Puncknowle and West Bexington

  • Distance – 4 miles
  • Duration – 2 hours.
  • Exertion – Medium.
  • Terrain – Path, track and road.
  • Dogs – Be aware of livestock and keep to the countryside code. Few gates, a couple of stiles.
  • Map – OL Explorer 15 Purbeck and South Dorset
  • Start – Puncknowle, The Crown Inn (Postcode: DT2 9BN, Grid reference: SY534886). Alternate starts can be at The Bull in Swyre or the car park and The Manor House in West Bexington,
  • Refreshments – The Crown in Puncknowle, The Bull in Swyre and The Manor House in West Bexington

Puncknowle (pronounced Pun-null) is a grey bricked, thatched roofed village, along a small stretch of road, hidden behind the hills from the sea. The church, manor house and pub still remain in the centre of the village, surrounded by small woodland patches, thick boundary hedges, tracks and trails. All of which have been hidden in, trampled on, followed and featured in historical coastal antics.

Beginning the walk at The Crown, you are already in the middle of the villages darkest history. In 1802 a fire ravaged through the small settlement destroying 12 houses. The Crown became the sanctuary for the escaping families. One of those who suffered was George Walbeg. He was an elderly gentleman who lived alone and was bedridden, being cared for by the odd visiting villager. However, despite his disabilities, he manged to escape before the flames engulfed his own home. He crawled his way to the pub but, shortly after reaching safety, he died. He is now said to haunt The Crown, but in a good way, as that night it was his sanctuary. Nevertheless, even now he is not alone. It has been said he is in the company of another ghost, a previous landlady of the pub, but little is known about her!

Facing the church, head to your right to start the walk. Hidden behind the church is the unique Puncknowle Manor House, Jacobean in style. Frederick Treves, on his travels through Dorset in 1906, described it as the daintiest and most beautiful Manor House in the county. One previous resident was that of Colonel Shrapnel, who invented the shell, designed to cause damage to a devastating effect and from where the term shrapnel derives. William Barnes, the Victorian poet, is said to have visited him and occasionally helped him with his mathematical calculations.

Puncknowle Manor House
Photo credit: @beattyelle

Shortly after the Manor, take the left hand track to start a gentle climb up the hill. When the footpath diverts left follow it instead to the right to enter a field. Follow the field boundary around anti-clockwise, tracing the rear gardens of a few houses to exit the field onto another track. Turn left and follow it up the hill passing an overgrown ruin. Stay on the track for a short distance before entering into the village of Swyre.

Swyre, being close to the sea and Chesil beach, would have been a prime spot for smugglers. 100 years previous, there had been a fight between smugglers and custom officers, one of many, but this fight resulted in one smuggler being killed. Some years later, a farmer unearthed a skeleton but dismissed it as nothing to worry about and discarded the bones in a ditch. However, shortly after this deed the villagers claimed that an apparition would appear of a seafaring man with luminous buttons. The village was sure this was the owner of the bones, possibly the smuggler who had been killed. They concluded that the smuggler was angry at the way his bones and body had been treated and therefore they needed to be found and properly reburied. Frantically they searched ditch after ditch, but they are still yet unfound.

On entering Swyre, be careful with the road as it can get busy. The Bull pub is on your left but turn to your right and then cross over, heading down the footpath opposite. Pass a large caravan park on your left and follow the stream down the hill. Enter the second field and remain close to the stream. In the third field head down to the left hand corner to cross over a stile and onto a decked path. Ahead of you is Chesil beach.

Before arriving at the beach, you cut the corner of West Bexington National Nature Reserve. The salty influence and its shingle habitat generates an ecology that is rarely seen elsewhere. Wild parsnip, wild carrot, tufted fetch and the delicious samphire all happily grow here.

The beach is stunning. It stretches out all the way to Portland in the east. To the west, Golden Cap is clearly visible as it’s the highest point along the Dorset coast. But the view can stretch even further in that direction. On a clear day, continuing all the way to Torquay in Devon. The whole curve of the western Jurassic coastline is visible.

Chesil Beach comes with many a tale. Ranging from how it was formed during a storm in one single night to the treasure it has unearthed. The treasure spanning centuries, from Roman and medieval coins, to loot from the Spanish Armada. A bomber engine from the Second World War has even been discovered. But no find quite matches up to the mystery surrounding the so called mermaid. In 1757 a creature was washed up where the path meets the beach. It was not described as beautiful in any way. It was a large 13ft long monster. It had 48 teeth in both its upper and lower masculine jawbone and its face was part human part pig. The most worrying part of this story is that other similar reports exist, spreading over many generations!

Head in the direction of Portland, undoubtedly passing many fishermen comfortably settled on the beach. Eventually you reach West Bexington car park. Find the road on the left and start your climb up the hill. West Bexington was a small farm who’s land had become agriculturally derelict in the early 20th century. The land was sold off and in the 1930’s aspirations to turn it into a holiday village were put into place. The resulting buildings can be seen either side of the road as you climb. The holiday development was unsuccessful and now all that remains are the bungalows, the chalets and the car park. All of which help with today’s tourism.

Continue up the hill, passing the Manor Hotel on your right. Once at the top of the road, where the road turns sharply to the right, continue straight on to a track. Here you have a bit of a steeper climb, but don’t forget to turn around as you go to appreciate the stunning views growing behind you.

At the top of the hill you come to the main road. Cross straight over onto another road. In a short distance climb the stile to your left to head for another little treasure. The view opens up again in front of you looking all the way to Devon. Some small towns along the coast can be lit up in the sunshine, the most obvious being the small town of Lyme Regis. Large cargo ships occasionally fill the bay but they are so dwarfed by the huge expanse of water, they look like toys. The large blue sky, the large blue sea and the collection of greens within the landscape can be breathtaking. Follow the path around to the right bringing you to a small ruined coastguard lookout. You are able to go in and explore it. It is a perfectly safe structure, having been exposed to all that Chesil beach and the English Channel can throw at it and, after many a year, is still standing proud. With the views so wide, it is no wonder it is here, a landmark recognised by those on the ground and at sea.

Retrace your steps back to the road and cross straight over onto a track. Head down the hill and when it levels out turn left into the field. Follow the field boundary down to the corner, turn left and then right to enter another field. It is in this area where smugglers and pirate tales are enforced once again. In 1791 a farmer unearthed a jar of 1,200 coins. The only clear explanation is that it was of smuggling or pirate origin, hidden but never collected. Whatever happened to the owner we will never know.

At the end of the next field turn left and then right after the woodland. Keep your eyes to the left for a small stile through the hedge, climb over and head diagonally down the hill. The next small field can contain horses so be aware if you have pets with you.

Keeping the field boundary on your right, climb the final stile and follow the narrow footpath back to the village. Turn right to reach the village road and then right again to get follow it back to The Crown.

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