We step out onto the coastal path again. On the other side of Swanage, 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 and see the arch in the limestone rocks that stretches out into the sea looking like some ancient elephant’s trunk sucking up the Channel. The sky, as we set off, is high and blue and looking extraordinarily pretty. As if it’s trying to sell me something.
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.
“Oh, about 12, 13 miles. Should take you a good six hours… ”
I asked all 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 the grass track, rolling up and down, new paths cut to avoid landslips and the constant problem of the cliffs falling into the sea. We’re on our own, among the early summer flowers blazing the fields, butterflies flapping about and acting as our only pace-setters. The long day stretches ahead as far as I can see.
“This is great,” I keep repeating out loud to Giristroula. “Isn’t this a great day?”
‘I really must remember this…’ I think to myself.
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. “Oh, about six hours…” We walk on, the sea on one side, billowing green fields and plumped-pillow hills on the other. It’s hot and there’s just a few Ambrosia cream clouds tufting the blue sky. The cricket is on our radio and it all seems 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 and giggling and apologising, from a small outcrop of rocks that are really not that far from the beach at all, 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 that is. 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, another nine, 10 hours or so. Nigh on. Give or take.”
Well that’s just perfect. So 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 as it comes along the track. We flag it down. A thin bearded, shaggy man sits behind the wheel, his tall wife in the passenger seat. Both of them are in matching khaki hiking vests, very short khaki shorts, floppy sunhats, heavy boots, wonky-framed glasses on their noses, second-pair reading glasses slung 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. On the back seat 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 pile out of the car just as the bus dodders round the corner, grunting and grumbling to itself, and load on the three-quarter empty Wessex, Dorset & South Somerset service.
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 who he says has a motorbike and sidecar, 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: appearing slowly over the cliff’s edge in a gold-orange light. In a film, there would be dramatic music playing as it reared up majestically before us… And if this were 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. 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 seemed to be staying in any of the guest houses with their imploring ‘Vacancies’ signs turned out towards the passers-by in the surrounding villages. Why so many Eastern Europeans? What is it about this Jurassic limestone monument that appeals to the Slavic senses? I note too a picnicking Indian family down below with a great spread laid out on a colourful sheet and wonder if they’re the same family from the Cliffs of Dover. Maybe they’re doing a unplanned wandering tour of Britain too?
We take our snaps, have a last lingering look at the arch and then head off to see how we can carry on westwards from here. We don’t call the bus driver, instead we see if we can hitch again. A Bulgarian and a Hungarian, two girls working in a hotel in Cheltenham who had come to see Durdle Door like us but now looking for somewhere to stay, pull their small hatchback over. They’re happy to give us a lift. “Climb in.” Thank God for the eastern Europeans here. They look up railways stations on their phones. Wool seems to be the nearest one. I can see there is very little at Wool on the map but tell them I’m sure there’d be somewhere for them to stay near the station? They drop us off and there is no sign of any hotel or anything looking like a hotel, just a characterless new-build housing estate. My guilt is compounded 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 I can’t think of where 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 sleeper train?”
The Night Riviera train is one of those great British institutions. Arrowing passengers from Paddington station to Cornwall throughout the night, once a night, for over a hundred years. A cabin on the sleeper train would get us heading west and give us somewhere to sleep for the night.
“Perfect,” says Giristroula. “We can crack two birds with one egg…”
We catch a train heading back towards London.
We are an hour early for the train at Paddington, but find with a happy 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 this place 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 train’s 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 “Now make sure you get the right cabin tonight, Martin. Not like last time…” I give Marin a hard stare.
Launching myself onto the top bunk bed of our cabin and pulling Giristroula up with me, the romance of this kind of train travel has me feeling like some sort of Cary Grant figure. We ignore Giristroula’s foot getting stuck in the small sink and peer out, our faces close to the window breathing on the glass, as the train judders and sets off. We watch as the train builds up speed, passes the North Pole depot for old trains, the lights of the tower blocks all along the Westway fade one by one and eventually the whole of London itself just disappears away behind us into meaningless darkness. It is a few minutes past midnight.
As we sit stationary at some station along the way – Swindon? Bristol? I’m not sure – the train’s engine rumbling as we wait, idling for hours on the platform, I am moaning up on the top bunk, pounding at the pillow.
“I can’t sleep on this bloody train…”
Giristroula takes the earplugs out of our Great Western Rail provided travel kit.
“This was just the most terrible idea. Why did we ever come up with it?” I say as I shovel my head under the sheets and the train sits on, growling somewhere in dark western England.