Sunday, 9 February 2014

The South Dorset Ridgeway Tour

This was the first full day of work in the area and it began with a hearty breakfast over which I learnt from my landlady that she is a qualified blue badge tour guide. Outside the weather was doing its worst with a heavy hail storm so I had a good root around the bookshelves which were well stocked with guidebooks, maps and books on local history.

While the weather forecast was poor, it did clear a little and since I was here I thought I may as well just head out and see what happens. It is all experience and can contribute to the work, after all. My journey again began with Portesham Hill which is a proper test of the legs and willpower. I battled my way up and the weather was actually to my advantage as it was blowing a gale from behind me, effectively pushing me up the hill.

At the top by the completely exposed Hardy Monument it was not so easy to stand upright such was the strength of the wind. I rested my bike on the most sheltered side of it, further cycling not being wise, even kind of dangerous. With storm clouds massing I looked for shelter, the doorway to the monument being the closest thing to cover that I could find.

It was here I noticed the graffiti carved into the stone, Alf R Bates making a record of his visit to Hardy Monument a record destined to outlive him.

With the immediate threat of rain receding I looked for the South Dorset Ridgeway Path which passes this way. It helps to actually be on the path to see the path and once I found my first sign post I was up and away.

Not all the signs describe it as the South Dorset Ridgeway, some still describe it as the Inland Route of the Coastal Path, if that makes sense at all. There seems to be some debate amongst walkers on their forum whether this route is preferable to the purist's longer route by the sea that goes around Portland with opinion sharply divided.

I came to a three-way junction and became interested in the sign post that describes your options. It had mixed information. In one direction was the Bridleway and in the other two the SDR path, or so it seemed.

Yet the same post from the other side showed the SDR path taking the direction of the bridleway. The system of the circular markers and the wooden signs seemed to be at odds. I took my chances and followed my instincts setting off in the rough direction I could see on the map I had.

This led me around a bend until finally I could see in the distance The Hardy Monument ahead of me once again! I must have taken the wrong turn on that South Dorset Ridgeway junction with the bridleway I guessed.

I followed the path back towards the monument and was once again buffeted by the strong winds. When I got home later I read they were up to 70 mph in strength! This tree was up-ended by wind and so I had the idea to make some sound recordings of the wind since I will be making an audio tour and some sort of portrait of the location in sound might come in useful.

After this long diversion I returned to the original junction and studied at it once again. This bridleway really took me in the wrong direction it seemed to me so I again followed the path ahead between the trees hoping there might be some other clues that would set me on the right way.

Here I found a subtle junction with the main path (bridleway) taking the left and a small path heading off to the right. What exactly the orange circle is is quite beyond me, I didn't notice any UFO activity at the time and this just seemed to appear in the photos later so I'm going for optical effect in the camera. Anyway, I looked for signs but saw none and so explored the right hand path.

Following the path through a gate, around a small pond and then round a corner I discovered I was on the right path when I saw the next sign post. This is a rather laboured explanation, I know, but this is precisely the sort of thing that happens when you try following these paths: you stray from the route, you find your way back, you try again and then finally find your way. The reason I got lost was not the ambiguous three way sign back up towards Hardy Monument but because the UFO junction had not been marked and the main path was not the the actual path I was meant to follow.

Back on the SDR things were looking up again and I allowed myself to indulge in a little thought experiment. I had seen this route featured in the Channel 4 TV programme 'TIME TEAM' when they made a special feature on the South Dorset Ridgeway. One part of this had presenter Alex Langlands joined by an archeology professor from UCL who encouraged him to try an phenomenological approach to walking the landscape. That is to say, he was to follow the South Dorset Ridgeway for a couple of days and try to put himself into the head of an iron age man plodding the same track. He claimed that in spite of the Goretex and cameras he had some success in better understanding the 'ceremonial landscape' in this way. If it worked for him surely it could work for me! Well, I tried but kept on finding things such as this double style to interest myself in: the path continues on both sides of the fence, you are to pick the cow-free side.

There was then another hailstorm that I took shelter from, followed by a rainbow, and at the point where the SDR arrives at the road the cows were back in force and thick deep slurry too. The prospect of wading through that stuff again and to do with a herd of cows surrounding me, was not one I relished. Call me too modern, I retraced my steps and the stone age spell was well and truly broken. What did happen however is that I noticed the signage system of the route made more sense coming in this direction. There was not the same deeply ambiguous junction problem and this made me wonder if those making the route worked from West to East when putting the signs up. When a route has to function in both directions the person responsible for signage needs to be able to walk a route they have already signposted in the opposite direction as if they know nothing of the route. Either that or they get a colleague to walk it in the opposite direction and check it works equally well. It is actually not such an easy thing to do, particularly over a long distance when the work of laying out the signage is handled by different people who all have slightly different ways of indicating junctions. I remember following the number 1 cycle route though Kent some years ago and it was a complete mess with some sections crystal clear and some so opaque that they were more of a distraction than a help. SDR is not so bad but, like I showed, far from perfect.

This is the public art in the form of stones that can be sat upon and which invite the sitter to close their eyes and listen. I did so and heard a lot of wind. This reminded me of something I heard earlier about the South Dorset Ridgeway, that essentially 'they are trying to make it something that it isn't'. By which I took it to mean it is a pleasant walk through some interesting places if you know the history but it is not the new stonehenge just as The Jurassic Coast is not the Grand Canyon, even though they both hold UNESCO world heritage status. I see the hand of tourist development officers behind these efforts to rebrand the location and make it into a destination. The problem with this walking route is it is still going through too many working farms so it gets seriously gross underfoot in places and the signs aren't clear. Add to that the place is nice but it isn't exactly The Lake District or Scottish Highland and I see the point about trying to make it something that it isn't.

I cycled back down the hill in the face of the winds and ventured out again later to Abbotsbury to catch the sunset before heading to the local pub and doing some online research on further tours. Plenty more to investigate and another day of challenging weather.

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