River Frome

Dimpse

The idea was to have a moonlit walk on the South Dorset Ridgeway. This ancient trackway runs along a knife-edge high above the sea with views towards Portland and the Jurassic coast to the south and over the valley of the River Frome to the north. It was created millions of years ago when Africa crashed into Europe causing this part of Dorset to crumple up like a tablecloth. In prehistoric times when most of the land was forested, this narrow exposed chalky ridge – where little could grow apart from contorted thorn trees – provided a relatively clear and safe route.

We arrived just before dusk on the day after the full moon. The sun was low in the sky casting dramatic shadows from clusters of tumuli and the distant hill fort of Maiden Castle. We were stalked by our own shadows which crept over the wind-bent grass behind us as we walked west. Campions and Cow Parsley lined the verge beside the track. The sea to our left was a brilliant blue like paint squeezed straight from the tube. The air was peppered with pollen and my eyes felt gritty in the wind.

Skylarks were singing for a while then they dropped with the sun into the long grass. Small white moths flitted beside the path. The sun was so low it was skimming the ground, spot-lighting the wayside poppies, clover and buttercups. The clouds banked up while a single bird sang on the wires overhead. Then the sun glowed briefly like a giant poppy before vanishing. We turned to walk back and saw the silhouette of a deer above a grassy mound, ears sharply etched against the sky.

The wildflowers seemed to have kept a little of the last light, ox-eye daisies glowing in the dark grass. My mother used to call this dusking time ‘dimpse’ – a word which describes perfectly the dim soft light that lingers before darkness falls. We waited a while hoping to see the moon, but it wasn’t due to rise till much later.

As I drove home I saw a fox trotting across a field in a purposeful way – night creatures were beginning to claim the land. A few hours later a huge moon hung in the sky over our village and I imagined its light silvering the chalky track of the Ridgeway where we walk in the footprints of ancient people.

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South Dorset Ridgeway – Martinstown

On Sunday I walked west on the South Dorset Ridgeway. A sea mist thick as wet sheep’s wool clung to the hills. There was no view and I walked along looking at the ground, stepping over a litter of flints on the chalky path. The cut surfaces of the flints glistened, but those encrusted with white, looked like broken bones. Some were as big as skulls with cavernous sockets.

There was no colour except for a few vivid dock leaves on the edge of the way and the occasional stripy snail. A lacy spider’s web, beaded with moisture, was slung between grass blades. In the centre, a tiny ginger spider. There was no sound except my feet knocking the loose flints. Then I heard a skylark singing through the fog – an uplifting sound that pierced the white gloom like an audible sunbeam.

The mist thinned and a roe deer appeared then vanished before I had time to register its presence. Seeding heads of dandelions formed a milky way along the verge. The air was dense with the odour of a large manure heap. Suddenly an apple tree in full blossom caught my eye – incongruous in this open landscape. It made me think of an old village called Orchard which was an ancient settlement near by, now vanished entirely.

As I turned to retrace my steps the mist lifted and, in the distance, a sliver of sea shone and gulls wheeled overhead.

The following Tuesday I revisited the Ridgeway near Martinstown. This time I walked east. A hot sun shone in a cloudless blue sky. The chalky white path stretched out before me bordered by dry stone walls. Thorn trees clung to the edge of the hill, contorted by the wind off the sea. The adjoining fields were full of fluorescent oil seed rape. I breathed its intense honey smell and started sneezing. In the distance a bright green tumulus rose humpbacked among the surrounding landscape.

Wild flowers grew alongside the path – buttercups, cow parsley and red campion. Pairs of tortoiseshell butterflies danced through the air. The South Dorset Ridgeway was an important route in pre-history, connecting settlements in Dorset with others as far away as Cornwall. Trade was plied along this road and materials transported. The countryside spread out either side of this high path – the sea to the south and the valley of the River Frome to the north.

Swallows were swooping over the ground then off again. I saw one stop and seem to hover, facing the strong wind. I realised it wasn’t a swallow. It was about the same size and the head looked similar in profile, but there was no forked tail. The sun was low in the sky and right in my eyes, so the bird was a silhouette most of the time. Occasionally I caught a glow of reddish brown, but it wasn’t a kestrel. It hovered about twelve feet off the ground for about five minutes while I stood and watched. Then it suddenly dropped into the winter wheat. In seconds it was up in the air again, wings beating fast to keep its position, head into the wind. Then off it went. I can only think it was a merlin – a rare sighting, but not an impossibility.

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.