The fog had lifted but a thick cover of cloud prevented any sun from coming through. We drove through a blizzard of autumn leaves along the coast road. I noticed a buzzard sitting on a telegraph pole hunched against the dull damp weather. It was low tide and the mudflats of the estuary stretched away till they merged with the grey sky. A silver lattice of water-filled gullies criss-crossed the furrowed mud, brightening the view.
We stopped at Castle Douglas nature reserve and walked through the Castle woods. It was silent and seemed devoid of birds although there were bird boxes positioned on many trees. The recent mild weather meant that some wild flowers were still flourishing – foxgloves and red campion among them. Black pods hung from the broom and red berries glistened with dew drops.
After a welcome stop at the small homely cafe we walked back through the woods and drove on to the Wetlands Wild Trust reserve at Caerlaverstock where the BBC Autumn Watch team were installed. Chris Packham and Michaela walked by with a retinue of cameramen and sound recordists.
A honking sound drew us to a large lake where hundreds of mallards, mute swans,mu Hooper swans, Canada geese and other water birds were dipping and diving. We watched from a glass-fronted viewing shelter and listened to a running commentary from a lady whose task it was to feed the birds from a large orange wheelbarrow.
An incoming tide washed the mudflats to a pale grey sheen as dusk fell and we headed back to a log fire. A hind sprang away across a field, her coat dark with rain, white tail flickering like a glow worm in the dim light.
Bramble leaves were purple with cold. Black fungi and yellow lichen crept over bare branches. A dead badger lay by the roadside and debris from fast-food outlets littered the verges. Overhead a buzzard was being mobbed by a crow – a macabre aerial ballet. The clear chalk stream of the River Frome was flowing fast under the bridge and a skein of mallards flew sketchily across the grey sky.
It was a gloopy sort of day. A curtain of thick grey fog hung over Portesham Hill. The road was covered in a slippery layer of stinking mud. Hedges had been flailed creating raw splinters of wood that poked through the mist. I was looking for signs of spring, but, apart from a celandine, some catkins and an isolated patch of fragile white blossom, everything was still steeped in winter gloom.
However, in my sister’s garden the surface of the pond was corrugated with clumps of frogspawn. It was all clustered on the shaded side of the water – a myriad of eyeballs , small black pupils unseeing, but warding off predators. I remembered the nature table at school and the excitement of watching tadpoles develop. I was fascinated by the change in the frogspawn from black dots to squiggles, and loved drawing the different stages in pencil on sugar paper, revelling in the word ‘metamorphosis’ which seemed to sum up for me the mysteries and excitement of the natural world.
When I was nine our class was occasionally taken down the road to a long sloping garden owned by an elderly lady called Mrs Fiddler. She kindly allowed the children to come and play on the grass in fine weather. At the top of the garden was a pond which drew me into forbidden territory. I would hide in the grass next to the water, watching the newts and other wildlife. In the spring I’d scoop a lump of frogspawn into a jam jar and smuggle it back to school, keeping it in my desk. I took it home at the end of the day and tipped the gelatinous soup into a large glass bowl. I once caught a great crested newt and somehow got it home. It looked newly painted with orange and black splodges on its belly, but it vanished overnight from its fruit bowl. I searched guiltily for a corpse for days but found no trace of it.
Today I lifted a lump of the rubbery jelly from my sister’s pond and drove home carefully with it in a washing-up bowl. All these years later, yet I can’t wait to see my frogspawn begin to turn into froglets.
I took the old narrow road to Eggardon Hill – ‘The Roman Road runs straight and bare/ As the pale parting-line in hair’ (Thomas Hardy). The hedges either side were stark against the pale December sky, a few leaves still clinging to the bare whips despite the gales. Dog wood and coppery beech leaves added touches of colour to the otherwise monochrome landscape. A buzzard flew up in front of me like a shape cut from the hedgerow.
Eggardon Hill in West Dorset is the site of a prehistoric hill fort. A dramatic chalk escarpment bears the remains of an Iron Age settlement. Bronze Age tumuli top the skyline and the whole area has an ancient atmosphere. I have known it since childhood, but found out later that, in the Middle Ages, a gallows was sited in the centre of the hill fort. There are traces of henges and ring barrows which pock-mark the hillsides when the winter sun is low in the sky.
I took the single-track lane west where strange happenings have been reported over the years. I remember in the early 1970’s hearing about a strange blue light sighted here, and of cars’ engines stalling suddenly. It is said that raised voices have been heard here – perhaps the sounds of a battle from long ago.
The track-way is raised like a causeway above the fields either side and, several years ago, I was driving along it in thick fog at twilight. The mist swirled around me like a sea and it was quite difficult to stay on the track. I stopped at the cross roads at the end and suddenly two white deer appeared in the middle of the road. They hesitated for a moment as if on the cusp of the real world and the underworld before disappearing back into the mist.
Only a couple of miles from the Jurassic Coast, but here were giant ferns, a tree canopy that excluded the light and a stony track leading deeper and deeper into woodland. The silence was profound, yet any slight noise seemed magnified in that enclosed environment. The dogs ran on ahead, plunging into the deep green undergrowth. We followed more slowly, stones pressing uncomfortably through the soles of our shoes.
Then a strange noise stopped us. It sounded like a huge bullfrog croaking nearby. After a minute or two we realised, after my friend checked on her mobile phone, it must be a deer rutting. We couldn’t see it, but its rhythmic grunting sounded quite close. Another answered from the opposite direction. We turned to walk on but a loud piercing cry came from overhead. It was beginning to feel even more like Jurassic Park … We looked up almost expecting to see a pterodactyl fly out of the canopy. A large buzzard wheeled above, primary feathers silhouetted against a small patch of sky, its cry echoing among the trees.
Warm damp air made it feel clammy and claustrophobic. I looked up to see a gap in the canopy where a tree had been struck by lightning. The bare trunk pointed a jagged finger at the sky. Spikes of gorse with luminous yellow flowers bordered the path. In the hollows were dark peaty pools. As we emerged into a lighter area, soft mauve grasses with feathery seed heads signalled a change in the habitat and we left the primeval forest for open heath-land.