nettles

Path to the past

Litton Cheney – a village dug in between two ridges. It has the feel of being stranded in time despite the A35 snaking above it on the skyline. I walked past stone cottages thatched and organic as though they’d grown out of the earth without human intervention. A path traversed a field of short crisp grass crunching underfoot. I couldn’t resist picking a flower from a patch of pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidia) and breathing its sweet scent.

Goose grass (Galium aparine) spattered with cuckoo spit clung to me as I brushed by. I imagined all the pale green juvenile frog hoppers hidden in that protective froth. I came across a derelict farmyard left for nature to take over – rotting log piles and old barns – the perfect habitat for insects, bats, beetles, owls and many more creatures that shun tidy sterile environments.

Emerald green harts tongue ferns (Asplenium scolopendrium) bordered the shady lane as I left the shelter of the village for the white way which led gently upwards. I walked through another deserted farmyard where weathered paint peeled from padlocked doors. The cobwebbed glass in the shed windows reflected a phantom image of my face as I tried to peer in. Other windows lacked glass, offering a perfect bolthole for bats and moths. Rusting old machinery grew out of the long grass. A deep silence overlaid this place then a dog barked, breaking the spell.

The chalky path started to climb out of the valley giving views of the strip lynchets terracing the hills. The path had been surfaced with old rubble and stone mixed with thick shards of brown pottery and the occasional fragment of blue china. Overhead a skylark sang in a jet-scarred sky. Cow parsley on tall stalks created a bank of white cloud and grasses were clubbed with heavy seed heads. Nettles fringed the path and, high in the hedges, pale pink dog roses contrasted with dark green. Trees were in full plumage except for one lightning-blasted skeleton, its limbs raised in surrender.

Clumps of purple woundwort (Stachys silvatica) flourished in the banks, bees blustering around the flower spikes. In this prehistoric place I thought about how this plant was used to heal wounds, perhaps from barbed flints. The landscape was opening up now and a steep slope led upwards to the A35 which followed the ridge. I could see lorries on the skyline moving west. Below in the valley, large elder trees were festooned with white umbrella blossoms. White smoke from a bonfire ghosted the distance.

Pins Knoll showed up as a pivotal nub in the circle of hills – a prominent hill which was probably once the site of a settlement. Millions of years ago this landscape was once covered in sea, now swallows swooped in shoals, forked fish-tails against a watery blue sky.

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Snails, dung beetles and burial mounds

I set off from Sutton Poyntz – a pretty village with a duck pond, hunkered down below the eastern haunches of the South Dorset Ridgeway. A chalky path led steadily upwards through a green landscape towards an intensely blue sky. To the south, an equally blue sea defined the Jurassic Coast. Buttercups glowed beside the path as though varnished by the sun, there was vivid blue germander speedwell and the enamelled white petals of daisies. Above these, a froth of sour-smelling cow parsley.

As the path got steeper I focussed on the ground in front of me. The track was strewn with empty snail shells – all different sorts from small lemony yellow ones to large tawny swirled snails and, in between, stripy humbug shells and chalky blue/grey ones. All the shells were empty. If a thrush had eaten the contents, I would have thought the shells would be shattered, but each one was intact. Perhaps the snails were venturing from one side of the path to the other when the heat of the sun dried them out. But there were no decomposing corpses so ‘snail mile’ remains a mystery.

By this time I was at the end of the path and just cresting the ridge of hills. Below me were clusters of houses, their windows winking SOS signals in the bright sun. This litter of habitation looked like terminal moraine at the end of a glacier. I stood on top of the world surrounded by seeding grasses and the strong lanolin smell of sheep. Dreadlocks of sheep’s wool hung from barbed wire fences and a newly shorn pristine flock skittered anxiously around seemingly self-conscious in their naked whiteness.

The tall grasses were topped with multi-coloured seedheads – rust red, purple, brown and pink. At ground level were swathes of candy-coloured clover and a creeping mat of buttercups. Out of this tapestry rose a pillowy tumulus. I chose my patch carefully and lay down on the barrow among the nettles, thistles and sheep dung.

Coppery dung beetles with shiny peppermint thoraxes scuttled among the grass stems, occasionally taking off, their small whirring wings hardly adequate to carry their bulbous bodies along. In Egyptian mythology the dung beetle or scarab was immortalised in the form of amulets. The sun god, Ra, rolled across the sky each day transforming bodies and souls, just as the dung beetle rolls dung into a ball as food. The dung is also used for a brood chamber where the beetle lays its eggs, and where these later turn into larvae. Consequently the dung beetle was seen a symbol of the heavenly cycle and associated with rebirth and resurrection. I read a report that the dung beetle is tuned into the circadian rhythms, being a crepuscular flier. It seemed a suitable companion on this burial mound.

I lay rather uncomfortably with a stone in my back imagining the skeletons buried beneath me in that cold dark earth. Above me, clouds were spaced out like continents. A skylark sang distantly and I could almost feel the spinning of the world as I lay balanced between land and sky on the top of that burial mound.

I turned my back on the pylons standing sentinel on the summit of the ridgeway and started the steep climb back down to Sutton Poyntz. On the lower stretch was a woodland – Veteran Wood, a conservation area owned by Wessex Water. A board explained that the copse contained several veteran trees of over a hundred years old. I stepped into the cool shade of the wood and the scent of wild garlic. A clear stream meandered between the trees whose roots stretched out to paddle in its coolness. It was quiet here apart from muted birdsong. Green ferns uncurled beside the water and I imagined weary travellers slaking their thirst and resting in this peaceful place before journeying on.

Owl-light

Mid January when daylight is compressed to a wedge of silver between charcoal dawn and the twilight of late afternoon. It was the third anniversary of my mother’s death and I was trying to walk off my gloom before the children finished school. Even the two dogs seemed depressed, padding along silently – no pulling or wayward sniffing. As I approached the gate to the house I saw a white shape from the corner of my eye drifting along. I thought it was a carrier bag caught in the nettles, but when I turned to pick it up I saw a barn owl. It flew slowly in front of me only a few feet above the ground gleaming in the gathering dusk. I followed its ghostly light. It didn’t seem alarmed by the dogs or by my presence. Then it settled on a fence post hunched like a shawl of leaves. Slowly it turned its head towards me. I shall never forget that heart-shaped face and the look from those fathomless eyes. Every year on 15th January I think about that owl.
Track Valley Hse