pond

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.

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.

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