By Tetsuhiko Endo; Photographs courtesy of Bournemouth Tourism
With a little over 7,500 miles of coastline, England has undergone a quiet conversion in the last 20 years to become an unexpected haven for the traveler in search of history, culture, and rollicking adventure sports. My travels have brought me to the seaside town of Bournemouth, just two hours south of London by bus or train in the county of Dorset. With more than 30 beaches, Dorset is home to many of London’s classic holiday towns like Weymouth, Swanage, and Poole, with Bournemouth existing as the jewel in this seaside resort crown. Its seven miles of beach have hosted famous Britons like Mary Shelley, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Robert Louis Stevenson (which, by extension, makes Bournemouth the birthplace of one of the world’s most famous pirates, Long John Silver).
Straight off the bus Friday morning, my first stop is the Urban Beach hotel, a converted B & B that was recently voted the best hotel and restaurant in Bournemouth. Located a five-minute walk from the historically seedy Boscombe beach, It’s owner Mark Cribb opened it as part of a civic rejuvenation project that is hell bent on reversing years of urban decline. Judging by the number of pretty young things that pack the bar and veranda on my arrival, Cribb is off to a good start.
I dump my bags, grab my wetsuit and scamper down the hill to the beach. On my way, I swing by Sorted Surf Shop where owner Shaun Taylor and his colleague Dino are are repairing boards and talking about the waves with a steady stream of local surfers. Bournemouth is not one of the wave capitals of Britain. It has a relatively small, southwesterly swell window framed by southwestern England and the northern coast of France. However, the gentle rollers than can be found around Boscombe and Bournemouth piers are ideal for the wave riding neophyte.
The town made headlines a few years back for installing Europe’s first artificial surfing reef which has subsequently underperformed. After renting a board, I paddle out to it anyway and catch a few steep, warbling beasts, before relocating to the pier and getting my fill of waist high lines. September and October makeup the ideal wave season in Dorset with regular Southwesterly swells and water temps that hover around 60 degrees.
I’m comfy in a 3/2 wetsuit.
On my way back up the beach, I stop for a late lunch on the sun deck of the Urban Reef Cafe with the owner of the Surf Steps surf school, Andy Joyce.
“The waves here aren’t always great,” he concedes, “but there is usually at least a little ripple. Even if it’s completely flat we can get you out on a stand up paddle board to help you get the hang of things and work on popping up and balancing.”Urban Reef is another of the aforementioned Cribb’s establishments and is quietly killing off the British seaside institution of soggy fish and chips in favor of seasonal, and locally sourced food. Cribb happens to be in the restaurant when we are eating lunch and says his culinary philosophy is based around celebrating food, sourcing the most ethically raised ingredients possible, and “having a bloody good time.”
I have a crayfish, grapefruit, and guacamole wrap that impresses with both its subtle flavors and freshness. Dessert is a ginger and apricot muffin freshly baked and wrapped in wax paper by Kay Hanner, a local pastry chef with an eclectic eye and affinity for the seasonal. Also in her bag of goodies are chocolate chili cookies, blackberry and gin muffins, and a chocolate beet cake.
I get another surf after lunch, then I’m back to the hotel, just in time it turns out, for the Friday night paella. The night is cool, windy, and damp, but with a little music, some heat lamps, a big glass of tinto and a steaming plate of paella, who cares if you aren’t in Spain? It’s still “bloody good fun.”
I would rather spoon a wet seal than put on a damp wetsuit, so on Saturday I hang the neoprene to dry and head inland for a bit of trail biking in the New Forest National Park, some 15 miles to the east/northeast of Bournemouth. The name is a bit of a misnomer considering that the area was officially established by William the Conqueror in 1079. It’s said that the Conqueror, also known as “the Bastard” behind his back, was a skilled horseman who could spring into the saddle wearing full armor.
My own riding skills aren’t quite as developed, so I avoid the horses and grab a ten speed from Country Lanes bicycle rentals, located in the parking lot of the train station at Brockenhurst. The only thing that you really need to know about bike riding in Britain is that our contrarian cousins put the front brake on the right grip and the back brake on the left, apparently so they can laugh as unsuspecting Americans fly over the handlebars. With a plastic map and a new appreciation for left and right, I hit the paths.
The park is a mix of deciduous and coniferous forest interspersed with swathes of windy heath and dotted with thatched-roof country cottages. The unfenced heaths are used as pastures for New Forest ponies. A native breed of Britain, they have been roaming freely since at least 1016, but their owners, anachronistically referred to as “commoners,” take care of the creatures. How they manage to keep track of them is a mystery.
After a half hour of easy riding, I find myself on a gravel trail in the middle of an ancient woodland (the British term for “old growth forest”) surrounded by hundred year old Oak trees, Birches, Scots Pine and Sitka Spruces. Down the track, a pheasant bobs out of the brush and investigates a hedgerow with scientific curiosity. Somewhere in the distance, the rusty gears of Europe’s most densely populated country are grimly grinding, but try as I might, the only sounds i can hear are the chirping of a lonely grasshopper, the occasional trill of a woodlark, and the swishing of the leaves in the rising wind.
That night a storm blows in. After moving my bags to a high ceilinged room in the stately Montague hotel in the West Cliff area of Bournemouth, I go to dinner at the nearby West Point Bistro, where executive chef John Sanderson is serving the freshest seafood he can pull out of the nearby ports of Pool, Christchurch, and Weymouth. I usually have a hard time getting excited about bland white fish, but Sanderson’s curried monkfish has me re-thinking all of my prejudices.
Afterwords, I dive into the night for a few pints of ale--a requirement for any visit to England. There is a stoicism and yeomanliness to any good ale; they are complex yet mellow, velvety on the throat without the cheap fireworks of carbonation. Although they appear all over the UK, they are a specialty of the English who make them in endless varieties in every corner of the country. Critics argue that they mostly taste like mildly dirty water in which the questionable contents have yet to settle. Regardless of your personal opinion, one sip will tell you more about the English than any guidebook.
Sunday morning dawns gray and windy, last night’s ale tour is doing me no favors. I hop on an eleven o’clock train heading west to Weymouth and get off in the village of Wool. My destination is the Durdle Door Holiday Park (translation: campgrounds), which is named for the 65-foot limestone arch that sits just off the coast.
The arch is one of the more striking features of the 95 mile Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to limestone cliffs containing bands of rock reaching back in almost perfect sequence to the Mesozoic era, some 185 million years ago. The cliffs have attracted fossil hunters for hundreds of years, the most famous of whom, Mary Anning, discovered the first complete ichthyosaur fossil here in 1799.
I’ve also come to enjoy the cliffs, but in a very different way. Owen Senior, the founder and director of Land and Wave, a Dorset-based adventure sports outfitter has invited me on a coasteering excursion. Coasteering is a past time that began in southern Wales and has since spread around all of Britain. It’s a mix of hiking, swimming, spelunking, and rock climbing with the occasional cliff dive thrown in for good measure.
“I don’t try to explain it to people anymore,” laughed the bearded, barrel-chested Senior. “I just send them a link to the You Tube videos.”
After donning wetsuits, life jacks, helmets, and shoes, my group hops into the rough sea and swims out to a cluster of offshore rocks. The next couple of hours are spent clambering over them, jumping off them, dodging waves, being sucked through compression points (narrow spaces between boulders through which the push and pull of the ocean forces water) and holding on like barnacles while the sea washes over us. The exercise is somewhere between romping on a playground and training to become a navy seal. At the end, we all have a few scrapes and some water in our noses, but that doesn’t dampen any spirits for the final challenge.
When the stiff Westerly finally blows the clouds away from the sun, I’m crouched on a tiny outcropping overlooking the sea. water collects on the end of my nose and sparkles for a moment before plunging into the lime green waters that surge against the base of the cliff some 25 feet below. The void between my tiny, slippery corner of respite and the salty green cauldron grows larger every time I swallow my stomach back into my throat and focus on mastering the tremors in my legs.
“Remember to get good hard jump so you miss that ledge down below,” says Sofie, my guide and instructor.
The ledge in question is a platform of rock and kelp at the water line where the relentless waves have cut a rough V into the rock over hundreds of years. As I watch the water rush over it then suck back out, it occurs to me that if I don’t land somewhere in the middle of the V, I will be writing this article from a government sponsored traction bed in an English hospital. Socialized health care never sounded so sweet.
“You’ll be fine. Just make sure you jump out far enough. Instead of looking down, look out at the horizon” Sofie reassures me. “Whenever you are ready...”
I glance toward the horizon and am momentarily struck by the North Atlantic’s harsh beauty. Shimmering sea, rushing clouds, crashing waves, jagged cliffs. My toes dig into sharp rock, my legs engage, and I hurl into space.