While I was on vacation in Bournemouth, England, the mother of a friend of mine recommended a day of hiking in the Purbeck Hills.
“It’s a very English thing to do,” she said. I was sold.
The Purbecks make up part of southern England’s Jurassic Coast, which, though sadly absent of dinosaurs, is a registered World Heritage Site. The area is only accessible via quaint, winding roads, passing by cottages, horses, and hedgerows. The towering ruins of the 11th-century Corfe Castle lead the way into the Isle of Purbeck–which is fortunate, because seeing at least one crumbling castle is a requirement of any day spent roving the English countryside.
Boasting miles of coastal trails, the village of Worth Matravers makes an excellent choice for exploring the Purbeck Hills. At the top of the trails is a pub called The Square and Compass, a prime spot for hikers to fuel up before or after a trek. An alehouse since 1776, the pub has “evaded the heavy hand of modernisation,” serving “simple traditional no fuss food.” And in keeping with fine British tradition, there’s an ample selection of local beers on tap–and home-pressed cider, too. Orders are taken at the kitchen window, and there’s seating inside the dining room, which is dark and squat as it should be. But it’s much better to eat outside: scrapped doors, overturned barrels, and stone slabs make up an outdoor eating area. Chickens roam about the area, lending themselves to the antiquated landscape.
The Square and Compass also boasts its own in-house museum, full of fossils, geological samples, remnants of shipwrecks, and artifacts of human life, some dating as far back as the Bronze Age. The collection, some sixty years in the making, was founded by one of the pub’s former owners, Ray Newman, and has since been continued by his son, Charlie –both self-taught archaeologists. The museum really gives you an idea of how geologically diverse and historically rich the Purbecks are.
From the pub, you can head off in just about any direction to take in the rolling green hills and wave-crashing cliffs of the Purbecks. There are some marked trails, or you can just walk through the grass. Even if there was a busy crowd at the pub, there’s so much open land that you’ll scarcely come across any other hikers in your path.
The remoteness of the area lets in a bevy of natural sounds. You can hear the wind through the grass, several kinds of birds, an occasional dog bark, crickets, even roosters and cows in the distance–all filtered against the swooshing rhythm of the sea. The smells of salt and rain water cling to the air.
Following the curve of the coastline inwards are some old limestone quarries. There’s a scanty wire fence blocking their entrance, and a posted warning sign, but never mind that: the coves are just begging to be explored. From inside the manmade caves, cloudy daylight streams in, filling the space with diagonal bands of light and shadow. It makes a lovely frame, gazing out to the sea.
However, there’s only so much time you can pass in a mined-out old quarry before realizing it’s just a hollowed out pile of rocks. So it’s back outside you go, and after meandering along above the shoreline for awhile, it’s time to head back. Some may feel a ping of despair when realizing that the only way back is uphill. Here’s where the real hike begins–but it’s a pleasant one. Besides, there’s always the promise of another pasty or draft ale waiting for your return at the Square and Compass.
Après-hiking, there are plenty of nearby options to round out a perfectly British afternoon. Dorset County is dotted with little beach towns, all of them are sure to be full of charming teahouses and rainbow-colored rows of cabanas. Even the casinos are quaint-looking. No matter where you end up, keep an eye out for Purbeck ice cream; it’s made locally and embodies that very British determination to make any day at sea a holiday–no matter how cold and drizzly the weather.
Getting there: take a train or bus to Corfe Castle. From there, hire a taxi, or take the Breezer 44 bus from the Wilts & Dorset transit company to Worth Matravers.
Written by Molly Jean Schoen for EuropeUpClose.com .
Molly is a freelance writer and musician based in Detroit, MI. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/silverdaggers.