burial mounds

Lewesdon Hill

In a single day, winter had turned to spring. Monochrome and sepia were now rimmed with green, and the verges studded with spring flowers. We were walking, or rather, meandering up Lewesdon Hill in West Dorset – 279 metres high.

The fabric of this ancient hill is woven with tree roots of enormous trees, mostly beeches. These roots are exposed across the path, forming an organic staircase up towards the sky. Through the bare branches we catch glimpses of the landscape below. To the North, the distinctive shape of Gerrards Hill, crowned with a clump of trees. To the south the sculpted form of Golden Cap on the coast. The blue of the sky seems to have leached into the air, casting a azure haze over the distant hills so everything appears slightly unreal and two-dimensional.

The trees lean inwards, their soft mossy sides and contorted shapes reminiscent of mythical creatures. It seems natural to touch the trunks and climb the gentle curves of the branches. On the lower slopes violets, primroses and celandines were pristine in the bright light. The occasional Yellow Brimstone jinked by like a scrap of sun, but as we moved in among the trees, the ground crunched underfooot with a granola of beechnut husks.

Among the moss on a log, the glossy black of a bloody-nosed beetle scurrying for cover. It disappeared into the leaf litter. Tree roots fan out across the path, threatening to trip us. In places the root ball of a fallen tree towers over us like a ruined building, beams and arches broken and stark against the sky.

Finally at the summit of the hill, a smooth grassy plateau draped the hill surrounded by pines. This is the site of an ancient Iron Age fort, but was probably inhabited in the Bronze Age. Worked flints have been discovered here. An aura of peace and stillness prevails and, as I walk over the springy grass, I can’t help thinking of those people who dwelt here high among the clouds until just after the Roman conquest. Their lives had left memories here in the contours of the hill.

As we descend we find a huge fallen beech covered in carvings of names, dates, messages. Even now, people feel compelled to leave traces of their lives for others to decipher . . .

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Following the Strandline

Aged six on Brighton beach my father told me that pebbles with holes in were lucky so I spent the day collecting as many as I could find. I threaded them on a piece of orange wire to make a necklace which I could hardly lift. That was the beginning of my fascination with beach combing.

Since then I have followed strandlines in many different places. In my early twenties I stayed on an island in the Oslo fjord where the coast was littered with strange chunks of glacial rock – pink, black, yellow, some looking like chocolate chip cookies and others like rock buns full of currants. I was so absorbed studying these unusual pebbles that I slipped and fell in the icy fjord. Climbing out I scratched my palms on the barnacles that covered the rocks.

When my children were small we spent our holidays in south Cornwall where we spent hours looking in rock pools for whiskery prawns and darting fish. On the black granite rocks stacked along the coast, we often saw pink sea anemones like half-sucked sweets. My youngest daughter grabbed one and put it in her mouth only to spit it out in a hurry. If you gently touched the tentacles of an anemone under water it would quickly close on your finger tip. Under the rocks were small transparent crabs which scuttled out if disturbed. Sometimes we would find bigger ones and draw them.

My favourite beaches are on the Isles of Scilly where the glittering white sand makes a perfect backdrop for delicate pink tellin shells, bright yellow and purple dog whelks, lucky cowrie shells and silvery top shells. Sometimes I would come across a violet jellyfish washed up on the strandline, translucent and gleaming in the sun, a dust of fine sand frosting its filmy surface or a pale orange compass jellyfish with distinctive markings. The paper-thin cases of sea potatoes (known locally as sea mice) blow around here like choux buns. Sometimes I used to come across sand dollars – like tiny bleached coins, but much more desirable.

On Town Beach, St Mary’s I find fragments of china, often with faded patterns in Victorian green and pink. I wonder about the people who used these items – whether plates and cups had been thrown and broken in anger or washed up from a shipwreck. I collect small pieces of glass worn smooth by the sea – pale green, blue, mauve and surf-white.

Now I visit the beaches along the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, picking up driftwood and other flotsam and jetsam to make sculptures. I photograph cuttlefish, scallop shells, different types of seaweed and draw the plants I find. I can spend hours looking for fossils. After a storm I’ve found shoals of pastel-coloured scallop shells and small rubbery starfish. Last winter’s storms washed up hundreds of seabirds and quantities of marine litter, shocking to see.

Walking along the strandline, looking at the trail left by the tide, I find myself in a meditative frame of mind, picking up memories, unravelling problems, planning a painting, thinking about family – in fact following an interior tide-line. Sometimes I pick up a shell or pebble and hold it for a while like a talisman.

Pebbles have been found in burial mounds indicating that people have been treasuring beach finds for thousands of years. Looking hard at things while you walk is a sort of displacement activity that can calm the mind. I remember once taking a walk along the strandline at Burton Bradstock, trying to unwind during a stressful house move. Suddenly I saw a hermit crab moving tentatively along the shore and made the connection with my own situation – waiting to move into someone else’s house . . .