cow parsley

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.

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Fern Owls and the full moon

Another full moon and another trip to the South Dorset Ridgeway – a mystical place even by day. This time I was in search of the elusive Nightjar or Fern Owl – a bird of myth and mystery. Dusk was falling as I climbed through narrow lanes towards Hardy’s monument at the top of the Ridgeway. Swathes of cow parsley glowed along the verges, seeming to have kept a little of the sun to light the way. The setting sun skimmed across the contours of the hills showing up tumuli, strip lynchets and other traces of prehistory.

In ancient times, the slopes would have been forested so all dwellings and monuments were created on the barer summit. I stopped on the landward side of the Ridgeway before reaching Hardy’s monument and set off through darkening woodland with the sun disappearing between the branches. Black slugs were slithering out of the ferny borders onto the heathy path and I picked my way between them listening to the sound of birds settling down for the night.

As the sun dipped to the western horizon a huge pink moon appeared in the east. I can easily imagine how primitive people would have seen this as a portent. It rose quickly above the Ridgeway and suddenly there were strange sounds among the trees. A whirring of insects, a rustling and fluster of moths. The air was full of the whispers of dusk – a language only heard in remote places after sunset. Then the sound I’d been waiting for – a soft rhythmic chirring and the silhouette of a bird overhead – swooping with staccato movements, bat-like – a nightjar, sometimes call the eve-jar. Then there were three dipping down low into the trees looking for moths.

In the distance on a high branch was one of these mysterious birds keeping lookout. It was joined by another and they stayed there long enough for a photo in which its eye shone like a tiny moon. I waited for a while seeing glimpses of dark shapes flitting among the trees and listening to the distinctive whirring and chirring of their calls in the shadow of the Ridgeway.

I drove home towing a huge golden moon behind me. A barn owl drifted low over the road and I heard myself say ‘wow’ – a totally inadequate word for such a special moment.

Path to the past

Litton Cheney – a village dug in between two ridges. It has the feel of being stranded in time despite the A35 snaking above it on the skyline. I walked past stone cottages thatched and organic as though they’d grown out of the earth without human intervention. A path traversed a field of short crisp grass crunching underfoot. I couldn’t resist picking a flower from a patch of pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidia) and breathing its sweet scent.

Goose grass (Galium aparine) spattered with cuckoo spit clung to me as I brushed by. I imagined all the pale green juvenile frog hoppers hidden in that protective froth. I came across a derelict farmyard left for nature to take over – rotting log piles and old barns – the perfect habitat for insects, bats, beetles, owls and many more creatures that shun tidy sterile environments.

Emerald green harts tongue ferns (Asplenium scolopendrium) bordered the shady lane as I left the shelter of the village for the white way which led gently upwards. I walked through another deserted farmyard where weathered paint peeled from padlocked doors. The cobwebbed glass in the shed windows reflected a phantom image of my face as I tried to peer in. Other windows lacked glass, offering a perfect bolthole for bats and moths. Rusting old machinery grew out of the long grass. A deep silence overlaid this place then a dog barked, breaking the spell.

The chalky path started to climb out of the valley giving views of the strip lynchets terracing the hills. The path had been surfaced with old rubble and stone mixed with thick shards of brown pottery and the occasional fragment of blue china. Overhead a skylark sang in a jet-scarred sky. Cow parsley on tall stalks created a bank of white cloud and grasses were clubbed with heavy seed heads. Nettles fringed the path and, high in the hedges, pale pink dog roses contrasted with dark green. Trees were in full plumage except for one lightning-blasted skeleton, its limbs raised in surrender.

Clumps of purple woundwort (Stachys silvatica) flourished in the banks, bees blustering around the flower spikes. In this prehistoric place I thought about how this plant was used to heal wounds, perhaps from barbed flints. The landscape was opening up now and a steep slope led upwards to the A35 which followed the ridge. I could see lorries on the skyline moving west. Below in the valley, large elder trees were festooned with white umbrella blossoms. White smoke from a bonfire ghosted the distance.

Pins Knoll showed up as a pivotal nub in the circle of hills – a prominent hill which was probably once the site of a settlement. Millions of years ago this landscape was once covered in sea, now swallows swooped in shoals, forked fish-tails against a watery blue sky.

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.

Notes from a green planet

Early morning on a muggy day – no wind and a canopy of blue-grey cloud. Biblical rays of sun breaking through here and there. Light rain stippling my skin. The church clock has stopped at midnight when the jackdaws jammed up the works with their nest.

A mayfly spiralling upward towards a swallow on the wire. I could hear swallows under the railway bridge and think they have nests under the dark ledges, but can’t see them. A froth of cow parsley lines the verges like umbrellas at a wedding. Mallards taking off with splashing sounds from their reflections on the stream.

Frisky Friesians were in the footpath field so I chose the lane. Past a badger’s sett no longer in use, the white chalk greening over. Beeches and sycamores crowd up to the edges of the lane creating a dense green tunnel. Does green have a smell? I think so – a peppery, garlicky, sagey sort of scent. It has a sound of quiet rustling. Large rain drops are now landing on big leaves with a tapping noise.

Some places seem to be discrete environments where outside influences don’t exist. Here in this green place there is a profound silence only broken by birdsong. It’s like being in a dream – a deep green planet spinning off on its own. Muddy puddles reflect the trees, creating a watery liminal woodland beneath my feet.

Out of the dream and into the open lane with the sound of the stream the other side of the hedge. Snails like humbugs and spat-out boiled sweets slither over stems, some crushed like eggshells on the tarmac. Plantain with coronets of white flowers, dog roses displaying perfect rain drops, buttercups, dog daisies, comfrey, campions – all attracting insects from cow-pat coloured flies to bees like tiny golden bears. The elderflowers smell like honey.

The rain is ponderous now and the cow parsley has an antiseptic hospital-white smell. There are seven swans a-swimming on the river and a single swallow dipping overhead. A clump of ox-eye daisies on the edge of the road defies passing traffic, the sound of the rush-hour is starting and I’m getting wet …