Everything but the Dinosaurs
Sunday, January 30, 2005
High up on the cliffs of southern England, crumbling walls, rusty gates and an old-fashioned telephone booth are all that's left of a ghost town called Tyneham. A note on the door of the 13th-century church gives visitors a clue about village's past: "Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly."
The note is a copy of the one village seamstress Helen Taylor left on the door when she and the rest of Tyneham's 252 villagers packed their belongings and bade goodbye to their homes six days before Christmas 1943. The Ministry of Defence had given them just 28 days to clear out because their land, around the steep Dorset cliffs, was required to train soldiers for D-Day. The villagers never returned.
After the war, the army decided to retain the land for training exercises, which continue to this day. The ruins of Tyneham, which are open to the public 130 days each year (including most weekends), can be reached along a spectacular coastal path that winds across southern England: Dry walls of local stone run riot through the emerald pastures that collide with the crystal sea at vertical, striated cliffs. The view of rocky arches and picturesque piles of rocks called sea stacks rivals that of the more famous Devon and Cornwall coastlines. No wonder that in 2001 UNESCO christened Dorset's 95-mile coast a World Heritage Site.
Still, like most visitors to England, I'd never heard of Tyneham or the marvels of the Dorset coast. I knew Dorset only as Thomas Hardy country -- the Georgian homes of Dorchester, or "Casterbridge," the church at Bere Regis, or "Kingsbere," where Tess set up her family's bed. Indeed, the most recent edition of Fodor's dedicates just two pages to Dorset's coast, with no mention of the path.
Although I'd lived in England for five years, I discovered Dorset's coast only last August, when I interviewed the owners of Chococo, a gourmet chocolate shop in Swanage, Dorset. Three hours and 30 truffles later, I begged their advice on a good hike to burn off at least some of the calories I had ingested. "The coastal path leads right out of town," they told me.
The four-hour round trip was an inspiration: The 630-mile South West Coast Path hugs the coastline from beginning to end and boasts marvelous views of the Isle of Wight. At Durlston Head, where the Dorset County Council has a small visitors center and cafe, I learned that the Dorset coastal path is renowned not only for its view but for its ancient rocks dating to the Jurassic age, 144 million years ago, and for its unrivaled fossil forests. I resolved to come back again soon for a weekend of walking, ending in some more-deserved chocolate truffles.
My friend Matt and I returned the first weekend in November to walk the 19-mile stretch between Weymouth and Kimmeridge. It was a sparkling and unseasonably warm morning when we parked at the trail head, 10 minutes and a world away from the bustle of Weymouth's seafront. Ahead of us, a seemingly endless stretch of fields glowed like patchwork gems.
The first few miles were easy going. The path rolled gently through coastal farmlands until we reached the village of Osmington Mills. Though we'd been walking for less than two hours, we took a rest in the courtyard of the Smugglers Inn, a pub that dates to the 13th century.
The pub's name tells much about the history of the Dorset coast and the path itself. Unlike most long-distance footpaths, which were built to link scenic areas in Britain, the trail was a working footpath. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, coast guards walked the entire cliffside path daily to enforce taxes on goods from France, Spain and the Channel Islands.
The Smugglers Inn was originally known as the Crown but was renamed in the 19th century after the smuggler extraordinaire Pierre Latour, better known in Dorset as French Peter. With the help of the pub's landlord, Emmanuel Carless, the wily Latour used the inn as headquarters for a successful smuggling trade in French brandy.
Stories about Latour abound. But the most famous is the tale of his successful escape from the tax man. One cold winter's night when LaTour arrived at the pub, Carless offered him gin instead of his usual brandy -- a sign that all was not well. He then pointed to the great fireplace, which you can still see inside the pub. Realizing that the revenue officer was hiding inside, Latour declared that he had caught a chill and needed a fire to warm him. It was only minutes before the terrified officer revealed himself. The landlord offered the officer a glass of brandy and, laughing, sent him on his way.
Coast guard patrols continued along the path until the mid-19th century. In the 20th century, guards were replaced by geologists who paced the coast with equal vigor in a hunt for dinosaur bones, fossil fauna and ammonites. Great finds include the Dimorphodon macronyx, one of the earliest flying reptiles, and just last November, the bones of a 190 million-year-old species of ichthyosaur, a fish-lizard that looks like a cross between a crocodile and a swordfish.