thorn trees

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.

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Hedges and Edges

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In the sheltered valleys the matt greys and browns of winter hedges have been replaced by greens and silvers. Willows on the edge of the water meadows glow like candles. Even before leaves have appeared it is as if the sap is gleaming through the bark, as trees and hedges come back to life. Blackthorn, wild damson and cherry are flowering in a snowstorm of blossom – and now a traditional Blackthorn winter seems to be following with cold northerly winds.

In the last few days leaves have started to unfurl, as if plants have a built-in mechanism telling them when it is the equinox. Deep inside there must be light sensors weighing the daylight and triggering growth when day and night are equal. Even Horse Chestnuts are starting to come into leaf.

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However, nearer the coast, hedges have a different story to tell. Where sea spray had been driven inland during the winter storms, the hedges have been salt-burnt on their seaward sides. Gorse is brown and stunted. Conifers and other evergreens have shrivelled where the salty winds scorched their leaves. The only colour on the seaside hedges is bright green lichen, indicating the purity of the air.  Thorn trees are bent and arthritic, twisted from the strength of the gales off the sea. Spring is taking longer to arrive here on the exposed hills and coasts.

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