Notes from a Small Island
Author:Bill Bryson

chapter Eight
AMONG THE MANY THOUSANDS OF THINGS THAT I HAVE NEVER BEEN able to understand, one in particular stands out. That is the question of who was the first person who stood by a pile of sand and said, 'You know, I bet if we took some of this and mixed it with a little potash and heated it, we could make a material that would be solid and yet transparent. We could call it glass.' Call me obtuse, but you could stand me on a beach till the end of time and never would it occur to me to try to make it into windows.

Much as I admire sand's miraculous ability to be transformed into useful objects like glass and concrete, I am not a great fan of it in its natural state. To me, it is primarily a hostile barrier that stands between a car park and water. It blows in your face, gets in your sandwiches, swallows vital objects like car keys and coins. In hot countries, it burns your feet and makes you go 'Ooh! Ah!' and hop to the water in a fashion that people with better bodies find amusing. When you are wet, it adheres to you like stucco, and cannot be shifted with a fireman's hose. But - and here's the strange thing - the moment you step on a beach towel, climb into a car or walk across a recently vacuumed carpet it all falls off.

For days afterwards, you tip astounding, mysteriously un-diminishing piles of it onto the floor every time you take off your shoes, and spray the vicinity with quantities more when you peel off your socks. Sand stays with you for longer than many contagious diseases. And dogs use it as a lavatory. No, you may keep sand as far as I am concerned.

But I am prepared to make an exception for Studland Beach, where I found myself now, having had a nifty brainstorm the -previous day on the Salisbury bus. I had dredged my memory banks and remembered a small promise I'd made to myself many years before: that one day I would walk the Dorset coast path, and now here I was on this sunny autumnal morn, fresh off the Sandbanks ferry, clutching a knobby walking-stick that I had treated myself to in a moment of impetuosity in Poole, and making my way around the regal sweep of this most fetching of beaches.

It was a glorious day to be abroad. The sea was blue and covered with dancing spangles, the sky was full of drifting clouds white as bedsheets, and the houses and hotels of Sandbanks behind me looked radiant, almost Mediterranean, in the clear air. I turned with a light heart and made my way along the moist, packed sand at the water's edge towards the village of Studland and beckoning green hills beyond.

The Studland peninsula is well known as the only place where you can see all seven British reptiles - the grass snake, smooth snake, adder, slow worm, common lizard, sand lizard and Michael Portillo. For much of its length, the beach is reserved for naturists, which always adds a measure of interest to any walk along it, though today, in fact, there wasn't a soul to be seen along its three fetching miles; nothing before me but virgin sand and behind only my own footprints.

Studland village is a pretty little place scattered among trees, with a Norman church and some fine views over the bay. I followed the path round the edge of the village and up the hill towards Handfast Point. Halfway along, I met a couple out walking two large black dogs of uncertain genetic background. The dogs were romping playfully in the tall grass, but, as always happens, at the first sight of me their muscles tautened, their eyes turned a glowing red, their incisors grew a sudden inch and they were transformed into beasts of prey. In a trice they were at me, barking savagely and squabbling over sinew and nipping at my dancing ankles with horrible yellowy teeth.

'Would you please get your fucking animals off me!' I cried in a voice that sounded uncannily like that of Minnie Mouse.

The owner loped up and began attaching leads. He had on some stupidly jaunty flat cap like Abbott and Costello would wear in a golfing sketch. 'It's your stick,' he said accusingly. 'They don't like sticks.'

'What, they only attack cripples?'f

'They just don't like sticks.'

'Well, then maybe your stupid wife should walk ahead with a sign saying: "Look Out! Stick-Crazy Dogs Coming."' I was, you may gather, a trifle upset.

'Look here, sunshine, there's no need to get personal.'

'Your dogs attacked me for no reason. You shouldn't have dogs if you can't control them. And don't you call me sunshine, bub."

We stood glowering at each other. For one moment, it looked as if we might actually grapple and end up rolling around in the mud in an unseemly fashion. I restrained a wild impulse to reach out and flip his cap from his head. But then one of the dogs went for my ankles again and I retreated a few steps up the hill. I stood on the hillside, shaking my stick at them like some wild-haired lunatic. 'And your hat's stupid, too!' I shouted as they huffed off down the hill. That done, I smoothed down my jacket, composed my features and proceeded on my way. Well, honestly.

Handfast Point is a grassy cliff that ends in a sudden drop of perhaps 200 feet to seriously frothy seas. It takes a special blend of nerve and foolishness to creep up to the edge and have a look. Just beyond it stand two stranded pinnacles of limestone known as Old Harry and Old Harry's Wife, all that remains of a land bridge that once connected Dorset to the Isle of Wight, eighteen miles away across the bay and just visible through a cloak of salty mists.

Beyond the headland, the path climbed steeply to Ballard Down, a taxing slog for an old puffed-out flubba-wubba like me, but worth it for the view, which was sensational - like being on top of the world. For miles around, the Dorset hills rolled and billowed, like a shaken-out blanket settling on to a bed. Country lanes wandered among plump hedgerows and the hillsides were prettily dotted with woodlands, farmsteads and creamy flecks of sheep. In the distance the sea, bright and vast and silvery blue, stretched away to a mountain of tumbling cumulus. At my feet far below, Swanage huddled against a rocky headland on the edge of a horseshoe bay, and behind me lay Studland, the marshy flats of Poole Harbour and Brownsea Island, and beyond that a hazy infinity of meticulously worked farmland. It was beautiful beyond words, one of those rare moments when life seems perfect. As I stood there, spellbound and quite alone, a bank of cloud drifted in front of the sun, and through it there poured magnificent spears of shimmery light, like escalators to heaven. One of them fell at my feet and for one moment I would almost swear I heard celestial music, an arpeggio of harps, and a voice speak to me: 'I've just sent those dogs into a nest of adders. Have a nice day.'

I went over to a stone bench that had been thoughtfully conveyed to this lofty summit for the benefit of weary chaps like me - it really is extraordinary how often you encounter some little kindly gesture like this in Britain - and took out my Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 map of Purbeck. As a rule, I am not terribly comfortable with any map that doesn't have a You-Are-Here arrow on it somewhere, but the Ordnance Survey maps are in a league of their own. Coming from a country where mapmakers tend to exclude any landscape feature smaller than, say, Pike's Peak, I am constantly impressed by the richness of detail on the OS 1:25,000 series. They include every wrinkle and divot on the landscape, every barn, milestone, wind pump and tumulus. They distinguish between sand pits and gravel pits and between power lines strung from pylons and power lines strung from poles. This one even included the stone seat on which I sat now. It astounds me to be able to look at a map and know to the square metre where my buttocks are deployed.

In my idle perusal, I noticed that a mile or so to the west there stood a historic obelisk. Wondering why anyone would erect a monument in such a remote and challenging spot, I struck off along the crest of the hill to have a look. It was the longest mile I can remember walking. I passed through grassy fields, through flocks of skittish sheep, over stiles and through gates, without any sign of my goal drawing nearer, but I doggedly pressed on because - well, because if you are stupid you do. Eventually, I arrived at a modest, wholly unremarkable granite obelisk. The weathered inscription revealed that in 1887 the Dorset Water Board had run a pipe past this point. Well, yippee, I thought. Pursing my lips and referring once more to my map, I noticed that just a bit further on was something called the Giant's Grave, and I thought: Well, that sounds interesting.

So I plodded off to see it. That's the trouble, you see. There's always some intriguing landmark just over the next contour line. You could spend your life moving from stone circle to Roman settlement (remains of) to ruined abbey and never see but a fraction of them even in a small area, particularly if, like me, you seldom actually find them. I never found the Giant's Grave. I think I was close, but I can't be sure. The one notable drawback of these OS maps is that sometimes perhaps they give you too much detail.With so many possible landscape features to choose among, it's easy to convince yourself that you are pretty much wherever you want to be. You see a grove of trees and you stroke your chin and think, Well, now, let's see, that must be Hanging Snot Wood, which means that that odd-looking hillock is almost certainly Jumping Dwarf Long Barrow, in which case that place on the far hill must be Desperation Farm. And so you strike off confidently until you come up against some obviously unexpected landscape feature like Portsmouth and realize that you have gone somewhat astray.

Thus it was that I spent a quiet, sweatily perplexed afternoon tramping through a large, forgotten, but very green and pretty corner of Dorset, looking for an inland route to Swanage. The more I plunged on, the less defined did the footpaths become. By mid-afternoon, I found myself increasingly crawling under barbed wire, fording streams with my pack on my head, wrenching my leg from bear traps, falling down, and longing to be elsewhere. Occasionally, I would pause to rest and try to identify some small point of congruence between my map and the surrounding landscape. Eventually I would rise, peel a cowpat from my seat, purse my lips and strike off in an entirely new direction. By such means did I find myself, late in the afternoon and somewhat to my surprise, arriving footsore, travel-soiled and decorated about the extremities with interesting rivulets of dried blood, in Corfe Castle.

To celebrate my good fortune at finding myself anywhere at all, I went to the best hotel in town, an Elizabethan manor on the main street called Mortons House. It looked a thoroughly agreeable place and my spirits swelled. Moreover, they could accommodate me.

'Come far?' asked the girl at the desk as I filled in the registration card. The first rule of walking is, of course, to lie through your teeth.

'Brockenhurst,' I said, nodding gravely. 'Goodness, that's a long way!'

I sniffed in a frankly manful way. 'Yeah, well, I've got a good map.'

'And where are you off to tomorrow?'

'Cardiff.'

'Gosh! On foot?'

'Never go any other way.' I hoisted my pack, picked up my room key and gave her a man-of-the-world wink that would, I fancy, have made her swoon had I been but twenty years younger, considerably better looking and not had a large dab of cowshit on the end of my nose.

I spent a few minutes turning a large white towel black, then hurried out to see the village before everything shut. Corfe is a popular and pretty place, a cluster of stone cottages dominated by the lofty, jagged walls of its famous and much-photographed castle - everyone's favourite ruin after Princess Margaret. I treated myself to a pot of tea and a cake at the busy and cheerful little National Trust Tea Room, then hastened next door to the castle entrance. Admission was £2.90 - which I thought a bit steep for a heap of rubble - and the place was closing in ten minutes, but I bought a ticket anyway because I didn't know when I might pass this way again. The castle was pretty thoroughly dismantled by anti-royalists during the Civil War and then the townspeople helped themselves to most of what was left, so there isn't a great deal to look at but some ragged fragments of wall, but the views across the surrounding valley were exceedingly becoming, with the fading sunlight throwing long shadows on the hillsides and a hint of evening mist creeping in among the hollows.

I had a long, hot bath at the hotel and then, feeling happily knackered, decided to content myself with such pleasures as Mortons House could provide. I had a couple of drinks in the bar, then was summoned to the dining room. There were eight other diners, all white-haired, well dressed and nearly silent. Why are the . English so quiet in hotel dining rooms? There wasn't a sound in the room but for the quiet scrapings of cutlery and murmured two-second conversations like:

'Supposed to be fine again tomorrow.'

'Oh? That's good.'

'Mmm.'

And then silence.

Or:

'Soup's nice.'

'Yes.'

And then silence.

Given the nature of the hotel I'd expected the menu to feature items like brown Windsor soup and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, but of course things have moved on in the hotel trade. The menu now was richly endowed with ten-guinea words that you wouldn't have seen on a menu ten years ago - 'noisettes', 'tartare', 'duxelle', 'coulis', 'timbale' - and written in a curious inflatedlanguage with eccentric capitalizations. I had, and I quote, 'Fanned Galia Melon and Cumbrian Air Dried Ham served with a Mixed leaf Salad' followed by 'Fillet Steak served with a crushed Black Peppercorn Sauce flamed in Brandy and finished with Cream', which together were nearly as pleasurable to read as to eat.

I was greatly taken with this new way of talking and derived considerable pleasure from speaking it to the waiter. I asked him for a lustre of water freshly drawn from the house tap and presented au nature in a cylinder of glass, and when he came round with the bread rolls I entreated him to present me a tonged rondel of blanched wheat oven baked and masked in a poppy-seed coating. I was just getting warmed up to this and about to ask for a fanned lap coverlet, freshly laundered and scented with a delicate hint of Omo, to replace the one that had slipped from my lap and now lay recumbent on the horizontal walking surface anterior to my feet when he handed me a card that said 'Sweets Menu' and I realized that we were back in the no-nonsense world of English.

It's a funny thing about English diners. They'll let you dazzle them with piddly duxelles of this and fussy little noisettes of that, but don't fuck with their puddings, which is my thinking exactly. All the dessert entries were for gooey dishes with good English names. I had sticky toffee pudding and it was splendid. As I finished, the waiter invited me to withdraw to the lounge where a caisson of fresh-roasted coffee, complemented by the chef's own selection of mint wafers, awaited. I dressed the tabletop with a small circlet of copper specie crafted at the Royal Mint and, suppressing a small eruction of gastro-intestinal air, effected my egress.

Because I had strayed from the coast path, my first order of business the next morning was to find my way back to it. I left Corfe and lumbered gaspingly up a ferociously steep hill to the nearby village of Kingston. It was another glorious day and the views from Kingston over Corfe and its castle - suddenly distant and miniature - were memorable.

I picked up a mercifully level footpath and followed it for two miles through woods and fields along the crest of a hanging valley to rejoin the coast path at a lonely and dramatic eminence called Houns-tout Cliff. The view once again was stunning: whaleback hills and radiant white cliffs, dotted with small coves and hidden beaches washed by a blue and infinite sea. I could see all the way to Lulworth, my destination for the day, some ten miles and many daunting whalebacks to the west.

I followed the path up steep hills and down. It was only ten in the morning, but already it was unseasonably warm. Most of the Dorset coast hills are no more than a few hundred feet high, but they are steep and numerous and I was soon sweaty, shagged out and thirsty. I took off my pack and discovered with a groan that I had left my fancy new water bottle, bought in Poole and diligently filled that morning, back at the hotel. There's nothing like having nothing to drink to bring on a towering thirst. I plodded on, hoping against hope that there would be a pub or cafe in Kimmeridge, but as I approached from a high path above its lovely bay I could see that it was too small to be likely to offer anything. Taking out my binoculars I surveyed the village from afar and discovered that there was a Portakabin of some type by the car park. A little tearoom on wheels, perhaps. I hastened along the path, past a sadly neglected folly called the Clavel Tower, and down a steep path to the beach. Such was the distance involved that it took the better part of an hour. Crossing my fingers, I picked my way over the beach and went up to the Portakabin. It was a National Trust recruitment point and it was closed.

I made an anguished face. I had a throat like sandpaper. I was miles from anywhere and there was no-one around. At that moment, by a kind of miracle, an ice-cream van came trundling down the hill playing a twinkly tune and set up at the edge of the car park. I waited an impatient ten minutes while the young man in charge unhurriedly opened up various hatches and set out things. The instant the window slid open I asked him what he had to drink. He rooted around and announced that he had six small bottles of Panda Cola. I bought them all and retired to the shady side of the van, where I feverishly removed the plastic lid from one and poured its life-saving contents down my gullet.

Now I don't want you to think for a moment that Panda Cola is in any way inferior to Coke, Pepsi, Dr Pepper, Seven-Up, Sprite, or any of the other many flavoured drinks that unaccountably enjoy a larger patronage, or that serving a soft drink warm strikes me as remotely eccentric, but there was something curiously unsatisfying about the drinks I had just acquired. I drank one after another until my stomach was taut and sloshing, but I couldn't say that I actually felt refreshed. Sighing, I put the two remaining bottles in my rucksack, in case I had a syrup crisis later on, and continued on my way.A couple of miles beyond Kimmeridge, at the far side of a monumentally steep hill, stands the little lost village of Tyneham, or what's left of it. In 1943, the Army ordered Tyneham's inhabitants to leave for a bit as they wanted to practise lobbing shells into the surrounding hillsides. The villagers were solemnly promised that once Hitler Was licked they could all come back. Fifty-one years later they were still waiting. Forgive my disrespectful tone, but this seems to me disgraceful, not simply because it's a terrible inconvenience to the inhabitants (especially those that might have forgotten to cancel their milk), but also for poor sods like me who have to hope that the footpath through the firing range is open, which it is but occasionally. In fact, on this day it was open -I had prudently checked before setting off - so I was able to wander up and over the steep hill out of Kimmeridge and have a look round the clutch of roofless houses that is about all that remains of Tyneham. When I was last there in the late 1970s, Tyneham was forlorn, overgrown and practically unknown. Now it's become something of a tourist attraction. The county council has put up a big car park and the school and church have been restored as small museums, with photographs showing what it was like in Tyneham in the old days, which seems kind of a shame. I liked it much better when it was a proper ghost town.

I know the Army needs some place for gunnery practice, but surely they could find some new and less visually sensitive location to blow up - Keighley, say. The odd thing was that I couldn't see any sign of devastation on the hillsides. Big red numbered signs were scattered strategically about, but they were uniformly unblemished, as was the landscape around them. Perhaps the Army shoots Nerf balls or something. Who can say? Certainly not I because my diminishing physical resources were entirely consumed by the challenge of hauling myself up a killer slope that led to the summit of Rings Hill, high above Worbarrow Bay. The view was sensational - I could see all the way back to Poole Harbour - but what commanded my attention was the cruel discovery that the path immediately plunged back down to sea level before starting back up an even more formidable flanking hill. I fortified myself with a Panda Cola and plunged on.

The neighbouring eminence, called Bindon Hill, was a whopper. It not only rose straight up to the lower reaches of the troposphere but then presented a lofty up-and-down ridge that ran on more or less for ever. By the time the straggly village of West Lulworth hove into view and I began a long, stumbling descent, my legs seemed able to bend in several new directions and I could feel blisters bubbling up between my toes. I arrived in Lulworth in the delirious stagger of someone wandering in off the desert in an adventure movie, sweat-streaked, mumbling and frothing little nose rings of Panda Cola.

But at least I had surmounted the most challenging part of the walk and now I was back in civilization, in one of the most delightful small seaside resorts in England. Things could only get better.