SwimVenture; Ringstead Bay, Dorset

The oh so sweet combination of a swim and an adventure!….

I dream of adventures. You know the kind. Big deal experiences out into the unknown, into deserts or mountains, or kayaking in British Columbia, wild swim trekking in Portugal, something epic and exciting. But the reality is that with a hefty mortgage, work, kids and a global pandemic in the mix, it is fairly unlikely I’ll ever get to make those dreams happen.

That said, this past year has taught me that you don’t have to go big, or far to have an adventure! The spirit of adventure can be found in simply doing something, or going somewhere you’ve never been before. You can still go kayaking down a river, climb the biggest hill you can see, or head to a beach at dawn for a sunrise swim! There is still “escapism” up for grabs, right from your doorstep!

And so began my love affair with the micro adventure….

Since being diagnosed with PTSD last summer, I’ve been regularly getting out into nature where I feel respite from my anxiety. I’ve made it my mission to explore every nook and cranny of Dorset, and there is still SO to see. My favourite micro adventure usually involves a wild swim. (aka SwimVenture!) My last outing was to Fiddleford in North Dorset (see blog post “Far From The Madding Crowd”), but the weather has been pretty uninspiring since then. But miracles of miracles, yesterday was the first dry and sunny day we’ve had for a while so I decided to make the most of it.

The beaches here in summer are crazy popular so if I want to swim in the sea I usually go early to avoid the crowds. But sometimes I just want to be able to go to a beach, in the middle of the day and not be surrounded by people! (Yes – I am pretty anti-social!).

I’d heard that Ringstead Bay, between Weymouth and the Durdle Door, is usually fairly quiet. If you’re prepared to walk a while you can drop down to the eastern end of the bay where there are less people. (but watch out for nudists!). On searching for tips on parking and possible walking routes I came across a website with a suggested circular walk route of 4.5 miles taken from the the Dorset Year Round Walks book. Knowing I’d only have a few hours this looked ideal, and would hopefully give me an opportunity for a dip in the sea too.

Parking at the National Trust Car Park was pretty busy when I arrived at 12noon, but with plenty of space and panoramic views it really didn’t feel stressful. Most walkers seemed to be heading down a farm lane, which is the most direct route towards the coast, but my circular route took me out the other end of the car park off the beaten path. (I was immediately delighted to be walking in the opposite direction to everybody else – obviously!)

The views of this part of the Jurassic coast are absolutely stunning. Within minutes I could see kestrels and buzzards hunting in the fields while the sea sparkled below. Several brimstone butterflies and the occasional scent of wild honeysuckle. As I dropped down to join the South West Coast Path I came across St Catherine Chapel by the Sea. Built in 1926 this little wooden chapel has been restored and is beautifully maintained. It wasn’t open to the public due to Covid, but the tiny graveyard, looking out to sea enclosed by yews and pines was a really peaceful place to sit for a while on a bench. I thought of all the generations of families attached to this place, and it’s history, and what it must have been like here in the early 1900s. Remote, to say the least! While sat on that sunny bench I could see a little cove below, the turquoise sea and sandy beach tempting me.

The sound of the waves carried up the cliff on the warm breeze

After around 45 minutes I eventually emerged from the wooded coastal path onto the wide open farmland immediately surrounding the medieval village of Ringstead. I could literally taste the sea salt on the air and all of my senses became heightened! With my heart racing at the sound of the waves breaking so close, I looked for an access point from the cliff down to the beach. I was surprised to find neat steps had been dug out of the cliff, so this made it a simple task to climb down. I took a quick glance down at the bay then with a hop, skip and a jump I was on the beach in seconds.

As hoped there were hardly any people on the beach, (and none that were naked thankfully!). Most people could be seen in the shimmering heat further west towards Weymouth. What I found was a lovely sheltered bay with a green backdrop of woods on the cliffs and a great view across to Portland. A mix of pebbles and shingle, with sand in places, the beach shelves fairly gently into the deeper water. After seeing glimpses of the beautiful turquoise water on my walk down, I couldn’t wait to get in the sea.

My goodness, the water was SO clear, I could see to the bottom. In fact, bobbing around in the waves happily there was so much to see; looking back inland from the water the terrain of the steep cliffs looked quite dramatic. On the horizon the isle of Portland and a huge cruise ship made it feel as though I was abroad. There were colorful para-gliders slowly circling in the blue sky above, and buzzards (clearly the experts) joined them as they were all carried on the thermals above the cliffs. It really was quite a mesmerising sea swim.

Feeling completely refreshed after my dip, and relishing the chance to strip off and get dry rather than do the awkward ‘getting changed dance’ under a poncho, I climbed back up onto the coast path and this time headed west through the busy car park and cafe area of Ringstead main beach, and out the other side before heading north through woodland. The shade was a welcome retreat from the sun and the dappled sunlight, canopy of green and sound of the breeze in the trees reminded me of why I love woodland so much. A pretty stream ran through the woods and I followed this uphill until I came out on a farm track. A little shrew ran in front of me, then stopped in surprise before scurrying away into the field. I’m pretty sure it was a pygmy shrew, it was absolutely tiny!

The walk back up to the National Trust car park took in some pretty spectacular views again and by now I could see the car park in the far distance, high up on the ridge. But here is where I came unstuck. In my somewhat buoyant mood, and knowing I was well on the “home straight”, I only briefly glanced at the map I was supposed to be following. Now, I am known to boast about my sense of direction, claiming it is one of my strengths, so when the style appeared with a footpath sign next to it, I didn’t think twice about hopping over and hiking across the field. I knew it was headed in the right direction, what’s not to love? Right?

WRONG! It pains me to say that, even once I realised it was a premature turn off, I stubbornly continued through a minefield of enormous cow pats while intermittently being bitten by horse flies and stabbed in the ankles unceremoniously by evil thistles. The fact that I was wearing walking sandals just further added insult to injury. But it was all self inflicted so no sympathy warranted!

Now, this sort of error only really becomes a problem when, despite there blatantly being no footpath to follow (possibly there was once upon a time, but not in recent years!) you still maintain the (slightly deluded) belief that there will be a gate, or a style, or an opening of some sort in the corner of the “field of hell”. Here is where the fun and games start.

I began to quicken my pace in acknowledgement of this highly precarious gamble. When I still couldn’t see anything obvious up ahead , I dropped my expectations a little. (By this I mean, a gap in the hedge would be perfectly acceptable). But when eventually I reached the corner of the field, slightly hot and now intensely annoyed with myself, it was a dead end. With no opportunity to exit my torment, the feeling of defeat was only slightly improved by the justified string of expletives that were spat viciously at the startled cows. (Sorry cows).

Still. Onwards and upwards!! Accepting defeat and succumbing to the slightly comical aspect of my scenario I trudged up hill from the corner of the field, through what must be the most highly intensive methane producing field for miles, until eventually I found a gate that joined the path I was supposed to be on. No-one need ever know!

The (correct) route is much easier terrain and takes you through South Down Farm yard which is a bit like stepping back in time. The farm house, a large handsome red brick property is nestled above the yard, in the lush green countryside. This is proper Thomas Hardy country is said to have inspired his short story “The Distracted Preacher”. On a summers day with the chickens running around the yard, and hay being baled, it seems so quintessentially English, but it’s remoteness, and proximity to the sheltered bay easily lends itself to tales of smuggling and dark night escapades.

Pushing on up the hill was a great workout on the legs and with the sun beating down on my back I desperately wanted to run back down and dive into the sea. (If only to rinse the cow poo off my sandals and bathe my scratched and bitten legs!) But stopping every now and then to look back at the stunning coast line made the steep climb in the heat a tolerable one!

Finally back at the top, the strong breeze was very welcome. (on a side note It’s worth mentioning that being so high up on a ridgeway with amazing views, the car park itself is worth a visit! I stopped to take a moment, to take in the view, and feel a sense of satisfaction. It had taken 2 hours, and although I felt physically tired, I felt thoroughly nourished inside!

It was such a simple thing to do. It’s not an amazing achievement to some, but the benefits mentally and physically are huge to me. Being outdoors, experiencing nature, moving through the landscape, immersing myself in it (literally); this is my happy place. It doesn’t have to be epic, or world record breaking, it is the simple act of doing something I’ve never done before that energizes and feeds my soul. The sense of freedom it gave me will stay with me for the rest of the week. No matter what life throws at me.

Which just leaves me pondering; where will I go next!?…..

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