Monday, 23 April 2012

Bournemouth Coast Path Section 3 Christchurch - Milford

Christchurch Priory
A week after my trip to the Peak District was my birthday and in keeping with tradition I absented myself from work and headed out to enjoy the sunshine. As it was such a lovely sunny day it seemed appropriate to have a seaside walk and the last section of the Bournemouth Coast Path beckoned. I had been saving this for just such a day, for this section is the ‘country’ end of the walk, along the rather less developed section between Christchurch and Milford, where the path forms an end on connection with the Solent Way.

Priory Ruins
I parked in Milford after a fairly straightforward run and managed to get there in good time for my intended bus. For a journey that is supposed to be an express service and given the mileage between the two places I was surprised that it took well over an hour! Still, I had a good seat on the top deck and the views out across the sea at various points on the way were adequate compensation. As well as being sunny, it was quite warm although this also meant that the cloud bubbled up a bit while en route, which was a bit annoying.

Avon Bridge

I got out just off the main street in Christchurch, which was enjoying market day. Even though most of the morning had gone, the market seemed to still be in full swing and there was an air of buzz about the place. I wandered through, enjoying the atmosphere and half wishing I had more time at my disposal to buy a few things. At the far end of the street, the famous Priory loomed large and I took the opportunity to have a look around the grounds. I often think that these holy places look at their very best during spring bulb season. Not sure if this is deliberately timed to coincide with the Easter celebration or just my perception? Anyhow, the old place looked mighty fine surrounded by daffodils in the bright spring sunshine.

Next door to the Priory is the ruined castle. Surprisingly although the two significant buildings are next door to one another there is no way to go from one to the other without going out on to the street once again. Still it was only a minor quibble since the street is a joy to behold as well, with mostly buildings of hundreds of years old lining the road. I enjoyed wandering around the old castle, which now sits among several leisure facilities including a very well manicured bowling green. I wonder if the mediaeval warriors that garrisoned the castle had time for such frivolity?

Silvery Sea

Next to the castle is the River Avon, a beautifully clear looking river surrounded by willow trees just starting to come out for the season. I crossed both arms of the river and turned right down the side of the Council building, thinking what a nice place that must be to work. The section beyond here was rather forgettable as I headed around first the leisure centre and then a large golf course that was shielded from view by some bunding. I was now very much in the positioning phase of my walk as I negotiated the residential areas that butt up to Christchurch Harbour. It wasn’t hugely interesting and an attempt at following a path along the harbourside proved to be futile as I found it to be a dead end. Grrrr!


I was pleased to reach Mudeford, more or less a stone’s throw from the beach huts that I had admired last summer. The weather suddenly turned quite similar to that day, courtesy of a large black cloud that temporarily blocked the sun. Fortunately this was quite short-lived as within a few minutes of me turning and heading eastwards the cloud passed and I had about half an hour of glorious sunshine once again. Inland was a different story, with some very inky black clouds covering the urban hinterland. The promenade was surprisingly busy, with plenty of people wandering up and down and enjoying the unseasonably warm weather.

Mudeford Quay

The Council were obviously gearing up for the coming season too, for on the beach were a couple of diggers re-profiling the beach following the winter storms. I watched in fascination as they went about their work and soon realised that I wasn’t alone, with just about every pair of eyes on that stretch of the beach also watching what was going on. In particular I was interested to see how the digger turned by using its bucket to lift the body up and re-position itself. Sounds made but it never occurred to me that was probably the only way a tracked vehicle could turn easily.

Beach Profiling

Beach huts are a feature of the whole of the Bournemouth Coast Path and the next half mile has quite a concentration, with rows 3 or 4 deep from the coast. Unlike the uniform colours of some resorts these were in a whole range of bright colours, making for a seaside full of character. Yet this wasn’t always a coast of pure pleasure, for above the beach huts was a rather strange looking circular monument.  This was the former Ministry of Defence Signals Research Station, now long gone save for a trig point type pillar with a large circular pad of concrete around it.  This was once the site of a satellite dish that tracked military craft, but which ceased to be in 1980 when the site was moved to Malvern in Worcestershire.
Steamer Point Huts

I climbed up on to the low sandy cliff at the far end of the beach and entered the nature reserve rather intriguingly called Steamer Point.  This apparently was named after an old paddle steamer that was moored here and used as a site office for the construction of Highcliffe Castle.  I was soon met by a cheeky little robin that spent some time following me and almost urging me to take its picture. It was a delightful walk though the woods, which were dominated by Scots Pines, my favourite tree. Every so often were peepholes out from the cliff edge for sea views. In the distance the white cliffs of western Wight and in particular the Needles gleamed in the sunshine with no cloud seeming to bother the island.

Sun's Up!
As I passed through the woods I came upon a car park and through the trees just beyond I could make out what looked like quite an impressive building. Curious, I wandered through to find out more but was quite unprepared for the sight I got. This was Highcliffe Castle, a gothic pile built in the 1830s. The castle has had a chequered history since being built by Lord Stuart de Rothesay, becoming a seminary later in its history and burning down at one point.  Now happily restored it is in the care of Christchurch Borough Council and I imagine is the jewel of their estate.  The castle is licensed to hold weddings and I should imagine would be a very popular venue for that purpose.  I took a good look around the grounds and enjoyed looking at the gardens but decided that I needed to press on as the afternoon was already disappearing.

Angry Sky
At the other end of the Castle grounds I was rather disappointed to be leaving the cliff top so soon as the path took a winding staircase to a promenade at the bottom. I decided to take a path that was not quite at the bottom but gave me a little elevation so that I could have a better view. The clouds that had bedevilled the walk so far began to roll away for the final stretch of the day. In the distance I could see the target of my walk at Milford, seemingly just a pin prick on the horizon.

Pond Reflections

However, progress on the next stretch was actually quite quick, for I had nice flat and easy terrain for the most part. Eventually my path worked its way down to the beach but all along the foot of the cliffs were spring flowers starting to come out, complemented by the bright yellow flowers of the gorse that was now in full flush. My path at one stage got quite tricky to follow because of the landslips that had engulfed the promenade. As I got to an easier stretch once again I came upon a sign instructing walkers that the path was closed due to health and safety! Clearly this was only an issue heading east to west though as I hadn’t seen any signs in my direction…


My battle with the cliffs was as nothing compared to the battle being waged by the elements on the clifftop houses.  There were lots of futile looking attempts to hold back the forces of erosion, but all that remained in most cases were bent pieces of metal and crumbled lumps of concrete.  The constant slumping of the soft sandstone down the cliffs carried on regardless.  It was quite a sobering sight. 

Isle of Wight View

Further on and there was a promenade of sorts once again; this time more of an unofficial one and some way up the slope of the cliff.  It was bordered by a ragtag group of beach huts, all sorts of different shapes and sizes but mostly resembling garden sheds.  It was not the more regimented and ordered huts seen in the more popular parts of Bournemouth!  This unofficial promenade seemed to be quite popular with walkers but none of them explained to me that the headland in the distance effectively ended this section of walking!  The path sort of stopped at a pile of rocks being used for coastal defence and I was forced down on to the beach.

Highcliffe Castle

It wouldn’t have been my first choice but I got lucky.  The tide, although coming in, was still far enough out that I could make my way along to the gap in the cliffs called Beckton Bunny.  This was sort of a mini-Chine and there was enough of a path up the side of the cliff that I could scramble up to the top.  I was massively relieved as without this escape route I could have faced a lengthy detour and retracing my steps or an uncomfortable walk along the top of the shingle above the high water mark.  As it was I had instead a rather pleasant stroll for about two miles into Milford.

Beckton Bunny
This was probably the best section of the entire walk.  The clouds had finally rolled away almost entirely and the late afternoon was creeping up, meaning long shadows and golden light as the sun dropped lower in the sky.  The Isle of Wight was seemingly almost touchable now it was so close and the sea was a wonderful shade of royal blue punctuated by the odd whitecap.  I did finish this part of the walk in double quick time though, principally because the going was so easy and I didn’t really notice how fast I was walking!

Heading along the beach
Milford seems a fairly agreeable place with a few pubs and low key seaside air about it.  It looks like a favoured place for retirees for there are lots of blocks of flats, which do spoil the place a little.  Not all the local businesses looked to be faring particularly well, which was a shame.  I did get the sense though that this is slightly off the tourist trail, being not in the New Forest or close enough to Bournemouth to get much in the way of spin-off trade.  Still, it has served me well for a couple of walks; being also the start of the Solent Way, which I completed in 2006-07.

Back to the clifftop

This part of the Bournemouth Coast Walk was surprisingly rural and wild in places.  A look at the map will not suggest that, but for the most part I completed the walk out of the sight of houses and the coast really had my complete attention.  The section from Christchurch to Mudeford is largely forgettable, but worth doing just for the look around Christchurch, which is a fascinating town.  Although modest in length, I really enjoyed walking the Bournmouth Coast Walk.  It was a surprising journey!

Heading into Milford

For more pictures from my walk please see My Flickr site

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Tissington Trail

Parsley Hay Cutting

 The last of the railway lines to be explored on my mini-trip to the Peak District was the former Ashbourne line, now renamed as the Tissington Trail.  This 17 mile route follows the course of the former Buxton to Ashbourne line across the south western plateau of the White Peak from Parsley Hay to Ashbourne.  The original railway was a latecomer to the area, not being opened until 1899.  Perhaps because of the lateness of its arrival and the sparsely populated area through which it ran, it never really managed to do a huge amount of business although there were some through carriages to London Euston via Uttoxeter and Nuneaton.  Ramblers specials were also popular in the 1930s, but passenger services finally ceased in 1954 and freight in 1967.  The line was acquired by Derbyshire County Council in 1971 and turned into the cycle route that it is now.

Steep Embankment

Sadly, very little of the railway infrastructure remains, with almost nothing left of any of the stations and only bridges and tunnels left in place.  Cyclists planning to do an ‘out and back’ trip should be aware that there is a fairly significant slope heading from north to south.  For this reason I would advise you to consider starting such a trip from Ashbourne, so as to get the ‘uphill’ part out of the way on your outward trip (I made the mistake of starting from Parsley Hay on such a trip last time out and really regretted it!).

Hartington Signal Box
After resting for a short while at Parsley Hay I started on my journey south.  The first feature of the route is Coldeaton Cutting, which even more than 100 years after it was constructed looks like a severe gash in the landscape.  The sides of the cutting through the hill it bisects are so steep that little vegetation has ever really got a foothold.  I can’t think of many cuttings that are quite as unsympathetic to their surroundings and yet there’s a sort of ‘man versus nature’ quality about it that I can’t help but admire.  The Victorian psyche was clearly different to that which exists now!  Just the other side was an equally enormous embankment carrying the route across the lower lying fields.

The downhill grading starts to kick in through the next cutting and becomes more noticeable as you approach the first station site en route at Hartington.  No remains of the station now exist since it was largely built of timer (platforms included) but the signal box is intact and has been restored beautifully.  Sadly the levers no longer control signals or points, but all are still intact and the signal box is open to the public during the summer months.  Sadly, being March, I was out of luck this time although I have been inside before.  The station was not exactly conveniently placed for the village, which was nearly a mile away at the foot of a fairly steep road.  With the advent of bus services, a railway station so inconveniently placed could never hope to compete.

New Surface

The surface at Hartington was being replaced as I headed through the station area.  The new surfacing was being made out of recycled material and I felt very self conscious as I headed along for I left tyre tracks behind me.  The new surfacing continued for a couple of miles towards Biggin and made for very pleasant riding.  This section of route was largely through cutting but eventually I came out into open countryside once again and for awhile at least the views all around were extensive.  I did find this section quite hard going, possibly because of the loss of the new surface but possibly also because of the fact that I had 20 miles underneath me by this point!

Huge Bridge

Once through the next steep sided cutting the downhill gradient made a welcome return and I suddenly felt how much easier the going was.  I was also struck at how well engineered the route was – it was clearly built as a double track formation, although only a single line was ever provided.  At the other end of the cutting I passed the distinctively shaped Johnson’s Knoll complete with small standing of trees at its summit.  This is a feature that is quite common in the Peak District, giving extra character to an already unmistakable landscape.

Johnson's Knoll

A little further on and the line is joined by the busy A515 road, popular among motorcyclists and now restricted to a 50mph speed limit.  Nevertheless the roar of traffic from the road rather spoiled the section of my ride, which is actually one of the more scenic of the entire route.  Away to the right were glimpses of Wolfscote Dale, one of the gorge-like valleys etched into the limestone plateau of the White Peak.  Ahead was a short tunnel taking the former line under the main road and for a short while I had some peace and quiet as I headed through the site of the former station at Alsop-en-le-Dale.  Again there was no sign of this station and the site is now occupied by a car park and picnic area. 


After an unusually straight section the line then curved away from the main road to follow the contours and round to Tissington.  Away to my left I could see Mininglow way off in the distance, which I had passed earlier in the day on the way up to Parsley Hay on the High Peak Trail.  The distance between the routes was now quite great and the terrain between was very hilly, which made me feel relieved that I was on a nice level track!

Alsop-en-le-Dale Station
The line takes a wide loop around Hunger Hill before heading into Tissington Station.  The final stretch of line was a beautiful tree lined cutting full of birdsong and spring flowers all enjoying what was by now quite a warm and sunny day.  Tissington Station is the only one on the route that has any remains, but it isn’t exactly a feast.  Only a fragment of one of the platforms remain, presumably because it was one of the few structures that was built of anything other than wood.

Looking Across the Moors
I took the opportunity to leave the track at Tissington, heading into the village almost adjacent.  Of all the intermediate stations on the line this was surely the most conveniently situated, with settlement almost outside the entrance!  The reason I went to have a look at the village was that I remembered it being a very pleasant place to look around.  It is also one of the best places in the Peak District to see the curious art of Well Dressing, a unique practice in these parts.  This custom was about blessing the wells, which formed such an important part of the local water supply, to ensure that the water provided was plentiful and sweet.  It is believed to have originated around the time of the Black Death and some say that Tissington was where the practice started.

Tissington Station

The village was full of buzz even on a weekday.  No wonder; it is probably one of the most picturesque villages I know anywhere in England.  Tissington Hall is the undoubted star of the show, attracting a large number of people to stand and stare.  The Hall wasn’t open for visitors, it generally isn’t except for a few special days in the year, but even from outside the old place was worth a look.  The Estate has been owned by the Fitzherbert family since the 1460s and includes the entire village, with the Hall as the centrepiece.  The pond is also worth a look, although it was fairly devoid of birds when I passed.  It also wasn’t well-dressing season, but the show of daffodils made up for all that!

Tissington Hall

I returned to the railway station and wondered what kind of an impact there would be on the village if the line were still open to allow commuting to Manchester and Derby?  Now all was peaceful with rows of empty picnic tables instead of trains.  Initially the line ahead was tree lined but I soon crossed the A515 again, this time by means of a newish bridge (and certainly not the original, although the abutments were still used to carry the bridge).  Underneath me, huge lorries thundered their way up the hill carrying freight across the moorland that would once have been done by rail.  A little further on and the banks of the cutting were strangely devoid of trees.  I soon realised why when I discovered an interpretation board.  This was Fenny Bentley cutting, set aside for wild flowers and managed to ensure that saplings are not allowed to take hold.

Tissington Station

Heading further southwards and the tell-tale signs of another station site came into view as I reached the former stop at Thorpe.  Again this was some distance from the village it was meant to serve and even more ambitiously this was where visitors to Dovedale were supposed to come to.  I suspect that in reality only the hardiest ramblers actually came to this station for that purpose.  Apparently many users of the Tissington Trail do take in the side visit of Dovedale as part of their journey, but by now I had over 30 miles under my wheels and so I moved on towards Ashbourne.

Crossing the A515

The run down to Ashbourne from Thorpe is pleasant if unremarkable except for one section crossing a stream just north of the cycle hire centre.  Here the viaduct has been removed and the track plunges down to stream level and back up the other side.  Sadly the health and safety police have been there and put in place a series of barriers that are designed to slow cyclists down.  Wise perhaps, but it did take the fun out of the feature!

Thorpe Cutting

Just beyond is the cycle hire centre at Ashbourne, sited at the north end of the tunnel under the town.  If you are tempted to hire a bike to explore the Tissington Trail I would personally use this centre rather than Parsley Hay so that you can get the uphill section out of the way first.  Don’t miss the tunnel from the trail though – although it will be ¼ of a mile out of your way, it is definitely worth adding to the experience.  I was pleased that it came last on my journey – it was a fitting climax to the route.  The tunnel only opened in 2000 so on my first outing along here in 1994 there was no access to the tunnel.  In 2003 it was still fairly freshly opened and when we travelled through I can remember the sounds of steam engines puffing their way through the tunnel being played as you went through.  Although still advertised, the sounds weren’t playing on this visit which was a shame as I enjoyed them immensely.  Hopefully it was a temporary loss rather than a permanent one.

Thorpe Incline

There is a steady downhill through the tunnel and as with many others that I have passed through, Ashbourne Tunnel has a bit of a damp problem.  Water was leaking through the brickwork in many places, sometimes leaving some interesting patterns behind.  I was pleased to get to the other end but also disappointed to be dumped into an industrial estate after passing underneath the last two overbridges.  The Station Hotel still seems to be doing a decent trade, long after the demise of the railway it was built to serve, but the station is just a distant memory now, long demolished and replaced by a hospital, leisure centre and various other buildings being used for commercial purposes.  It was rather a sad end to the ride, but one railway gem still remains and that is the goods station, still performing a useful function as a timber merchants.

Ashbourne Tunnel

The Tissington Trail is perhaps overshadowed a bit by the High Peak Trail, but from what I could see it was more popular with cyclists (I was surprised at how busy it was).  Completing the route in only one direction was particularly enjoyable for me as I had chosen the downhill run!  The surface and easy going nature of the trail makes it very suitable for young children.  The tunnel might be a bit scary for some but this adds some spice to the route.  The descent from the top of the limestone plateau at Parsley Hay down to Ashbourne is exhilarating and if taken at top speed could be done in a similar time to that achieved by the trains all those years ago.  A trip in the opposite direction is a slog though.  In all a highly enjoyable end to my mini-trip to the Peak District exploring such lines.

Ashbourne Goods Station

For further pictures from my cycle ride please see my My Flickr Site