roe deer

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.


In search of a March hare


Leaving the dog-walkers behind I followed the footpath over stiles and along hedges to Charminster Down, scanning the fields for the shape of a running hare. Low sun skimmed across the furrows. The wind had a sharp edge, smelling of snow. Walking through the wet clay soil was heavy-going. It was littered with flints which skittered away from my boots and almost tripped me up several times. Some were huge like misshapen bones or skulls, others had been split by the plough, revealing cut surfaces reminiscent of blue and white china or birds’ eggs. Sometimes fossilised sea urchins can be found in these fields from ancient times when this area was an ocean.


The sound of traffic became fainter and I imagined Wilderness, wondering if I would ever experience it. Four roe deer grazed far away in a sunny valley. I could just see the flash of their white tails. A fat partridge flew up in front of me from the sparse hedge. I remember once having a hedge properly laid by two Dorset craftsmen –  a chap of about sixty and his father who must have been at least eighty. They climbed, cut, bent and wove the hedge to a tight stock-proof lattice, creating the perfect A shape which lasted seven years without any further attention. Now hedges are brutally flailed to thin spindly palisades, not strong enough to support nests, provide cover for wildlife or dense enough to create habitats for a diversity of species.

In a coppice two magpies were arguing and rooks were clattering around above the trees with their beaks full of twigs. The tops of the hedges were snowy with wild cherry blossom and I noticed a chaffinch motionless amongst it, looking like a Japanese painting. But no sign of a hare. I have seen one in these hills before, but nothing today. I once found the skeleton of a hare in a derelict barn, crouched in a dark corner, the folded white bones tense and poised – as charismatic in death as in life.

Now the sun was dipping down and deep shadows lay in the furrows. The hares were hidden from view and I shall have to return another day …