This walk on the National Trust’s Golden Cap estate includes two saints, an abandoned village and a detour to West Dorset’s unofficial nudist beach.
LENGTH: NEARLY FOUR MILES • TIME: THREE HOURS • TERRAIN: GOOD TRACKS AND PATHWAYS, ALL WELL SIGNED. OPTION OF DESCENDING A STEEP CLIFFSIDE STAIRWAY TO BEACH.
Getting there: Park in Morcombelake village on the A35 – space is limited so try to park considerately. You might find it easier to turn right off the main road at the Art Wave West Gallery (signed to Whitchurch Canonicorum) and look for a suitable spot on this side of the road. If you wish to leave your car behind, there is a bus stop right at the start and end of this walk and buses run from Bridport and Axminster. (The stop is called “Ship Inn” after the pub that used to be where the art gallery is now.)
Take the small road opposite Art Wave West and walk past a dilapidated Georgian brick house that seems to be slowly sinking into the hillside. Indeed, the greensand valley to your left is part of one of the most unstable landscapes in Europe and is slowly slipping down into the sea. It was this instability which put paid to plans to run a dual carriageway bypass through the valley, just as years ago the natural erosion obliterated the old coach road that used to run along the coast from here to Charmouth.
Look out for a track to your left signed to St Wite’s Well. The track runs through a field (stock are often grazing here so keep dogs on a lead). Ahead on your right you will see a small fenced enclosure. Here is the well of St Wite, a small stone trough with mossy sides, sunk into soft ground.
The spring has been considered holy time out of mind. The water trickles out cold, clear and pure and was said to have curative properties, especially for eyes. Tradition links it to St Wite, the Saxon saint whose bones lie in the church shrine at nearby Whitchurch Canonicorum. For centuries her shrine was a place of pilgrimage for people seeking healing until the Reformation in the 16th century when pilgrimages were forbidden along with the veneration of saints. Most shrines were destroyed and the relics scattered, but somehow St Wite’s survived.
Pass on, through the gate and down the green lane lined with foxgloves. There is the scent of bracken and here the sound of traffic from the main road dies away. Field gates to the left give glimpses over rough meadows, backed by the flat top of Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast. You round a bend and suddenly the sea lies before you, impossibly high on the horizon.
Go straight over the crossroads signed to St Gabriel’s. The lane burrows down further between ancient hedgebanks and stunted oaks. Watch out on the right for the serpent ash twisting up in the bank like a curvy Z or backwards S. It seems as if the modern world has fallen away and you are in a world apart. Now you can faintly hear the sighing sound of sea on shingle.
On the left is a small campsite, owned by the National Trust. It’s on a hay meadow rich in species such as hay rattle, common knapweed and the poisonous corky-fruited water dropwort. It’s a wonderful habitat for bumble bees, butterflies and other insects and on a hot day the grass is alive with the zizzing of grasshoppers.
Take the route to the right avoiding the campsite and when you cross the stream, look out for a little path turning right again down through trees (ignore the first path which has a sign marked Private). You come out opposite the old sheepwash where the sheep were once dipped at shearing time to remove the “yolk” or grease in their fleece.
Here you have a choice: you can turn left and opt for a shorter walk that misses out the beach, or turn right for St Gabriel’s Steps. Going right, you pass St Gabriel’s Cottage, a tiny thatched cottage by the stream, and go straight on across a meadow; follow the sound of the sea. Cross the coast path and squeeze though the marked gap in the fence. The way weaves through uncultivated shoreline scrub. This is a wild area and a fine territory for adders. You are unlikely to see one as they are shy and will make off when they feel the approaching vibrations of your footsteps, but keep dogs on a lead in case they plunge off into the bushes, tread on an adder and get bitten. While adder bites are usually harmless to adults, dogs have died from them.
You’ll arrive at the top of St Gabriel’s Steps, a vertiginous wooden staircase of about 20 metres high leading down to the beach. Go carefully, the way is ladder-like and unsuitable for small children. The isolated beach below has long been West Dorset’s unofficial nudist beach.
When you’ve had your swim, retrace your steps to the sheepwash and on to the hamlet of Stanton St Gabriel. The village was founded shortly after the Norman Conquest and the inhabitants made a living from fishing and farming. It was originally called Stantone, meaning “farm on stoney ground”, a measure of how hard life was here; the saint came later. According to legend, in the 12th century a newly married couple were ship wrecked in a storm and spent three days at sea drifting in a dingy. The groom, Bertram, prayed to St Gabriel to saved them and promised to raise a shrine to him wherever they landed. His prayer was answered and the couple were washed ashore at Stantone. Bertram’s bride died in his arms as he carried her to the beach, but he honoured his promise and the village adopted the saint.
In the 1700s, 23 families lived here and the land was divided into more than 40 small farmsteads. But in the 18th century, many villagers left to work in the mills and rope-walks of Bridport and the place was all but deserted. It became a haunt for smugglers, who stored their contraband in the abandoned chapel. Today all that is left is a farmhouse, now holiday accommodation, and the ruins of St Gabriel’s Chapel.
After you have explored the chapel and admired the view across Lyme Bay, take the track through the gate and then turn right to hug the hedgeline along the top of the field to the far corner. This brings you out on the high side of Golden Cap with Langdon Hill ahead and a prospect over Seatown and down the length of Chesil Beach to Portland. The sound of traffic returns as the wider world appears.
Turn left in the field, taking the bridleway signed to Morcombelake. You pass the National Trust’s West Dorset office at Filcombe Farm and rejoin the tarmac road. Turn left on the road and walk a few yards downhill before turning right to Shedbush Farm. You pass Shedbush farmhouse, which is a classic grouping of house and farm building dating from the 17th century and possibly earlier. The thatched farmhouse is surrounded by a cider house, stable, granary, milking shed and cow barn.
From here it is a short but steep climb back into Morcombelake. You pop out by Morcombelake Post Office and by this stage on a hot day you could well be tempted by its selection of cold drinks! Moores Bakery shop also sells snacks and drinks and is only a few yards to your right, while Felicity’s farmshop a little further on serves hot drinks and food. The bus stops outside Moores.