Distance: 5.5 miles/9 km
Time: 2 hours
Total climb: 390ft.
Max height: 220ft.
Min height: 0ft.
Terrain: Track, path, road, beach and field.
Start: The Elm Tree Inn (Postcode: DT3 4HU, Grid reference: SY614824)
Map OS Explorer OL15 Purbeck & South Dorset
How to get there: From Weymouth take the B3157 towards Chickerell. After about two miles at Langton Cross (look out for the monolith!) take the left hand fork to Langton Herring and when in the village take the first left to reach the pub.
Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code.
Langton Herring is a pretty little village with thatched cottages and a golden yellow stone. It is hidden in a small valley just off the main road and is classed as a doubly thankful village. The term ‘Thankful Village’ was coined by writer Arthur Mee in the 1930s to describe a village that suffered no fatalities amongst those of its men who went off to fight in World War 1. Only 60 or so villages can lay a claim to this title, Langton Herring being the only one in Dorset. From the village 31 men were sent away, a high proportion of the population at the time. However, literature in St Peter’s, the village church, records claims that all the men of Langton Herring returned from both World Wars, making it one of 13 doubly Thankful Villages in England and Wales. There is, therefore, no war memorial in the village, but there is a horse chestnut tree planted in the centre of the churchyard in memory of Sir Winston Churchill, with a small plaque bearing the words, ‘We shall never surrender’.
Just on the outskirts of the village, at Langton Cross, is an ancient stone or monolith. It is a wayside cross, from between the 9th to 15th century. Placed at a crossroads (that were often linked with the devil) it was a way to reinforce the Christian faith and/or serve as a way mark through difficult terrain. This one is missing its top arm and currently hidden behind trees. Legend has it that at night it takes itself down to Fleet Lagoon to drink. When it returns, it’s at a different angle!
To start the walk, from the pub, turn right to go deeper into the village, passing the small road leading to the church. Follow the road to the end and take the footpath on your left climbing up the hill. When out of the trees, the sea appears. Chesil Beach comes into view, dividing the blue water in two.
Continue to follow the track down the hill, passing the woodland on your right. When at the bottom, you meet The Fleet. This large lagoon is a beautiful site. A unique piece of geology and geography creating a spectacular landscape and environment, there’s no other lagoon like it in the UK and few others in Europe. For that reason, the whole lagoon is listed as a Ramsar site and parts of the Fleet are also listed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation Interest among other designations. And of course, it is also part of the World Heritage Jurassic Coast.
The 18 mile Chesil Beach joins Portland to Abbotsbury, protecting the internal fragile landscape from any fierce storms the Atlantic may wreak. The Fleet is on par with some of England’s biggest and most famous inland waters. At 13 Km long, it is longer than Ullswater (c.12 km) and only just short of Lake Windemere (c.18 km) the Lake District’s and England’s lengthiest lake! The Fleet Lagoon is not as wide as Windermere, but at 900 metres at its widest point, it is only about 100 metres narrower than Ullswater! All of which gives an added perspective on just how big, beautiful and important the Fleet Lagoon is.
Chesil Beach itself is 160 metres wide and rises to 12 metres in height. It was formed about 7000, complete by 5000, years ago, the source mainly eroded cliffs of southern Devon to the west. Over time the supply of material to Chesil Beach has been cut off. It is therefore sensitive to environmental changes such as rising sea levels and is basically shrinking. The pebbles are graded in size from fist-sized near Portland to pea-sized at Bridport. Local sailors claim to know exactly where they have landed, by judging the size of the pebbles alone. However, it is still the most remarkable yet dangerous beach on the south coast, littered with numerous shipwrecks.
The waters of the Fleet are tidal but the lagoon is also fed by fresh water run-off, streams and ditches along its 8 mile length. Because of this, the water of the Fleet is brackish, neither fresh nor as salty as the sea attracting a huge amount of wildlife. The Fleet is probably most famous as the home of the Mute Swans of the Abbotsbury Swannery, the swans enjoying the large quantity of eel grass the fleet supplies.
Until the 1970s, a string of World War Two pill boxes stretched the length of the Chesil as part of defences to prevent the beach being used for troop landings. Those on Chesil have now been washed away but a few remain on the Fleet’s landward shore. They would have appeared like the bottom jaw of a giant’s mouth, growling at any approaching vessels. It must have been a gnarly site, even though peace time. It was also here that some of the early prototypes of Barnes Wallis’s “bouncing bombs” of the Dam Busters fame were tested. Other military activity in the area includes several army camps including a rifle range – which is still functional to the east of this walk. All of this type of activity is concentrated, along with more commercial operations, at the Eastern end of the Fleet, towards Ferry Bridge. This gives some parts of the shore in that area a semi-industrial feel, but the farther westwards you go, the more beautiful, rural and tranquil it becomes.
For those who like a fresh perspective, there’s a glass bottomed boat, aptly named the Fleet Observer, which runs trips around the Eastern end of the Fleet. There is also the “Chesil Centre”, a visitor centre dedicated to the Fleet and Chesil and all its natural history and ecology.
The area has also featured heavily in literature. Ian McEwan’s Book ‘On Chesil Beach’ was nominated for a number of awards and was subsequently made into a film. As you continue along the route, you meet Moonfleet Manor, another influence in prose.
Moonfleet manor, as one would hope, is not a spooky ancient ruin but instead is a smart sleek 5 star hotel. Moonfleet is forever bound with Falkner’s classic tale of smuggling, bearing the same name ‘Moonfleet’, which was published in 1898 and made famous the manor’s original owners, the Mohune family. In it, the ghost of long-dead Colonel ‘Blackbeard’ Mohune is said to haunt the Old Fleet churchyard which will be encountered later in the walk. Though the story is fictional, the family was indeed real. Maximillion Mohune built Fleet House, as it was originally known, in 1603. Over the generations it passed through a few different families and in the Second World War the house was requisitioned for use by American and British troops. In 1944, Fleet was a concentration area ahead of embarkation for the Normandy landings. On D-Day, the US Rangers left from Weymouth for Omaha Beach; a location immortalised in the film Saving Private Ryan.
The manor was broken up and sold after the war and was turned into a hotel in 1945. In 1997, new owners took over and immediately embarked on a £1 million refurbishment plan. Today, the hotel retains its unique Georgian style while offering contemporary comfort.
Continue to follow the lagoon coastline, passing, numerous wildfowl, rocky inlets and the odd World War Two defensive shelter and even a horse race track. As the coast turns inland you meet Butterstreet Cove, named after the small street that once led to this bay. If the tide is out it is possible to continue your journey along the beach. While on the shore look out for any fossils as the zonal ammonite Macrocephalites has been found here.
When a small river joins the cove, make your way inland towards Fleet village. The name “Fleet” is derived from fleot, Old English for an inlet or estuary. Parts of the village were destroyed by a storm surge in 1824, including most of the “Old Fleet Church”. The Great Storm as it was called caused waves to breach Chesil Beach, creating what people described as a tsunami A number of buildings were destroyed, or washed away, including the nave of the original parish church. The wave also brought with it ships, even carrying a 95 ton sloop called ‘ Ebenezer’ A new church, Holy Trinity, was built a short distance inland and only the chancel of the old one stands today. It is possible to park in Holy Trinity church car park allowing a quick visit to the chapel and Butterstreet bay without the walk to get there! As you approach a house ahead, turn right and the remains of the chancel are on your left.
The church was apparently a hideaway for contraband. The area, understandably, was rife with smugglers. The fleet lagoon, quiet and protected by the open sea by Chesil beach and backed by sparsely populated countryside was ideal their illegal pursuits. Products such as wine, brandy, silk, chocolate, tobacco and spices were passed along this coastline and its narrow country lanes. Whole communities were either involved with or supported the secret missions. Vaults are rumoured to be under the old church and a tunnel to outside the graveyard. There is also a possible hidden cellar at the Elm Tree Inn. Many barrels that contained the contraband were often sunk into the lagoon and then collected at a more appropriate time. Who knows how much is still lurking underneath today!
On visiting the old chapel, make your way to the road and turn left. Follow it though the sparse hamlet of Fleet and pass the new church on your right. Look out for the bell on the top of the church tower that once belonged to the old church. Walk on up the hill until the road splits in three. Straight ahead takes you to back to Moonfleet Manor, but instead turn right. Stay on the same track, skirting the campsites of West Fleet Holiday Farm and Bagwell Farm Touring Park on your left. When you meet the main road turn left. This is perfectly safe as there is no need to go on the road, but instead stay on the grass where you are then guided through small woodland, exiting out on the field side of the hedge. Walk down the hill and into woodland, following the path around to your left.
Within this woodland, large worked stones keep appearing, denser in some areas than others. This suggests that there must have been some kind of activity, whether habitual or industrial that occurred within these woods, but for now they lie buried under the creeping ferns. Follow the track around to the right and up your final climb of the walk. Turn left at the top, with Langton Cross just beyond the field ahead, and then take the track through the farm back to the village of Langton Herring. Turn right to meet back with The Elm Tree Inn.