We step out onto the coastal path once more. On the other side of Swanage, after breakfast, with the same vague plan of heading along the route as far west as we can go. The only definite is we want to get to Durdle Door to see the great natural arch in the rocks that lie out into the sea, looking like an elephant’s trunk stuck in the water sucking up the Channel.
We had asked in town the previous night about the walk. People had sucked their teeth and made contemplative blowing noises and all had told us how it was a “good long slog” to Lulworth and Durdle Door. But no-one seemed to think it wasn’t do-able.
“12, 13 miles. Should take you a good six hours… ”
I asked these Dorset old timers if they’d ever walked it. Strangely no one had seemed to.
The path was first made for observing smugglers, so it clings tight to the coast edge with vertical views straight down onto the beaches and the bays below. It’s a pretty glorious walk along this grass track, rolling up and down, new paths cut to avoid landslips and the constant problem of the cliffs falling down into the sea. We’re on our own, among the early summer flowers. Butterflies flap about, acting as our only pace-setters. The long day stretches ahead as far as we can see. “This is great,” I keep repeating out loud, and I think to myself ‘I really must remember this…’
When I spot the odd walker coming in the opposite direction I make a point of asking each one if they’d come from Durdle Door. No one had. But everyone felt it was do-able. “About six hours.” We walk on, the sea on one side, billowing green eiderdown fields and plumped-pillow hills on the other. It’s hot, with blue skies and just a few Ambrosia cream clouds tufting the sky. The cricket on our portable radio. A ridiculously perfect English scene. After about six hours of the walk, we pass St Albans Head and spot two girls waving from rocks down below. I wave back but soon notice a lifeboat and a smaller emergency dinghy ploughing through the sea towards them, and feel foolish. As the stranded girls are brought ashore – embarrassed, giggling and apologising now – from a small outcrop of rocks that are really not that far from the beach, a RNLI helicopter circles overhead too. It’s an impressive rescue operation for the two girls, now stood up on the path wrapped in reflective foil sheets. Giristroula can’t believe it and says how, on some islands back at home there isn’t even one ambulance on the whole island…
I take this opportunity to buttonhole the coastguards and ask how much further Durdle Door is.
“Durdle Door?” one of them says, drawling on the words. “That’s a fair old lope. Don’t reckon you’ll never get there today. It’s another 15 miles at least. And with the ups and downs, you’ll be reckoning to walk, oh, for another 9 or 10 hours or so. Nigh on. Give or take.”
Well that’s just perfect. What can we do now? We turn inland and trudge through tall fields, past huge rolled bales of hay, looking for a road. Eventually we find a small dirt track and sit on the gritty ground and wait. After an age a car emerges, spinning up clouds of dust, and we flag it down. A thin bearded, shaggy man behind the wheel, his wife in the passenger seat. Both of them in matching khaki hiking vests, very short khaki shorts, heavy boots, wonky-framed glasses on their noses, second-pair reading glasses slung low round their necks on purple strings. The tall lady tell us they’d be happy to help.
“Get in!” she booms in a posh, hearty way. “Don’t mind him, he’s just a bit old and smelly…” It turns out she’s talking about a dog, not her husband as on the back seat, sat between us sits a very tall thin, quiet old Irish Wolf hound looking dolefully out the front window. Looking quite identical to his owner in the driving seat.
“That’s Humphrey. Oh shove up Humph!” commands the wife. The dog doesn’t move. Stays staring out with eyes as sad as a drunk’s.
They drive us bumpily, erratically, towards the closest town. We should have missed the last bus to Durdle Door, but with wonderful countryside timing, the bus is 20 minutes late. We catch it and, dropping us off at the stop for Durdle Door, the bus driver is concerned:
“Ah now,” he says in a slow contemplative fashion. “I’m worried about you two there. How are you planning to get yourselves back again? No more buses now…” He gives us his own phone number and the number of a friend of his, in case we’re in trouble later. And London life really couldn’t feel further away.
We walk towards the great arch of rock in the sea and it is an amazing sight, as we’d hoped: appearing slowly over the cliff’s edge in a wonderful gold-orange light. In a film, there would be dramatic music playing as it reared up majestically before us… And if this was a film, there would then be the sound of the record player slowing down again with low, sad disappointment as the beach below revealed itself…It is packed with barbecuing families, rising trails of smoke and hoards of Russians drinking Polish beer. Where have all these enormous numbers come from? There was no one on the roads leading here. No one in the guest houses in the surrounding villages. Why so many Eastern Europeans? What is it about this Jurassic limestone monument that appeals so much? It all seems very strange. I note a picnicking Indian family down below and wonder if they’re the same one from the Cliffs of Dover. We take our snaps, have a last lingering look and then start to head in the direction of a train station to carry on heading west. We don’t call the bus driver, instead we hitch a lift again. With a Bulgarian and a Hungarian. Two girls working in a hotel in Cheltenham who had come to see Durdle Door like us, and now have nowhere to stay. They look up the nearest station on their phones. I tell them that perhaps there would be somewhere to stay near the station in Wool, suspecting full-well there wouldn’t be. As they drop us off at this station – completely in the middle of nowhere with no sign of any hotel or anything even like a hotel – my guilt is compounded further as the Bulgarian reverses her car into the car park wall.
Karma catches us a return blow as we scan the train boards. All the services west to Weymouth are cancelled and there are only trains running on the other line, going back towards London. We don’t want to be heading that way at all. But have nowhere else to go. Then I have an idea. I turn to Giristroula, “What about the sleeper train..?” She looks at me with a face as blank as a plate. “What about it?” she replies. The Night Riviera train is one of the great British institutions, of course. Arrowing passengers from Paddington to Cornwall throughout the night, once a night, for over a hundred years. A cabin there would be the perfect way to carry on heading west and secure some accommodation for the night. We catch the train back towards London.
We are an hour early for the train at Paddington, but find with a surprise that our Sleeper tickets allow us into the First Class Waiting Lounge on Platform 1. A grand octagonal rotunda, with reliefs in the wall, that someone tells me originally served as Queen Victoria’s changing room. We hoover up the free snacks and wines, think about using the showers, get distracted by the free wines again, don’t really dwell properly on the historic setting at all. When it’s time to board we’re in an exceptionally good mood, laughing and chatting with porters and the stewards, it all feels like train travel from a completely different era. We make our way through the dining carriage and I’m caught by how the stewards are on first name terms with some of the, obviously regular, travellers. Do people take this 300 mile night-train journey weekly? Daily? I’m put on alert however as we enter our cabin and I hear the stewardess tell the slightly worse-for-wear passenger tottering outside in the passageway “Make sure you get the right cabin tonight, Martin. Not like last time…”
Launching myself onto the top bunk bed and pulling Giristroula up with me, the romance of this kind of train travel has me feeling like some Cary Grant figure in North by Northwest. We ignore Giristroula’s foot getting stuck in the small sink and peer out, our faces close to the window breathing on the glass, the train judders and we’re off. We watch as the train builds speed and London disappears away behind us into meaningless darkness. It is a few minutes before midnight.
“Oh I won’t sleep. With this rocking? There is no way I’ll get any sleep on this train.”
As we sit stationary at some station along the way- Swindon? Bristol? – the engine rumbling as we wait, I am moaning up on the top bunk, pounding at the pillow. Giristroula takes the earplugs out of our Great Western Rail provided travel kit.
“This was a terrible idea.” I shovel my head under the sheets.”I’m just never going to get any sleep…”