Judging by the car parks in Lyme Regis and Charmouth over the last few days, there is something very right about the West Dorset tourism industry at the moment. Apart from the woolly hats, new Christmas scarves and winter coats, you could be forgiven for thinking it was a summer bank holiday weekend, with car parks and beaches buzzing. On Charmouth, the continuous ‘tink’ of fossil hammers gives one reason for the year-round popularity, and it’s so heartening to see what used to be a very seasonal trade becoming so truly year-round, as so many of the local population rely on it.
All this activity is not so great for peaceful beach walks, however, so today we headed ever so slightly further afield to Cogden, a National Trust beach between Burton Bradstock and West Bexington, at the western end of Chesil Beach.
Cogden is much overlooked by tourists, but is very popular among locals, especially the sea fishing fraternity, who can be found there in almost any weather, huddled in their tents or lounging on the shingle, depending on the season. It is a fantastic beach for fishing apparently, with summer catches including bass, dogfish, mackerel, plaice, rays and bream, and in the winter, codling, whiting and pouting. It is much less busy than nearby West Bexington, which with a car park on the beach, is much easier to get to, especially if you’re lugging lots of kit.
Cogden is, at first glance, quite featureless; it has the typical Chesil face of shingle, a beautifully straight shoreline, and is backed by reed beds, but if you look more closely, it is quite interesting, and very different from the somehow showier beaches such as West Bay or Burton Bradstock.
It feels wilder, as the car park is a bit up the hill, and the reed beds cut you off from the farmland behind. If you look closely, what looks like a bare shingle bank is actually a mixture of sea hollies, sedums, and sea kale (which was so prized as a vegetable in Victorian times that it was eaten almost to extinction), and even in the bleak mid-winter, the various seed heads and grasses are sculptural and atmospheric. It’s not in-your-face pretty like a bluebell wood, but it makes you slow down, look more closely and appreciate the textures and contrasts a bit more. We chose to walk there today because it is so stunningly clear, with cloudless blue skies, and a sharp Northerly wind from which we were pretty much protected, being behind a south-facing slope. It’s always refreshing down there, and the light on a sunny day seems especially clear. The reed beds and shingle offer food & shelter to many bird species, and you can always hear larks down there on a sunny summer’s day.
It’s also quite rare for rural Dorset in that it’s slap bang on a bus route, with a stop right next to the car park. The Jurassic Coaster X53 runs from Axminster, through Abbotsbury to Weymouth, and is fantastic for walkers, as it means you can do a linear route along the coastal path without having to worry about how to retrieve your car. You can buy a hop-on, hop-off ticket, too, so you could do Lyme Regis, Abbotsbury etc in a day. It is also easy to find by car, on the right hand side on the B3157 just after the Chesil Beach Lodge holiday park.
The walking in that whole area is fantastic, as it’s criss-crossed with paths offering long or short walks from a mile or two to hundreds of miles, and if you plan, you can choose flat or hilly. The views from higher ground are spectacular, and it’s well worth popping over the hills for a view of St Catherine’s Chapel at Abbotsbury.
If you want to make a day of it, the Hive Cafe at Burton Bradstock is justifiably famous for its beachfront location and great food, and the Seaside Boarding House, just up the hill, is also gaining renown as a sophisticated place for dinner. Burton Bradstock boasts two pubs. We ate in The Three Horseshoes last year; I have to admit this was only because the Hive was full, but actually the food was good and I remember a very warm welcome, and the owners were very chatty and welcoming to both us and our children and our rather wet dog!
Cogden is very much a back-to-basics beach; no penny arcade or fish & chips, but plenty of open skies, golden shingle, crashing waves and wildlife. It is revitalising, and will certainly blow away the cobwebs after a few days stuck inside in front of the fire. The next mission may have to be to go there one day and come home with a cod!