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.
The light is very bright and the wind is making my eyes water. I’m in that post-viral haze when you emerge from an underworld of strange dreams and find the world has changed. In the past two weeks bare hedges have greened over and the flowers are out on the horse chestnuts.
Either side of the chalky path clumps of cowslips tangle with the long grass. Tiny blue birds-eye flowers (Veronica persica) wink from the edges. The path gets steeper and a skylark is singing high above. I stop to look back. A dark green tumulus rises from a fluorescent sea of oil seed rape. The new buildings of Poundbury are marching closer.
I always choose the path that peters out to nothing. However hard I try to follow the trodden ways, somehow my track always ends in nettles, sheer drops or just nothing at all. Perhaps I unwittingly chose the sheep’s way … I tight-rope walked along a spindly ridge with that feeling you get when you walk on a pier out to sea – a feeling that you are defying gravity. You walk with a sense of excitement on your precarious thread of land, the world falling away either side and only the horizon in front of you. I stepped over a tortoiseshell butterfly pinned to the path by the strong wind then forged on head-down towards nothing at all, my shadow stealthily creeping ahead like a negative ghost.
I stopped at the final precipice and watched the sheep on the next rampart, envying their agility. Maiden Castle is a labyrinth of ditches and concentric hills which make up the ancient Iron Age hill fort. I tried to imagine how life was then – the practicalities of living permanently in such an elevated location in all weathers. What did they eat? How did they cook? Did they wash – probably not. I suppose they smelt like nothing on earth, their hair was matted and there were no comforts if illness struck. But the bond between everyone in that community was what kept them going – their survival depended on mutual support, trust and love.
What must it have been like when the Romans with their clean-shaven faces and military uniform arrived? Each side must have looked at the other with amazement – that human beings could be so different. The hill fort became a last stronghold of the old ways, a bloody battlefield where huts were burnt and trampled, women raped and children crushed in the conflict. It is something I can hardly bring myself to imagine.
I remembered visiting Maiden Castle one summer as a child with my brother and sister and how we ran up and down the hills shouting with excitement in this prehistoric playground, only dimly aware that long ago people called this home. Clouds of small blue butterflies rose up from the grass as we ran about. I looked them up in my Observer book when I got home and found a whole section – chalkhill blue, blue skipper, silver-studded blue, common blue . . . all of which summed up for me my childhood summers on the chalky downs.
As I walked back down to the lower levels there were fresh molehills among the clumps of nettles. A dead mole lay beside the path, one small pink hand raised as if in surrender, a metallic blue fly on its breast.