It starts with a wooden set of steps leading up off the beach. And then a small path runs in and out through strange humpy ground, densely covered with bushes and scrub. You can hear nightingales in here in the daytime, the footpath ranger once told me.
One moment we're deep in the bushes, looking at white flowers of the thorn trees, and upwards between them to towers of white chalk against the sky, with a single raven drifting across. A few steps later and we're out in the open, at the top of the low, crumbling beach cliff, looking right across the wide Ringstead Bay.
The crumbling chalk below our toes is, in fact, the same chalk cliff as the one high overhead. A chunk of landscape has simply dropped towards the sea, sliding on the soft Kimmeridge Clay underneath. The hummocky ground between the upper and the lower cliffs, isolated as a natural nature reserve, is a classic example of an undercliff formation.
At its end, the path must find a way up between the upper cliffs. This unlikely route features in Chapter 10 of a Victorian adventure story, Moonfleet by J Meade Falkner. "The Zigzag started off as a fair enough chalk path, but in a few paces narrowed down till it was but a whiter thread against the grey-white cliff-face, and afterwards turned sharply back, crossing a hundred feet direct above our heads... I do not believe that there were half a dozen men in England who would have ventured up that path. The ledge was little more than a foot wide, and ever so little a lean of the body would dash me on the rocks below."
Okay, the thrilling adventure story has hyped it up a bit. The narrow path zigzags up on grass, rather than naked rock. It's easy enough walking, at least in dry conditions. But chalk cliffs rear up on either side, and below the path the grass curves away downwards and then you just see the gently moving English Channel 100 metres below.
In 1822 the Preventative Service caught on to all this, and built a neat row of stone coastguard cottages exactly at the top of the path. A windy place to live, but what great sea views! And the coastguard cottages also hint at why today's national trail so scrupulously crosses every possible one of the clifftop sea views. The Coast Path is no 20th century invention, but was constructed 200 years ago, with officers on horseback riding along it with their telescopes and muskets to intercept the arriving ships.