Everybody has their own favourite places, or at least they should. Some are places you may only have visited a few times, but for whatever reason they have left you feeling you have gained something by going there. Perhaps you met somebody or saw something that made your heart sing? Perhaps you listened to the chattering dawn chorus or watched rabbits bounding in the evening warmth? Whatever the reason, you now have an indelible mark on your soul, one that, if you are anything like me, will draw you back time and time again.
The Isle of Purbeck is that place for me. More specifically, Tom’s Field campsite. I wrote about it in my first book. How I discovered it with friends in the late 1970s when Tom was still the owner. The thing that draws me back again and again is the fact that despite it now being extremely busy at the height of summer and most weekends, it still feels much the same as it did when I first visited all those year ago.
I have decades of memories stored here and every time I return it feels as though I’m opening a box full of reminders of how good life can be. In the late seventies and early eighties, my friends and I struck out on our own to discover climbing on sea-cliffs. Later on, my daughter and I spent many happy weekends here as she grew up year on year. My motorcycle rides often seemed to bring me back to this peaceful and tranquil idyll whenever I pointed the front wheel in its general direction.
More fundamentally, it’s the place I reach for when I feel in need of retreat and restorative action. In this enclave of short grass, rolling hills, wildlife and plants, hemmed in by old dry stone walls and with views as far as the Needles on the Isle of Wight, I can sit, walk, cycle or play the tourist as and when I wish. Always returning to its fold, I feel safe. It has become a haven, a harbour from the storm and consequently a place of heightened importance in my life.
Our return was prompted by the promise of a period of quiet weather. This was not a given but it was reliable enough to draw us away from the comfort of home and into a tent for a week. The overnight temperatures looked unusually high for September, a time when I usually call it a day for the year in terms of camping. So, armed with a tent large enough to park a small car in, we set off for Dorset and some serious dawdling.
When I say dawdling, it might sound as though there is a choice here. Our chosen campsite is on top of a down, meaning any rides culminated in a hill climbing frenzy that forced us to kick back and ride slowly and wearily back to our nylon home. But there is a beauty in going slowly that I’m still exploring. For too many years I’ve pressured myself to increase my cycling performance. Becoming the owner of a recumbent trike has shown me that there is another way, something different but equally valid. After all, rushing on a trike just tires you out. The secret is to accept its limitations and enjoy what it offers.
Our sorties to Corfe Castle, Arne bird sanctuary and Bournemouth and Southbourne saw me studying the map for alternative routes. The roads here are jammed packed with speeding vehicles and anything you can do to avoid them may well extend your life-expectancy considerably. Somebody shouted, “recumbents can’t climb,” from a car window as we twiddled our granny rings up a particularly steep hill. But we did climb and we soon reached the top, just not as fast as a road bike would and with a bit more effort.
Balancing that, a man on a vintage tractor, who looked suspiciously like our Wiggo, stopped and removed his earplugs in order to announce his love of tricycles, the racing variety. A chat and a handshake later we continued the slow road homeward with a smile and a sense of satisfaction that had nothing to do with performance figures. Shortly after, on an even steeper hill, a man stopped his van to congratulate us on making it to this point while riding recumbent. He said it’s hard enough on his ultralight road bike. Yin and yang I guess.
Back on the campsite we befriended a cycle tourist who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. This makes it difficult for him to understand social interaction, in particular when to stop interacting. He suggested we should be absolutely clear with him and that he wouldn’t be offended if we called time on a conversation. He was also travelling by recumbent bike and had ridden down from Nottingham, some feat given the weight of his camping gear and camera equipment.
We learned that he had travelled in Europe and America as well as all over Britain on his trusty Burley PDQ recumbent. His enormous oversize Carradice panniers swallowed all manner of stuff. I swear his toolkit weighed nearly as much as my pannier and he had legs like tree-trunks from propelling all this equipment around. A cheerful and positive chap, he could be clearly heard from almost anywhere on the site. I found him inspirational, especially given some of the treatment he has received from those who fail to understand his condition. I was sad to see him go on Sunday afternoon when he set off for a seemingly distant Essex. The campsite felt unusually quiet.
All of our days apart from one involved walking, cycling or both. The exception was the one rainy day when we visited Thomas Hardy’s birthplace. We also visited the bolthole of T.E Lawrence, near to the place he died in a motorcycle accident. Best known as Lawrence of Arabia, he is one of my all-time heroes and an extraordinary man of many and varied talents.
If you have a mountain bike you are spoiled for choice here with traffic-free routes covering the map. My personal favourite ride is a mostly off-road circuit of the high ground. Starting and finishing at Swanage it takes in Corfe Castle and the must visit Square and Compass pub in Worth Matravers. A challenging ride with sea views, historic interest and ancient barrows, this route has the lot. It isn’t really trike territory though so we stuck to our road rides along country lanes wherever possible.
Taking the roads from the campsite, through Swanage, you can pick up National Cycle Network (NCN) 2 en route to the Sandbanks ferry and follow it through delightful traffic-free countryside back towards Wareham. You eventually leave the trail to end up in Corfe Castle. Climbing the hill to Kingston (be careful on this steep, bendy and busy road) you are greeted at the very top with the delightful Scott Arms with stunning views back to the Castle at Corfe. From there it’s a gentle saunter back to Tom’s Field and a welcome shower. Michele and I did this on our last visit and it still makes me smile now when I think about it.
My favourite ride this time involved riding to Swanage, over the downs and onwards to Sandbanks ferry where you cross the entrance to Poole harbour. Cycle lanes lead you a mile or so up the road before NCN 2 turns away again and follows the sea front all the way past Bournemouth to Hengistbury Head (where a ferry will take you and your bike to Mudeford across Christchurch harbour entrance in the summer months).
We dawdled along, mindful of the 10mph speed limit and many pedestrians who have the right of way here, as far as Southbourne where we turned around. The white sands of the beach glistened while paragliders brought back memories for me as they soared silently overhead. Riding here takes no effort as it’s completely flat. That, aligned to a good surface leaves you feeling that you are floating along without a care in the world. I have wonderful memories of riding here at 8.30 a.m. in the morning in the cool sea air and having the place all but to myself, something that doesn’t happen often when you cycle, especially on the south coast.
We soon returned on the ferry and climbed past Studland. A long steady climb led us over the downs and back down to Swanage and from here we had to climb again, back up to Langton Matravers. A man on a bike flew past grinning, only to blow up, only to be defeated by the main hill where I overtook him as he pushed his cycle on the pavement. Another couple also flew past huffing and puffing as they threw their road bikes from side to side in an attempt to go faster. I just kept on spinning away, lost in the rhythm of the hill until my turning arrived. They made forty metres on me and my spinning legs and spent far more energy in the process.
All in all, it was a brilliant week with lots of gentle activity and a good deal of eating out. If ever you are unsure where to go, take a tip from me and head to Purbeck. You won’t be disappointed whether walking, cycling or just playing the tourist.
Until next time…………