Abbotsbury, Dorset

4 02 2006

Engineering works. It is the characteristic signature of South West Trains on weekends. Trains are sometimes replaced with buses. Changes to published schedules are common. Delays are more usual than ever, and weekend travellers like me are inevitably affected. I have a good practice of checking the itinerary online on Friday evenings but this weekend I have relied too much on the published timetable. The train usually departs from Farnborough towards Basingstoke at 0633 but today I had the surprise of seeing it pull away from the station as I was walking towards it. The train had been rescheduled to depart ten minutes earlier. The ensuing wait of an hour was a test of patience. An hour of opportunity, an hour of splendid walking on the hills or the unique Dorset coast had been needlessly exchanged for a long wait on an empty platform on a cold morning. I have only myself to blame for assuming too much, for expecting constancy in a world of change. Where safety is paramount track maintenance cannot be taken lightly. High speed trains require this maintenance to be regular. If trains evolve so should the tracks that support them. An analogy is easily found in telecommunications where applications and transmission technologies need to evolve in tandem. One’s nothing without the other.

Despite this initial setback the day has turned out well after all. Instead of commencing my walk at Weymouth, I started at Upwey, few miles north of Weymouth. Instead of taking the coastal path I took the inland route to the village of Abbotsbury. Instead of racing against a speedy sun, I relaxed on Chesil Beach in the dying light of day. Instead of walking back to Weymouth I caught the bus X53 which plies between Exeter and Weymouth. Rightly so, they call this bus Jurassic Coast Express. This part of Dorset coast is a treasure for those keen in natural history.

The pleasures of walking are numerous. In Britain, these are easily found and savoured. One need not travel far or take great pains. Today’s walk was such an experience. The green hills lay in wavy folds on both sides of an easy trail along a ridge. They stretched to the far horizons not as a wilderness but as a landscape formed by nature and sculpted by man. Iron Age barrows were visible. The sheep dotted the farther greens. Nearer, ewes with newborn lambs, kept a watchful eye as I crossed their ways. Woodsmoke from farm houses rose up in curls. The smell of manure was strangely romantic to the city dweller that I am. The mooing of cows was a vibrant conversation that I little understood. Power transmission towers stood rigidly, festooned by wires with a murmur of electrons. They are now an integral part of the landscape and inherit the beauty that surrounds them. They have no power to spoil the picture. With every step there appeared a new picture, with every picture an appreciation of the great beauty of this little land. After those three hours of walking I was once more at peace within and with the world, ready to face another long week at the office.

En route, I passed a folly tower, not unlike the tower at Broadway but less interesting. It was built in 1844-5 to honour Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy who captained HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Hardy Monument, as it is called, is easily mistaken to be a monument to the English poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy who lived not far from here at Dorchester. At least, I had carried this false impression until I read the dedicatory words at the monument. Moreover, in Abbotsbury I met a shopkeeper who held the same false impression. With far-reaching views from the monument, it was easy to see the stretch of Chesil Beach in the distance even on a cloudy day as this.

Chesil Beach, thrown up by the sea some 6000 years ago, is a beach of pebbles richly pattered and coloured. For some reason, there is gradation in the weathering by the waves so that some pebbles are smaller, smoother and rounder than others. When the pebbles are wet, they acquire a crystal sheen. It is well worth a visit, not just on account of the pebbles but the water bodies that define this unique beach. On one side lies the English Channel; on the other is a water body which they call “the Fleet”. Here we find a rare stretch of beach of many miles extending all the way to the Isle of Portland. On one side we have the restless waves; on the other, a cool calmness. It is not hard to guess which of these two is favoured by the birds. As for the sea, fishing is a popular activity. As for me, I just slept on the beach to the sound of the waves.

Abbotsbury is a village about a mile from the beach. A much better way to approach it is from the hills to the north. The remains of a castle on a nearby hill make a prominent addition to an ideal picture of quaint village resting peacefully among the hills. The streets are narrow and lined with beautiful cottages, inns, pubs and shops. I entered a quintessential English shop, the Village Butcher, which also sells some baked items. I bought a cheese & onion pie on recommendation. I took two bites of cold tasteless cheese. The rest went into the bin. The proprietor of the Bakehouse Tearoom (where I had some Dorset ginger biscuits baked by the Moores family since 1860) informed me that most of the village is owned by some lady who lives in Yeovil. Her manor house is on the rental market at £3000 per month. I don’t know how much of this is true but the purport of travel notes in varied. The local perception of truth is as important as truth itself. I have recorded plainly what I have heard.

Despite the peace and beauty that decks this little Dorset village there is little to persuade me to stay here for long. The energy and vibrancy of the cities is missing not because it is small or old but because there was no one around. No children played. The families, if any, stayed indoors. It was even doubtful if people lived in some of these houses. Anyone who crossed my path was like me, a passing traveller or a day-tripper. This village, it appears as some others, is a beautiful smile without a face. It is pretty to see but one cannot sense its lifestyle or spirit. Who knows what lies behind these stone walls – all things modern cloaked in an old garb? One even wonders if the people who live here are locals at all. With the growing fashion for all things old under the pretentious banner of “antique”, it is likely that many of these villages are no longer affordable to the common man, the farmers of the country and all those who work on the farms. For example, the Ilchester Arms Hotel has room tariffs that start at a minimum of £79 a night. One can find cheaper accommodation even in London. Perhaps, it is a question of supply and demand but it is certain that it would be naive to expect cheap stays in English villages.

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