West Dorset

Henrietta and her urchins

We couldn’t believe there was a hedgehog in our garden. It was mid-morning on a Sunday towards the end of May and a portly looking hedgehog was scurrying around collecting mouthfuls of dry leaves then disappearing under the shed. We watched her for a couple of hours, realising she was a pregnant female making a nest.

She appeared again later in the day gathering more nesting material. Then we saw nothing of her for a couple of days. We put out a large shallow dish of fresh water and bought meal worms and hedgehog food which we put behind a paving slab we had propped against the side of the shed. The food disappeared so we replenished it each evening.

Then Henrietta, as we called her, started appearing regularly at dusk. She would have a long drink, eat some food then trot off around the garden. One evening I saw her heading down the road towards the recreation ground. This was a bit worrying, but it is a quiet village road so I hoped she would be ok.

A couple of weeks went by before we started seeing the urchins, or young hedgehogs. They were almost round with little pointy snouts and would drink together from the dish. We think there were three, but were never sure if we had seen all of them at one time. Soon the food started disappearing very fast and we had to stock up on meal worms, their favourite food.

Now, as it gets dark, around 10pm, the two-month-old urchins come out from under the shed and, after a feed and a drink, they run back and forth, disappearing among the herbs. They even found a lost tennis ball in the flower bed and pushed it out on to the path. Our neighbours have cut openings in their back gates to allow access for foraging hedgehogs.

However, we haven’t seen Henrietta now for about ten days. I’m hoping it’s just that she’s weaned her young and has left them to be self-sufficient, but yesterday as I turned off the main road to the village I saw a grey smudge, a sketchy outline, unmistakably hedgehog, lying flat as a child’s discarded drawing on the slip road.

I walked back to look more closely and felt inexpressibly sad that this could be Henrietta, now just a matted grey shape of crushed prickles, the snout upturned cartoon-like.

We are continuing to feed our two remaining hedgehogs and have installed a hedgehog house ready for hibernation time. We still hope that perhaps Henrietta may still be alive and will come back one day to have another litter.

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Poem a Week

Last January I decided I would write a poem a week throughout 2016. This is why I haven’t produced a blog for a while, so I apologise to my followers for my year’s absence. I have always written poetry, but since finishing my MA at Bath Spa in 2001, my forays into poetry have been sporadic. In 2015 I wrote a lot of poems about the South Dorset Ridgeway and collected them into a book called Sea Wall which I illustrated with my own lino-prints. So, in 2016 I decided the time had come to apply myself on a regular basis to see what came out of it. A friend joined me in the challenge and we met weekly to read and discuss our poems.

Sometimes the poems came easily, but other weeks I had to struggle to produce something, but I very much enjoyed the challenge of digging deep and writing on a weekly basis. Occasionally, like the seventh wave, a poem would emerge which seemed greater than the others. Some poems were little but deeply felt, others were longer and had their own agenda. It was both an exploration and a revelation and I soon found I had quite a reservoir of poems.

I then decided to send a few to poetry competitions. By the end of the year my work had been shortlisted in several competitions including the Ver Poets Open Competition, the Yeovil Literary Prize and the Bridport Prize (two poems). This was encouraging and I decided to continue with my poem-a-week in 2017.

Looking at my file of work from last year, it is a diary of the seasons, but also of my memories. I have found most poems are closely linked to nature and the landscape, so, in this way I have continued my nature writing, but changed the shape of the text on the page.

Here is the little poem that was shortlisted in the Ver Poets Open Competition:-

School milk

The morning bell sent us clattering
from the chalk-fug of the classroom
scraping wooden chairs
elbowing and chattering
out into the January air.

There on a trestle in the shade
stacked crates of frosted bottles
silver tops balanced on small towers
of frozen cream
sticking to lips
as we tipped iced milk to hot mouths

eyes tilted to the snow-filled sky.

I remember how the chill crept slowly through me
an ache in my throat.

Jennifer Hunt
2016

Sea Wall

Sea wall was the name given to the South Dorset Ridgeway by those who lived in its shadow. It was seen as a natural barrier, keeping back the sea that raged against the Chesil Bank and the Jurassic Coast. This was the inspiration to my book which has just been published by Archaeopteryx Imprint Ltd.

I collected extracts from some of the posts published on my blog for the BBC Wildlife Magazine and mixed these with some of my poems, most of which were written last summer, but I have also included some from ten years ago when I lived at Kingston Russell on the landward side of the South Dorset Ridgeway. Several of these poems have already been published in different anthologies and poetry magazines such as Poetry Wales and South.

I then decided to create linocuts to illustrate my work. Originally I planned to make about six but, in the end, I was having so much fun, that there is a linocut on almost every page. Owls, hares, newts and skylarks are some of the wildlife touched on in my writing. Underpinning everything is the prehistoric landscape of the ridgeway itself. It is impossible to walk this ancient way without being aware of those who lived and worked there in times gone by. There are traces of worked flints, stone circles and sarsen stones. But there is also the indefinable sense of many footsteps ghosting the way. And, beyond the Ridgeway, is the sea in all its changing moods.

I enjoyed creating the book so much, I am already planning my next one on Chesil Beach and the Jurassic Coast so watch this space!

Sea Wall is available from www.archaeopteryx-imprint.co.uk for £10 plus postage & packing.

By-the-Wind Sailors

A gale force south-westerly was blowing so I headed for Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock on the Jurassic coast to do some wave-watching. The sea was huge and grey topped by white manes. A deep roaring sound filled the air as waves broke across the shingle. Curds of foam were blowing across the beach like enormous snowflakes.

I walked head down into the wind scanning the strandline. What looked like a piece of clear cellophane caught my eye. On closer inspection I saw a beautiful whorled pattern like a spider’s web and realised it was a tiny By-the-Wind Sailor jellyfish (Vellela) only about 1cm across. It was transparent and delicate, but marked with a concentric pattern and topped by a tiny translucent sail.

I then noticed that there were hundreds of these tiny creatures all over the beach. Some were a deep sapphire blue and up to about 8cm long whereas others were completely transparent. All were whorled like finger prints and delicate as glass. They were scattered all along the strandline like miniature shipwrecked yachts. The tiny tentacles on their undersides weren’t apparent, but, when I picked one up it left inky blue residue on the palm of my hand.

Like exquisite solar panels, the tiny medusa convert sunlight to energy, their small sails align with the direction of the prevailing winds and they are carried helplessly along, often to be wrecked in their thousands on the west coast of America. It is unusual to see them in Dorset. Storm Desmond has caused the biggest influx of these marine creatures in a decade.

I’ve never seen these beautiful little crafts before and it was both exciting and sad to see so many stranded on the shore, left high and dry by the rough seas.

Poetry Day – 4 of my poems

Pipistrelles
In the uncertainty of dusk
pipistrelles gather invisible sound
picking up echoes of warmth
from old stone walls
winding in the whirr
of insects’ wings
darting closer
in faltering light
weaving me into their loom
of silence –
netting thoughts.

I hear my daughter indoors
practising her scales,
notes swooping
dipping –

roosting even now
in my mind
undisturbed by time.

Chalk Ghost
Chalk ghost on the windowpane –
a barn owl drawn by its own reflection
flew into the moonlit glass last night,
left its outline etched in flight dust.

Swooping Narcissus-like
on its rippling image
left the imprint of each feather –
whirlpools of dust for eyes,
emptiness where the beak should be.
How the glass must have screeched
when the talons flexed.
closing on that wraith-like prey.

published by Poetry Wales

Written in Chalk
Beneath this swaying field of flax
a sea bed swarms with coiled creatures
tiny ammonites
cochlea echoing with Jurassic surf,
snails curling round pebbles
imprinted with the cicatrice
of fallen petals.

Below the keel of plough
fossil fish spawn in salt-white sponge
swim through ancient coral
brittle as bone.

When the moon brims over Knowle Hill
a tide still turns beneath the earth.
Moths move in shoals
through scented waves.

Close layers lie undisturbed –
memory written in chalk.

September
This evening
picking beans after a thunder shower,
shed blossoms cling like drab insects
to my fingers.
Late sun, yellow as pumpkin flowers.

Now, with my colander
by the open kitchen door,
the sun makes a square on the red lino.
Outside hens peck at shreds of light.

Soon bats will draw down the dark,
But I’ll leave the door open,
breathe in the honeysuckle air
while moths circle the lampshade
dizzy from touching the moon.

published by Poetry Wales

Poetry by Jennifer Hunt (copyright applies)
Photo by Brian L Hunt

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Greenways

I am the wanderer on the greenways
and the ghost ways. My bare feet hear
the beat of others’ journeys, feel the heat
of those who’ve passed this way before.
Old songs echo in the hollow ways.
The anvil strikes and, in my head, the thud
of clay upon the potters’ wheel.
I tread the hare-path on the open downs.
Sometimes I kneel or lie awhile
my ear pressed to the ground. I hear
the throb of axes, crackle of bones,
the cries of those who lie deep down
buried in time’s hard layers. In snickets,
leys and field paths I know the corners,
hollow stumps, causeways and bends
where ancient stones have left their mark.
I smell honey and herbs, the crush of sap,
woodsmoke as dusk thickens the air.
On the ridgeway I shapeshift,
sometimes a deer, sometimes a hare,
drifting along the long white edge
between sea and clear chalk streams.
Dewponds and springs refresh my feet
as I pace endlessly without rest
keeping the spirit-ways open
for those who follow on.

Fossils, myths and new shoes

Last day of the summer holidays and Chesil Beach is empty. It lies like a bleached bone along the Jurassic Coast. The sky is a pale and distant blue. Autumn term is dawning and six year old Jago is moving up from the ‘Mary Anning’ class. He has his new school shoes and is noticing everything today – a lit-up moment between past and future.

We walk down the path to Cogden beach among clouds of Common blue butterflies and floating thistledown. Three-year-old Finley is singing to himself and jumping dramatically over piles of rabbit droppings. Jago can’t wait to find a fossil. On the beach he lifts a huge stone, shouting he’s found a dinosaur bone. Every stone seems marked with the traces of past life, spirals which could be ammonites, ridges that hide belemnites, curves of ancient shells and fish. I point out the seed pods of the Sea kale to Finley and he immediately starts picking off the dense black balls and planting them in the shingle.

Along the strandline is a silvery line of hundreds of dead whitebait, looking like twists of silver paper. A huge pipe, about thirty feet long, has been washed up on the beach. It is covered, inside and out, in Goose barnacles, stranded high and dry. The legend was that these goose-shaped shellfish with their long necks, eventually open their white wings and fly away as Barnacle geese.

This theory of spontaneous regeneration was put forward in the Twelfth Century by Bishop Giraldus Cambrensis who said that Irish Churchmen would eat the Barnacle goose during fasts because ‘these birds are not flesh nor being born of the flesh for they are born at first like pieces of gum on logs of timber washed by the waves. Then enclosed in shells of a free form they hang by their beaks as if from the moss clinging to the wood and so at length in process of time obtaining a sure covering of feathers, they either dive off into the waters or fly away into free air.’ This myth became widespread.

At the edge of the shingle the yellow flowers of the Horned poppy are glowing like the autumn sun, contrasting with clumps of silvery-grey Sea Kale. Today summer ended. The sky is shimmering in the puddles on the path. Jago jumps in, forgetting his new shoes, scattering shards of pale blue water across the pebbles.

Butterfly Bonanza

The Buddliea I planted last year is hanging its purple lamps across the garden and, above it, is a constant whirring and buzzing of insects – bees, hoverflies, moths and butterflies. I looked out yesterday and saw a Humming bird Hawk-Moth hovering from flower to flower. I rushed to get my camera, but when I got out there it had vanished. Then there was a vibration next to my right ear and it zoomed in, touched down briefly on my chest then flew off.

When the sun appeared yesterday I saw Red Admirals, Tortoiseshells, Peacocks and a beautiful female Brimstone. After the recent cool damp weather, these butterflies seemed galvanised into a flying fluttering frenzy by the sudden heat of the sun’s rays.

On the ground was an enormous caterpillar – that of the Elephant Hawk Moth. It had fearsome ‘eyes’ and dinosaur-grey skin which rippled and wrinkled as it shimmied along. I watched it till it reached safe cover. These caterpillars feed on Fuchsia, among other things, so I was glad I’d planted a Fuchsia shrub.

Today it is grey and dull again, but I keep looking out in the hope of seeing the Humming Bird Hawk Moth again.

A wing and a prayer

It’s a time of winged things. Summer is taking flight and giving way to autumn. House martins are whirling through thundery air, stocking up on insects before their journey.

In the park, Finley, aged two, is swinging higher and higher – ‘I’m flying …’ Jago, five, is standing still staring at the ground where there is a seething mass of silver wings among the grass. The muggy humid weather has created perfect conditions for flying ants to hatch. The newly emerged young queens and males are spiralling up on sweet-wrapper wings to mate in mid-air. Afterwards the queen bites off her wings, which have served their purpose, and creates a new nest by digging into the soil. The males, having mated, die.

Finley blows the seeds of a dandelion – ‘two, three, six’ and hands me the bare stalk. We examine a stink bug (Coreus marginatus) which has landed on his jeans. A fly sits beside me on the picnic bench. The droning sound of bees blends with distant thunder. In the garden, borage and lavender are straggling everywhere, but I refuse to tidy up as the insects love these plants. Hoverflies, ladybirds, wasps and bees are pinned to every petal.

As we watch the shimmering wings of the ants disappearing into the shadows of the lime trees we hear a loud roaring sound and the Red Arrows fly over in formation. Later is the sad news of the Hawker Hunter crash at Shoreham.

Hampton Stone Circle

Do you ever have one of those days when you want to hide from the world? Sometimes things get too busy and you just need time out. I had a day like that recently. Things went haywire right from the start. I felt like a double image where my real self was out of alignment and slightly removed from reality.

I set off along the South Dorset Ridgeway above Portesham, feeling exposed and vulnerable on the chalky path. I saw myself from a distance – an ant on a strip of white paper – insignificant and infinitely squashable. The light was brash and a strong wind winnowed from the coast raking fields of barley to a silver sea. My hair blew across my face and I stumbled over flints. Hawthorn trees bent away from the relentless gales, their limbs twisting as they tried to escape.

I came across a sign for Hampton Stone Circle but couldn’t see any sign of it. Then, amongst a weedy patch in the corner of the field I saw it – the grey backs of the stones just visible through the stalks of cow parsley and brambles. I threaded my way through the tangle of undergrowth and sat on the first stone I saw. I was hidden by the tall stems of the grass surrounding me. The stone felt strangely warm, a comfortable place to sit out of the wind. Here it was quiet apart from the rustling of leaves and the low buzz of insects.

I stayed there a while feeling sheltered and protected from the bright open landscape. I couldn’t count the stones as they were covered by vegetation. It was as if they had grown from the ground. Looking up I could see the circle of the sky. Under my hand, the surfaces of the stones were calloused and veined. I could smell the pineapple weed dotted around by my feet. Pale moths flitted ghostlike from leaf to leaf. A pink and green grasshopper landed on my foot. Far away a skylark was singing.

When I stood up the world was a circle around me, half bordered by sea. I closed my eyes and heard the barley moving like surf. I wondered about the people who had made stone circles and what prompted them to create such structures. Words and ideas shifted around in my mind. I could hear the sound of pebbles being moved endlessly in the long-shore drift along the Jurassic Coast.