I was given the same room at the Riviera Hotel which I had stayed in a few nights earlier, only this time the view across to the Isle of Wight only heightened my sense of anxiety about the progress I was making. I may have clocked up more than twenty-five Channel Islands lights since my first visit, but I could still sit on the end of my bed and look out across the water to the Needles Lighthouse. Despite my concern, I liked the Riviera Hotel. It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than clean, friendly, welcoming and unpretentious. If there were hotels like the Riviera in every coastal town I was planning to stop at, then the next couple of months would be plain sailing.
After a late start, and several trips to the buffet breakfast bar, I set off for Anvil Point lighthouse, beyond Studland Bay, on the Isle of Purbeck. An initial consultation of my map suggested that this would involve an ambitious 25-mile cycle along busy main roads through Poole and Wareham. Fortunately, however, there is also a charming chain ferry service that runs from Sandbanks across to Studland, crossing the entrance to Poole Harbour. It took less than five minutes and cost just £2.
The landscape on the other side felt very different from the affluent and well-heeled Sandbanks. A single, broad, straight road, lined with sand, runs for the three miles from Shell Bay to Studland. Trees on either side have been twisted and shaped by the wind, and only heather, gorse and other hardy vegetation covers the heathland beyond. This is Studland Bay, a national nature reserve since 1946, and a haven for birds and other wildlife.
It was barely ten o’clock as I cycled alongside Little Sea, an acidic freshwater lake formed by the sand dunes that cut it off from the English Channel. But the twitchers were already parked up and in position, such is the reserve’s renown for sightings of many of the rarer species of grebe and warbler.
Pausing in Swanage to consult my map, I noticed that Purbeck is really a peninsular, and not an island at all. It burgeoned as a tourist destination in Victorian times, although quarrying had been the region’s principal industry for many centuries before. When the Great Fire of London in 1666 led to the large-scale reconstruction of the city, it was Purbeck stone that was used extensively for paving its streets.
The seafront at Swanage is rather charming, with its long, white sandy beach and well-tended grassland and gardens on the opposite side of the seafront road. A row of wooden beach huts afford their owners an enviable view of the sea, although youngsters eager for a swim need help crossing the fairly busy road first. Like every other seaside town, I passed the requisite game arcades, and a handful of ice cream parlours. Yet Swanage seems to belong to another era, and was all the more charming for it.
I knew from my map that Anvil Point lighthouse perches on the headland at Durlston Country Park and Nature Reserve, but I wasn’t certain that I had taken the right road out of Swanage. So I was relieved when I found myself on a long, straight lane called Lighthouse Road, which appeared to head straight towards the sea.
Durlston Country Park is home to a fine castle, extensively restored in recent years, as well as The Great Globe, one of the largest stone spheres in the world. Built in Greenwich from Portland stone in 1887, it weighs almost forty tonnes and is three metres in diameter. It’s a remarkable object, which had attracted quite an audience, so I paused to take a photograph. But my real goal was, of course, the lighthouse. There’s a well-trodden stretch of the coastal path that runs between the castle and the lighthouse, but I preferred the more genteel, inland lane that approached the lighthouse from behind.
The lighthouse at Anvil Point was built from local stone in 1881, and was designed to provide a waypoint for vessels passing along the English Channel coast. Although its squat tower is just thirty-nine feet tall, the light itself is nearly 150 feet above sea level. There is a range of keepers’ cottages and outbuildings on the lighthouse’s landward side.
Originally lit by a paraffin vapour burner, it was modernised and electrified in 1960, at which time the original clockwork-driven Fresnel lens was removed and donated to the Science Museum in London.
The lighthouse was fully automated in May 1991, since when the keepers’ cottages have been refurbished and made available for holiday lets.
In 2012, an LED lamp was installed above the 1960, rotating Fresnel lens, and this now serves as the main light at Anvil Point. This modern lamp mimics its predecessor and displays a white flashing light, every ten seconds, which is visible for nine miles.
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 18, 2015
Retracing my route to Swanage, I followed a narrow and gently inclining lane through Woolgarston towards Corfe Castle. The verges on each side of the lane were extremely tall, but every few hundred yards the road opened up to majestic, undulating scenery in all directions. I was aware of Dorset’s reputation as a beautiful county, but along this lane at least I was continually taken aback by the landscape.
I descended into the village of Corfe Castle at speed, and on an emotional high. It’s funny how a place you have never visited can evoke a specific emotion or reaction, simply through association. For me, Corfe Castle can only mean Nuts in May, Mike Leigh’s perfect 1976 television play with Alison Steadman and Roger Sloman. My route passed the castle itself, and I pictured a Morris Minor and a couple arguing over who should hold the castle’s guidebook. I wanted to look around, but was aware that Weymouth, where I planned to stay, was still twenty miles away. Besides, I was hungry and my water supplies were running low.
I made what the majority of proper cyclists would say was a textbook error. My mother always told me that you should never go to a supermarket when you’re hungry. For a cyclist, the equivalent rule is that you should never pull in at a decent-looking pub when you still have some distance to travel.
The pub was the Greyhound Inn. The beer was locally brewed and called Dorset Knob. The lunch was a fabulous local crab sandwich, with a side portion of gourmet, hand cut, twice-cooked chips. It was all rather splendid, and by the time I got back on my bike I felt bloated, sleepy and ready to call it a day.
To say that I misjudged my afternoon would be an understatement. The first six miles to East Lulworth were almost entirely uphill, and the steeper I climbed, the windier it got. I climbed nearly 1,300 feet, and although reaching East Lulworth itself involved a short stretch downhill, the road quickly climbed again on the other side of the village. It was scenic, certainly, but this was army territory, and the road was punctuated with warning signs, red flags and forbidding wire fences.
It was not until I reached the village of Preston, a few miles north of Weymouth, that the route levelled out and I felt confident that I would reach Weymouth in daylight. I was exhausted, and perhaps for only the second time I seriously considered jacking it all in. I persuaded myself that I wasn’t enjoying the cycling and that bagging lighthouses was no fun. Maybe I could visit a few in the car next year?
Salvation comes when you least expect it. As Weymouth approached I was aware of a few other cyclists on the road alongside me. By the outskirts of the town, they had reached a throng. And as the town centre came into sight, I was at the front of the peloton, apparently donning the yellow jersey. At a roundabout by a fish and chip shop I was congratulated, handed a bottle of water, and told that there was not much further to go. At the seafront a crowd of supporters gathered by a finishing line with streams of colourful bunting.
I have no idea what the cycling event was that I had gatecrashed, but it was clearly not intended for me. Nonetheless, it spurred me on to my bed and breakfast on the harbour front.