strip lynchets

Fern Owls and the full moon

Another full moon and another trip to the South Dorset Ridgeway – a mystical place even by day. This time I was in search of the elusive Nightjar or Fern Owl – a bird of myth and mystery. Dusk was falling as I climbed through narrow lanes towards Hardy’s monument at the top of the Ridgeway. Swathes of cow parsley glowed along the verges, seeming to have kept a little of the sun to light the way. The setting sun skimmed across the contours of the hills showing up tumuli, strip lynchets and other traces of prehistory.

In ancient times, the slopes would have been forested so all dwellings and monuments were created on the barer summit. I stopped on the landward side of the Ridgeway before reaching Hardy’s monument and set off through darkening woodland with the sun disappearing between the branches. Black slugs were slithering out of the ferny borders onto the heathy path and I picked my way between them listening to the sound of birds settling down for the night.

As the sun dipped to the western horizon a huge pink moon appeared in the east. I can easily imagine how primitive people would have seen this as a portent. It rose quickly above the Ridgeway and suddenly there were strange sounds among the trees. A whirring of insects, a rustling and fluster of moths. The air was full of the whispers of dusk – a language only heard in remote places after sunset. Then the sound I’d been waiting for – a soft rhythmic chirring and the silhouette of a bird overhead – swooping with staccato movements, bat-like – a nightjar, sometimes call the eve-jar. Then there were three dipping down low into the trees looking for moths.

In the distance on a high branch was one of these mysterious birds keeping lookout. It was joined by another and they stayed there long enough for a photo in which its eye shone like a tiny moon. I waited for a while seeing glimpses of dark shapes flitting among the trees and listening to the distinctive whirring and chirring of their calls in the shadow of the Ridgeway.

I drove home towing a huge golden moon behind me. A barn owl drifted low over the road and I heard myself say ‘wow’ – a totally inadequate word for such a special moment.

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Path to the past

Litton Cheney – a village dug in between two ridges. It has the feel of being stranded in time despite the A35 snaking above it on the skyline. I walked past stone cottages thatched and organic as though they’d grown out of the earth without human intervention. A path traversed a field of short crisp grass crunching underfoot. I couldn’t resist picking a flower from a patch of pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidia) and breathing its sweet scent.

Goose grass (Galium aparine) spattered with cuckoo spit clung to me as I brushed by. I imagined all the pale green juvenile frog hoppers hidden in that protective froth. I came across a derelict farmyard left for nature to take over – rotting log piles and old barns – the perfect habitat for insects, bats, beetles, owls and many more creatures that shun tidy sterile environments.

Emerald green harts tongue ferns (Asplenium scolopendrium) bordered the shady lane as I left the shelter of the village for the white way which led gently upwards. I walked through another deserted farmyard where weathered paint peeled from padlocked doors. The cobwebbed glass in the shed windows reflected a phantom image of my face as I tried to peer in. Other windows lacked glass, offering a perfect bolthole for bats and moths. Rusting old machinery grew out of the long grass. A deep silence overlaid this place then a dog barked, breaking the spell.

The chalky path started to climb out of the valley giving views of the strip lynchets terracing the hills. The path had been surfaced with old rubble and stone mixed with thick shards of brown pottery and the occasional fragment of blue china. Overhead a skylark sang in a jet-scarred sky. Cow parsley on tall stalks created a bank of white cloud and grasses were clubbed with heavy seed heads. Nettles fringed the path and, high in the hedges, pale pink dog roses contrasted with dark green. Trees were in full plumage except for one lightning-blasted skeleton, its limbs raised in surrender.

Clumps of purple woundwort (Stachys silvatica) flourished in the banks, bees blustering around the flower spikes. In this prehistoric place I thought about how this plant was used to heal wounds, perhaps from barbed flints. The landscape was opening up now and a steep slope led upwards to the A35 which followed the ridge. I could see lorries on the skyline moving west. Below in the valley, large elder trees were festooned with white umbrella blossoms. White smoke from a bonfire ghosted the distance.

Pins Knoll showed up as a pivotal nub in the circle of hills – a prominent hill which was probably once the site of a settlement. Millions of years ago this landscape was once covered in sea, now swallows swooped in shoals, forked fish-tails against a watery blue sky.