We step out onto the costal path again on the other side of Swanage after breakfast, with vague plans of heading as far west as we can go. The only definite is to see Durdle Door, the great natural arch in the rocks over the sea: 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 told us 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… ” “Have you walked it?” I asked these Dorset old timers. Strangely no one had seemed to.
The path was first made for observing smugglers, so it clings to the coast with vertical views down onto the beaches and the bays below. It’s a glorious walk. Up and down, new paths cut to avoid landslips and the constant problem of the cliffs falling into the sea. On our own, butterflies acting as our only pace-setters.
I ask each walker we pass coming in the opposite direction 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 in the sky, and the cricket on our portable radio. A 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 smaller dinghy ploughing through the sea towards them, and feel foolish.
As the stranded girls are brought – seemingly equally embarrassed – ashore from a small outcrop of rocks that are really not that far from the beach to be honest, a RNLI helicopter circles overhead. It’s an impressive rescue operation for the two, now laughing, girls. The Greek comments on how, on some islands at home there isn’t even an ambulance on the whole island.
I take this opportunity to buttonhole the coastguards and ask how much further Durdle Door is. “Impossible” they say. “It’s another 15 miles. And with the ups and downs, you’ll be walking for 10 hours at least.”
Well that’s just perfect. What to do now?
We turn inland and trudge through tall fields, past huge rolled bales of hay, looking for a road. We eventually find a dirt track and, after an age, finally flag down a passing car.
A thin, bearded, shaggy man behind the wheel and his wife tell us they’d be happy to help.
“Get in” the wife says, “Don’t mind him, he’s just a bit old and smelly.”
It turns out she’s talking about a dog. On the back seat, sat between us is a very tall thin, quiet old Irish Wolf hound. Looking quite identical to the man in the driving seat. They drive us bumpily and 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: “I’m worried about you two. How will you get back?” He gives us his phone number and the number of a friend 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 wonderful gold-orange light. In a film, there would be dramatic music playing as it reared up before us.
And if this was a film, there would then be the sound of the record player notably slowing down with low, sad disappointment as the beach below revealed itself. Packed with barbecuing families 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 surrounding this part of cloyingly beautiful south England. Why so many Eastern Europeans? It all seems very strange.
I’m pleased to see the obligatory picnicking Indian family though.
We take our snaps and head in the direction of a train station to carry on heading west.
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 too and have nowhere to stay.
I tell them that perhaps there would be somewhere near the station in Wool. Knowing full-well there wouldn’t be.
As they drop us off at the station in the middle of nowhere, my guilt is compounded as the Bulgarian reverses her car into the car park wall.
Karma catches me a return blow as we scan the train boards. The services west to Weymouth are cancelled and there are only trains going back towards London.
We don’t want to be heading that way but have nowhere else to go.
Then inspiration strikes. The sleeper train! The Night Riviera, 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 arrive an hour early at Paddington but find with cheery surprise that our Sleeper tickets allow us into the First Class Waiting Lounge.
Like a pair of locusts we hoover up the free snacks and fruit and wines and think even about using the showers, but get distracted again by the free wines.
When it’s time to board we are in an exceptionally good mood. Chatting with porters and the stewards, it 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 night train weekly? Daily?? I’m put on guard 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 Passepartout up with me, the romance of this kind of train travel making me feel like a Cary Grant in North by Northwest.
The train judders and we’re off. We watch from the wound-down window as London disappears away behind us into meaningless darkness, a few minutes before midnight.
“Oh I won’t sleep. What, with this rocking? There is no way I’ll get any sleep on this train.”
As we remain stationary at some station along the way, the engine still pounding, I’m in full moaning mode.
“There is just no way I’ll sleep on this train.” I pound the pillow as Passepartout takes the earplugs out of our Great Western Rail provided travel kit to drown me out.
“This was a terrible idea. Who came up with it? I’m just never going to get any sleep…”