The Unglamourous Side to Backpacking (The Wessex Ridgeway Part 1)

A constant drip-drip from the trees above. The wind pushing the flysheet against the already damp inner, exacerbated by the fact I’d pitched on a slight slope. Condensation dripping from the roof of the tent through the mesh of the inner and onto my sleeping bag. A curious rustling noise that sounded like an animal inside the tent. Outside a misty darkness broken only by the sound of insomniac pheasants. And pervading all, the thought: “why am I doing this ?”

The lead-up to the walk was one fraught with “will I, won’t I” tension. Just coming off a wintry spell, the forecast was for a couple of waves of cold, blowy fronts interspersed with some milder and calmer weather. Every time I looked at the forecast, it would look rubbish in the morning, but great in the afternoon. If I couldn’t make this timing work, it would be another 3 months, and hence the much busier summer period, before I could attempt this, when “accommodation” would be much harder all round.

I got to the point the Friday before that it was clearly too miserable a forecast, and I started shifting my thoughts to what else I’d do. Then on the Sunday, it looked a lot better – enough to make a stab. I’d still have a bit of rain and it would be consistently breezy, but it would do. After all it was my only chance for months.

So I booked a train ticket to Axminster and researched the bus times from there to Lyme Regis, hurriedly topped up my supplies of home-dehydrated food, and started gathering kit together.

The journey down went smoothly, and arriving in Lyme Regis, it was a really nice day and warm with it. Nothing like the forecast temperature. So I headed onto the beach to dip my feet in the Channel, before the long walk to the opposite coastline at The Wash.

A steep pull out of Lyme Regis past a church and at the top of the hill as I left the residential area, I discovered that I could probably have taken the River Lim path instead. But it was done now.

Onto countryside paths and farmland, starting with a climb up through a boggy field. Then I hit forestry at Hole Common, which was moist underfoot but delightful. I stopped and had a chat with the ranger who has repairing signage by one of the gates.

A few fields later, the map said I should swing left which brought me to a gate marked “private”. Behind me in the brambles I noticed a broken Wessex Ridgeway sign, unclear whether it had just decayed and become overwhelmed by nature, or “encouraged” to do so by the owner of the “private” gate.

The route per the map clearly did go that way though, as sticking to the current field lead to a dead end nowhere near where I needed to be.

So through the gate it was, and another smaller one just after it. That too had a “private” sign on the other side, at which point it was clear that the point being made was that that I was crossing someone’s garden and should limit myself to not straying from the gates. Clearly, if it put people off entirely from going through there, that was a bonus to the owner.

At the other side of that next field, a locked gate, which needed to be climbed as well as loudly sworn at.

A sequence of large sloping fields brought me to the road south of Coney’s Castle and it was an easy walk up to the remains of the hill fort, where I stopped to cook some dinner. The last of the dog walkers milled about. As the last ones left, I moved on to find a spot to camp, and got myself a spot with a view back to Lyme Bay.

Wildcamp #233: Dorset

I was away for just after sunrise, enjoying the spreading glow as I made my way to the next hill, Lambert’s Castle Hill.

Here I detoured to the trig point before finding a bench on the east side of the hill to further enjoy the sunrise and also take some breakfast.

I dropped down from the hill to begin a big chunk of farmland. At Grighay farm, the waymarks didn’t appear to match the route on the map, and to divert the walker away from the farmhouse around the edge of the farmyard. This would have been fine had I not had to get through a gate tied up with so many knots that I lost count. A high gate too that wasn’t especially stable for climbing. I persevered with the knots, and certainly didn’t reinstate all of them afterwards – I wasn’t sure I might not have to come back.

Indeed, a little way along the extremely muddy track I did turn around as it didn’t feel right. Twice more through the knotty gate before I decided to stick with it. If I went wrong attempting to follow the waymarks, it wouldn’t be my fault if I found myself “trespassing”, and additionally I was by now so angry that anyone accosting me was in serious personal danger.

The track led around the edge of the farm buildings and deposited me the other side. A sigh of relief was uttered. Of course it was short-lived: access problems tend to breed in close proximity to each other. The next paths also didn’t match the map, and in this case it was the map that was correct.

I learned later, when I stopped for coffee at the excellent Thorncombe Community Shop, that the route hasn’t matched the map through Grighay Farm for a good twenty years. FFS Ordnance Survey, get your act together – that’s both long distance paths so far this year you’ve not kept up to date.

After Thorncombe, all calmed down but there was a bit of climbing to do to get onto Blackdown Hill and then onto Pilsdon Pen. Deserted apart from sheep and cows, I detoured to the trig point before taking a lunch stop in the ditch of the hill fort, as this afforded the best shelter from the now, stiff wind.

Progress after lunch was sluggish – I’d expended a lot of mental energy in the morning, and was feeling wrung out. Although still early, I found myself looking for spots on Lewesdon Hill, which was utterly deserted. But it was also quite windy, and the combination of needing shelter, somewhere discreet and it really being too early, pushed me on. I popped to the actual summit, as this is the highest point in Dorset after all, then dropped down.

The plan for the day had been to do 30km or more, putting me well past Beaminster, and giving me a modest day to a campsite the next day. But so sluggish and drained was I that upon spotting a nice dry valley, I quickly found a spot and after waiting a while to assess whether there would be any traffic through, put the tent up. Naturally, within half an hour a passer by found me – no one along the path, just a local dogwalker, who seemed particularly perturbed that I’d camped there.

He was just the sort to go and tell the farmer, and so I didn’t unpack much, and started working on a back up plan. While I was doing so heavy rain and a stronger wind came, making me hope that I wouldn’t have to move. If there’d been any good options further along I’d already have gone.

The farmer duly turned up…

Wildcamp #234: Dorset

…and was totally fine about it. Even more fine about it than the passer by was. He could see I wasn’t the type to leave a mess, so after reassuring himself, wished me a good camp (“rather you than me”) and cleared off. It was quite a good camp after that.

Next morning, it was a later start, and I had ground to make up – both along the trail, and in morale terms. Today needed to be a big day distance wise, but I also wanted to take advantage of facilities in Beaminster and Maiden Newton.

First stop of the day was Gerrard’s Hill before dropping down into Beaminster. This would have been an okay spot last night but for the wind.

I had to wait for the cafe to open in Beaminster but the breakfast was excellent. The climb back up onto the ridge from Beaminster was less excellent, becoming a real slog, laden as I was with breakfast and additional water supplies.

But when I hit the top, what joy! A stretch of road where I could put my foot down.

I then had to negotiate a rather soft underfoot field before the reward of a reasonably firm track.

After crossing the B3163, I spotted a sheep on its back with its legs in the air. Nearer the farm, I’d have gone there, but the fence was low, so I headed to flip it over.

Sheep, especially pregnant ewes like this one, can easily fall over due to the weight of their fleece and the lamb, and often end on their backs, where they will die if they stay like that for a while. It was relatively straightforward to flip the sheep onto her side, but a bit harder to get her on her front. As soon as she was though, she was up and off, clearly none the worse for the experience. Her friends, of course, were completely indifferent to everything that was going on.

I passed through Toller Whelme and Hooke, memorable for the “Deep Mud” sign on the way out – quite frankly, the whole of the path so far needed such signs!

There was a lot of mud, though, crossing the field below Rampisham Down and I was glad to find the shelter of a tree at the top for a break.

Lunchtime over, the mind turned to the plan for the rest of the day, and specifically how much further I’d get. The usual weighing up between a deliberate early stop for a decent spot vs going long and taking whatever I ended up with. Having hoped to get a lot further yesterday to give me a chance of reaching the campsite near Cerne Abbas today, it meant I’d need to total about 35km (more with the inevitable detours and wrong turns), which I wasn’t sure I could do.

The descent from Rampisham Down offered the first opportunity in the form of a coppice that was my “go long” plan for yesterday, but which ultimately wasn’t anything special.

I crossed the A356, climbed over another hill and descended into Maiden Newton. The path here lying alongside the River Frome, and yielding some of the boggiest walking so far. A sign about a bridge down meant a retreat and I found myself on a disused railway which brought me into Maiden Newton station itself. Were it not for the rail strike the embryonic thought about getting on a train here might have taken root.

I picked up some supplies in the village and set about the climb back out of Maiden Newton – two lots of hills late in the day.

By the time I reached Sydling St Nicholas it had started raining – that fine, drizzly rain that doesn’t feel like much but which you later discover has really soaked you. I climbed out of the village into mistier conditions, finding the terrain not looking like I thought it would, and consequently with less options for places to stop. Additionally, horses and their riders were out on the tracks, even in these conditions.

I found a spot eventually in a small patch of woodland, pitching on the flattest bit I could that didn’t have bluebell plants growing on it. An unsatisfactory pitch, but it would do.

Wildcamp #235: Dorset

Dark fell soon after (the photo really doesn’t show that) and I settled in for the night. I’d knocked out over 33km, although that included some wrong turns. I’d never have made the campsite, another 7km further on.

A miserable night and a rustling noise at 4am woke me to find damp everywhere and no sign of the rustler. Shining my head torch to discourage nocturnal visitors, the rustling continued and I eventually concluded it was the tent itself – a strange noise caused by the wind and the unsatisfactory pitch.

It was at this point that I thought “Why am I doing this?”

Before me lay another hard slog of a day if I was to have any hope of getting back on track, but with an option for an early stop that would yield a campsite at the cost of locking in the deficit. That would also mean I wouldn’t get to Blandford for parkrun on Saturday, and this was the final straw.

I saw no point in slogging through mud where every step is a slip; where visibility was so bad that I couldn’t enjoy the views; where everything was damp the whole time. It was time to stop.

I spent the next hour on my phone looking at escape options – and as I flicked between various train journey combinations on Trainsplit, the price kept going up. I eventually hit on the plan of a train from Sherborne rather than the more obvious choice of Dorchester. The number 5 bus runs between the two through Cerne Abbas, above which I was camped. Sorted.

As if to confirm the sense of the decision, the path was particularly poor when I set off. A mudfest involving lots of zigzagging – I wasn’t keen to get wet feet and excessively mud caked when I was stopping. There was a lot of walking on the grass verge – so bad was the track itself in places that it was clear that even the horseriders had taken to the grass verge too.

The final challenge was a walk across a pathless field into the mist, requiring me to take a bearing, for the first time on this walk. Luckily I hit the copse I was aiming for dead on.

After that everything improved and the non-path became a path, and then a track, and then a metalled road which took me all the way to Cerne Abbas, for my bus and freedom from the misery of the Wessex Ridgeway.

Of the approximately 220km of the Wessex Ridgeway, I’ve now done about 62.5km, so it’s likely that the next trip will finish it off, but not see me make much, if any, progress on the Ridgeway proper.

I started the trip with 10 days which should have been enough, on paper, for me to get to Marlborough and also then walk out to Swindon for a train home. But the state of the terrain wasn’t playing ball. Too much muddy and soft ground reduced my pace to a crawl, and there were few hard surfaced sections to enable me to make up time. I’d have killed for a bit more road walking, and it’s not often you’d say that!

On the approach to Cerne Abbas, though, it did look like I’d now started to hit the chalk, which should improve things. As I now can’t return until the summer to resume the walk, hopefully by then everything will have dried up a bit. This will make walking easier, but harder on the feet, and as it’ll be summer I can expect it to be a less lonely experience (not that solitude was actually a problem). But this will also make for much harder camping, or even getting formal accommodation due to it being peak season. There’s still plenty of challenge left in this walk…

3 thoughts on “The Unglamourous Side to Backpacking (The Wessex Ridgeway Part 1)

  1. Sounds dire. I’m on the Ridgeway at the moment, walking a stretch of the Seven Shires Way from Goring on Thames to Chipping Norton (just off trail). Rained all last night but sunny and warm today.


  2. A friend and I walked The Hangers Way in Hampshire this past weekend and experienced the longest stretches of deep mud I’ve ever trudged through. It’s been a dire and overly long winter indeed!


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