newts

Sea Wall

Sea wall was the name given to the South Dorset Ridgeway by those who lived in its shadow. It was seen as a natural barrier, keeping back the sea that raged against the Chesil Bank and the Jurassic Coast. This was the inspiration to my book which has just been published by Archaeopteryx Imprint Ltd.

I collected extracts from some of the posts published on my blog for the BBC Wildlife Magazine and mixed these with some of my poems, most of which were written last summer, but I have also included some from ten years ago when I lived at Kingston Russell on the landward side of the South Dorset Ridgeway. Several of these poems have already been published in different anthologies and poetry magazines such as Poetry Wales and South.

I then decided to create linocuts to illustrate my work. Originally I planned to make about six but, in the end, I was having so much fun, that there is a linocut on almost every page. Owls, hares, newts and skylarks are some of the wildlife touched on in my writing. Underpinning everything is the prehistoric landscape of the ridgeway itself. It is impossible to walk this ancient way without being aware of those who lived and worked there in times gone by. There are traces of worked flints, stone circles and sarsen stones. But there is also the indefinable sense of many footsteps ghosting the way. And, beyond the Ridgeway, is the sea in all its changing moods.

I enjoyed creating the book so much, I am already planning my next one on Chesil Beach and the Jurassic Coast so watch this space!

Sea Wall is available from www.archaeopteryx-imprint.co.uk for £10 plus postage & packing.

Looking for spring

Bramble leaves were purple with cold. Black fungi and yellow lichen crept over bare branches. A dead badger lay by the roadside and debris from fast-food outlets littered the verges. Overhead a buzzard was being mobbed by a crow – a macabre aerial ballet. The clear chalk stream of the River Frome was flowing fast under the bridge and a skein of mallards flew sketchily across the grey sky.

It was a gloopy sort of day. A curtain of thick grey fog hung over Portesham Hill. The road was covered in a slippery layer of stinking mud. Hedges had been flailed creating raw splinters of wood that poked through the mist. I was looking for signs of spring, but, apart from a celandine, some catkins and an isolated patch of fragile white blossom, everything was still steeped in winter gloom.

However, in my sister’s garden the surface of the pond was corrugated with clumps of frogspawn. It was all clustered on the shaded side of the water – a myriad of eyeballs , small black pupils unseeing, but warding off predators. I remembered the nature table at school and the excitement of watching tadpoles develop. I was fascinated by the change in the frogspawn from black dots to squiggles, and loved drawing the different stages in pencil on sugar paper, revelling in the word ‘metamorphosis’ which seemed to sum up for me the mysteries and excitement of the natural world.

When I was nine our class was occasionally taken down the road to a long sloping garden owned by an elderly lady called Mrs Fiddler. She kindly allowed the children to come and play on the grass in fine weather. At the top of the garden was a pond which drew me into forbidden territory. I would hide in the grass next to the water, watching the newts and other wildlife. In the spring I’d scoop a lump of frogspawn into a jam jar and smuggle it back to school, keeping it in my desk. I took it home at the end of the day and tipped the gelatinous soup into a large glass bowl. I once caught a great crested newt and somehow got it home. It looked newly painted with orange and black splodges on its belly, but it vanished overnight from its fruit bowl. I searched guiltily for a corpse for days but found no trace of it.

Today I lifted a lump of the rubbery jelly from my sister’s pond and drove home carefully with it in a washing-up bowl. All these years later, yet I can’t wait to see my frogspawn begin to turn into froglets.

Mini-dipping

 

Weeks of hot dry weather with only two brief showers bringing relief from the drought. I found myself drawn to water – green gloopy ponds to be precise. I visited a friend’s garden where I found a khaki pond, the surface like mildewed glass.

On the water, dozens of small whirligig beetles, black and shiny, each with a headlight reflection, skimmed around in circles, glancing off each other like dodgem cars. They have compound eyes divided into two halves so they can see above and below the water.

Pond skaters balanced on tiptoe making tiny dents in the filmy surface of the pond and displaying elegant choreography as they gracefully moved in groups towards drowning insects. Just beneath the surface, small newts, limbs spread in the warm water, looked like miniature crocodiles. Water boatmen skulled about beneath the surface.

Then I took my two small grandchildren pond dipping at RSPB Radipole in Weymouth. Armed with nets and a plastic tray we leaned precariously over an inlet of water shaded by reeds. The surface was covered with a confetti of tiny bright green leaves. Dipping our nets below this we came up with a stickleback which we decanted into our tray where it swam about among a soup of small wriggly pollywogs. We identified a case-less caddisfly lava and found a tiny water snail.

In my sister’s garden, wiry turquoise damselflies flashed around the pond. We dipped and brought up some tiny newt-poles with frilly gills. Water lilies prompted a haiku –

porcelain petals –
a fragrant teacup floating
white on dark water

 

Up the Garden Path

Collared DoveNesting collared dove 1

 

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Newt

Gardens have sprung into life and are now busy places full of all sorts of surprises. In the last week I have visited several friends’ gardens and found great tits nesting in a sparrow flat, a pair of collared doves sitting on a nest behind a broken security light on the house wall and, in my own garden, some strange little golden spiders clustered on the shed door. When I moved in closer to photograph them they scattered like ball bearings. The next morning they had criss-crossed the open door with threads spangled with little golden dots. I did some research and found they were garden spiderlings. They cluster together after hatching but scatter if danger threatens.

Under a sheet of corrugated iron, a young slow worm was coiled like copper wire. By the pond was a small newt. I picked it up and it crossed my palm with its cold dainty fingers. Glossy red ladybirds choose the shiniest green leaves to display their colour, while  turquoise flies flash like tiny kingfishers amongst the foliage.

The wet weather has created snail and slug heaven. In the early morning snails slide over the fennel and make lace of the lupins – small stripy snails like humbugs, mellow yellow ones, large tawny garden snails and tiny brown whorls. I can’t bring myself to use slug pellets, even the wildlife friendly ones, just in case they harm the birds. Anyway, the snails themselves are beautiful so I’ll just have to put up with lacy lupins and holey hollyhocks.

Bees are immersing themselves in wells of nectar, becoming covered in bright yellow nuggets of pollen, their contented buzzing the soundtrack of summer days. House martins are wheeling around catching mayflies and other airborne bugs. The weather has been perfect for nest building with plenty of squidgy mud for plastering. A green woodpecker struts around in the long grass at the edge of the allotment enjoying the ants.

In a heathland garden, greater spotted woodpeckers – male, female and young – are visiting the bird feeder and scooting up the pine trees searching for bugs beneath the bark. An upside down nuthatch on the peanuts caused the great tits to wait nearby till it had finished feeding. The hierarchy on the bird table was interesting, small birds giving way to the larger ones and waiting patiently till the coast was clear. A rabbit was sitting upright in the field adjoining the garden, sun glowing through its ears.
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Depths of Dorset

I set off early for Stoke Water near Beaminster where a friend has a pond full of newts and tadpoles. She said the surface of the water was seething – I imagined a sort of newt soup and couldn’t wait to take photos. Unfortunately I had woken with conjunctivitis and the day, already grey, seemed even more indistinct viewed through my watering eyes.

Low cloud on the hills softened the outlines of trees suggesting reflections rather than hard reality. It began to drizzle as I drove down through the green tunnels of the hollow-ways, a froth of white cow parsley bubbling on the verges and swathes of amethyst bluebells adding to the illusion of being under water.

The pond’s surface was grey. The only signs of life were a few water beetles sculling around. It was too cold for the newts and tadpoles to cavort about – they were probably hiding deep down. So we went for a walk across the fields and through Pucketts Wood (owned by the Woodland Trust).

Cuckoo Pint was nodding pink-bonneted heads above the lush grass in the field. On the edge of the stream the spiky white flowers of Wild Garlic shone out from dark green leaves and the scent was mouth-watering. As we walked through the next field, our boots knocked puffs of smoking pollen from Plantain.

Pucketts Wood is in a river valley and consists predominantly of tall thin oak and ash trees, not yet in leaf. At the foot of the pale trunks, the small mauve flowers of Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) clustered. Further on in the grassy open spaces, Vipers Bugloss and Yellow Archangel flourished along with primroses and bluebells. Hollowed halves of acorns lay among the leaf litter – possibly left by a dormouse. Rabbit holes and mouse holes were everywhere. The newly shooting Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum) had been mostly chewed off, probably by rabbits. A stinkhorn fungus lay like a shed skin beside the path.

We came to a wooden signpost and I realised we were crossing the Wessex Ridgeway which leads to Lyme Regis. We stopped to photograph a tiny chestnut tree planted by my grandson. A row of spear-headed alliums edged the path and I felt a shiver at the thought of the legions of feet which had trodden this ancient way.