I am the wanderer on the greenways
and the ghost ways. My bare feet hear
the beat of others’ journeys, feel the heat
of those who’ve passed this way before.
Old songs echo in the hollow ways.
The anvil strikes and, in my head, the thud
of clay upon the potters’ wheel.
I tread the hare-path on the open downs.
Sometimes I kneel or lie awhile
my ear pressed to the ground. I hear
the throb of axes, crackle of bones,
the cries of those who lie deep down
buried in time’s hard layers. In snickets,
leys and field paths I know the corners,
hollow stumps, causeways and bends
where ancient stones have left their mark.
I smell honey and herbs, the crush of sap,
woodsmoke as dusk thickens the air.
On the ridgeway I shapeshift,
sometimes a deer, sometimes a hare,
drifting along the long white edge
between sea and clear chalk streams.
Dewponds and springs refresh my feet
as I pace endlessly without rest
keeping the spirit-ways open
for those who follow on.
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.
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.