horse chestnut

Depths of Dorset

I set off early for Stoke Water near Beaminster where a friend has a pond full of newts and tadpoles. She said the surface of the water was seething – I imagined a sort of newt soup and couldn’t wait to take photos. Unfortunately I had woken with conjunctivitis and the day, already grey, seemed even more indistinct viewed through my watering eyes.

Low cloud on the hills softened the outlines of trees suggesting reflections rather than hard reality. It began to drizzle as I drove down through the green tunnels of the hollow-ways, a froth of white cow parsley bubbling on the verges and swathes of amethyst bluebells adding to the illusion of being under water.

The pond’s surface was grey. The only signs of life were a few water beetles sculling around. It was too cold for the newts and tadpoles to cavort about – they were probably hiding deep down. So we went for a walk across the fields and through Pucketts Wood (owned by the Woodland Trust).

Cuckoo Pint was nodding pink-bonneted heads above the lush grass in the field. On the edge of the stream the spiky white flowers of Wild Garlic shone out from dark green leaves and the scent was mouth-watering. As we walked through the next field, our boots knocked puffs of smoking pollen from Plantain.

Pucketts Wood is in a river valley and consists predominantly of tall thin oak and ash trees, not yet in leaf. At the foot of the pale trunks, the small mauve flowers of Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) clustered. Further on in the grassy open spaces, Vipers Bugloss and Yellow Archangel flourished along with primroses and bluebells. Hollowed halves of acorns lay among the leaf litter – possibly left by a dormouse. Rabbit holes and mouse holes were everywhere. The newly shooting Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum) had been mostly chewed off, probably by rabbits. A stinkhorn fungus lay like a shed skin beside the path.

We came to a wooden signpost and I realised we were crossing the Wessex Ridgeway which leads to Lyme Regis. We stopped to photograph a tiny chestnut tree planted by my grandson. A row of spear-headed alliums edged the path and I felt a shiver at the thought of the legions of feet which had trodden this ancient way.

Hedges and Edges

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In the sheltered valleys the matt greys and browns of winter hedges have been replaced by greens and silvers. Willows on the edge of the water meadows glow like candles. Even before leaves have appeared it is as if the sap is gleaming through the bark, as trees and hedges come back to life. Blackthorn, wild damson and cherry are flowering in a snowstorm of blossom – and now a traditional Blackthorn winter seems to be following with cold northerly winds.

In the last few days leaves have started to unfurl, as if plants have a built-in mechanism telling them when it is the equinox. Deep inside there must be light sensors weighing the daylight and triggering growth when day and night are equal. Even Horse Chestnuts are starting to come into leaf.

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However, nearer the coast, hedges have a different story to tell. Where sea spray had been driven inland during the winter storms, the hedges have been salt-burnt on their seaward sides. Gorse is brown and stunted. Conifers and other evergreens have shrivelled where the salty winds scorched their leaves. The only colour on the seaside hedges is bright green lichen, indicating the purity of the air.  Thorn trees are bent and arthritic, twisted from the strength of the gales off the sea. Spring is taking longer to arrive here on the exposed hills and coasts.

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