ferns

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.

A Jurassic experience

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.

Chapel Coppice, Long Bredy

I couldn’t wait any longer for the weather to be perfect – it was time for my nature diary. A thick grey fog lay like a dust sheet over the landscape, the only colour the fluorescent yellow of oil seed rape which glared defiantly through the drizzle. The puddles on the road reflected this colour, looking like pools of spilt paint.

Not the best day for a trip to my favourite bluebell wood but I was determined to go. I was heading for Ashley Chase near Long Bredy in West Dorset. We used to visit Chapel Coppice when the children were little and they thought it was a magic wood. It is one of those places that seems to shape-shift – sometimes it is easy to find and other times it seems to disappear. This makes it even more special.

I parked just off the road and set off downhill on a stony track. Although high on the hills above Long Bredy I couldn’t see anything but fog. A strong smell of cows hung in the air. Strangely shaped trees loomed out of the mist like mythical beasts – the overgrown remnants of a laid hedge. One tree looked just like a stag lying down with antlers spread against the sky. As I descended the hill, the fog thinned out leaving a dewy sparkle over the verges. I noticed bluebells, pink campions, bright yellow gorse, early purple orchids, faded violets and primroses.

After about a mile I reached the gate into Chapel Coppice. Complete silence except for birdsong fluting through the trees – robin, blackbird and pigeons. The track through the wood was very muddy and I skidded precariously along. Sometimes I grabbed at mossy branches for support. These felt like sinewy arms clothed in threadbare tweed, enhancing the spooky feeling I always get in this wood. I was alone in this ancient place and speculated about the 13th Century Cistercian Monks who had created a chapel in the depths of this coppice.

Surrounding me was an amethyst sea of English bluebells among waves of lush green leaves. A small stream wound between the trees in a deep cutting with mossy sides. This provided a faint background sound like someone talking to themselves. The birdsong had vanished and I was conscious of the noise of my clumsy steps on the muddy path and my stumbling progress over small makeshift bridges across the stream.

At last I came across the remains of the chapel deep in the wood. The silence became even more profound as I stood still beneath the ruined arch. Ferns snaked up from the moist ground, bright green moss crept insidiously over the grey stone and sinister-looking fungi nestled like black eggs in the leaf litter. A deep ravine bordered the area. Suddenly a mechanical sound nearby made my heart race – a woodpecker drilling a tree trunk.

I emerged from the wood into watery sunshine and trudged back up the hill, the retreating tide of fog billowing over the horizon. Towards the sea the trees twisted tornado-like away from the wind.