thistles

Snails, dung beetles and burial mounds

I set off from Sutton Poyntz – a pretty village with a duck pond, hunkered down below the eastern haunches of the South Dorset Ridgeway. A chalky path led steadily upwards through a green landscape towards an intensely blue sky. To the south, an equally blue sea defined the Jurassic Coast. Buttercups glowed beside the path as though varnished by the sun, there was vivid blue germander speedwell and the enamelled white petals of daisies. Above these, a froth of sour-smelling cow parsley.

As the path got steeper I focussed on the ground in front of me. The track was strewn with empty snail shells – all different sorts from small lemony yellow ones to large tawny swirled snails and, in between, stripy humbug shells and chalky blue/grey ones. All the shells were empty. If a thrush had eaten the contents, I would have thought the shells would be shattered, but each one was intact. Perhaps the snails were venturing from one side of the path to the other when the heat of the sun dried them out. But there were no decomposing corpses so ‘snail mile’ remains a mystery.

By this time I was at the end of the path and just cresting the ridge of hills. Below me were clusters of houses, their windows winking SOS signals in the bright sun. This litter of habitation looked like terminal moraine at the end of a glacier. I stood on top of the world surrounded by seeding grasses and the strong lanolin smell of sheep. Dreadlocks of sheep’s wool hung from barbed wire fences and a newly shorn pristine flock skittered anxiously around seemingly self-conscious in their naked whiteness.

The tall grasses were topped with multi-coloured seedheads – rust red, purple, brown and pink. At ground level were swathes of candy-coloured clover and a creeping mat of buttercups. Out of this tapestry rose a pillowy tumulus. I chose my patch carefully and lay down on the barrow among the nettles, thistles and sheep dung.

Coppery dung beetles with shiny peppermint thoraxes scuttled among the grass stems, occasionally taking off, their small whirring wings hardly adequate to carry their bulbous bodies along. In Egyptian mythology the dung beetle or scarab was immortalised in the form of amulets. The sun god, Ra, rolled across the sky each day transforming bodies and souls, just as the dung beetle rolls dung into a ball as food. The dung is also used for a brood chamber where the beetle lays its eggs, and where these later turn into larvae. Consequently the dung beetle was seen a symbol of the heavenly cycle and associated with rebirth and resurrection. I read a report that the dung beetle is tuned into the circadian rhythms, being a crepuscular flier. It seemed a suitable companion on this burial mound.

I lay rather uncomfortably with a stone in my back imagining the skeletons buried beneath me in that cold dark earth. Above me, clouds were spaced out like continents. A skylark sang distantly and I could almost feel the spinning of the world as I lay balanced between land and sky on the top of that burial mound.

I turned my back on the pylons standing sentinel on the summit of the ridgeway and started the steep climb back down to Sutton Poyntz. On the lower stretch was a woodland – Veteran Wood, a conservation area owned by Wessex Water. A board explained that the copse contained several veteran trees of over a hundred years old. I stepped into the cool shade of the wood and the scent of wild garlic. A clear stream meandered between the trees whose roots stretched out to paddle in its coolness. It was quiet here apart from muted birdsong. Green ferns uncurled beside the water and I imagined weary travellers slaking their thirst and resting in this peaceful place before journeying on.

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Time and Distance

The sky was a pale faraway blue edged with surfy white clouds – the look it gets as autumn approaches and the sun steps back. House martins were gathering on the wires – separate black notes on a page of music.

I saw things from the corner of my eye – a clump of seeding thistles huddled in a field, tufty white heads nodding sagely, the ghost of an egret taking off from the stream, a scattering of young pheasants in the dry grass, a tortoiseshell butterfly incongruously perched on an alloy wheel, the sharp silvery leaves of the Carline thistle. It’s strange how things sometimes seem clearer sideways-on. Stars are seen best on the edge of vision.

On the coastal path at Abbotsbury plants, were anticipating autumn. The multi-coloured berries of nightshade hung in strigs over the pebbles, bristly ox-tongue was seeding vigorously and teasels revealing their exquisite architecture. Tamarisk bushes were flowering desperately, pink feathery flowers in disarray, looking as though they’d got up late, and almost missed the summer.

Along the verges, tall stems were silhouetted against the sky, each one topped with what looked like a carelessly packed parcel of black yoyos dangling spindly strings. These wild leeks (known as Babbington’s leeks) dominated the hedgerow.

Thought to have originated from prehistoric times, this is a perennial plant which grows well here – behind the beach, sheltered from the salty winds by the Chesil bank. Earlier in the summer lush strappy leaves surrounded pastel green stems, each with a globular flower head encased in a tissue-like membrane. In midsummer the membranes tear into little pixie hoods revealing a bunch of round bright green seeds from which grow small pinky-mauve flowers on thin stalks. Now the seeds were black as billiard balls, ready to roll.

On the shingle, sea pea extended thin green fingers, pointing towards the sea. Clumps of sea campion lay low, seed heads bobbing in the wind like tiny paper bags. A line of anglers marked the shoreline. Unfortunately their rubbish littered the strandline – a silvery shoal of polythene bags, bottles, cellophane and tinfoil barbeque trays.

From the corner of my eye I saw a strangely shaped pebble. It was a fossilised sea urchin, ground down and misshapen by sea and shingle. It seemed to squint at me from the distant past.

Snails, Showers and Seaweed

A humid morning. Snails sliding up walls lubricated with overnight rain. Bees slowly gyrating like a child’s mobile around the verbascum, their buzzing blending with the drone of a plane and the hum of approaching thunder. The air is static with electricity and the dog is on edge, following me everywhere – creeping under my desk, pressing against my legs.

I unplugged the broadband and headed for the beach hoping for fresher air. Camouflage-splodges of rain started to fall on the tarmac as I drove off. The recent dry weather has tanned the grass on the roadsides. Treetops are singed brown. The school holidays have just begun and autumn is already elbowing summer out of the way.

Rusty spokes of seeding hogweed line the road, along with spikes of rosebay willow herb. Thistles and burdock add to the purple theme. Sheep are bunching up in a field. By the time I reach the coast at Abbotsbury the screen wipers are on double speed and the rain is bouncing off the road like a million ping pong balls. People are sheltering under the corrugated iron porch of the beach café. A child in an adult-sized plastic cape is splashing luxuriously in the puddles.

I wait in the car till the flashes of lightning and thunder-rumbles subside. The heavy rain has turned the path behind the beach into a stream. I wade through wet shingle noting the bright yellow blooms on the bristly ox-tongue, the rain-battered petals of sea campion, candy-pink flowers of the common mallow and glossy red berries of woody nightshade, tunnels of tamarisk. The air is heavy and it’s like walking under water.

Back in the car and along the coast road. To my left a bank of grey cloud has merged with the sea distorting the horizon. On my right, puffs of steam are coming off the fields. Ahead, Golden Cap is topped by a plume of white mist and looks like a volcano. Colmers Hill is misty in the distance.

Along the strandline on Burton Bradstock are ribbons of different types of seaweed – carragheen, dulse and kelp, tied together by the storm. These are garnished with the usual fishing wire, bits of rope and plastic but I was pleased to see the shell of a spider crab. The gravely sand is pock-marked with the rain, there is a smell of fish and chips. A small boy is screaming like a gull as he rushes at the sea.

Driving home along a steaming road, the Fleet lies silver and flat as a filleted fish on the edge of the sea. I’m glad of the air-conditioning.