Cap it all off with a hilltop hike, but make sure the clouds have lifted...
Travelling through Dorset recently in no particular hurry I found myself in high ridge country and decided to go for a hike. My brother was with me and I told him it would be a fine opportunity to embark upon one of these new Classic Walks for the newspaper.
Our wanderings on Pilsdon Pen – Dorset's highest hill – ticked most of the right boxes, but the photographs didn't. Walking up there on the magnificent ridges, which effectively seal off the Westcountry from the rest of Britain, is all about views – and for day after day recently we have had nothing but iron-grey misty weather.
Cold yes. Invigorating maybe. But photogenic definitely not…
Some locations – I'm thinking about forests, deep river valleys or interesting shorelines – are photographable in dank, dark weather. Airy heaths giving away to vast panoramas are not.
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We could hardly see anything in those icy winds on Pilsdon Pen, save for the nearest group of hills to the south which happen to include magical and mighty Golden Cap.
The last time I was there walking was when I did a series of television hikes with an ITV Westcountry film crew and if I collected £5 for everyone who has asked me in the intervening years if I'd be doing another TV walks series I'd be a rich man – which means I look back on those happy days with warmth and affection.
So allow me to feature the wondrous sunshine-lit Golden Cap walk now – and promise that we will return to march across Pilsdon Pen another brighter day.
Golden Cap is the highest point along the entire English south coast. Climbing its 191-metre summit from sea-level would be out of the question for all but the most fit – however, the great hill that looms between Lyme Regis and Bridport is attached to a flattish plateau that offers a fantastic level walk with heavenly views.
It is also, by the way, one of the most highly protected places in the region, being a key point of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, and being owned by the National Trust as part of its wonderful Golden Cap estate.
To find the altitudinous demesne you must reach a hilltop village called Morcombelake on the A35 between Charmouth and Chideock. Just past the garage, over the hilltop heading east, watch out for a tiny lane on the right. Then, once you've negotiated your way on to it (and be careful, if you're heading east you must cross a nasty bit of road), follow the turn left marked Langdon Hill car park. You'll find the National Trust parking place in the woods and from here you have a choice of numerous walking routes.
After a quick read of the trust's interpretation board, which told us about the rare snakes, lizards, butterflies and birds that haunt the area, we set off due south down the big forest ride.
Views. That's what this place is all about – so don't bother going on an iron-grey misty day. You are treated to huge views from the moment you begin your walk above the charming village of Chideock. It lies far, far below, among those knobbly hills and green Hobbit-like vales for which West Dorset is much celebrated (if you can see them, that is).
At just over 600 feet, the car park is at much the same altitude as the top of Golden Cap itself, so when at last you come to the edge of the trees you are delighted to discover that only a small dip separates you from the great and famous hill.
From this particular angle Golden Cap looks like an Alp – perfectly conical so you think the top must be crowned by a small peak. It's not, because the peak stretches in a tiny escarpment toward the sea, but you only find that out once you've descended a little way down into the dip, crossed a field or two, and then climbed the steep footpath to the top.
On this particular walk we're going to leave that treat for later. Instead we turn right and head down past ruined St Gabriel's Chapel in a corner of the fields to find the path which continues inland past St Gabriel's Wood and up to the farm at Upcott. From here another path climbs the contours west and slowly makes its way up on to the ridge that is Chardown Hill.
From here a long straight track heads west again along the ridge which actually turns into Stonebarrow Hill – and eventually this turns into a paved lane that runs directly down over the hog's-back to Charmouth.
At the point where the unmade track turns into tarmac you can, if you wish, and don't need to seek refreshment down in Charmouth, shorten the walk by turning sharp left and descending seawards down past Westhay Farm.
It's all sensationally beautiful as you descend into the two little valleys created by Westhay and then Ridge Waters.
The fields here are impressive examples of eco-friendly agriculture as the Golden Cap Estate is farmed by the National Trust, which has a policy of limiting the use of herbicides and pesticides.
I've been here in early summer when the area is a hay-fever nightmare zone if you happen to be a sufferer. I was selfishly delighted by the swathes of grasses and wildflowers that abound in this lovely part of the south coast, but recall a friend sneezing and suffering badly.
All that remains now is the big, big climb. Actually, it's not that bad – but the coast path does go straight up the contours to the peak of Gold Cap without any zig-zagging about. It's just one long haul – but worth every single step for the stupendous views you get from the top. Including one of Pilsdon Pen to the north – but, as I say, we will leave that great Dorset summit for another brighter day.
If you turn around and look west you will see gargantuan landslides that mark this coast. Your eye roves past a million dinosaur fossils to Charmouth, and on again along more of the region's Jurassic Park as the coast rises, reluctantly, at The Spittles – the jumble of cliffs that so haphazardly lead the roving eye around to Lyme Regis.
From Golden Cap, Lyme looks like it's meant to look: ie all French Lieutenant's Woman-ish and romantic – the sort of place you imagine Jane Austen going for her holidays.
On top of the Golden Cap plateau it's only a few hundred yards past the Bronze Age burial mounds before you reach the other end, but at the edge of the cliff you are treated to yet another stupendous view to the east...
There is Seatown, deep in its gully a long way below, then there are the rolling ridges leading up to Thorncombe Beacon past Doghouse Hill. You cannot see Eype Mouth, which is hidden beyond all this, but further still there's a glimpse of the quay at West Bay.
I once walked to Lower Eype from here, and returned via inland paths over Frogmore Hill and up through Chideock and Quarry Hill, but it requires a day's hard hiking. For today's walk all we need do is retrace our footsteps back across to Langdon Hill and its forest – then take the left-hand track which works its way around the western half of the eminence. It will take us back through the trees to the trust car park – which you will be glad to see, because this is one of the most arduous four-hour hikes you can do anywhere along the South Coast.