buttercups

Snails, dung beetles and burial mounds

I set off from Sutton Poyntz – a pretty village with a duck pond, hunkered down below the eastern haunches of the South Dorset Ridgeway. A chalky path led steadily upwards through a green landscape towards an intensely blue sky. To the south, an equally blue sea defined the Jurassic Coast. Buttercups glowed beside the path as though varnished by the sun, there was vivid blue germander speedwell and the enamelled white petals of daisies. Above these, a froth of sour-smelling cow parsley.

As the path got steeper I focussed on the ground in front of me. The track was strewn with empty snail shells – all different sorts from small lemony yellow ones to large tawny swirled snails and, in between, stripy humbug shells and chalky blue/grey ones. All the shells were empty. If a thrush had eaten the contents, I would have thought the shells would be shattered, but each one was intact. Perhaps the snails were venturing from one side of the path to the other when the heat of the sun dried them out. But there were no decomposing corpses so ‘snail mile’ remains a mystery.

By this time I was at the end of the path and just cresting the ridge of hills. Below me were clusters of houses, their windows winking SOS signals in the bright sun. This litter of habitation looked like terminal moraine at the end of a glacier. I stood on top of the world surrounded by seeding grasses and the strong lanolin smell of sheep. Dreadlocks of sheep’s wool hung from barbed wire fences and a newly shorn pristine flock skittered anxiously around seemingly self-conscious in their naked whiteness.

The tall grasses were topped with multi-coloured seedheads – rust red, purple, brown and pink. At ground level were swathes of candy-coloured clover and a creeping mat of buttercups. Out of this tapestry rose a pillowy tumulus. I chose my patch carefully and lay down on the barrow among the nettles, thistles and sheep dung.

Coppery dung beetles with shiny peppermint thoraxes scuttled among the grass stems, occasionally taking off, their small whirring wings hardly adequate to carry their bulbous bodies along. In Egyptian mythology the dung beetle or scarab was immortalised in the form of amulets. The sun god, Ra, rolled across the sky each day transforming bodies and souls, just as the dung beetle rolls dung into a ball as food. The dung is also used for a brood chamber where the beetle lays its eggs, and where these later turn into larvae. Consequently the dung beetle was seen a symbol of the heavenly cycle and associated with rebirth and resurrection. I read a report that the dung beetle is tuned into the circadian rhythms, being a crepuscular flier. It seemed a suitable companion on this burial mound.

I lay rather uncomfortably with a stone in my back imagining the skeletons buried beneath me in that cold dark earth. Above me, clouds were spaced out like continents. A skylark sang distantly and I could almost feel the spinning of the world as I lay balanced between land and sky on the top of that burial mound.

I turned my back on the pylons standing sentinel on the summit of the ridgeway and started the steep climb back down to Sutton Poyntz. On the lower stretch was a woodland – Veteran Wood, a conservation area owned by Wessex Water. A board explained that the copse contained several veteran trees of over a hundred years old. I stepped into the cool shade of the wood and the scent of wild garlic. A clear stream meandered between the trees whose roots stretched out to paddle in its coolness. It was quiet here apart from muted birdsong. Green ferns uncurled beside the water and I imagined weary travellers slaking their thirst and resting in this peaceful place before journeying on.

Dimpse

The idea was to have a moonlit walk on the South Dorset Ridgeway. This ancient trackway runs along a knife-edge high above the sea with views towards Portland and the Jurassic coast to the south and over the valley of the River Frome to the north. It was created millions of years ago when Africa crashed into Europe causing this part of Dorset to crumple up like a tablecloth. In prehistoric times when most of the land was forested, this narrow exposed chalky ridge – where little could grow apart from contorted thorn trees – provided a relatively clear and safe route.

We arrived just before dusk on the day after the full moon. The sun was low in the sky casting dramatic shadows from clusters of tumuli and the distant hill fort of Maiden Castle. We were stalked by our own shadows which crept over the wind-bent grass behind us as we walked west. Campions and Cow Parsley lined the verge beside the track. The sea to our left was a brilliant blue like paint squeezed straight from the tube. The air was peppered with pollen and my eyes felt gritty in the wind.

Skylarks were singing for a while then they dropped with the sun into the long grass. Small white moths flitted beside the path. The sun was so low it was skimming the ground, spot-lighting the wayside poppies, clover and buttercups. The clouds banked up while a single bird sang on the wires overhead. Then the sun glowed briefly like a giant poppy before vanishing. We turned to walk back and saw the silhouette of a deer above a grassy mound, ears sharply etched against the sky.

The wildflowers seemed to have kept a little of the last light, ox-eye daisies glowing in the dark grass. My mother used to call this dusking time ‘dimpse’ – a word which describes perfectly the dim soft light that lingers before darkness falls. We waited a while hoping to see the moon, but it wasn’t due to rise till much later.

As I drove home I saw a fox trotting across a field in a purposeful way – night creatures were beginning to claim the land. A few hours later a huge moon hung in the sky over our village and I imagined its light silvering the chalky track of the Ridgeway where we walk in the footprints of ancient people.

South Dorset Ridgeway – Martinstown

On Sunday I walked west on the South Dorset Ridgeway. A sea mist thick as wet sheep’s wool clung to the hills. There was no view and I walked along looking at the ground, stepping over a litter of flints on the chalky path. The cut surfaces of the flints glistened, but those encrusted with white, looked like broken bones. Some were as big as skulls with cavernous sockets.

There was no colour except for a few vivid dock leaves on the edge of the way and the occasional stripy snail. A lacy spider’s web, beaded with moisture, was slung between grass blades. In the centre, a tiny ginger spider. There was no sound except my feet knocking the loose flints. Then I heard a skylark singing through the fog – an uplifting sound that pierced the white gloom like an audible sunbeam.

The mist thinned and a roe deer appeared then vanished before I had time to register its presence. Seeding heads of dandelions formed a milky way along the verge. The air was dense with the odour of a large manure heap. Suddenly an apple tree in full blossom caught my eye – incongruous in this open landscape. It made me think of an old village called Orchard which was an ancient settlement near by, now vanished entirely.

As I turned to retrace my steps the mist lifted and, in the distance, a sliver of sea shone and gulls wheeled overhead.

The following Tuesday I revisited the Ridgeway near Martinstown. This time I walked east. A hot sun shone in a cloudless blue sky. The chalky white path stretched out before me bordered by dry stone walls. Thorn trees clung to the edge of the hill, contorted by the wind off the sea. The adjoining fields were full of fluorescent oil seed rape. I breathed its intense honey smell and started sneezing. In the distance a bright green tumulus rose humpbacked among the surrounding landscape.

Wild flowers grew alongside the path – buttercups, cow parsley and red campion. Pairs of tortoiseshell butterflies danced through the air. The South Dorset Ridgeway was an important route in pre-history, connecting settlements in Dorset with others as far away as Cornwall. Trade was plied along this road and materials transported. The countryside spread out either side of this high path – the sea to the south and the valley of the River Frome to the north.

Swallows were swooping over the ground then off again. I saw one stop and seem to hover, facing the strong wind. I realised it wasn’t a swallow. It was about the same size and the head looked similar in profile, but there was no forked tail. The sun was low in the sky and right in my eyes, so the bird was a silhouette most of the time. Occasionally I caught a glow of reddish brown, but it wasn’t a kestrel. It hovered about twelve feet off the ground for about five minutes while I stood and watched. Then it suddenly dropped into the winter wheat. In seconds it was up in the air again, wings beating fast to keep its position, head into the wind. Then off it went. I can only think it was a merlin – a rare sighting, but not an impossibility.