dandelions

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.

Autumn’s mood board

When the wind is in the east – that’s when spiders spin their webs. So the saying goes, and the wind has been easterly for a while. Outside our front door, a garden spider is digesting a fly in the centre of a splendid web. As I walked through the village, I noticed several houses were being painted and it occurred to me that autumn, like spring, is a time of renewal. The dust and frippery of summer is being shed, leaving bare structures and neatly packaged seeds in storage.

The hedgerows were like a decorator’s mood board of texture and colour – the nuts and bolts of a bigger structure starting to emerge. The bare timbers and scaffolding of the countryside yet to be outlined against the sky in midwinter. In the meantime plants were beginning to reveal their geometry – the stark radial spokes of hogweed, lacy dock leaves, intricately designed seed pods and high-gloss berries, horse chestnut leaves damaged by the leaf miner moth, leaving blotches of paint-chart colours. A frieze of wild hops wreathed sprays of elderberries and swags of blackberries.

Flowers were still blooming halogen-like among the shrivelling leaves – the sugary-pink of Himalayan Balsam, retro-yellow ragwort and dandelions, daisies, mauve stripy mallow, clover and tissue-paper bramble flowers. I walked along through an intermittent shower of things falling to the ground – sycamore propellers, drifting feathers, curled leaves like peeling wallpaper and sandpapery beech nuts. A speckled wood butterfly zigzagged in the shade.

The low sun shafted through the trees on the lane and everything felt silent and restful. A group of workmen sat drinking coffee beside their van emblazoned with the word ‘Inspired’. I walked on to my special place near the old way. Suddenly a tawny owl hooted – a moonlight sound in the middle of the afternoon. Thirty seconds later a train echoed the hoot on the nearby crossing.

Swans decorated the margins of the chalk stream and a trail of litter was caught in the grass verge – piece of paper with the headline ‘Forward to Seeing’ and a concertinaed newspaper like a giant butterfly, wings spread on the tarmac. Squashed wild cherries and damson made red and yellow splotches on the pavement. Burdock in various stages of growth showed either burgundy centres or wire-brush seed heads.

The hedgerows were stippled with exquisite seed heads the colour of brown paper, but with finely drawn patterns and shapes like stencilled stars. Bright yellow lichen curled like flakes of paint on a twig. I saw wads of thistledown caught in the branches along with feathers, spiders’ webs and tufts of sheep’s wool, giving the illusion of an old mattress disintegrating on a dilapidated bedstead of rust-coloured hogweed.