lizard

Water blog

We sailed under Weymouth town bridge with nine inches to spare, not waiting for it to be raised as we wanted to catch the tide. A cardboard cup blew off the table as we headed for the Shambles, east of Portland Bill. There were three of us aboard, bound for the Isles of Scilly in a motor yacht, Moonlight Dancer. We were going to see my daughter who was working there for the summer. It was my first real sea voyage.

For a while I had been in emotionally uncharted waters and it felt good to be planning a trip meticulously and to know my destination. However, I was apprehensive about how I would cope with rough seas and had a supply of ginger sweets just in case. We gave the notorious Portland Race a wide berth, but the seas were very rocky and it took a while to round the Bill.

As we entered Lyme Bay off the Jurassic Coast, a watery sun tarnished the lumpy waves. A gannet swooped past in a flash of yellow, black and white then a fulmar skimmed the bow, dipping one wing in the water as it passed. Soon we were surrounded by a flock of fulmars, guillemots and black-backed gulls. I stood on deck with a sense of being cocooned in their weaving flight as they moved effortlessly between air and water, equally at home in either.

By late afternoon we sighted Start Point. We had the sun in our eyes and were negotiating three-metre waves. We decided to head for Salcombe to shelter overnight, but would be entering the harbour at low tide over the sand bar across the entrance. The sun went down and it became grey and murky. My feet were numb as we finally tied up in Salcombe. We could see the pub on the harbour side among the huddled houses, but had to be content with imagining its comforting warmth and good food.

When you see waves coming onto a beach, they seem orderly – all lining up and taking their turn to roll in. Out on the sea it’s a different matter – they seem to come from all directions and flow together in a chaotic mix of peaks and troughs. It makes for a relaxing night’s sleep however, being rocked about continuously.

The next morning was colder and windier. A weak sun glittered across the harbour as we had a cooked breakfast. We set off into a swelling sea, punching tide and doing 12 knots. About mid-morning a pod of dolphins appeared and swam along with us, playing around the boat for about ten minutes. I wondered if they could sense our pleasure and excitement at seeing them. I tried to take photos without success – all I got was a splash or two as if the camera was a net, from which they were trying to escape.

What must it be like to live in a limitless environment like the sea instead of being tethered to rooms, houses and towns . . . The cohesion between this family of dolphins formed an entity stronger than any manmade city. The collective fluidity of the creatures was like the sea itself – a harmony of living that seemed so much more sophisticated than our own muddled existence.

The dark curves of the plunging dolphins shed water like memories leaving bubbles of laughter on the surface of the sea. The way they moved seemed carefree, exultant yet purposeful and organised. I wondered if they were aware of the stick-like creature standing on the deck cheering them on.

Just off Fowey five warships loomed menacingly out of the fog, then two more dolphins swam reassuringly beside us in tandem, mirroring each other’s movements. By 2pm we had covered fifty-two miles and had forty-eight to go before we arrived on Scilly. We passed the Lizard then Lands End and saw the splendid isolation of Wolf Rock Lighthouse as the seas became very rough, and there was no leisure to do anything but try to keep the boat on course.

Scilly emerged from the distant horizon – a collection of fragmented rocks no bigger than seals. On a clear Summer’s day the Atlantic waters would be turquoise, each island surrounded by a frill of white sand, but this evening the archipelago seemed more sea than land, grey and indistinct. We set a course for St Mary’s and went slowly on a low tide down Crow Sound to the Quay where my youngest daughter waited – a sleek silhouette against the setting sun – as we came alongside.

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.