Walk - Smugglers Inn - Spring Bottom Hill
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2020. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- Go around the left-hand side of Smuggler's Inn to follow the path behind it out onto an open field and walk to the stile at the top of the slope on the right-hand side of the field. Pick up the South West Coast Path here, following it around above the cliff towards Ringstead..
Before climbing the slope, drop down the path to the right to visit the beach, one of Britain's most important geological sites. Many of the weathered slabs on the beach contain 'trace fossils', which are the remnants of the burrows and tracks of animals that lived when the rock was being formed. There are also huge boulders, known as 'doggers' (see the Burning Cliff walk for more about the geology).
- Ignore the footpath heading inland at Bran Point, about half a mile on. Cross the footbridge just beyond and carry on along the Coast Path to Ringstead.
Below you as you head towards Ringstead are the remains of the Minx, a coal barge which broke free of her moorings on Portland in 1927 and was wrecked on Pool Ledge, at a place the locals call West Maze. Look out for cormorants on the wreck.
There are numerous ledges along this coast, where the limestone has been eroded to flat reefs. Although they were hazardous to unwary sailors, they were useful to the smugglers who knew their way through them, being a very good landing place for the contraband. In the late eighteenth century Osmington Mills was a remote hamlet in a wooded valley, with just a rough track connecting it to Osmington village, and the Smuggler's Inn (known then as The Crown, and later as the Picnic Inn) was the ideal headquarters for the smuggler known as 'French Peter'. Pierre Latour sailed a fast and lightly-armed cutter called 'L'Hirondelle' (The Swallow), and he worked closely with the pub's landlord, Emmanuel Carless.
There is a local tale of French Peter arriving at the pub when a Revenue Officer was hiding there, on yet another attempt to capture the French brigand. The landlord offered him gin instead of his usual brandy and pointed silently to the fireplace where the officer was hiding. Pierre announced that he had a chill in his bones, and asked if the landlord would light the fire. The man was soon smoked out of his hiding place, and the laughter of the locals on top of the hair-raising tales the landlord had told him of the smuggler's exploits was too much for the poor man, who accepted the brandy he was offered and then fled!
There are several red-brick pillboxes along the path, remnants of the Second World War, when this coastline played an important role in keeping a lookout for the enemy and training for D-Day. Portland was a target for heavy bombing, although most of the warships had moved further north for that reason, and it was the embarkation point for Allied forces leaving for Normandy in 1944
The blackened headland on the far side of Ringstead Bay is Burning Cliff, so named in 1826 after a landslide triggered a spontaneous oil-shale fire which smouldered for several years (see the Burning Cliff walk).
- Reaching Ringstead, the Coast Path turns inland with the track on the old toll road. When the Coast Path turns right, just before The Kiosk, carry on ahead up the road, past the car park and a large area of open ground, to the woodland.
The open ground here was once the site of a medieval village, although it was abandoned some centuries ago and all that remains to be seen today is a series of well-preserved earthworks. Coastal settlements were rare in medieval times, but there were a number of them along the Dorset coastline, where the rocks provide suitable conditions for holding areas of water. Among the remnants of the settlement is a fishpond, now dry but once a vital means of staying alive. Artificial pools of slowly-moving freshwater carefully maintained using ditches and sluices, medieval fishponds were built to provide a constant and sustainable supply of food when meat was scarce, and they were popular from the twelfth century until about the sixteenth.
Glebe Cottage, a listed building, was converted in the eighteenth century from the thirteenth-century chapel of the deserted village, and a number of important artefacts have been found on the site, giving archaeologists an insight into life in the village.
- At the end of the trees turn left off the lane, onto the footpath that runs through the trees, ignoring the paths that lead off to the left until you come to the stream at a junction of paths.
- Take the path to the right before the stream to head north through the woodland, walking alongside the stream as it tumbles through the steep-sided valley. The path passes a chain of ponds and then begins to climb through the woods and into a field at the top of the hill. Carry on alongside the hedge, dropping steeply downhill to the far right-hand corner of the field.
Note the banks and terraces on either side of the path, especially pronounced at the top of the wood. These medieval 'strip lynchets' were cut into the hill to create flat strips suitable for farming, before the wood was planted, and the remains of these can still be seen all around the area. In medieval times, all farming was done on narrow, unfenced strips of land, and these were distributed in such a way as to give all landowners a fair share of arable land. This meant that often a farmer's land was scattered through the district, and it wasn't until the 1857 Enclosure Act that hedges were built around numbers of adjacent strips to turn them into the larger field systems in use today.
In 1926 a coffin was found in a chalk pit at Spring Bottom, dating back to the days when the Romans first arrived in Britain, sometime in the first century. A bead rim beaker and some nails were also found. It is likely that there was a primitive settlement in this valley even then, making use of the shelter and the fresh water.
- Coming through the gate onto the lane, turn left down the road signed 'Upton Glen', climbing gently and forking left at the junction. From here the track starts to descend as it contours around Spring Bottom Hill, staying close to the hedge/fence throughout.
- When the lane swings to the left, carry on ahead along the footpath to drop down past the holiday chalets and through the field beyond to return to the Smuggler's Inn.