On Monday I finally ticked off a hike that has been on my ‘to hike’ list for years – West Bay to Golden Cap!
When I visited West Bay last year, I got talking to a local who told me about some of the great hikes in the area, and ever since then I’ve been wanting to hike from West Bay to Golden Cap, the highest point on the South Coast of England at 191m/627ft, along the South West Coast Path in Dorset. On Monday, it all came together: an amazing forecast on a weekday (meaning quieter paths) and no urgent deadlines at work!
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I packed my rucksack on Sunday evening, and left early for West Bay, where I parked in the big, quiet car park I used the last time I was here. (West Bay Road Car Park, £8 for all day parking, with public toilets and a Spar shop nearby. Perfect for hikers.) I set off around 8 am. Obviously the first thing I did was take a quick detour to enjoy the view from East Beach. Then I headed up West Cliff where I properly started my hike from West Bay to Golden Cap.
I have done the first section of the hike before, just stopping short of descending onto Eypemouth Beach. (I had already been up East Cliff, plus I explored Lyme Regis earlier that day, so a long hike was not on the agenda back then.) What a lovely beach it is! There is a little private car park here, just by the yellow cliffside cabin where Danny was killed in Broadchurch. (You may be confused to find it here, because in the TV series, Danny was found beneath East Cliff!) Perfect if you want to spend a day at the beach or don’t want to hike all the way from West Bay to Golden Cap. (There are several other options for that as well – read on.)
From Eypemouth, the path from West Bay to Golden Cap goes up yet another cliff, and quite a steep one at that. (Unsurprisingly, as ‘eype’ means ‘a steep place’ in Old English. However, there is a gentler path if you follow the trail that goes a little further inland.) This path led me straight up to historical Thorncombe Beacon. A perfect place for a short break with an incredible view, although I recommend stopping a little before the top of the hill to stay out of the wind.
There are many different paths down from Thorncombe Beacon into Seatown. Feeling brave (unusual for me, I am not good with heights and the recent cliff falls have me terrified anyway), I decided to follow the path closest to the cliff edge, but a few steps on that path were enough to make me change my mind. Offshore wind and a nervous and not infrequently clumsy girl is not a good combination! So I settled for the ‘middle ground’, not the cliff path, but not the inland one, either (I followed that one on my way back, though – it was beautiful!).
I have never been to Seatown before, but I was very happy to see that the pub was open. I decided that a drink and a snack at the pub (hey, you’ve got to support local businesses!) might taste even better on the way back from Golden Cap, so I found a bench on the beach where I enjoyed the sunshine and treated myself to some goodies from my backpack: a Misfits bar and my favourite flavour of Clear Protein squash from MyVegan (pineapple and grapefruit, delicious!). You can also park here if you don’t want to hike all the way from West Bay to Golden Cap. From here the hike takes approximately 40 minutes.
Seatown beach has unfortunately been home to several cliff falls this year, including a huge landslip that blocked the beach. This means the South West Coast Path has had to be rerouted, so you follow the main road inland through the hamlet. Signposts direct you through the woods and back onto the coast path again. The landscape is spectacular, and before long you can see Golden Cap – so named because the blue lias cliff is capped with golden sandstone. And this is when it gets steep (though not as steep as the final ascent up Thorncombe Beacon!).
Just before you reach the top, the path forks, but don’t worry! This is actually a little loop, so you cannot miss the highest point on the South Coast of England! Golden Cap is 191 metres or 627 feet high, and the view of Lyme Bay is absolutely breathtaking. (And if you fancy an even shorter hike, you can also park at the National Trust car parks at Langdon Hill and Stonebarrow Hill.)
I didn’t linger on top of Golden Cap for long, though. I had stumbled across some information the day before, about a mystical, lost medieval village and some beautiful church ruins. There was no way I was going to miss out on that! I didn’t know the way, so I asked a few of the local hikers, but nobody knew what I was talking about.
Tip: Always ask ladies. Don’t ask men. They all assumed I was completely lost, mansplained to me where I was (and got it wrong), and then told me to visit places that were several hours’ drive away instead. No, I’m not exaggerating. Clearly, they thought any ecclesiastical ruin would do. (I have added their tips to my list of places to visit, though. They did sound very interesting, lol!)
Stanton St. Gabriel
So I got a little lost – or not really, but there was a path across a field, which suggested you could actually cut through that field. You couldn’t. We’re talking barbed wire. But eventually I found a signpost that I had missed on my way up to Golden Cap. (You’ll forgive me, I was just a teensy bit out of breath at the time.) This directed me to a bridlepath towards Stanton St. Gabriel.
I walked down a hill with a magnificent view of Charmouth and Lyme Regis, round a corner and suddenly, there it was: the ruins of the Stanton St. Gabriel parish church. According to Wikipedia, Stanton St. Gabriel is mentioned in the 1086 Domesday Book as Stantone, but by the 18th century the village had already become virtually deserted.
I haven’t been able to find out how old the church ruins themselves are, though. The church is frequently referred to as medieval, and some of the interior is from the 1500s. Apparently the church was already in ruins in the mid 1800s. (At that point is was being used as storage space by smugglers!) All the same, it is a beautiful and very peaceful spot. If you get here early, it is the perfect place for some quiet contemplation.
Back to Seatown
It was now time to head home, so I took one last look at the stunning view and headed back up the hill towards Golden Cap. Once it was time to descend the hill, I suddenly noticed that I was not following the same path down as I had taken up! Ooops! Nevermind, it was still signposted to Seatown and I could see the hamlet in the distance. But then I decided to try to rejoin the coast path, and that was a bit of an error.
After climbing a couple of gates I found myself on a lovely little path that took me back to the main road down to the seasidey Seatown. There I ran into some hikers I had asked for directions to the church ruins at the top of Golden Cap, so we ambled down to the beach together whilst chatting happily about other places we have hiked or hope to hike soon.
By now I was really looking forward to relaxing on the patio of The Anchor Inn, but I was disappointed to discover that although some of the pub doors were open, the pub itself was not. It is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Uh-oh. Not to worry, the pub had a little kiosk on the beach that sold various drinks and food. I treated myself to some not-particularly-nutritious-but-much-needed-calories from there, and walked down to the beach. There I settled on a huge rock of blue lias to enjoy some soda, snacks, sea and sunshine.
Up to Thorncombe Beacon again
After a nice little rest, and some airing out of socks and shoes, I headed up the cliff towards Thorncombe Beacon again. Remembering vividly just how steep the final ascent had been (it actually hurt my heels!), I decided to follow the gentler path further inland. And as stunning as the cliffs and the sea are, this path was every bit as beautiful. And there was the added bonus of lots of charming sheep chilling in the shade. Bucolic beyond belief.
Before I knew it, I was back in Eype, at the cabin where Danny died. (I’m sorry, I’ve seen Broadchurch three times, this is just how my mind works now). Here I decided to take another quick break on another beautiful beach in the still glorious sunshine. (I’ll level with you, this was not the hardest decision I’ve ever made.) So I ventured down on to the beach and got horizontal for a little while. Then I cooled my tired feet with a quick wading session.
Always ask the locals
And this was when I made my big mistake. Because it totally looked like it would be possible to walk along the beach from Eype to West Bay. You just had to scramble up some rocks to get through to the next section of beach, and then scramble up a few more rocks and onto the promenade. And I saw a few people over there who walked in that direction and then disappeared, plus a few people swimming in the sea over there, so I figured it had to be possible.
Silly me. I should’ve asked someone first! At least I had the wits to check the tide times, so I knew I wouldn’t get cut off by the tide before I could get through that first set of rocks. So I set off… and oh my goodness… I had thought this would be a quick shortcut from Eype to West Bay, but quick it was not.
Do as I say, don’t do as I did
It was like wading in shingle; for every step I took, I slid another half a step in one direction or another. And then I started worrying about being cut off by the tide anyway, because it was taking me so long, so I tried to run a little. Not any easier. And all the people I had seen on that part of the beach earlier had all vanished, except for one lone swimmer. And the people I could see on the promenade were all standing back from the end of it, for some reason. Curiouser and curiouser.
Well, I figured out why by the time I finally got there and managed to climb up the giant rocks and onto the promenade. It was blocked off. Yup. With signs warning of rockfalls. And who do we know who are mortally afraid of rockfalls? Yup. Me. So whatever you do, DON’T DO THAT! It wasn’t any quicker, anyway – climbing the cliff would definitely have been the easier option.
Back in West Bay
Anyway, finding myself back in beautiful West Bay after that mental and physical challenge, I wound my way to the farthest end of the longest pier, sank down on the comfy concrete seat (hmmm) and stared at the spectacular East Cliff while eating another of my Misfits bars (I couldn’t find any vegan ice cream) and trying to find a way to get my feet up so I could relax properly. It wasn’t all that easy, due to the rounded seat edge and back rest, but eventually I sort of managed to lie down on it, with my head on my backpack and my barefoot feet stretched out on the bench.
Then I remembered that I had downloaded Richard Osman’s latest murder mystery, The Man Who Died Twice, on to my iPhone, so I half read a few chapters of that and half admired the golden glow of East Cliff in the evening sunshine.
By the time I got back to my car, 6 hours after I left it, I had hiked from West Bay to Golden Cap via Stanton St. Gabriel and back again, 18.95 km in total, burned 2492 calories (1798 active calories) and hit an elevation gain of 692m. It should have been well over 700m, of course, but my bumbling beach blunder scuppered that plan.
Maximum elevation: 191 metres, of course. Thank you, Golden Cap!
Minimum elevation: -9m. Huh? Must’ve been a really low tide that day…