76e – Swanage Part II

There is one part of Swanage seafront which is somewhat decrepit.  The Old Pier Head Building stands out like a sore thumb and has been the subject of local concern for many years.  In 2007 artists Nina Camplin and Antonia Phillips volunteered to paint a mural on the building as part of Purbeck Art Week.  When we passed through in December 2014 their work was still a dominant feature.

Swanage Pier Head BuildingThe building is derelict and the central mural provides a glimpse inside to further dereliction – but the open door in the back wall shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel.  To either side of this central feature are three windows depicting the building in its past, present, and possible future use.

The future window will not be realised.  In May 2012 planning permission was granted for the demolition of the existing building and a redevelopment of eight flats and retail units.  When the actual work might start I do not know.  The development will no doubt improve the area, but in some sense it will be sad to lose such a clever piece of artwork.

As for the Old Pier itself, that is also derelict, consisting now of only the piles outlining what once stood here.

Swange Old Pier and Wellington Clock TowerJust behind the piles, to the left of the houses, you can see a small clock tower.  This is the Wellington Clock Tower which was originally built in 1854 at the approach to London Bridge.  Deemed a nuisance by the traffic trying to access the bridge, it was taken down again when London Bridge station was enlarged in 1864-7.  The rubble was given to a builder who needed ballast for the boats he was taking back down from London to Dorset.  He then decided to rebuild the clock tower on his estate, and at some point it was moved to Swanage Harbour.  It originally had a spire, but that was removed in 1904 after becoming unsafe – more dereliction!

The pier itself was first constructed in 1859-60 and was designed for cargo.  Tram carts led up to it, allowing local quarries to transport their rock to ships – you can still see the tram tracks along the seafront.  In 1874 the pier also became used for passenger transport and a steamer service ran between Swanage, Poole and Bournemouth.  These passenger and cargo requirements conflicted with each other and eventually a replacement, longer, pier was proposed.  This opened in 1897.

In 1940 the pier head was demolished as an anti-invasion measure, but was rebuilt after the war in 1948.

The pier was not invaded by Nazi Germany, but it did come under attack from the wood-boring gribble worm.  The damage was so extensive that the pier had to be closed down.  A trust was set up in 1994 to oversee its restoration, which cost £1,100,000.  Today it is a rather ornate structure, refurbished in a design which complements its Victorian heritage.

Swanage Pier

Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):

  • Old Pier Head Building:  N 50° 36.457 W 001° 57.220
  • Swanage Pier:  N 50° 36.542 W 001° 57.020
  • Old Swanage Pier:  N 50° 36.508 W 001° 57.000
  • Wellington Clock Tower:  N 50° 36.452 W 001° 56.872

Walk #76 Statistics (of which this post forms the final part):


76d – Swanage Part I

It was Boxing Day.  Grey.  Windy.  Cold.  The weather forecast told us it was due to rain just after lunch and we hurried towards Swanage in the hope of finishing our walk before the rain started.  A thin veil of wet mist had draped itself right over the middle of the town.  We could just about make it out from our vantage point on Ballard Cliff, spread across the lowest part of the town and almost imperceptible.

SwanageSo there we were, doing our Boxing Day Walk and hoping we would finish before the rain started.  Who would want to be out in weather like this?

It was a degree of surprise that as we approached the town centre I noticed a huge gathering on the beach.  Clearly there were lots of people who wanted to be out on a day like this.  What was this?  There seemed to be some very thin person dressed up in a Father Christmas outfit.  In fact there were quite a few people dressed up in Father Christmas outfits.  And then it dawned on me – it was Boxing Day!  This was a Boxing Day swim!  I had never seen one of these before!  They were all bonkers!

Swanage Boxing Day SwimI learnt a few things about Boxing Day Swims:

  • For the most part they last less than 10 seconds.  When the whistle goes there is a mad rush as everyone runs into the water; a few seconds later there is an even madder rush as everyone tries to get out again.
  • Quite a few people intend to swim but actually don’t.  It’s not their fault.  They Dunk and Flee.  Their body’s survival instinct takes over and they can’t help it.

Swanage Boxing Day Swim

  • After the Dunk and Flee manoeuvre some people get sent back in again by their so-called friends who think they performed poorly on the first attempt.  There is a “second wave” of people running in a few seconds after the first wave.
  • Second wave attacks are generally about as successful as the first.
  • People come out looking much more scarlet than they did when they went in.  Even those in Father Christmas costumes.

I must applaud the few impressively hardy souls who not only went in, but stayed in.  But it didn’t look fun!

Swanage Boxing Day SwimA short while later, after we saw this heading over Swanage Bay.  I hope they weren’t going to winch bedraggled and hypothermic Father Christmases from the icy waters!


Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):

  • Swanage Boxing Day Swim:  N 50° 36.520 W 001° 57.360

Walk #76 Statistics (of which this post forms the fourth part):


76c – Old Harry Rocks to Swanage

We left Old Harry Rocks and turned south, walking along the clifftop path towards Ballard Down.  More chalk stacks can be found just to the south of Old Harry, known as The Pinnacles.

The PinnaclesThe Pinnacles stand at Parson’s Barn, an one-time cavern which was cut into the cliffs by the sea.  Parson’s Barn was used as a smuggler’s cave some centuries ago, but the sea continued to erode it and eventually the roof collapsed in.  After this it became one of many small bays cut into the cliffs.

As we walked up onto Ballard Cliff the whole of Swanage Bay opened up before us.

Swanage BayI stood captivated at the landscape below with its layers of sand, shingle, surf and seaweed.  It was a grey day and I wasn’t expecting such transient beauty!

Sands of Swanage Bay

Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):

  • The Pinnacles:   N 50° 38.240 W 001° 55.635
  • Ballard Cliff:  N 50° 37.840 W 001° 56.350
  • Layers in the Sand:  N 50° 37.700 W 001° 56.770

Walk #76 Statistics (of which this post forms the third part):


76b – Studland to Old Harry Rocks

At Studland the coastal path turns east, ending after three quarters of a mile at Handfast Point and Old Harry Rocks.  The landscape here is chalk cliffs with sheer drops to gravel banks and the sea below.

The Way to Handfast PointAt the headland to the far east the chalk splinters and breaks, with a few pieces remaining upright but separated from the mainland.  These are Old Harry Rocks.  H G Wells is here!  His ashes scattered to the wind and the sea in 1946.

Old Harry RocksAbout 125,000 years ago sea levels were higher than they are today.  Yet 40,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, they dropped by a massive 140 metres.  This exposed a huge chalk ridge which stretched from here at Studland all the way over to the Isle of Wight, 15 miles away. Have a look on Google Earth – you can envisage this ridge very easily.

Rivers had cut their way into the ridge, breaching it in several places.  About 20,000 years ago the ice sheets began to melt; the melt water followed the natural course of these rivers.  As more melt water poured in the area began to flood.  The rivers widened the channels in the chalk, and as the main body of water followed, the chalk ridge eroded away.  The valley behind it was flooded to form the Solent and the areas of sea we have today off Bournemouth and Highcliffe.  At either end of the ridge, however, remnants of it remain.  On the Isle of Wight, 15 miles away, these remnants are known as The Needles.  I remember seeing them some eight months before as we walked along Hurst Spit.

NeedlesAt the Studland end of the ridge it is the Old Harry Rocks which act as a reminder of what was here so many thousands of years ago.  Old Harry himself is a geological feature known as a stack, and you can just see him peeping out at the back of this picture.

Old Harry RocksThe larger rock in front of Old Harry has a small sea arch at its bottom.  This was once a cave, until the chalk was eroded away and the water broke through to form a natural arch.  Over many years the chalk will continue to erode, widening the arch out until eventually its roof will collapse, leaving another stack rising out of the sea – a brother for Old Harry!

Old Harry also has a wife.  You can’t see her in the photo – she is hidden behind the large rock with the arch.  Old Harry’s Wife used to be a stack too, but the sea continued to attack her base, eroding it away.  Eventually she collapsed, ceasing to be a stack and becoming instead a geological feature known as a stump.  You can see Old Harry’s base is a little thinner than the rest of him.  He is also being slowly worn away by the sea.  One day he will also become a stump.

If you want to get as close to Old Harry Rocks as possible then you must either sail out, walk round to them at a low spring tide, or take a massive risk by edging your way along the cliffs at Handfast Point to get as close as you can.  Please don’t try this latter option, although from the worn nature of the track it is clear that many people do.

Track towards Old Harry RocksI remember, many many years ago, taking a risk here.  I scared my wife (then my girlfriend) and my mother half to death.  I considered myself something of a mountain goat in those days and I remember feeling quite safe on the path (as you do when you are young and invincible).  All the same, the alarmed cries from Deb and my mum drew stares from other people and the embarrassment caused me to abandon my precarious perch and come back to more solid ground (all young and invincible people respond very well to being embarrassed).

And so many years later here I was, looking at the way along the clifftop towards Old Harry Rocks.  This time I thought better of it.  I’m not as young and invincible as I once was.  Nor is the path by the look of it.

Track towards Old Harry RocksTwo months and one day after we were here a woman slipped and fell to her death at Old Harry Rocks.  Whether it was on this part of the path I do not know, but she has not been the first to lose her footing and her life here.

Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):

  • The Needles:  N 50° 39.758 W 001° 35.375
  • Old Harry:   N 50° 38.557 W 001° 55.342
  • Old Harry’s Wife:   N 50° 38.569 W 001° 55.353
  • Precarious Path:   N 50° 38.515 W 001° 55.451

Walk #76 Statistics (of which this post forms the second part):


76a – Studland

We had no idea we would be standing in the footsteps of royalty and state when we started on Stage 76 of our walk around the British coastline, but we were doing just that almost immediately.  We were not in a great palace though, nor a vast hall adorned with gilted livery.  Rather, we were in a chilly grey concrete bunker stretching our eyes over a chilly grey concrete sea.

Fort Henry Observation PostSat towards the southern end of Studland Bay, this was Fort Henry, the largest and strongest observation post in Britain.  Standing at 90 feet long and with walls three feet thick, it was the best place to host some important people who were here to observe D-Day training exercises.  Here we were, standing in the very same place that King George VI, Winston Churchill, and General Dwight D Eisenhower had stood on 18 April 1944, discussing their invasion plans.

Fort Henry Observation PostTwo weeks before their visit, on the dawn of 4 April 1944, Exercise Smash, a training exercise to rehearse the Normandy landings, had begun.  Studland Bay (along with Shell Bay, to the north), had been chosen for the exercise due to its physical resemblance to the French beaches, but also because it was unpopulated: this was no ordinary training exercise and live ammunition was being used.  This was unusual, but for Exercise Smash the Allied leaders wanted to simulate battle conditions as closely as possible and get their troops used to the constant and concussive noise of gunfire.

Exercise Smash was also used to test out a new amphibious tank.  The Allies had realised that if tanks could be launched further out at sea then it would give more protection to their landing ships by keeping them further away from enemy fire on the shore.  The answer was the DD (Duplex Drive) Valentine.  This was a floating tank surrounded with watertight canvas skirts which, when raised, displaced enough water to keep the vehicle afloat in deep water.  The canvas was held in place by a series of metal struts and compressed air pillars, providing support and rigidity.  The tank had a propeller at the back which gave it a top speed of about 4.5 knots, with which it could float its way to shore.  There, a quick-release mechanism disposed of the canvas and propeller and the tank could speed into action.

That was the principle.

In calm seas outside battle conditions the principle was solid enough.  However, the men inside these tanks were absolutely terrified that ammunition or shrapnel would punch through the canvas, allowing water in and sending the tank to the sea bottom – with the men still in it.  And although the canvas skirt was 2.5 metres high when extended, big swells and choppy seas would send water over its rim to the same effect.  The principle that the tanks would stay afloat might have been solid, but the tanks themselves felt still more solid to the men sat inside them; if they sank they would go down quickly.

Conditions on the morning of Exercise Smash were marginal, with heavy swells.  The tanks were unloaded into the sea, but soon found the swells breaking over their canvas ribbons.  The bilge pumps couldn’t keep up with the amount of water being taken on and so the men were ordered out while the tanks were operated from the outside using an auxiliary steering system.  Eventually, however, as the tanks got lower and lower into the water, the swells breached the canvas screens and several vehicles sank.  Although all men had been issued with breathing equipment, they had never used it at sea before.  As the vehicles sank, some men got tangled up in the collapsed canvas.  Six lost their lives.

In 2004 a plaque was unveiled next to Fort Henry as a memorial to those six men.

Operation Smash Memorial PlaqueAlthough floating tanks were used in Normandy it was not the DD Valentines, but modified DD Shermans.  Most reached the shore safely, although on Omaha Beach 27 out of 29 tanks in the first wave of the 741st Tank Battalion were lost.  After this the landing craft crept closer to shore, where the waves were smaller, and the remaining launches were successful.

As for the Studland losses at Exercise Smash, the tanks are still on the seabed and are today used as dive sites.

Points on this part of the walk (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):

  • Fort Henry:  N 50° 38.715 W 001° 56.870

Walk #76 Statistics (of which this post forms the first part):


Prague Towers – St Vitus’s Cathedral

Prague Castle occupies 70,000 m².  For those antiquated imperialists who can’t envisage metric areas that’s 17 acres, and to any old imperialist that makes it the largest ancient castle in the entire world.  It is really a village inside the castle walls, and at its heart lies St Vitus’s Cathedral.

St Vitus's CathedralIt is beautiful from all sides.

St Vitus's Cathedral St Vitus’s Cathedral is world-renowned for its stained glass windows.  There are lots of them to admire, but one caught my attention in particular.  I had something of an epiphany as I gazed at this window; a Christopher Walken epiphany!  For although this cult icon of the cinema was only born in 1943 he appears slap bang in the middle of a stained glass window dating from the 19th Century!

St Vitus's Cathedral Stained Glass WindowNo?  Are you sure?  Look!

St Vitus's Cathedral Stained Glass WindowI’ve never had a Christopher Walken epiphany before.  In a state of extreme agitation and excitement I sent a text message and photo to my brother Alex.  In an equal state of excitement Alex sent me a reply, laced with heresy:  “Underwhelmed doesn’t even begin to describe how disappointed I am”.

The cathedral’s tower is on its southern side of the building and offers a variety of great views.  Looking southeast there are superb views across the Lesser Town and into the Old Town.  You can see the Žižkov Tower in the distance.

View from St Vitus's CathedralIt’s just the view you need to contemplate the meaning of a Christopher Walken Epiphany.

Points in this post (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):

  • St Vitus’ Cathedral Tower:  N 50° 05.437 E 014° 24.010

Trip Statistics:

Prague Towers – Petřín Observation Tower

The Petřín Observation Tower has the reputation of offering the best views over Prague.  Its reputation is deserved, and on top of that there are several other things to see on the westward walk from Prague’s Old Town to Petřín Hill.  You can leave the Old Town by walking across the famous Charles Bridge (taking in the Old Town Bridge Tower and the Lesser Town Bridge Tower at either end, if you are so inclined).

Charles BridgeOnce over the bridge you need to weave your way south west, but it is worth heading north quickly first, to the narrowest street in the city.  It is so narrow it even has pedestrian traffic lights at each end!

The Narrowest Street in PragueWe found out why these traffic lights are required!

The Narrowest Street in PragueWe walked to the end to see where this street would deposit us.  We didn’t realise, but it was a cul-de-sac, terminating in the beer garden of a restaurant.  A waiter stood expectantly at the street’s end.  His face lit up as we approached – customers!  We stopped and looked at him, smiled, said hello and then turned back and walked off again before the lights changed.  His continued smiling at us but there was a hint of resignation on his face; he must get this all the time.

The narrowest street is worth a quick visit, but as you head back south remember to take in the Lennon Wall on your way.

Lennon WallThe Lennon Wall is a normal wall – well it used to be.  Situated in a quiet and secluded part of Prague’s Lesser Town, a portrait of Lennon appeared on the wall after his murder in 1980.  He became a pacifist hero for many young Czechs, and his portrait was accompanied by Beatles Lyrics and political graffiti.  The Communist regime of the time responded by whitewashing the wall, but the more the wall was whitewashed, the more the graffiti reappeared.  With each cycle of whitewashing and graffiti painting the wall grew in stature as a political focus.  It was a source of constant irritation to the authorities until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 brought the Communist regime to an end.

In November 2014, on the 25th Anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, students whitewashed the wall and left a single slogan:  “Wall is over”.  We visited the Lennon Wall one month later and could still see this slogan in large stencilled lettering (you can see it in the photo above).  As for the rest of the graffiti we saw, this had appeared within the space of that single month between the whitewashing and our visit.  One month to produce all that colour.  The wall is owned by the Knights of Malta who over the years have appeared content to allow the graffiti to continue.   They even considered a criminal prosecution against the November 2014 whitewashers.

Lennon WallPetřín Hill lies to the south west of the Lennon Wall.  Rather than walk, we took the funicular railway up.

Funicular Railway to Petřín Observation TowerThe Petřín Observation Tower is a short walk from the top funicular station.  It was built in 1891 for the World’s Fair of that year.

Petřín Observation TowerThe tower is only 60m (197 feet) high.  That may not sound very high at all, but it also stands on a hill 318m (1,043 feet high) so in fact it has very commanding views indeed.

Petřín Observation TowerThe viewing platform is accessed via 299 steps – it is worth the climb!  Prague and the world beyond lay spread out before us on a quilted landscape of wooded green and terracotta rooftops.

Prague View from Petřín Observation TowerThe Vltava River ran its course in the middle distance, and in the Old Town beyond we could see many familiar landmarks.

Prague View from Petřín Observation TowerFrom here we also had great views to St Vitus’s Cathedral at Prague Castle, our next tower destination.

St Vitus's Cathedral from Petřín Observation Tower

Points in this post (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):

  • Charles Bridge:     N 50° 05.189 E 014° 24.673
  • Prague’s Narrowest Street:  N 50° 05.272 E 014° 24.572
  • Lennon Wall:   N 50° 05.172 E 014° 24.410
  • Funicular Railway Station:   N 50° 04.960 E 014° 24.205
  • Petřín Observation Tower:  N 50° 05.009 E 014° 23.713
  • St Vitus’ Cathedral Tower:  N 50° 05.437 E 014° 24.010

Trip Statistics:


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