead lay the rolling hills that would bring us down to the sea.
A few winding miles more brought us to Lambert’s Castle. An ancient hill fort, it seems like a rather innocuous wooded hill if you approach from the north like us. The unassuming name gives nothing away. But emerge into clearing at the top, you’re treated to a magical view. The countryside falls away towards the sea, now almost within reach, sparkling on the horizon.
On to the sea
It was late afternoon now, and we were eager to reach Lyme Regis. The route isn’t as simple as you might expect from here. The coastal geography means that whilst a near-enough straight line would take us to our destination, we would head down off the hill, into a valley and then back up and over the ridge that separates Charmouth from Lyme Regis. With less tired legs, this would not have been a big deal, with 20 miles under my feet it felt like hard work!
A few miles through fields, with the sea peeping over the horizon, took us to Monkton Wyld. The climbing was done, and a mile or two more took us through the leafy woodland of Hole Common, and then – at last – Lyme Regis.
Our spot for the night was on the edge of town, so we were happy to stop and scrub up before heading down to the sea. We caught more than a little luck. Whilst we finished walking quite late in the day, we strolled through the town as dusk fell and a pastel pink sunset filled the sky. We dived into Swim on the seafront for a hearty meal and watched the sky slowly turn every colour before reaching inky black but peppered with stars.
Day two: Lyme Regis to West Bay
We woke to an atmospheric misty morning. The sun was hazy glow behind the thin cloud that cloaked the hills behind Lyme Regis, in that magical way you only find at summer’s end. After the previous day’s endeavours we allowed ourselves a slow start, beginning with a sumptuous spread put on by our host. Comfortably full, we packed up and headed back outdoors.
Exploring Lyme Regis
By the time we emerged the sun had burned off the morning mist and the now blue sky was filled with pillowy clouds. We strolled into town and picked up coffee from the heartily recommendable Amid Giants and Idols to accompany our wander. In the bright light of day, Lyme Regis was even more lovely than we’d found the night before. A bustling high street packed with enticing independent shops leads down to the beach. We pottered down the promenade and explored the Cobb, the harbour that shelters a host of fishing boats. We took our time to meander and enjoy the morning before eventually heading on our way.
On to Charmouth
The first part of our itinerary took us to Charmouth, another charming fishing village just two miles east. The route here isn’t the most exciting as a sizeable part is through a golf course, but if you take a moment to look behind you there are some great views back down over the town.
We grabbed some lunch at the friendly bakery here and enjoyed it at the beach, watching the waves crash onto the pebbly shore.
The South West Coast Path
Although we’d followed the South West Coast Path for some miles already, it wasn’t until we’d reached the top of Stonebarrow Hill just outside of Charmouth that we left tarmac behind for the day. From here, it’s rolling downs all the way to West Bay. It really is the Dorset coast at it’s very best. After a couple of quick miles through the heather we reached the top of Golden Cap, the highest point on this 630 mile path. There are great views in both directions from this point, and our destination now felt within easy reach. Seatown punctuates the route at the foot of the cap, another tiny fishing village where campers outnumber the pretty thatch cottages ten to one.
One last climb
There’s just one more big climb before West Bay, up to Thorncombe Beacon. From here, you look down on Bridport, with Eype church perched on a hilltop in the foreground. A quick up and down through Eype Mouth and we were finally at West Bay. Once the harbour for Bridport, today it’s a holiday spot with dramatic golden cliffs as a backdrop.
Our stop for the night was a little way in from the coast, but we wrapped up our day with fish and chips by the seafront. West Bay might not have the have all the charms of Lyme Regis (it is much smaller after all) but it does have an old-fashioned seaside-y feel that’s rather nice.
Day three: West Bay to Somerset
The sound of rain pattering on the roof of our cabin woke us early in West Bay. After fine weather the day before we had been hopeful we might make it the rest of the way without getting drenched. But thankfully, luck was on our side. As we packed up and prepared to head out it eased up, and a warm sun broke through as we made our way up the road into Bridport.
Bridport is a delight. A picture-perfect Dorset market town, it’s packed with independent shops and cafes. On reflection, I would choose to spend a night here over West Bay, where you have the pick of a fine selection of eateries and traditional pubs. Hungry, we surveyed the bakeries along the main street (I can happily report that there are several excellent looking ones), before choosing the enticing-looking Punch & Judy. We picked up a pile of pastries and cups of coffee and headed out into the now bright morning.
Picking up the Hardy way
Weaving our way through the back streets of Bridport was a delight. There are some beautiful townhouses here that hint at the town’s prosperity in the nineteenth century. On the fringes of the town we picked up the Hardy Way, another trail that would take us meandering through the countryside towards the market town of Beaminster.
This stretch of path turned out to be my favourite of the entire three days. The rolling hills around Bridport are criss-crossed with paths and drove roads, and are a patchwork of pretty farms and soft-coloured stone cottages. With the sun on our backs and winding footpaths through farmland at our feet, it felt like no time at all before we arrived at Beaminster.
Beaminster and beyond
Beaminister wouldn’t look out of place in the Cotswolds, and feels like Bridport’s little sister. Delicatessens and sandstone houses surround a market square, and it’s pretty as can be. As noon was approaching we dived into the Tangerine Cafe for a spot of early lunch. Comfortably full, we emerged ready for the only real climb of the day, up on the Wessex Ridgeway. Here, the landscape changed within a moment.
The rolling Dorset downland was gone, and instead the land dropped away gently towards the Somerset levels. The rest of our route was laid out in front of us. By now we were back on the Monarch’s Way, which we would follow almost to our journeys end. We rolled through some spectacular country estates, small farms and patches of woodland. It was tricky to pick up the path in places, and my feet were finally suffering, but there was a sense of satisfaction knowing places we were familiar with were just within reach.
Our last few miles should have been the easiest, but we befell a comedy of errors. First we were chased across a field by a herd of cows, causing us to take a slight re-route (normally cows don’t phase me but these guys really wanted to come for a run with us). Our next path was abruptly blocked by a fence of pallets and string, where a landowner had decided they really weren’t interested in rights of way. Our third re-route had us picking our way round the edges of fields packed eight foot high with corn, where the path had been overgrown.
But finally, the end was in sight. Our last few miles took us through some of the villages south of Yeovil that are unbelievably pretty. I’ll write a separate post about them at some point – they’re worth a little limelight of their own. And then, finally, some friendly faces, a chance to put my feet up and a well-earned glass of wine.
We’d walked 62 miles, and I was – at last – cream crackered.
Did it live up to our expectations?
In short, yes.
We had a fantastic three days, with plenty of moments that exceeded our expectations. I fell in love with this part of the world through the words of Thomas Hardy, describing a world and way of life long gone. Or not entirely, as it seems. Getting truly off the beaten path in Dorset and Somerset (on our first and third days), I realised that this world is not so far away as I might think. Amongst the honey-coloured stone cottages, tiny farms and smallholdings in lush valleys and endless green fields fringed with woodland, it’s easy to feel a million miles from home and to travel in time.
The small towns of this part of the world are real gems too. Lyme Regis, Bridport and Beaminister deserved more of my time, and I’ll undoubtedly be back.
Dorset isn’t somewhere I’d usually think of when it comes to escapism, but I’ve realised how wrong I was. This is a county brimming with beautiful spots, that I’ll enjoy spending years more getting to know.
What we learned about through hiking
We had a thoroughly good time on our trip, but we did learn a thing or two that I’ll take away for future adventures. I’d also recommend these pointers for anyone hiking point-to-point for several days;
I carried a 20L pack that I frequently used and I was really comfortable with. I found I didn’t need any more than what I carried and would pack the same again. Which brings me on to,
Book your accommodation carefully
Choosing somewhere to stay that is well-equipped means you can carry less. Somewhere comfortable (you’ll want to put your feet up at the end of the day!) is preferable, as is somewhere close to places to eat.
We wish we had set out a little earlier on our first day. Starting early gives you a buffer if you need to re-route, the weather changes, or you simply find a great spot for an afternoon tea break. It also gives you more time to explore your destination in the evening.
Be confident navigating
As it turns out, the paths we followed on days one and three were not well-trodden and not always brilliantly signposted. Carry an OS map and possibly a GPS navigation app too, and be prepared to re-route if you come across surprises in your path or want take short cuts (which is no bad thing after a long day).
Don’t over-estimate your capabilities
We’ve done a lot of walking, and have walked 25 miles plus in a day before (check out our guide to the Clarendon Way here). But it didn’t mean that it was an easy, and a shorter walk on day two was a blessing. Allow yourself some time to relax and remember that you may not have the same capacity to walk such long distances when doing so day after day.
Assume the weather will change
On the whole, we were blessed with pretty good weather. But this is the UK, and the forecast is notoriously changeable. Whatever the weather when you set out, always pack waterproofs and sun protection – and assume you might need to use both!
Our walking tour of Dorset
This was our first multi-day walk together, and my first for over a decade. And I’d most definitely like to do more. I’d also like to spend more time getting to know this part of West Dorset. It’s a spellbinding part of the south coast. If you’re looking for inspiration for a similar adventure, I hope this post has given you some ideas. And even if you’re not, I’d still thoroughly recommend heading here for more gentle day walking or a more relaxed break.