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 . . .

Chapel Coppice, Long Bredy

I couldn’t wait any longer for the weather to be perfect – it was time for my nature diary. A thick grey fog lay like a dust sheet over the landscape, the only colour the fluorescent yellow of oil seed rape which glared defiantly through the drizzle. The puddles on the road reflected this colour, looking like pools of spilt paint.

Not the best day for a trip to my favourite bluebell wood but I was determined to go. I was heading for Ashley Chase near Long Bredy in West Dorset. We used to visit Chapel Coppice when the children were little and they thought it was a magic wood. It is one of those places that seems to shape-shift – sometimes it is easy to find and other times it seems to disappear. This makes it even more special.

I parked just off the road and set off downhill on a stony track. Although high on the hills above Long Bredy I couldn’t see anything but fog. A strong smell of cows hung in the air. Strangely shaped trees loomed out of the mist like mythical beasts – the overgrown remnants of a laid hedge. One tree looked just like a stag lying down with antlers spread against the sky. As I descended the hill, the fog thinned out leaving a dewy sparkle over the verges. I noticed bluebells, pink campions, bright yellow gorse, early purple orchids, faded violets and primroses.

After about a mile I reached the gate into Chapel Coppice. Complete silence except for birdsong fluting through the trees – robin, blackbird and pigeons. The track through the wood was very muddy and I skidded precariously along. Sometimes I grabbed at mossy branches for support. These felt like sinewy arms clothed in threadbare tweed, enhancing the spooky feeling I always get in this wood. I was alone in this ancient place and speculated about the 13th Century Cistercian Monks who had created a chapel in the depths of this coppice.

Surrounding me was an amethyst sea of English bluebells among waves of lush green leaves. A small stream wound between the trees in a deep cutting with mossy sides. This provided a faint background sound like someone talking to themselves. The birdsong had vanished and I was conscious of the noise of my clumsy steps on the muddy path and my stumbling progress over small makeshift bridges across the stream.

At last I came across the remains of the chapel deep in the wood. The silence became even more profound as I stood still beneath the ruined arch. Ferns snaked up from the moist ground, bright green moss crept insidiously over the grey stone and sinister-looking fungi nestled like black eggs in the leaf litter. A deep ravine bordered the area. Suddenly a mechanical sound nearby made my heart race – a woodpecker drilling a tree trunk.

I emerged from the wood into watery sunshine and trudged back up the hill, the retreating tide of fog billowing over the horizon. Towards the sea the trees twisted tornado-like away from the wind.

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.