Walk - Chideock to Charmouth
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2019. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- From the church on Main Street in Chideock, take Duck Street opposite (signed towards Seatown), forking left a moment later onto Mill Lane and following it through fields and then the holiday park, to come out on Sea Hill lane.
- Detour left here to visit the beach or the pub at Seatown; but otherwise turn right to follow Sea Hill Lane uphill, to where the South West Coast Path leaves on the left. Turn onto the Coast Path and cross the field to the copse, carrying on through the trees and steeply uphill through the open heathland on the seaward side of the next field. Emerging from the bushes onto open ground, fork left and carry on along the Coast Path as it crosses to the left-hand corner at the top of this open ground and starts climbing towards Golden Cap. However, if you want to avoid the steep ascent and descent going over Golden Cap, you can fork right here instead, turning left and then left again twice more to pick up the bridleway that follows the hedge along the left-hand side of the field and then drops downhill, turning left at the far end of the field to pass St Gabriel's Church and the hamlet beyond (see the Langdon Hill & St Gabriel's Chapel Walk). Going past the houses, bear left and then turn left after you have crossed the stream, to rejoin the Coast Path at 5.
- If you elect to take the steep route over the top of Golden Cap, the path goes through the gap in the hedge and curves briefly around the back of the hill before it climbs to the summit. Ignore the path leading back to Langdon Hill on the right, instead staying with the Coast Path as it summits and then zigzags down towards the valley.
At 626 feet (191 metres), Golden Cap is the highest point on the south coast of England. Its name comes from its yellow capping of weathered Upper Greensand, a kind of sandstone typically deposited in marine environments like the one here in Jurassic times. Originally it was more golden, but the colour has been dimmed by an increase in vegetation cover has over the years.
Author FJH Darton, writing "The Marches of Wessex" in 1922, said of Golden Cap: "It is always of long-established peace, to me, that Golden Cap whispers. So high, so far, so lonely, you cannot be in the world. Why, the very gulls and daws that are floating below you are yet five hundred feet above land... Inland there is only a glowing ember of the earth's old fires: one of those flushing forests of the fire that hold shepherds and sheep and trees and all pastoral delights. The smooth roundness of Langdon Hill is red with heather and warm with golden gorse: the dark firs are unburnt coal: and there are ... shining flecks of cold ash-white rabbits at large upon the green and purple: and dead gorse standing for calcined coal. Far off there brood two great beasts, the slow ruminant backs of the Cow and her Calf, as sailors used to name the shapes of Pilsdon and Lewsdon Hills."
- Halfway down the hill, a path leads away to the right, heading towards St Gabriel's Wood. A detour here gives a fascinating glimpse into a medieval settlement with a ruined chapel (see the Langdon Hill & St Gabriel's Chapel Walk), but for this walk carry on along the Coast Path as it continues to drop downhill to St Gabriel's Mouth.
St Gabriel's Mouth is a particularly good venue for fossil-collecting, but it is accessed via a very steep flight of steps and can be cut off by the tide, so if you decide to visit, approach it with caution.
The Jurassic clays along this part of the coastline were laid down in stagnant mud at the bottom of a deep tropical sea, an environment which led to the shells and bones of many prehistoric creatures being preserved as fossils. The frequent rockfalls bring down new fossils all the time, and palaeontologists have been able to use them as vital evidence in piecing together a record of the species which flourished here in prehistoric times. Of particular interest to scientists are the spiral fossils known as ammonites, because these evolved rapidly (in geological terms) and so can be dated more precisely than others, and no fewer than twelve different ammonite zones have been found here.
The Jurassic Coast is famous for its dinosaur fossils, too. Bones found near here in 1858 by Charmouth quarryman James Harrison were matched with fragments found later by other collectors, leading to the assembly of an almost complete skeleton of a small herbivorous dinosaur which became known as Scelidosaurus Harrisoni. Thought to be no longer than 4 metres, and with hindlegs longer than its forelegs, Scelidosaurus probably reared up on its hindlegs to graze on foliage above, but the fact that its forefeet were as large as the hind ones suggests that it moved around on all fours.
- At St Gabriel's Mouth bear right to cross the stream and carry on along the Coast Path as it pulls gently over the foot of Chardown Hill.
- Just before Ridge Barn, you come to a junction of paths. Take the left-hand one to continue on the Coast Path towards Charmouth, dipping into a small valley and climbing out again.
- At the top of this incline, a path heads uphill to your right. Ignore it, and carry straight on, dropping to the next stream and crossing it, ignoring the path to the sea and the next one to Westhay Farm, on your right. Once again you start to climb, this time over the foot of Stonebarrow Hill as it stretches towards the sea.
- There are various paths leading away to your right along the slopes of the hill. Ignore them until you come to the one at the top where the Coast Path has been diverted. This is due to landslides making the cliffs unsafe.
In 1922, according to Mr Darton, “If you come from the east shun the lower undercliff, which looks less arduous at first; here be quags and (in due season) serpents, as well as primroses and blackthorn and violets and blackberries.”
The landscape will have changed significantly since that time. This part of the coastline, known as Fairy Dell and Cain's Folly, is one of England's largest and most active landslide complexes. There were major landslides in 1942, 1968 and 2000, before the collapse in 2008 which caused the current diversion of the Coast Path.
The instability of these cliffs comes from a double dose of erosion. Rainwater seeps through the top layer of Greensand but cannot make its way through the impermeable clays beneath. Meanwhile, the action of the sea is eating away at the base of the cliffs, so that they reach a stage where they are unable to hold up the extra weight of the accumulated water, resulting in a landslide.
Take this path to the right, where the Coast Path has been diverted, and continue northwards as it flattens out and heads over heathland, until you come to Stonebarrow Lane, leading from Stonebarrow Hill into Charmouth.
- Turn left on the track. After all this up and down from Seatown to here, you'll be pleased to know that it's downhill all the way now to Charmouth.
- Reaching the main road coming in from your right at the bottom of the hill, carry on in the same direction to join it as it turns, and walk along The Street until you come to the bus stop, on your right-hand side opposite the church.