We were only a mile into our four-day, 32-mile hike from Lyme Regis to Exmouth along the beautiful Jurassic Coast of southern England. Beneath us were the fossilized remains of sea creatures and birds dating back 150 million or more years. We were immersed in forest, with cliffs to the right, the English Channel to the left.
“Where are you headed?” asked a hiker, who came up behind us at a brisk pace and stopped to chat.
“Beer today, eventually Exmouth,” I answered. (Beer is an actual town, as well as an end-of-the-day goal.) “You?”
“Minehead,” he answered with a hint of pride.
I knew enough about the famous 630-mile South West Coast Path, on which we were hiking just a small section, to know that the end of the trail in Minehead was 540 miles away. This was one serious hiker.
“I have 30 days and I plan on going about 20 miles a day, maybe a little more,” said the hiker, who had started at the other terminus, in Poole Harbor.
Suddenly, our planned four days and 32 miles along the East Devon Coast didn’t seem so daunting.
Then again, hiking is all relative, and our trek seemed just right for our group of four: my wife, Susan, and my sister and her husband, Lauren and Bob Finkle.
“I just love being up at the top of the cliffs, looking out to the sea,” Lauren said. Bob added that he enjoyed looking along the coast and seeing the stratifications in the steep cliffs.
Highlights for travelers along the trail:
Lyme Regis was the home of Mary Anning (1799-1847), who helped create the science of paleontology. Anning found the first complete plesiosaur (a long-necked marine reptile) and one of the first complete ichthyosaurs (a dolphin-like reptile). She also found hundreds of fossils of ammonites and belemnites (squid-like sea creatures).
According to the Lyme Regis Museum, until she and other pioneering paleontologists unearthed and studied their finds, many people believed fossils were “creatures that had been left out of Noah’s Ark, or the remains of animals that were still alive in distant parts of the world.”
The museum hosts fossil-hunting tours. With the help of our guides — experts at cracking open the appropriate rocks with their hammers — we found a few ammonites and belemnites.
“For the rest of the hike, I kept thinking about how they were under us,” said Susan. “The earth is so old and we’re just here for a brief moment of time.”
WALKING THE CLIFFS
Because we’re only here for a brief moment in time, relatively speaking, hiking along part of the South West Coast Path is highly recommended. The section we walked is comprised of stone beaches below, undercliffs and actual cliffs. The undercliffs are formed by what the Brits call landslips and Americans call landslides. In some sections, the landslips were so immense that forests have formed on them.
Our hike to Beer was mostly through undercliffs and forests.
Day Two was our longest: 10 miles to Sidmouth. Many of the towns along the coast end with “mouth.” The “mouth” is where the river empties into the sea, carving away, over millions of years, the stratifications and ravines we climbed up and down. The River Sid runs through Sidmouth; the River Exe through Exmouth.
A HIKER’S HIGH
We unanimously agreed that walking along the clifftops was our favorite part of the hike. There’s something magical, and meditative, as you stand there, a bit out of breath from the climb, taking in the scenery. The cliffs and coast stretch for miles, past where we’d hiked and beyond where we were headed. Then they fade into the fog, clouds and sea.
Getting to the top of one, said Lauren, results in “a hiker’s high.”
The sea was always to our left, and to our right were often vast fields and pastures. Occasionally, we walked along or through small herds of grazing cows, or a field of bright-yellow rapeseed.
Day Three was 7 miles to Budleigh Salterton, and included some of the best and longest sections atop the cliffs.
DRYING OFF AFTER THE RAIN
Upon every British hike some rain must fall. Luckily for us, it fell only on the last day of our late-April hike.
Our Day Four trek to Exmouth was an all-day rainfest. Once you’re wet, you’re wet, and there’s nothing to do but slog onward with a wet upper lip and enjoy the foggy, wet and slippery climbs up and down the cliffs.
A bit of clothing advice: Wear layers that you can take off as you exert yourself.
We trudged on until we reached and crossed the Exe River, and headed into town and our bed and breakfast lodge to dry off and sip a hot cup of tea.
Susan and I were content with our four-day hike along the Jurassic Coast; Lauren and Bob were smitten. They hope return to do the whole trail.
One practical tip about guides:
On our first United Kingdon hike, the 102-miles Cotswold Way back in 2005, Susan and I carried everything on our backs. Never again, we declared, and ever since, we’ve hired Contours Hiking. They’re one of numerous companies that will move your bags and book your rooms (mostly bed-and-breakfast-type places).
It’s worth every pound. I’m not getting any younger and neither is my back. Plus, it’s hard to reserve rooms on your own in the coastal towns and inland villages along the most popular hiking routes in the U.K.; tour companies gobble up the limited number of rooms.
Some other companies that provide this service include Macs Adventures, Backroads and Inntravel.
According to Contours, a little more than half their customers live in the United Kingdom, and 20 percent are from the United States.