kestrel

South Dorset Ridgeway – Martinstown

On Sunday I walked west on the South Dorset Ridgeway. A sea mist thick as wet sheep’s wool clung to the hills. There was no view and I walked along looking at the ground, stepping over a litter of flints on the chalky path. The cut surfaces of the flints glistened, but those encrusted with white, looked like broken bones. Some were as big as skulls with cavernous sockets.

There was no colour except for a few vivid dock leaves on the edge of the way and the occasional stripy snail. A lacy spider’s web, beaded with moisture, was slung between grass blades. In the centre, a tiny ginger spider. There was no sound except my feet knocking the loose flints. Then I heard a skylark singing through the fog – an uplifting sound that pierced the white gloom like an audible sunbeam.

The mist thinned and a roe deer appeared then vanished before I had time to register its presence. Seeding heads of dandelions formed a milky way along the verge. The air was dense with the odour of a large manure heap. Suddenly an apple tree in full blossom caught my eye – incongruous in this open landscape. It made me think of an old village called Orchard which was an ancient settlement near by, now vanished entirely.

As I turned to retrace my steps the mist lifted and, in the distance, a sliver of sea shone and gulls wheeled overhead.

The following Tuesday I revisited the Ridgeway near Martinstown. This time I walked east. A hot sun shone in a cloudless blue sky. The chalky white path stretched out before me bordered by dry stone walls. Thorn trees clung to the edge of the hill, contorted by the wind off the sea. The adjoining fields were full of fluorescent oil seed rape. I breathed its intense honey smell and started sneezing. In the distance a bright green tumulus rose humpbacked among the surrounding landscape.

Wild flowers grew alongside the path – buttercups, cow parsley and red campion. Pairs of tortoiseshell butterflies danced through the air. The South Dorset Ridgeway was an important route in pre-history, connecting settlements in Dorset with others as far away as Cornwall. Trade was plied along this road and materials transported. The countryside spread out either side of this high path – the sea to the south and the valley of the River Frome to the north.

Swallows were swooping over the ground then off again. I saw one stop and seem to hover, facing the strong wind. I realised it wasn’t a swallow. It was about the same size and the head looked similar in profile, but there was no forked tail. The sun was low in the sky and right in my eyes, so the bird was a silhouette most of the time. Occasionally I caught a glow of reddish brown, but it wasn’t a kestrel. It hovered about twelve feet off the ground for about five minutes while I stood and watched. Then it suddenly dropped into the winter wheat. In seconds it was up in the air again, wings beating fast to keep its position, head into the wind. Then off it went. I can only think it was a merlin – a rare sighting, but not an impossibility.

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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.