Fastpacking the Jurassic Coast
Standing at Orcombe Point in Exmouth in the pouring rain, wrapped up in waterproofs and my pack feeling heavy already, I was daunted by the challenge ahead.
The plan was to fastpack almost 100 miles from Exmouth to Old Harry Rocks near Poole, on the South West Coast Path (SWCP) over 3 days.
What is fastpacking? It's a way of covering long distances at speed by running/walking/hiking with lightweight gear.
I'm not sure where the plan came from save that I love the coast path with the sea a constant source of visual energy. I often run around Portland in Dorset when visiting my Mum so I was keen to explore more of the coast path. I also am keen to tackle a multi-day ultra but figured that rather than travel long distances and shell out lots of money for someone to hand me an adventure, I could do it myself and on my own terms. I wanted the freedom to stop and enjoy the view, and food, when it suited me and go at my own pace. It was also a bonus that the SWCP is well sign posted so there are limited opportunities to get lost.
I had planned to go solo but my younger brother asked to come along following a recent break up. I had not long before run the London Marathon and had kept up some high mileage so was feeling pretty fit. My brother is less of a runner but has done some long multi-day hikes. As this adventure would be a mix of running and hiking, I thought it might work.
Day 1 saw us off to a soggy start. The first 2 hours running out of Exmouth were in a downpour. Luckily, our enthusiasm for the adventure was still at a high point and even in the rain, the views were stunning and I mentally marked off places to come back and visit, especially Ladram Bay with its beautiful rock formations on the beach.
After 2 hours we reached the red cliffs of Sidmouth and found a café to dry off in. I had my heart set on a pasty but had to settle for a scone and a coffee. Thankfully, by the time we emerged, the rain had stopped and by the time we were climbing the cliffs out of Sidmouth, the waterproofs were stowed away.
The path took us up cliffs and down into beautiful empty bays until we reached the pretty village of Beer where we finally stopped for lunch. I finally got my hands on not 1, but 2 pasties. Properly fuelled we headed on to Seaton. After that the route took us through dense woodland for around 7 miles where the tree routes and narrow paths meant that running was slow going. The reward was sight of the Cob and sandy beaches of pretty Lyme Regis where we celebrated with a beer and decided where to stay. The original plan was to sleep out in our bivvy bags that we were carrying but the heavy rain looked set to return. We decided to head on for another 3 miles to Charmouth to see if we could find somewhere to shelter. I also called a private hostel to see if they had room but they were booked. Arriving in Charmouth having run/walked a total of 33 miles, we couldn’t find anywhere suitable and after a kind offer from my sister to come and get us and take us home in Weymouth, we found a pizzeria to hide in and get some much needed sustenance.
On day 2 we were up early. Our tired legs complained as we left Charmouth. As soon as you leave the town the coast path climbs steeply and the next few miles took us up and over high sea cliffs, including Golden Cap, the highest point in the South West. The views were stunning but my fear of cows and my attempts to avoid walking near them took away some of the fun. By this stage our legs were pretty tired and we stopped in Seatown for a coffee before hearing to West Bay where I foolishly decided not to stop for food and ice cream but agreed that we should push on to West Bexington as I had been there as a child and thought there was a beach café there. The final mile to West Bexington was gruelling, loose beach shingle sapped the last of the energy from our legs and hunger had set in. I was crushed to arrive in West Bexington find that the only place to eat was a high end restaurant. Aside from not wanting to spend £20 on fish and chips, I didn’t think my sweaty running kit was particularly welcome.
The choice at West Bexington is to continue along the SWCP and beach shingle towards Chesil Beach and Weymouth, or to head inland along the old coast path, which is now the Wessex Ridgeway, to Osmington. This was a tough decision as we would be shortening the route by about 5 miles and would miss out the road section through Weymouth but we would also have no chance of food or water for another 16 miles.
In the end our tired legs won and we headed inland. Once we had climbed up to the Ridgway, the route was undulating but more runnable and the views of the coast and hills around us kept us going to Hardy’s monument where we stopped for another short break and ran on. The wheels for my brother started to come off after that and his lack of training started to show. It wasn’t helped by the last 3 miles into Osmington involving scaling fences to avoid over curious cows and the path taking is through fields full of nettles. Although for a while the stings took our minds off the other aches and pains.
Finally, after another day of 33 miles we reached Osmington where we finished the day in a pub with my Mum and stepdad. The plan was to have dinner with them and then head to Studland bay and find a spot on the beach to bivvy on. However, the lure of a bed and bath to my brother was too much. He had already decided against day 3 and wanted some home comforts to recover. As much as I wanted to bivvy and carry on with the original plan, my resolve was weakened and I headed home too.
The original plan for day 3 had been to run to 30 miles from Osmington to Old Harry Rocks, the official end of the SWCP, and to then somehow get back home to Bristol. During the evening I reflected on what I had wanted to achieve out of the adventure; a long run, knowing what it felt like to run with a heavy bag on multiple days and to explore a route in my own time. I felt that all of that had been achieved in the first 2 days and so on day 3 I gave myself licence to do what I wanted. I left most of my pack load behind and got a lift to Durdle Door, one of my favourite places. With a lightened load I ran back to Weymouth solo to catch the train home. It felt so light to run with a reduced pack that I felt like I was skipping along, waving to paragliders above and chatting to walkers on the route. The weather was glorious so I treated myself to an ice cream at Ringstead Bay and a dip in the sea when I reached Weymouth.
Sitting on the train back to Weymouth, in my sweaty running clothes that I had left Exmouth in 3 days before and polishing off the rest of my snacks it felt so good to know that I had covered around 80 miles in 2 and a half days, I had seen a beautiful stretch of the coast, survived some curious cows and had an adventure that cost far far less than the entry fee of most ultra marathons.
We are so lucky in the UK to have so many well managed and sign posted routes. The only question is, having run the Ridgeway and a section of the SWCP, which one to tackle next?