sea urchins

Growing on the Edge

Behind the Chesil bank at Abbotsbury, there is a hinterland, neither beach nor countryside. This area between high tide mark and the beginning of fields is known as the Littoral Zone. This is an apt name (regardless of the spelling) as the sea rarely reaches this area, so it is often littered with a strange array of objects, blown by the wind and caught in the scrubby undergrowth. This marginal area is joined to the land by a coastal path, a kind of selvedge that binds the border of the beach and attaches it to the countryside beyond. Yet this path also acts as a separation zone, the plants either side of the track being quite different.

Just as thoughts crowd your mind between sleep and waking, so the findings in this marginal area are random and sometimes disturbing. Ragged feathers and weathered scraps of driftwood mingle with plastic bottles, brightly coloured cigarette lighters and cellophane packaging and a nightmare selection of anglers’ rubbish. Light pink sea fan coral flits on the breeze and sometimes fossils of sea urchins surface from the shingle when you least expect to find anything worthwhile.

Mid-September and the sun is low in the sky, silvering glimpses of the sea and glossing the pebbles. I walk along the coastal path where teasels form a palisade to the seaward side. On my right, bordering a field, are tall stalks of seeding wild leeks (Babington’s leeks). These nod their heavy heads in the wind – clusters of dark brown seeds with wispy tendrils attached.

On the edges of the beach are the rubbery bat-wing leaves of Sea kale draped on the shingle. A few thrift flowers are in bloom, incongruously pink among the autumn colours. Sea campion is still flowering, the delicate bell-like shapes inspiring its folk-lore names of ‘dead man’s bells’, ‘witches’ thimbles’ and ‘Devil’s hatties’. The pale pink tassels of Tamarisk hang beside the path, decorating the tangle of twisted trunks and fringing the shady tunnels within the clump.

From the corner of my eye I see the seeds of the Creeping thistle float then vanish on the wind.

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In search of a March hare

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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.

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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 …

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