We left the Rectory quite early yesterday morning, for a walk over Ballard Down to Godlingston Heath and to the Agglestone Rock, and, by so doing, managed here and there a few new stretches of path to us, as we opted for variations to the route that we had not taken before.
The beginning was very familiar, with our initial release of energy taking us up Northbrook Road, past the new development and St Mary’s Primary School, and up Darky Lane to Ulwell. Crossing Ulwell Road beyond the Village Inn, we edged the lay-by beside the very attractive stream which gently cascades downwards over huge flat stones, that break and slow its flow, allowing water weed to establish itself. This is a hidden feature, little seen by visitors to Swanage, and really rather lovely.
Exiting at the far end of the lay-by, and wending its way to the bottom of the steps, is a damp and muddy path, but this is soon forgotten as the ascent to the obelisk begins. I fancy that this is perhaps the steepest climb in the whole area, as it goes straight up in many steps. I didn’t count them but there must be at least a hundred and fifty, the top thirty or so have been relaid, with very substantial new stones forming steps held securely in place with iron rods. We paused two or three times to admire the view (and get our breath!) on the way up. (Actually, I have just looked at the little walking map and it says there are 210 steps in total.)
Reaching the obelisk, we turned left and took the fine track down towards the Studland Road. It is some months since we were here last as there were cowslips flowering around us then, but the open and spacious feel of this area is just the same. At the road, we crossed and took the verge downwards to the signposted path up Dean Hill, waving a bus past some cyclists toiling upwards, as we could see much further round the bend than the driver. A cheery wave, and on we went. There are still a few flowers out here and there; an odd dusky pink bramble and little glimpses of yellow and white amongst the sodden grass and dying-back summer vegetation. Old Man’s Beard is living up to its name now, and, here and there, a piece of the seed head with that wispy grey beard-look is yellowed, as if with nicotine.
Turning onto the path over a stile, up the hill, and through outcrops of gorse, which is flowering rather well just now (and we saw plenty of it yesterday across the heathland particularly) we climbed through the little area of woodland onto the deserted golf course, crossing the B3351 to the small parking area above the track down to Godlingston Heath. It was a little way down this path that Helen found a silver earring, of which we shall try and get a picture up, in case anyone from Swanage or Studland recognises it as something they have lost on a windy walk this way during the past few days. So annoying.
The track is good from here all the way to the Agglestone Rock. This is the best approach to this mighty lump of ironstone, reckoned to weigh about 400 tons. It looks most impressive from a little way off as its much-carved surface with names of visitors over the years is unseen. We were joined by cyclists and runners, all pausing for a break and for the fabulous views from this vantage point.
Continuing downwards from here we walked on through the boggy, lowest part of the heath, which, even with boots, demands a certain care over footing. But, there is a melancholy beauty in these peaty pools and trickling steams, old board walks and died-back winter vegetation. Muddy dogs and mountain bikes joined booted visitors with maps and wooly hats, all overseen by a hawk, high and still above the barren heath, that is just the setting for the Agglestone and its folklore association with an ancient spirit origin. Almost certainly a natural occurrence, rather than something dragged here for some long-forgotten ritual, it is nonetheless an impressive sight, and worth the walk to see it.
We managed the soft ground and entered the woodland on the way to the village of Studland and, turning right at the first main bifurcation, we met more happy Saturday walkers off to see what we had just left. Carrying on through Wadmore Lane to where the houses begin and the track improves gradually towards Ferry Road, we crossed to the little glen that takes us past the sewage pumping station and a massive bole of a three-trunked sycamore tree as the path becomes tarmac and rises to the confluence of Manor Road and Beach Road and onwards to Middle Beach, where a few people had arrived splashing through the carpark puddles to the sand. The pitying cry of the oystercatchers was clear across the placid sea, as we looked towards the Old Harry Rocks and talked of which way back we would go. It was time for a flask of coffee, and we opted for St Nicholas’ churchyard, where there are plenty of seats, then up through Manor Farm and The Glebe to once again climb Ballard Down.
Herein lies a point of discussion that we have had more than once. Climbing Ballard Down once in a morning is fair enough, but twice seems a bit of an effort. However, up we went and as the track levels towards the top, the views over Swanage make it all worthwhile. Down past Whitecliff farm and along the narrow path to Hill Road was easy going, and we were soon striding along Swanage’s Beach Road and avoiding those who were out to see the sea, walk dogs, meet friends and take the air. We were home well in time to relax with the paper before lunch. Three and a half hours, about seven or eight miles I reckon, and we were left with the determination that the next time we go to the Agglestone it will be in summer. We have only ever seen it in the stark light of winter - but I have a feeling that is when it is at its most atmospheric and best.