moss

Lewesdon Hill

In a single day, winter had turned to spring. Monochrome and sepia were now rimmed with green, and the verges studded with spring flowers. We were walking, or rather, meandering up Lewesdon Hill in West Dorset – 279 metres high.

The fabric of this ancient hill is woven with tree roots of enormous trees, mostly beeches. These roots are exposed across the path, forming an organic staircase up towards the sky. Through the bare branches we catch glimpses of the landscape below. To the North, the distinctive shape of Gerrards Hill, crowned with a clump of trees. To the south the sculpted form of Golden Cap on the coast. The blue of the sky seems to have leached into the air, casting a azure haze over the distant hills so everything appears slightly unreal and two-dimensional.

The trees lean inwards, their soft mossy sides and contorted shapes reminiscent of mythical creatures. It seems natural to touch the trunks and climb the gentle curves of the branches. On the lower slopes violets, primroses and celandines were pristine in the bright light. The occasional Yellow Brimstone jinked by like a scrap of sun, but as we moved in among the trees, the ground crunched underfooot with a granola of beechnut husks.

Among the moss on a log, the glossy black of a bloody-nosed beetle scurrying for cover. It disappeared into the leaf litter. Tree roots fan out across the path, threatening to trip us. In places the root ball of a fallen tree towers over us like a ruined building, beams and arches broken and stark against the sky.

Finally at the summit of the hill, a smooth grassy plateau draped the hill surrounded by pines. This is the site of an ancient Iron Age fort, but was probably inhabited in the Bronze Age. Worked flints have been discovered here. An aura of peace and stillness prevails and, as I walk over the springy grass, I can’t help thinking of those people who dwelt here high among the clouds until just after the Roman conquest. Their lives had left memories here in the contours of the hill.

As we descend we find a huge fallen beech covered in carvings of names, dates, messages. Even now, people feel compelled to leave traces of their lives for others to decipher . . .

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.