Travel on trial: Camping off the side of a cliff at Dorset's Jurassic Coast

Annabel Fenwick-Elliott
·6-min read
cliff camping - annabel fenwick elliott
cliff camping - annabel fenwick elliott

Spending a winter's night on a glorified stretcher dangling over the waves was worth the faff

Granted, spending the night strapped to a stretcher, winched to the side of the cliff, dangling over the roaring Atlantic Ocean in mid-December is not everyone’s idea of a good time. “I cannot see a single appealing aspect to this scenario,” said my father before I set off. “I’m concerned you’re going to die,” said my mother. “You’re mad,” said every single one of my friends.

Perhaps. But if, like me, you are easily bored, or are, as I was, suffering yet another bout of lockdown fatigue, is was an adventure most certainly worth having. Cliff camping is a concept that originated in America’s Yosemite National Park, back in the 1980s. The first climbers, I’m told, nicked some army cots from a nearby bunker and used them as a more comfortable alternative to the cliff-face hammocks they would otherwise sleep in during lengthy climbs. These days, they’re called ‘portaledges’ and while they are indeed superior to hammocks, ‘comfortable’ they are not.

Kevin, who runs the only company I could find that still operated during the winter months, was the leader of our mission. Dorset’s Jurassic Coast was the location. Julius, my boyfriend who had flown over from Germany to take part, was my enthusiastic companion.

We were advised in advance to wear plenty of layers and wrap up extra warm (it was 5C that night) and met Kevin at dusk, at a car park on the Isle of Portland; the southernmost point of Dorset. From there, a leisurely 15-minute amble to the cliff, where Kevin set up our precarious bed for the night.

The only aspect I had ever been concerned about was getting down to it. Having abseiled once before, I can attest that walking backwards off a cliff is a feat which requires quite some overriding of the human instinct. This time, given it was pitch dark, I couldn’t see what I was stepping backwards into, which rendered the activity much less confronting.

Our portaledge was set up five metres from the top and 20 metres above the sea, though at times during the night, with the wind whipping the ocean into a loud frenzy underneath, it felt like we were hanging mere inches above the waves.

Click below to see footage

Julius and I were each attached to an elaborate harness that stayed on throughout, which made moving around somewhat cumbersome, but on the upside did prevent us from rolling off the ledge in our sleep.

Once we were both settled, backpack attached to the rope that suspends the ledge, seated on opposite sides so as to steady it, dinner was served; a three-course meal that was lowered to us from above, in shifts, by way of a bucket; delicious vegetable soup to start, followed by a tupperware vat of spaghetti, and a chocolate pudding to finish.

After all that was cleared, and we had clambered into our sleeping bags, Kevin whizzed down to erect a tent contraption over the top of us, turning our ledge into a rainproof capsule, before delivering a brief safety lecture. We were to sleep top-and-tail, so as to evenly distribute our weight, and not under any circumstance remove our harnesses, especially not to fornicate. “It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to rescue a naked couple who’d flipped the ledge,” he told us. If we needed to use the loo, we could call him at any time of the night, and he would help us climb back up and then back down from the top, which sounded like a tedious ordeal that I hoped to avoid.

cliff camping - annabel fenwick elliott
cliff camping - annabel fenwick elliott

Kevin then retired to his van, parked not far away, leaving Julius and I to plot our night. The obvious thing to do next would be go to sleep, but it was only 8pm, and we weren’t tired. Cold, yes, but not sleepy. We were also determined to be renegades, and sleep next to one another, not with our heads at opposite ends, so there was a fair bit of shuffling around to find the right balance, as the ledge wobbled and grated against the rockface.

That achieved, Julius tied his phone to the vertical rope so that it dangled above us, and we huddled up to watch Netflix, sipping whiskey from our flask until we dozed off, the rain lashing our tent throughout the night. We slept erratically, waking often. Inevitably, we both had to use the non-existent bathroom and somewhat staggeringly, both managed to without taking off our harnesses; Julius with considerable more ease than I. Indeed, regardless of Kevin’s warning, you’d be surprised by just how many feats are achievable while remaining hardnessed. The ledge remained unflipped.

Worth a try? | The Verdict
Worth a try? | The Verdict

Morning came, and we pushed off the cover to witness the sea beneath us for the first time; a breathtaking moment that made all the faffing worth it. Sitting side by side with warm mugs of coffee and pain au chocolate, we congratulated ourselves on our many small triumphs and bid farewell to the ocean before making the climb back up to the top; Julius with considerably more athleticism than I.

Then, straight to our rented cottage for a very long sleep, before we were ready for our next questionable endeavour: a bracing swim at Durdle Door. We had taken the liberty of renting a delightful property a 40-minute drive away, tucked away alongside a babbling brook on the grounds of Athelhampton House.

This being a week snatched between two lockdowns, it was tricky finding availability, especially somewhere willing to accommodate Bear, my sizable German Shepherd. But Dorset Hideaways, a holiday rental site with local outposts across the country, found us the perfect bolthole.

river cottage - dorset hideaways
river cottage - dorset hideaways

It is possible that the bed in the master bedroom at River Cottage was indeed the most comfortable one on Earth. More likely, it just felt like it; not being the stretcher roped to the side of a cliff we had slept on the night before. We spent more time in that toasty cottage over the next few days, playing games by the Christmas tree, than outside it, and felt we’d earned it.

This being said, it was Julius’ first visit to England, and we couldn’t head home without visiting Dorset’s famed Durdle Door. I was expecting it to be heaving with staycationers, even in early December, what with Britain’s newfound appreciation for the freedom of the coast amid seemingly endless bouts of house arrest. How wrong I was.

We pulled up half an hour before sundown, ambled down to the chalky arch along with just a trickle of others, none of whom followed as we set off along the length of the beach. Finding ourselves entirely alone and out of sight, Julius peeled off most of his winter layers and charged off into the freezing waves with Bear, like the mad German he is. A fitting end to a thrilling weekend of frivolity post-lockdown, just a week, as it turned out, before we were back into another one.

Durdle Door was virtually empty - annabel fenwick elliott
Durdle Door was virtually empty - annabel fenwick elliott

Essentials

Cliff camping with Rise & Summit costs £500 for two people sharing. Dorset Hideaways offers three nights at River Cottage (sleeps six) from £779 travelling March 2021.