Walking Chesil Beach — the ‘ribbon of wilderness’ on England’s south coast

In October 2020, Storm Alex thrashed down on the Dorset coast: trees fell, streets flooded, cruise ships left Weymouth Bay for the safety of more distant waters. In the midst of the storm, ultrarunner David Andrewartha set out to run the length of Chesil Beach.

In his pack were emergency medical supplies, energy gels and a packet of Haribo Starmix. Ahead of him were 18 miles of loose, ankle-shredding shingle — near-impossible to run on in any conditions, now besieged by 65mph winds and lavished by sheets of salty rain. Behind him were the twin spectres of grief and guilt he was trying to outpace. Grief: because he had recently lost his mother to cancer. Guilt: because he had, in his own words, “buried his head in the sand” in her last days: he had only wanted to remember her the way she was before the illness. Somehow Chesil Beach was a place where he believed this inner turmoil would be resolved.

“What got me to the end was knowing — no matter what pain I was in, and how treacherous it was — it was nothing in comparison to what she went through,” he told me.

David had accidentally scheduled his run to coincide with the storm, but no matter: he would try for a new record time, and raise money for charity. The existing record had been set in 1963. Only two people had attempted it since. That seemed strange, considering the fame of Chesil Beach. But it was, I came to understand, one of the strange paradoxes of this eerie, empty part of the English coast.

Chesil is one of Britain’s longest beaches and has been immortalised in postcards, paintings and fiction — most famously Ian McEwan’s 2007 novella. You can easily find it on a map. Most of the southern English coast is higgledy-piggledy: defined by the nibble and gnaw of erosion, the back and forth negotiations of sea and land. Chesil Beach, by contrast is a long, straight stretch of shore — looking like a line of correlation plotted on a graph, or something sketched by a draughtsman’s hand.

A view of a land mass formed by pebbles against the sky
Chesil Beach stretches for 18 miles; for eight miles there is saltwater on both sides © Photography for the FT by Fern Leigh Albert

Buoys and other equipment used by local fishermen
Buoys and other equipment used by local fishermen

A close-up of purple flowers and green grass thriving in the shingle
Flowers and grass thriving among the pebbles

It is mostly admired from afar — in his book England’s 100 Best Views, Simon Jenkins recommends you park up on the B-road west of Abbotsbury for the best panorama. Up close it is little known. From May 1 to August 31 — the time of year when England’s beaches teem with buckets, spades and sunburn — the central section of Chesil Beach is closed to visitors, to protect nesting birds.

Map of Chesil Beach in Dorset

For the rest of the year, access is only permitted on a thin strip nearest the shore, so that you walk awkwardly on loose, sinking shingle with the tongues of the waves rasping at your feet. Furthermore, an army firing range also leads to temporary closures of the beach: before setting out you must check the website for live fire scheduled at Chickerell. The same website that deals with births, marriages and deaths — that collects taxes and dispenses Covid jabs — is the one that decides whether or not you can walk the beach.

I had come to walk along Chesil Beach after the equinox — when daffodils were wilting on the shore and the brent geese soon to depart for their nesting grounds in Siberia, before the window closed for the walking season. It was a morning of high, scudding clouds when I parked up at the south-eastern end of the beach by Portland. On the shore were tumbledown shacks: fisherman’s huts where the smell of WD40 and fish blood mingled in the air. A century ago a man was known to live on this beach: surviving by fishing and burning driftwood, inhabiting an upturned boat with a sail for a front door. But no one was in the huts when I passed.

Fisherman’s huts and boats near the shore
Fisherman’s huts and boats on the shore of the Fleet lagoon

A fisherman’s hut

Pink and purple flowers in the spring
© Fern Leigh Albert

Nor was there anyone further along the shore. For all the logistics of walking Chesil Beach, one factor above all serves to discourage walkers — for eight miles of its 18-mile length the shingle is surrounded by saltwater, with no means of exit. To the left is the English Channel, while to the right is the Fleet — a long, brackish lagoon that divides the beach from the mainland, its widest part known as the “Littlesea”. In this south-eastern half, Chesil Beach is a remote ribbon of wilderness amid the holiday coastline of southern England. To walk it is — for five or six hours — to commit to being a wanderer of this stony desert: to banish yourself just within sight of the caravan parks on the mainland. In his novel, The Well-Beloved, Thomas Hardy compared the experience of walking Chesil Beach to following Moses in Exodus:

The sea rolled and rose so high on their left, and was so near them on their right, that it seemed as if they were traversing its bottom like the Children of Israel.

I had tried to find recent information from people who had walked this seabound stretch. I found David’s story in a Cornish newspaper, and called him up. In this remote part of Chesil Beach, he explained, he had entered a place that felt outside history. But he ran on through the squalls, blocking out the pain.

“You’ve got water on either side of you, so you can’t turn back. The only way off was either get to the end, or get a helicopter or a boat off, or die.”

Pebbles at the shoreline
Longshore drift has graded the pebbles so that at the southern end they are the size of cricket balls . . . 

A steep bank of pebbles
. . . while towards the north-west the pebbles are smaller © Fern Leigh Albert

A local legend suggests Chesil Beach was created by the devil — so he could walk through the sea to the Isle of Portland without getting his feet wet. Academic consensus identifies the origins of the barrier beach at the end of the last Ice Age, when melting glaciers carried debris down from the Dorset and Devon hills, and deposited them in the expanse of Lyme Bay. Aeons of wave action began heaping stones to form the bank — Chesil Beach was described by the painter Paul Nash as “a sea-wall constructed by the sea against itself.” Moreover, the process of longshore drift has graded the pebbles — at the southern end they are the size of cricket balls; in the north-west they begin to approach the fineness of sand. Chesil Beach is a very visible interaction of time and matter — reminding me, in some ways, of an hourglass.

It is said that local sailors could tell exactly where they had landed on the beach by judging the size of the pebbles in their hand. I found few ways of measuring my progress walking the treadmill of shingle. The first three miles felt like six. My knees were aching. I stopped to brew tea by a padlocked hut (likely a second world war relic: from times when Chesil Beach was used to test bouncing bombs). Gulls flitted through the drizzly air. The waves made their solemn reiterations on the shore. People on internet message boards had described walking the beach as monotonous. To me, it felt calming. In some ways, the pebbles of Chesil Beach were like a Japanese Zen garden: an arrangement of stones, raked by wind and tide, mostly untrodden by humans.

“Every week can be different on Chesil Beach” explained Angela Thomas. “Every time you set out on to the shingle you see something new.”

Angela works for the Dorset Wildlife Trust at Chesil Beach — I had spoken to her at the Wild Chesil Centre at Portland shortly before departing. She explained that the beach is constantly shape-shifting. Sometimes you can see the trails of hares that come to box on the dawn beach (shingle remembers footprints far longer than sand). Mostly you see the designs of the sea: neap tides carve shelves on the beach, which are then rounded off by storms.

During a big storm in February 2014, a beachfront pub in Portland had its second floor windows smashed by the waves, and the flood alarms went off in Weymouth (an elderly couple said the sirens reminded them of the war). The storm withdrew to reveal a shore strewn with Marlboro cigarettes — cargo that had fallen from the container ship Svendborg Maersk. There was also lots of pet food, and a dead cow.

Worse was the Great Gale of 1824 — the only time when this natural sea wall had ruptured, and the swell surged through a gap. The village of East Fleet was drowned and around 25 people lost their lives in the village of Chiswell, many of them children. Some died in their beds. The churchyards along the shore are populated with crews that perished that night, and other nights (with the names of their ships carved on the gravestones). Amid the pebbles of flint and chert on Chesil Beach you can still find foreign stones — the ballast from vessels wrecked here.

Fishermen stand with their boat on the shoreline
Fishermen on Chesil Beach
A fisherman, with only his torso, arms and lower body visible, on the shore holding a fishing net
© Fern Leigh Albert

Even now, Chesil Beach is an archive of things declined by the sea. Its remote stretches are far from the reach of litter pickers. Coca-Cola cans rust among cuttlebone, and deflated beach balls among the buoys that came untethered. Five miles on I found two fridge freezers: made buoyant and seaworthy by the gases inside. Six miles on was a sculpture someone had made of trash: a creature that appeared at first like a mirage, with broomsticks for limbs and marigold gloves for hands. Chesil Beach has a hallucinatory quality. In the 18th century there was talk of a merman and a sodden camel washed up on the shore. In the 19th century came the remains of a huge creature identified simply as a “Wonder of the Deep”. Only close to the end of my walk did I see a human figure.

I saw him for 20 minutes before I drew close enough to speak: an angler sitting in solitude, unflinching as the waves made their deep, incendiary booms and sucked at the stones under his feet. By the time I could see his face, we were old friends out in this saltwater world. I asked him if he had caught anything. He kept his eyes fixed on the horizon and said: “No.” That was the only conversation I had on Chesil Beach.

My walk ended nine miles on from Portland at Abbotsbury — where the pebbles make landfall amid steep green hills. Gathered in the farthest corner of the lagoon were the mute swans of the Abbotsbury Swannery, once farmed by monks at an adjoining abbey, later used to supply quills to Lloyd’s of London. It was perhaps a feather of an Abbotsbury swan that inked the loss of the Titanic. Above it was another remnant of the abbey: St Catherine’s Chapel — the greatest landmark to watch over Chesil Beach.

A distant view of the long spit of land that is Chesil Beach with a chapel on a hilltop in the background
Chesil Beach and St Catherine’s Chapel in Abbotsbury © Fern Leigh Albert

The half-ruined walls of the chapel
The chapel dates back to the 14th century

A view of the sea from a window inside the chapel
A windowsill with a view out to sea © Fern Leigh Albert

Mist rolled in as I left the shingle, climbed the hill and lifted the heavy latch of the chapel door — a snatch of sea fog following me inside. An English Heritage information board explained the chapel dated to the 14th century: its hilltop location meant it was named for the monastery of St Catherine, set among the mountains of the Sinai. Some speculated the chapel stood on the site of an earlier pagan temple that had once crowned this high place. The Reformation saw the abbey ruined — but the chapel was left alone, probably because it functioned as a kind of lighthouse for souls out at sea. Now, a bare shell without Christian adornment, it had become a space for undefined beliefs. On the windowsill people had left letters of prayer, and correspondence with the dead.

“ . . . please bring mine and Sara’s lives together . . . ”

“ . . . we will leave an empty chair at the table . . . ”

“Grandma, you still make our hearts pop out.”

Back outside the evening sky was darkening, but I could still see Chesil Beach. Whatever had compelled someone to found a holy house on the hill, it was hard not to think this vision of the shingle had played some part: that there had been some lesson to learn from its long, solitary flight out through the chaos of the sea. Somewhere below was the spot where David had set the record for running along Chesil Beach (3 hours 25 mins), and his wife handed him the laser-cut medal she had ordered for the occasion. The run had changed his life. Afterwards, when he thought of Chesil Beach, he sometimes burst into tears.

“I’m not even remotely a spiritual person or even remotely believe in God,” he told me. “But if there was something that came close to it, it was definitely out there, in the storm.”

Out in the distance I could hear the hush of the waves on the stones — a sound like a gentle inhaling and exhaling. There was no one around as I went to catch the bus to Portland. Only the hollow eyes of second world war pillboxes still watched over the shingle bank: guarding a place that was not quite England, nor yet the sea.


Oliver Smith stayed as a guest of the Pig on the Beach at Studland, a 40-minute drive from Chesil Beach’s southern shore. ‘Chesil Beach: A Peopled Solitude’ by Judith Stinton (Harlequin Press) is a useful guide. For more details on accommodation and other activities in the area see


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