The multi-coloured beach huts of Mudeford's sandy peninsula are a cheerful throwback to nostalgic bucket-and-spade holidays of the early 20th century. In fact, they hark back to the last days of the century before that, when bathers would undress in modest little huts on wheels, which could be horse-hauled down into the shallows in order to minimise any embarrassing exposure to public view.Huts of fashionWith the quantities of flesh readily flashed in this modern era, those days are long gone, but the carriages' successors, the huts, are still there and the desire for one's own bit of space right on the beach remains undiminished. In the fashion of the day, candy-striped paintwork has given way to soft, colour-washed hues, but the urge to individualise remains strong, with decks, weathervanes and windmilling, semaphoring sailors.While the huts' outer form remains much the same – central door, symmetrical windows, shallow, peaked roof – the insides are a Nosy Parker's dream. Some make the most of one light, airy space reflecting sparkling sea and sky, others may be divided into rooms, with perhaps a sleeping platform squeezed up under the roof. Each is customised with its owner's particular beach 'necessities' – minimalist fridge and drinks cabinet in one, kitchen sink and home comforts in another. Names may reflect the owners' identities but all express an air of relaxation and fun: for example whimsical Jangles next to Hideaway, and Ar Lan Y Mor, from a Welsh folk song that speaks of love beside the sea.Barn fieldThe windswept peninsula of Hengistbury Head has an archaeological record dating back 12,500 years, when Stone Age hunter-gatherers left the remains of a camp site on its outer, seaward edge. Some 10,500 years later Iron Age folk settled here and built up a trading port on the more sheltered inner shore, where Barn Field stands today. The great Double Dikes date from this later period, built to shelter timber-framed dwellings.Barn Field itself has remained untouched by farming improvements since the Romans left around AD 410 – a rare status that is jealously protected by conservationists, especially on this crowded south coast, where land is at a premium. Its vegetation is low, acidic grassland that grips onto thin soil over gravel and sand, maintained down the centuries by salt-laden winds and the sharp teeth of the rabbit population. Decimation of the rabbits in the 1950s by myxomatosis allowed gorse and bramble to gain a hold, but a recent programme of scrub clearance and controlled grazing by cattle, managed by Natural England, has done much to restore the original balance. Today it is an important site for ground-nesting birds such as the skylark and meadow pipit, and adorned with the flowers of heath bedstraw, autumn hawkbit and heath speedwell.
From the corner of the car park take the gravel path towards the sea, with the fenced-off lines of the Double Dikes to your left. At the sea-edge you can see for miles each way: to the towers of Bournemouth, the chalky Foreland and Durlston Head to the west, Christchurch Bay and the Isle of Wight to the east.
Turn left and follow the road along the cliffs. The Priory Church in Christchurch dominates the view inland across the harbour, with St Catherine's Hill behind. Follow the road up the hill. Pause to inspect the boggy pond on your right, home to the rare natterjack toad. The road narrows; climb up some steps, passing a numbered post ('33') marking the Stour Valley Way. As you climb the steep path, the views back along the coast are fabulous, and there are views across the shallows of Christchurch Harbour, usually buzzing with windsurfers and sailing dinghies.
On the heathy top of Warren Hill a viewing platform tells you that you're 75 miles (120km) from Cherbourg and 105 miles (168km) from Jersey. Keep right along the path, passing a deserted coastguard station and following the top of the cliffs. Descend (forking right) into a deep hollow, where the sea appears to be breaking through; this pool is called Quarry Pond. Keep straight on, following the curve of the head. At the end the path turns down through some trees; descend the steps. Walk along the sparkling, white sand on the sea side of the beach huts to the point. Stone groynes form little bays.
At the end of the spit you're only a stone's throw from the opposite shore (a ferry runs across to the pub from the end of a pier, passed further on). Turn round the end of the point, passing the old Black House, and walk up the inner side of the spit, overlooking the harbour.
If you've had enough beach, you can catch the land train back to the car park from here (times vary seasonally – call the Hiker Cafe on 01202 428552 for details). Otherwise, join the metalled road which curves round to the right past the freshwater marsh and lagoon.
At a post marked '19' turn right on to the dirt path and follow it briefly through the woods, crossing a small ditch on a short plank bridge, to emerge back on the road. Turn right, passing extensive reedbeds on the right and a bird sanctuary on the left. Continue past the thatched Hengistbury Head Visitor Centre and follow the road to the café, ranger station building and car park.
Grass, tarmac road, soft sand, woodland track, some steps
Heathland, sand cliffs, sand spit, mixed woodland
Keep to paths to avoid destroying habitat and disturbing ground-nesting birds
AA Walker's Map 6 Poole, Bournemouth & Purbeck
Car park (fee) at end of road, signed 'Hengistbury Head' from B3059; parking is also permitted on the approach road to the car park, but both road and car park are gated and locked daily at 10pm
Beside car park; also amid beach huts
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
Dorset means rugged varied coastlines and high chalk downlands. Squeezed in among the cliffs and set amid some of Britain’s most beautiful scenery is a chain of picturesque villages and seaside towns. Along the coast you’ll find the Lulworth Ranges, which run from Kimmeridge Bay in the east to Lulworth Cove in the west. Together with a stretch of East Devon, this is Britain’s Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, noted for its layers of shale and numerous fossils embedded in the rock. Among the best-known natural landmarks on this stretch of the Dorset coast is Durdle Door, a rocky arch that has been shaped and sculpted to perfection by the elements. The whole area has the unmistakable stamp of prehistory.
Away from Dorset’s magical coastline lies a landscape with a very different character and atmosphere, but one that is no less appealing. Here, winding, hedge-lined country lanes lead beneath lush, green hilltops to snug, sleepy villages hidden from view and the wider world. The people of Dorset are justifiably proud of the achievements of Thomas Hardy, its most famous son, and much of the county is immortalised in his writing.