5 July 2015
Finally I was on the beach with waves crashing onto the sand, sail boats and the ever present Needles in the distance. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’d left Barton on Sea behind and this was actually Highcliffe on Sea. Not only that but, I’d left Hampshire and was now in Dorset. For a moment or two I stood relishing the slight sea spray on my face and looked back the way I’d come. From the beach it was easy to see the extent of the landslip and it was obvious I’d never have been able to walk along the beach even if I’d been unwise enough to try.
There was a wide chalky path running at the bottom of the crumbling cliffs here and the tiered undercliff was mainly grassy and looked far more stable than the one I’d strolled along the top of. Large boulders lined each side of the path and long rocky groynes created little sandy bays ideal for sunbathing. This would be a lovely place to spend a sunny afternoon. In fact, although the sky was still mostly cloudy the sun had come out and I was getting warm so I took off my mac and tied it around my waist.
There were a few people about and further on I could see a small lifeguard station. A photographer had set up a tripod on the end of one of the groynes. It looked like he was taking shots of The Needles. Close by a man appeared to be fishing. As I walked further I could see a shingle barrier had been built up behind the rock defences. It was tempting to climb over the rocks and sit for a while on the sand, maybe take my shoes off and dip my feet in the waves as they crashed onto the shore. There were rows of beach huts along the bay and I’d like to have walked further and looked at them. In the end I did neither. When I looked at my watch I saw it was time to turn back, I’d promised to meet Commando at the car park in two hours and I’d already been walking for an hour.
What began as a couple of large farms on the Chewton Eastate and a few thatched cottages in a hamlet called Slop Pond grew into Highcliffe. In Victorian times the growing village became popular with tourists and was renamed Newtown, possibly because Slop Pond really doesn’t sound all that enticing. Later, when the first house was built on the cliff it was renamed Highcliffe. The finger of land I could see in the far distance was Christchurch Harbour and beyond that I knew was Bournemouth. Reluctantly, I turned my back on it all and began to retrace my steps.
With The Needles in front of me I walked back past the lifeboat station to the place the beach was closed off and the deep gully I’d walked down. It all looked slightly different coming back the other way and for a moment I couldn’t see the steps I’d come down. When I did spot them I noticed another path going off to the side with a sign saying Chewton Bunny Nature Reserve.
Apparently a bunny is a local name for a valley and this particular valley, so the sign said, was once used by smugglers to bring contraband into the New Forest. There was quicksand to trap the customs men who tried to capture the smugglers and a mill using the River Chow to turn the waterwheel. According to the sign there was a waterfall and a bridge. How could I resist?
As I set off along the wooded path with a trickle of a stream that I guessed was the river Chow in a gully beside me I wasn’t sure where I would end up. There was a chance I’d get lost or have to turn back but I’d wasted a fair bit of time at the beginning of the walk going down to the beach and sitting deciding what to do so I thought it was worth the risk. Besides, I had my phone so I could always call Commando if things went really wrong.
The sign mentioned rich woodland wildlife and flowers but it seemed to be sadly lacking in both. The path climbed quite steeply and when I came to a small cascade running over a tiny dip in the stream I hoped this wasn’t the waterfall. If it was it was seriously oversold. To be honest I was regretting not climbing back up to the carvan park with the wonderful views over the crumbling cliffs. In fairness, it did get prettier further on. The green light was soothing, birds were singing and there was a giant bench.
All too soon the path ended in steep wooden steps zigzagging up the side of the gully and I left the river/stream behind. At the top I emerged onto a narrow tarmac road. There was a house hidden behind the trees that may or may not have been the old mill house. Then there was another possible mill house but nothing to tell me if it was or not. By now I was getting a little worried about where the trail was taking me. It seemed I’d been walking inland for some time and, with Google Maps not working, I had a sinking feeling I’d end up hopelessly lost.
There was nothing for it but to keep climbing. As I got higher the path narrowed again and things did get prettier, there was even a rustic bench I could have sat on if I wasn’t hurrying and feeling slightly frantic. Then I came to the bridge and the waterfall. The brick arch of the bridge was attractive and the waterfall might have been impressive with a little more water. Unfortunately overgrown trees made taking photos difficult and when I got onto the bridge and looked down the water below was littered with rubbish.
This was the end of the trail and, although I was mostly glad I’d explored it, I think I chose the wrong time of year. Spring is probably the best time, when there would be more wildflowers and more water, maybe even some exciting fungi. Now I found myself on a road, thankfully one with a footpath. With no idea where I was all I could do was keep walking in what I hoped was the right direction and look for something that would lead me back towards the cliffs and the sea. The river Chow marks the boundary between Dorset and Hampshire so I had literally been walking along that boundary the whole time although, at that point, I didn’t even realise I’d wandered into Dorset. The first thing I saw was a sign saying Hampshire. It was a relief to know I must be going in the right direction at least.
Just around the corner I came to the entrance to a carvan park. Whether this was the same caravan Park I’d walked through earlier remained to be seen but, looking around to make sure no one saw me, I walked through the gates. Still uncertain where I’d end up I walked with my back to the road and crossed my fingers that I’d see the sea sooner or later. It was nerve wracking expecting to be challenged at any moment but eventually, to my relief, I could see the sea ahead and the cliff edge. Fairly soon I was going back through the gate I’d come through on the way out and I could breathe easily again. Looking back I could see Bournemouth’s tethered baloon as a dot on the horizon.
The flowering grasses along the ciff edge were swaying in the breeze and below was the craggy jumble of tumbled cliff. The Needles seemed to be growing larger and more distinct the further I went and soon I was back at the place where the trail went through the trees and bushes. Right after I’d stopped to take a picture of some honeysuckle I’d not noticed before Commando rang. He’d got back to the car early and wanted to know where I was.
There was one more thing to do. When I first set off I’d seen an ice cream shop and promised myself one at the end of the walk. Of course I chose Mocha and we strolled down Hoskin’s Gap to the beach. While I ate my ice cream Commando looked out to sea (I did offer to buy him one but he said no). He told me he’d seen paragliders flying up and down the shore while he was running. I must have missed all the excitement during my detour into the woods at Chewton Bunny.
After a quick look at the beach huts we climbed back up the gap marvelling at the striated layers in the cliff face. There was a bee frolicking around the teasel flowers as we climbed and I stopped to take pictures, then had to rush to catch up with Commando. All that was left was to get back in the car and set off home.
We were just about to do this when Commando pointed excitedly towards the cliffs. A paraglider was just about to plung over the edge. Sadly, I wasn’t quick enough to capture the dramatic moment when he stepped off the cliff into thin air but I did catch him on the way down. Unfortunately down was not really where he was supposed to be going. All the time he was descending I expected him to catch the wind and begin to soar but he didn’t. Instead he landed on the beach below looking almost as deflated as his parachute. Still, it was exiting while it lasted a bit like the walk really.