Kingcombe, Dorset

I first saw Kingcombe in February 1987 when it was a hamlet untouched by time. There was a traditional thatched Long House and other farm buildings and cottages – all in a semi-ruinous state. The whole valley of 600 acres had always been farmed organically and had been in the ownership of one family since the beginning of the twentieth century. This unique landscape had never been touched by artificial fertilisers, pesticides or any chemicals and was rich in wildflowers, birdlife and mammals. In 1987 it was bought by a developer and then auctioned in several lots.

Luckily the majority of the estate was bought by a man who was passionate about nature conservation, and he set about creating the Kingcombe Wildlife Centre. The buildings were sensitively renovated and the unique landscape preserved. The Dorset Wildlife Trust now owns and runs the Centre.

Today I set off down the narrow lanes leading to Kingcombe. A filigree of copper-coloured ferns edged the single-track road and, as I plunged deeper into the valley, water was running down the centre of the twisting track – rural Dorset as Thomas Hardy knew it. I arrived at Kingcombe and parked outside the visitor centre. Racks of Wellington boots were ranged outside the door. Inside, the tables were covered in a display of fungi found on a foray at the weekend.

A blackboard showed the wildlife sightings – kingfisher, kestrel, tawny owls, heron . . . and a vole (found in the chicken run), lizard, dormouse, woodmice and Colin the Crayfish! There was a map of the area showing the names of different fields – Cowleaze, Scutlers, Lord’s Mead, Adders Hole, Pound Plots, Yonder Cowleaze, Barn Mead, Bushy Ground . . . each name telling a story.

I wandered past the hen run, through the organic kitchen garden and down to the wildlife pond and river. The gentle music of birdsong blended with the sound of the stream, creating a peaceful environment far from the noise of traffic. Hedgerow plants were seeding, straggling, tangling together in a natural tapestry. There were no tidy edges or straight lines – everything had been left to decay without interference. Old stumps and fallen trees were covered in moss, providing ideal habitats for all sorts of insects.

Two green woodpeckers took off and disappeared into lichen-covered branches. A deep leaf litter covered the boggy ground. The old well with a stone surround was partially hidden behind a jumble of weeds, but a carved S was visible (the land was owned by the Sandwich family until 1918). A rutted track curved away up the hill – part of the ancient Wessex Ridgeway.

I was acutely aware of how people and nature had lived in harmony here for hundreds of years. There couldn’t be a greater contrast to the huge hedgeless fields of commercial agriculture. This place is an oasis for wildlife – a small homespun patch in the sterile garment covering most of our countryside.

Fragments from a notebook

A busy rainless week with glimpses of the natural world from car windows and between social activities – moments like static photos among the hectic movements of an old film.

  •  A huge Meccano-like dragonfly whirring in to land on a bent reed – all angles and joints
  •  The electric blue of damsel flies – migraine flashes in the corner of your eye.
  •  A pond skater making walking-on-water look easy.
  •  A grey heron, so still it could have been a fibreglass decoy – statuesque among the bulrushes, prehistoric, in a time lapse of its own, fused to its reflection.
  •  A tiny newt stubbing fiercely at my finger, unexpectedly strong.
  •  A comma butterfly appliquéd to a path.
  •  A large spider in the attic window – I left him well alone.
  •  Clippings of sage, parsley and lavender – pungently drying in the sun.
  •  Young sparrows chattering incessantly in the bushes.
  •  A green woodpecker on grass in the glow of a red sunset.
  •  House martins spinning high in the evening air.
  •  The smell of sunburnt grass, honeysuckle and warm tarmac while walking home at 11pm.
  •  A full moon drenching the village in liquid light that flowed everywhere.



Floods and Flowers

Three months ago the countryside looked very different. The meadows had been under water for weeks. Herons and little egrets took over, inhabiting the liminal layer between rain and floodwater. They seemed to swim through the air half-fish half-bird. Clouds and sky were the same silvery-grey as the flooded fields, trees shape-shifting as gales mixed the air and water to a homogenous whole.

Dog walking was restricted to the lanes and, even here, streams had overflowed across the road, carrying stones, weeds and mud, depositing the debris in hieroglyphic patterns on the tarmac – a liquid language. The banks exuded a dense earthy smell and grass had been combed then left to dry in hanks on the sides of the lanes. Bridges had collapsed, drains were overflowing and sheep huddled in groups on small islands amongst the overspill.

Catkins had dropped and lay in brown shoals in puddles. Buds on the hedgerow stayed closed in defiance of the cold winds, leaving the branches stark against a backdrop of blue ruffled streams. I noticed an anglers’ hut had been built beside the river – a timber and thatch construction that looked like a Hansel and Gretel cottage. A fisherman in khaki oilskins stood motionless waiting for a tug on his line trailing in the water. Further upstream another fairytale shelter had sprung up with another angler attempting to blend with his surroundings. We walked on hoping for a kingfisher. As the river curved round the head of the meadow beneath arching willows, I saw a heron standing still on the edge of the water, outlined sharply as though etched against the background. The beak pointed skyward then downward, spearing the water before I had registered movement. Slowly it took off, a fish hanging from its beak.

It’s nearly the end of May and the world has changed out of all recognition. Now grass has replaced water, trees are cloaked in leaves and the roadsides are frothing with cow parsley, streaked with red campion, bluebells, buttercups and other spring flowers.  The cuckoo is singing non-stop and house martins are swooping over the thatch catching insects for their young.  I have been abroad for a week and, in that short time, things have changed again.  Tomorrow I shall go out and explore this new world.

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