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.
The idea was to have a moonlit walk on the South Dorset Ridgeway. This ancient trackway runs along a knife-edge high above the sea with views towards Portland and the Jurassic coast to the south and over the valley of the River Frome to the north. It was created millions of years ago when Africa crashed into Europe causing this part of Dorset to crumple up like a tablecloth. In prehistoric times when most of the land was forested, this narrow exposed chalky ridge – where little could grow apart from contorted thorn trees – provided a relatively clear and safe route.
We arrived just before dusk on the day after the full moon. The sun was low in the sky casting dramatic shadows from clusters of tumuli and the distant hill fort of Maiden Castle. We were stalked by our own shadows which crept over the wind-bent grass behind us as we walked west. Campions and Cow Parsley lined the verge beside the track. The sea to our left was a brilliant blue like paint squeezed straight from the tube. The air was peppered with pollen and my eyes felt gritty in the wind.
Skylarks were singing for a while then they dropped with the sun into the long grass. Small white moths flitted beside the path. The sun was so low it was skimming the ground, spot-lighting the wayside poppies, clover and buttercups. The clouds banked up while a single bird sang on the wires overhead. Then the sun glowed briefly like a giant poppy before vanishing. We turned to walk back and saw the silhouette of a deer above a grassy mound, ears sharply etched against the sky.
The wildflowers seemed to have kept a little of the last light, ox-eye daisies glowing in the dark grass. My mother used to call this dusking time ‘dimpse’ – a word which describes perfectly the dim soft light that lingers before darkness falls. We waited a while hoping to see the moon, but it wasn’t due to rise till much later.
As I drove home I saw a fox trotting across a field in a purposeful way – night creatures were beginning to claim the land. A few hours later a huge moon hung in the sky over our village and I imagined its light silvering the chalky track of the Ridgeway where we walk in the footprints of ancient people.
I took the old narrow road to Eggardon Hill – ‘The Roman Road runs straight and bare/ As the pale parting-line in hair’ (Thomas Hardy). The hedges either side were stark against the pale December sky, a few leaves still clinging to the bare whips despite the gales. Dog wood and coppery beech leaves added touches of colour to the otherwise monochrome landscape. A buzzard flew up in front of me like a shape cut from the hedgerow.
Eggardon Hill in West Dorset is the site of a prehistoric hill fort. A dramatic chalk escarpment bears the remains of an Iron Age settlement. Bronze Age tumuli top the skyline and the whole area has an ancient atmosphere. I have known it since childhood, but found out later that, in the Middle Ages, a gallows was sited in the centre of the hill fort. There are traces of henges and ring barrows which pock-mark the hillsides when the winter sun is low in the sky.
I took the single-track lane west where strange happenings have been reported over the years. I remember in the early 1970’s hearing about a strange blue light sighted here, and of cars’ engines stalling suddenly. It is said that raised voices have been heard here – perhaps the sounds of a battle from long ago.
The track-way is raised like a causeway above the fields either side and, several years ago, I was driving along it in thick fog at twilight. The mist swirled around me like a sea and it was quite difficult to stay on the track. I stopped at the cross roads at the end and suddenly two white deer appeared in the middle of the road. They hesitated for a moment as if on the cusp of the real world and the underworld before disappearing back into the mist.