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.
The light is very bright and the wind is making my eyes water. I’m in that post-viral haze when you emerge from an underworld of strange dreams and find the world has changed. In the past two weeks bare hedges have greened over and the flowers are out on the horse chestnuts.
Either side of the chalky path clumps of cowslips tangle with the long grass. Tiny blue birds-eye flowers (Veronica persica) wink from the edges. The path gets steeper and a skylark is singing high above. I stop to look back. A dark green tumulus rises from a fluorescent sea of oil seed rape. The new buildings of Poundbury are marching closer.
I always choose the path that peters out to nothing. However hard I try to follow the trodden ways, somehow my track always ends in nettles, sheer drops or just nothing at all. Perhaps I unwittingly chose the sheep’s way … I tight-rope walked along a spindly ridge with that feeling you get when you walk on a pier out to sea – a feeling that you are defying gravity. You walk with a sense of excitement on your precarious thread of land, the world falling away either side and only the horizon in front of you. I stepped over a tortoiseshell butterfly pinned to the path by the strong wind then forged on head-down towards nothing at all, my shadow stealthily creeping ahead like a negative ghost.
I stopped at the final precipice and watched the sheep on the next rampart, envying their agility. Maiden Castle is a labyrinth of ditches and concentric hills which make up the ancient Iron Age hill fort. I tried to imagine how life was then – the practicalities of living permanently in such an elevated location in all weathers. What did they eat? How did they cook? Did they wash – probably not. I suppose they smelt like nothing on earth, their hair was matted and there were no comforts if illness struck. But the bond between everyone in that community was what kept them going – their survival depended on mutual support, trust and love.
What must it have been like when the Romans with their clean-shaven faces and military uniform arrived? Each side must have looked at the other with amazement – that human beings could be so different. The hill fort became a last stronghold of the old ways, a bloody battlefield where huts were burnt and trampled, women raped and children crushed in the conflict. It is something I can hardly bring myself to imagine.
I remembered visiting Maiden Castle one summer as a child with my brother and sister and how we ran up and down the hills shouting with excitement in this prehistoric playground, only dimly aware that long ago people called this home. Clouds of small blue butterflies rose up from the grass as we ran about. I looked them up in my Observer book when I got home and found a whole section – chalkhill blue, blue skipper, silver-studded blue, common blue . . . all of which summed up for me my childhood summers on the chalky downs.
As I walked back down to the lower levels there were fresh molehills among the clumps of nettles. A dead mole lay beside the path, one small pink hand raised as if in surrender, a metallic blue fly on its breast.