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My lucky dip in Dorset - Patrick Barkham

Blog | By Patrick Barkham | Dec 14, 2022

Park at Eype Mouth car park (£4); head west along the cliff path. Turn sharp right inland at bottom of Doghouse Hill, following field-edge path signposted for Frogmore. Follow signs up to Downhouse Farm (where cream tea awaits), then across fields back to Eype Mouth

Patrick Barkham loves plotting a stroll in a strange place on a map, imagining its contours and then seeing how the real landscape unfolds

I recently found myself in the charming Dorset town of Bridport on a glorious autumn morning, so I scanned the OS map for a coastal lucky dip. After 30 seconds, my eyes lighted on the blue ‘P’ for parking beyond a village called Lower Eype, and a promising maze of green, dotted paths offering a cliff-top walk and a loop inland.

I liked the look of its obscurity, tucked as it is between busy Burton Bradstock and the hotspot that is Golden Cap – at 627ft, the tallest cliff on the south coast. I liked it even more when my satnav couldn’t find Eype Mouth.

The tiny lane to the cliffs must be a vehicular puzzle in summer but it was a quiet, mellow, off-season day and the postcard shack was shuttered and car park unmanned. The sunshine glittered silver on the sea, and the coarse sand of Eype Mouth beach gleamed a rather lurid orange. I headed west, up the hill, following the South West Coast Path which is here known as the Monarch’s Way.

This cliff-top stroll was instantly, casually majestic but it did not showcase the power of the sea. Walking at Olympian heights made the teal-hued English Channel look deceptively subservient, swept smooth by the wind. Here, the land was king, Dorset’s green downs – and intriguing conical hills – rising proudly to the north and west.

The path ducked into a sheep-shorn amphitheatre before rising to Thorncombe Beacon. Three ravens rode the wind around the hilltop, croaking with contempt at the dog-walkers below. I was breathless by the time I reached the top; the view westward took even more breath, Golden Cap rising in sandy layers like a wedding cake. Beyond it shone a cluster of tiny houses – Lyme Regis – and then the Jurassic Coast rolled on, a blue line stretching into Devon.

I descended the beacon for Doghouse Hill, an alluring name on the map that turned out to refer to a pleasant, grassy field studded with gorse and munched by cows – whose mouths are more forgiving on the sward than sheep’s, which turn every pasture into a bowling green. At the field’s edge, I cut back sharp right and followed a hidden, partly overgrown path inland towards Frogmore Hill, before climbing up again to the sycamore woods above Downhouse Farm.

If it hadn’t been for the sea at my back, I could have been tucked deep in the Dorset countryside, cocooned by hedges turning yellow and umber, and fistfuls of blood-red hawthorn berries. The path plunged into the woods, which celebrated all seasons at once: winter had arrived on the western side of the wood, while on the sheltered eastern edge the trees still bore their leaves. This small copse smelt edible, rich with the sour tang of fallen sycamore leaves.

The path descended towards Downhouse Farm, where I turned left onto the track and discovered the Down House Farm garden café. Open all year (lockdowns permitting) except on Mondays, it has a sheltered garden which provides a perfect refuelling stop.

I then took a right onto a path across fields of sheep and back into Lower Eype. Although the air was cool, a bright golden butterfly flew across the turf – a clouded yellow, a migratory insect, cutting it fine (this was late October) to cross the Channel to warmer climes.

Back at Eype Mouth, I felt obliged to crown my lucky dip with the last swim of the year. I plunged into the clear, cold, greeny-blue depths. When I surfaced to gasp with the joy of the cold water, it was also to be bathed by the gold shining from the cliffs, the shingle and the soft light of autumn.