Hill Envy in Dorset

Your legs will tell you when you have graduated as a cyclist. A couple of days off the bike and they start whining like children on a long car journey. Their energy is replenished and they demand to be exercised. For me I get a restless tingling in the knees. Having missed the Sunday club run it hit me on Monday. I have been on holiday for a week with out my bike and to make matters worse I was developing a bad case of hill envy. Something had to be done!

We had been holidaying in the Purbecks on the Dorset coast; for a week I had lived in the shadow of proper Hills. The first thing I saw when I walk out the front door is the thickly wooded ridge leading up to Stonehill Down. 100m climbs were on my doorstep and I had no bike with which to appreciate them.

The Purbecks are a strip of chalk hills running west to east from the Geographers paradise of Lulworth to Old Harry Rocks, separating the wild Studland dunes and heaths from the Swanage arcades and promenade. It is an ancient, defended landscape. Earth mounds marking barrows and hill forts are dotted across the ridges. Standing guard atop an isolated hill, where the Corfe River and Byle Brooke have eroded passage through the chalk are the broken towers of ruined Corfe Castle. Today the crackles and booms of artillery resonant across the valley walls from the ranges at Povington hill.

The Purbecks do not rank among the giants of English hills. Godlingston Hill, the mightiest summit of the range is a mere 200m. Watching the rare breeds cattle graze lazily across the downs, they are like a Hockney landscape print faded by the sun. But do not mistake as soft. Travel along one of the roads crossing the hills and it won’t be long before you encounter a 1:5 slope. They look to lull you with their prettiness only to catch you with a leg busting, lung bursting gradient!

My daughters are not yet of an age to go traipsing over the hills and while a day digging on the beach and splashing in the sea is physically demanding, it is still no substitute for a few hours in the saddle. But I had no saddle in which to sit. What to do?

I am not yet dumb enough to run. There was a pool at hand but I did not think to bring any goggles and it was only 10m long. 4 or 5 strokes and the distance was covered. What I did have was a pair of stout walking shoes.

I love being outdoors. As a teenager my parents would take us north on walking holidays to   the Yorkshire’s fells and moors. I would take any camping or walking trip school had to offer. I went to Sheffield University and although I had my old faithful MBK mountain bike, it was only occasionally taken out to the Peaks. Instead many Sundays were spent shrugging off Saturday nights Indie Disco hangover by taking a train out to Hope, Hathersage or Edale for a 15 mile hike along Stanage Edge or across Kinder Scout before a pint and the last train home. I may call define myself as a cyclists today, but Hill walking is in my blood too.

So when the girls were tucked up in bed and my wife was settled with a book, I capitalised on the light June evenings and strode out, over the hills. The first evening walk the weather was cool but clear. For much of the rest of the week the Purbecks were hidden under low cloud and sea mists; perfect roads and weather for a Rapha Autumn Collection photo shoot I thought!

The road to Creech Barrow Hill. Creech Barrow Hill is on the right and at 193m offers incredible views across the Pubecks and Poole Harbour.

Creech Barrow Hill was the closest summit to our cottage and on a previous visit with clear weather found it offered superb views across Poole Harbour. This year it was often shrouded in mist so I elected to leave the wights and faeries in peace.

The other nearby climb  takes you up Stonehill Down and through the Gap between Ridgeway hill and Knowle Hill. From here you can turn east or west along the ancient pathway running across the hilltops.

Looking down at the hairpin on Stonehill Down

Stonehill Down features an impressive hairpin bend. At the foot of the climb is a monument to the Creech Barrow Seven. Formed during WWII, they were a group of local reservists, whose members included two brothers and the delightfully named Eli KitKat, and would have formed a small part of Churchill’s resistance had the Nazis succeeded in invading Southern England. While reading the information board I was passed by a roadie. Naturally I decided to race him to the top by taking the most direct footpath available. 50 metres higher up and I was breathing harder and he was no where to be seen.

Looking along the ridgeway path I wistfully imagined having a mountain bike with me. As a dedicated road cyclists, I’ll admit it does look like a fun route.

Looking east from Ridgeway Hill to Knowle Hill, just disappearing beneath the cloud

But bike or no, I like walking by the ancient places bequeathed to us by our Neolithic ancestors. I am no adherent of mystic guff, but there is something in the mystery of their stone and earth heirlooms that fires my imagination. They are a familiar part of the British countryside, but for someone who grew up in the Fens, whose ancient landscape lies deep beneath its entirely artificial vistas, they are curiously exotic.

Further along the ridegway path is the 19th Century folly of Grange Arch.

Grange Arch Folly. Can be unsettling

Not the most attractive of structures, but I’m sure it must look spectacular silhouetted against the skyline when viewed from Creech Grange. While taking a photograph from the far side I noticed a wreath hung from a branch. With the mist rolling across the hills from the sea, it struck me as rather ghoulish and unsettling. I did not linger.

On the road to West Creech Hill and Povington, straddled by the MOD ranges, I discovered a fantastic and steep wooded climb. It is about 500m long and mostly very steep.

Road to West Creech Hill. It is a steep one.

Back at the cottage I poured over OS maps with a bottle of Corfe Castle Brewery’s Raven Porter and fantasized about my ideal Purbeck route. I have walked the hills and seen their character. All that is left is to ride them, so the next time I’m down there I’ll be sure to have my bike.


About richardjostler

Data Scientist working at Rothamsted Research
This entry was posted in Cycling, Hill climb, hill walking, Purbeck Hills and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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