‘You can’t go any farther,” the mustachioed shopkeeper said. His wildly diverse merchandise looked as if it had been drop-kicked onto the counter, jungle-like in its randomness. “The open coast ends here. Beyond is the Undercliff and it’s all wilderness.”
“That sounds interesting,” I said. “Is there a path?“
“Well, yes,” he replied. “But it’s a bit precarious. I wouldn’t go alone. There’s no mobile phone coverage if you twist your ankle or fall down a crevasse.”
It was 2000, and Guy and I were embarking on an idiosyncratic tour of England, without much advance planning, careering madly around the country. Guy’d had a feeling that Lyme Regis in west Dorset was an appealing little town, so that’s where we’d arrived after crossing several counties in our rented Peugeot.
Never miss a local story.
It turned out that Lyme Regis is just one town on a remarkable coast that runs from Swanage in Dorset to Exmouth in Devon. You could think of it as the English Riviera, or as a necklace strung with jewels of scenery: Golden Cap, Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door, Chesil Beach. People come here for the beaches, the clifftop walks, the little seaside towns and the many-million-year-old fossils that you can pick up on the shore.
In 2001, this 90-mile stretch was designated the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, like the Grand Canyon and the Pyramids and the Great Barrier Reef. The sailing events of the 2012 Olympics will take place off this coast (July 29 to Aug. 11) in the waters of Weymouth Bay.
But back then we knew the area only as a beautiful coastline, three hours from London. And we soon learned that the Undercliff was one of its more amazing features, seven miles of subtropical landscape dense with luscious vegetation. From the cliffline, several hundred feet down to the sea, continual landslips have created a jumble of slopes and ravines, an unusual and almost inaccessible habitat for plants and birds.
There was no obvious route into the Undercliff. We found our way along a path marked by four pine trees, then a meadow, then an earthen avenue that led into the forest but soon turned into the precarious path our friend had warned us of. It was a black thread tightroping along the tops of narrow ridges between deep crevasses. Down to the right we saw a small pond completely carpeted in brilliant green duckweed. Then, far down to the left, a larger bright-green pool; I half expected a crocodile to rise from its depths. The whole terrain was a jumble of ridges and gullies.
We were seldom aware of the sea, a few hundred feet below through the trees, until we came to a low-slung branch with a glorious view through a gap. We sat on it to eat our sandwiches. We met few humans, but there was abundant other life: gulls, thrushes, crows, the intimate twittering of other birds nearby yet invisible. Under the canopy of oaks and ashes was dense vegetation – ivy, wild garlic, horsetail, nettles, dock, fiddlehead ferns.
We left for Cornwall two days later, but Lyme stayed sharply with me. Back at home in South Carolina, we deliberated – but not much – and I soon quit my job and sold my house. Six months later, we were back in Lyme with three cats and a container full of furniture. In June we got married in Honiton, a nearby town known for its lacemaking.
As much as I cherish the Undercliff, I’ve hiked it only a few times since that fateful day, usually to show our American visitors England’s only jungle.
In May, I decide that it’s time to revisit this exotic place. I lace up my hiking boots, pack some leftovers and soon we’re following the same pine-marked walk. We emerge onto a grassy hillside with a seat and a view back toward the Cobb (the ancient breakwater in the famous opening scene of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”).
I used to be a lot fitter and now it’s difficult to navigate the muddy thread along the tops of the knife-edge ridges. Gingerly, I try, mostly unsuccessfully, to avoid the massive roots across the path.
We’ve been running into a few people – hikers with determined expressions and serious gear, and the nonchalant in inappropriate footwear. (Whoever goes into the Undercliff in flip-flops doesn’t get far.) We meet winsome dogs, some couples and large chattering groups. I catch snippets of their conversations. “It was one of the top 10 things I really disapprove of,” says a stout woman. I long to run after her and find out what she meant.
But where are the two green pools we remember? And at lunchtime we can’t find the tree where we’d eaten our picnic on that maiden hike. Has the ground moved or the path been re-routed? Probably a bit of both. The process of slippage that created the Undercliff is always at work, and the path keeps having to adapt to change. Sort of like life.
This time, we choose to come back out by a different route. It means climbing through the forest and then up 130 twisting steps, but at last we emerge on a fantastic spire called Chimney Rock. We’re looking down over the treetops of the Undercliff.
We now know a lot more about the Undercliff, of course. For example, the old pumping station – about two miles in – once supplied spring water to an estate at the top of the cliffs. It belonged to a rich 19th-century grocer, Sir Henry Peek, who wanted the water to fill his ornamental lakes. When an Italian ship sank in the bay, he had its cargo of marble statuary hauled up by donkeys to decorate his mansion.
Weymouth Bay is sheltered by another remarkable lump of scenery called the Isle of Portland. I want to visit it again, and my friend Marie suggests that we do it now, before it gets locked down by the Olympic crowds and security.
The “Isle” isn’t really an isle, being connected to the mainland by a 17-mile ribbon of gravel. Scarcely believable quantities of the famous Portland stone went into the making of Buckingham Palace, the United Nations headquarters in New York and innumerable other structures. Christopher Wren used a million cubic feet of it in St. Paul’s Cathedral.
We head to Tout Quarry Sculpture Park, which Marie insists is one of the most fascinating places in Dorset, if not England. Like the Undercliff, it’s not easy to find. You drive through an industrial area, and the only indication that you’ve arrived is a discreet parking sign.
We walk about 100 yards until we come to the Circle of Stones, a rectangular rock table surrounded by rock seats, like a Stone Age boardroom. From it leads an avenue lined by what appear to be just more rocks, until you see that sculptors have transformed them: adorable faces, an owl, a bear, a horse (or is it a cow?), a cornucopia. My favorite is a whimsical figure holding onto his hat. And look at that Rodin-like figure hunched over in despair! There’s a Viking ship, made of concrete and railroad ties, and a fireplace, actually scorched by a fire that someone shouldn’t have lit in it. The best-known sculpture is an early Antony Gormley, “Still Falling,” a life-size figure frozen in mid-dive down the rockface. We marvel that no one is here except us and – more marvelous yet – there’s no admission or parking charge.
We can’t leave Portland without visiting its high-cliffed tip, the Bill. Several currents meet at this jutting point of land, and they make for some of the most dangerous conditions along England’s coastline. Hence the three lighthouses built here to warn ships coming into Weymouth.
Quest for crea teas
Marie and I have another agenda for this trip – research for our ongoing project to find England’s best cream teas. For the uninitiated, a cream tea traditionally consists of two scones, about a quarter-cup of clotted cream, a large scoop of jam (usually strawberry) and a pot of tea. Children slice the scone like a hamburger bun, cram it with cream and jam, and eat it like a sandwich, licking what squeezes out from between the slices. Cream teas are said to have originated in Devon in the 11th century. The county is so proud of its cream teas that it has appealed to the European Union to give them Protected Designation of Origin status. Myself, I don’t quite see how you can trademark a cream tea. And Cornwall and Dorset, too, think of themselves as cream tea royalty.
Our criteria for a proper cream tea are simple but exacting. The scones must be flaky, moist and warm, and the clotted cream dense, as thick as molasses; the jam should be homemade. We’re more easygoing about the type of tea, though we incline to Earl Grey. I’ve witnessed heated debates over whether the cream or the jam should go onto the scone first, but I’m neutral on that issue.
“Someone told me one of the best cream teas in Dorset can be found in Weymouth,” I say. So across the bridge we go. Weymouth, the Sailing Games capital, could also be called the capital of the Jurassic Coast: It’s halfway along and is the only large town. It’s in a time warp from the heyday of English seaside holidays, before Britons started flocking to Turkey and the Seychelles. Striped deck chairs, candy-floss stalls, Punch-and-Judy booths line the soft golden beach.
But Time for Tea cafe is closed on Tuesdays! We have to keep hunting for our cream tea (for research purposes, of course). In a few minutes, we’ve found the very thing, according to an older couple leaving another outdoor cafe. Alas, it turns out that their standards are not ours. (Relatives of the owners?) The scones, gummy and tasteless, have been frozen and microwaved. The jam is thin and too sugary. Almost worse is the cream, which spreads like margarine. And the tea is un-Britishly weak. Cream teas are simple – just four components – so you have to work hard to fail in all four!
We may have been disappointed, but we are undeterred. Ten minutes after I get home, Marie calls me. “Hey, what’re you doing tomorrow? I hear there’s an award-winning tea room at Lulworth,” she says.
Lulworth! Overlooking a preposterously pretty cove, another dollop of cream on the limestone scone of the Jurassic Coast.