Ambling around Wessex (Pt 2)

Being British, a little bit of rain ground-hugging cloud wasn’t going to stop @alice-mccoy and I from our planned amble around Abbotsbury.

After a superb English breakfast, we set off down the lane armed with an Ordnance Survey map and rain coats. We had ascertained the previous evening that the dismantled railway at the bottom of the lane sadly no longer provided us with an easy, quiet route. In fact, the railway – a branch line from Upwey to Abbotsbury – was ripped up entirely (thank you Dr Beeching) in the 50s due to dwindling demand and a misguided belief that people would drive to stations on the main line rather than just drive right on to their destination. The bridge across Cheese Lane is still just about visible as some unexpectedly sturdy walls and – allegedly – the Coryates Halt platform crumbling under the weight of the bushes that have eaten it.

Of our footpath options, the one across the neighbouring farm’s land was sporting electric fences across it and the next one ran through the field of frisky bullocks that had chased us along the lane the previous evening. Deciding discretion was the better part of valour, we braved cars and local dog walkers (‘don’t get too close, he’ll take a chunk out of your arm’) and cut down to Rodden to start our cross-country adventure.

We promptly lost our sense of direction as we zigzagged up a steep hill and shortly afterwards found ourselves at a fence line that quite clearly didn’t include a gate. Here we began our discovery of just how much farmers like keeping footpaths clear (not very much) as we tried a number of desire lines that nominally connected up to paths on our map, but all ended up in barbed wire and/or spectacular summer nettle / bramble growths. Applying some ingenuity, we safely climbed one barb wire fence and wriggled under another, eventually getting back on track. Sorry, farmers. Should have kept those stiles passable.

Keen to avoid main roads, we found a bridleway that would take us most of the way from Elworth to Abbotsbury. As we tramped along, we realised we had started squelching. A deer leapt out of the hedge in front of us, startling all concerned, and promptly leapt the hedge that we had just realised we were going to have to thrash through (the ‘path’ through it also having succumbed to summer growth).

Kicking sprays of water with every step, we were quite relieved to intersect the main road on the outskirts of Abbotsbury and spent the rest of the day on dry surfaces. The air didn’t get any drier, though, so we went to hang out with the swans.

Photo by Mick Knapton (Wikimedia Commons) – I failed at photos in the rain
Abbotsbury Swannery – the world’s only managed swan colony – is nearly a thousand years old. It survived the dissolution of the monastery that founded it and remains home to a large breeding population of mute swans (and, inevitably, coots and Canada geese). Feeding time was as loud as you would imagine, but rather better natured – the Canada geese having presumably learnt to keep out of the swans’ way at a young age.We entertained the swan-herds with our questions about geese (oops), and learnt that Canada geese will basically sleep with anything (anygoose?) and that there is a safe way to pick up a swan: carefully, from behind, whilst wearing overalls. Hanging onto a frightened swan turns out to be a messy business even before you factor in the wing-beating, neck-snaking and big beak.

We dried off and ate lunch ourselves (unmolested by swans or geese) then headed up hill to the picturesque St Catherine’s Chapel that overlooks Abbotsbury.


St Catherines in the Cloud

The chapel is not the mist-haunted ruin my photo suggests, having been substantially restored over the centuries. It is empty these days, although occasional special services are still held there. Its simple dressed stones feel full of grace and it would feel welcoming on any day, but particularly so that day. Two white doves nesting to either side of the main window were particularly apt, and we were delighted to find the cloud backing off as we came back out.

Our trail took us next to Chesil Beach by way of a downhill scramble (largely ignored by goldfinches, a kestrel, coal tits and martins). Chesil Beach is a natural artefact of glaciation and tides, a huge pebble embankment that spans from Abbotsbury to Weymouth, fully enclosing the brackish Fleet (where the Swannery is found) in its lee. It is being slowly dismantled by the sea, but will be there for a few millennia yet and well worth a look. We found some intrepid fishermen and stubborn British families (‘we said we were having a beach holiday. I don’t care if it’s wet and windy, I’m putting up the tent and we’re sitting on the bloody beach’) braving the elements and admiring the crashing surf. Walking on the pebbles is, frankly, exhausting and I for one was happy we only had to do so for half a mile (if that) before we turned up another lane.

Chesil Beach at the Weymouth end (taken last year in better weather!)
Goggling at the sheer size of a raven on a stile (hint: half the size of the stile. That’s a big bird) we found Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens (because every Dorset village needs a good garden, and these are particularly good) just as the rain started to come down in earnest. Thankfully, 250 years of careful tending have resulted in a fabulous set of gardens with a well-developed canopy for hiding from the rain under. We marvelled at the range of trees and plants and failed to spot the firecrest that is known to live there, although we did find an escaped golden pheasant from the aviary. What we didn’t find was cake. Or ice cream. Although given the weather, we probably didn’t really want ice cream.
The remarkable sound of a garden volunteer howling through a loudhailer advised us when it was closing time, which thankfully coincided with a bus from the village centre that would take us halfway home, saving us a 2-mile walk. We relieved the village shop of a few dinner-shaped items on our way past, and began fantasising about the cup of tea that awaited us when we finally got back.

Distance covered: just over 12 miles (thank goodness for that bus)
Sustenance: an enormous English breakfast, jacket potato with an immensity of cheddar and tuna mayo (me; @alice-mccoy went for a more sensible toasty), oxtail soup and a roll, lemon shortbread and chocolate macaroons. Oh yes.