molehills

Maiden Castle

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.

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Mouldywarp

Black hillocks have replaced the snow drifts. All across the meadows erratic lines of molehills are appearing. Once you’ve started noticing them, they’re everywhere – on grass verges, tidy lawns, playing fields and even a stone’s throw from the beach.

It is rare to see a mole in action as they are usually nocturnal. However, as a small child I remember seeing one popping up in our garden. My father had been brought up on a farm and saw moles as pests. I’m sorry to say he dispatched the little bleary mole before I had time to wonder at this blind digger with its pink spadey hands. To console me, my father said he would make me a purse from the mole’s skin. For weeks the velvety skin was pinned out on the coalbunker to dry. I would inspect it sadly as it dried to a stiff crispy shadow. It never was made into anything.

John Clare wrote about the mole ‘I see little mouldywarps hang sweeing in the wind/on the only aged willow that in all the field remains’ This desolate image highlights the contrast between the much-love mole of Wind in the Willows and the farmers’ desire to eradicate this little creature perceived as a destroyer of crops.

I have a book on British Mammals dating from the beginning of the Twentieth Century. It contains this description of the mole, ‘It has a plump, rounded body, with small eyes and ears embedded in silky fur, and short legs, armed on the front pair with five remarkable claws. It is thus splendidly equipped for tunneling and digging.’

Moles become very thirsty while digging and are said to dig little well shafts. Its tunneling can help to create drainage in meadows Soon after the beginning of the year the mole creates its nesting earth, usually under a bush or shrub. This ‘earth’ is larger than the ordinary hillocks. The actual nest is about a foot below ground and is lined with dead grass and leaves. Five to seven young are usually produced. I once saw some – they are pale brown or grey with pink-tipped snouts.

Moles have been around for a very long time as fossils have been discovered of their remains.