Wessex Ridgeway

Kingcombe, Dorset

I first saw Kingcombe in February 1987 when it was a hamlet untouched by time. There was a traditional thatched Long House and other farm buildings and cottages – all in a semi-ruinous state. The whole valley of 600 acres had always been farmed organically and had been in the ownership of one family since the beginning of the twentieth century. This unique landscape had never been touched by artificial fertilisers, pesticides or any chemicals and was rich in wildflowers, birdlife and mammals. In 1987 it was bought by a developer and then auctioned in several lots.

Luckily the majority of the estate was bought by a man who was passionate about nature conservation, and he set about creating the Kingcombe Wildlife Centre. The buildings were sensitively renovated and the unique landscape preserved. The Dorset Wildlife Trust now owns and runs the Centre.

Today I set off down the narrow lanes leading to Kingcombe. A filigree of copper-coloured ferns edged the single-track road and, as I plunged deeper into the valley, water was running down the centre of the twisting track – rural Dorset as Thomas Hardy knew it. I arrived at Kingcombe and parked outside the visitor centre. Racks of Wellington boots were ranged outside the door. Inside, the tables were covered in a display of fungi found on a foray at the weekend.

A blackboard showed the wildlife sightings – kingfisher, kestrel, tawny owls, heron . . . and a vole (found in the chicken run), lizard, dormouse, woodmice and Colin the Crayfish! There was a map of the area showing the names of different fields – Cowleaze, Scutlers, Lord’s Mead, Adders Hole, Pound Plots, Yonder Cowleaze, Barn Mead, Bushy Ground . . . each name telling a story.

I wandered past the hen run, through the organic kitchen garden and down to the wildlife pond and river. The gentle music of birdsong blended with the sound of the stream, creating a peaceful environment far from the noise of traffic. Hedgerow plants were seeding, straggling, tangling together in a natural tapestry. There were no tidy edges or straight lines – everything had been left to decay without interference. Old stumps and fallen trees were covered in moss, providing ideal habitats for all sorts of insects.

Two green woodpeckers took off and disappeared into lichen-covered branches. A deep leaf litter covered the boggy ground. The old well with a stone surround was partially hidden behind a jumble of weeds, but a carved S was visible (the land was owned by the Sandwich family until 1918). A rutted track curved away up the hill – part of the ancient Wessex Ridgeway.

I was acutely aware of how people and nature had lived in harmony here for hundreds of years. There couldn’t be a greater contrast to the huge hedgeless fields of commercial agriculture. This place is an oasis for wildlife – a small homespun patch in the sterile garment covering most of our countryside.

Two walks on the Wild Side

Notes on a Walk – Beaminster

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Buzzard soaring on brindled wings, primary feathers fanned against a blue sky. A faint mewing sound carried on the breeze. We were on Horn Hill high above Beaminster with a buzzard’s eye view of the landscape below us as far as the sea, hazy in the distance. A Yellow Brimstone zigzagged by – a scrap of spring sunshine.

We stepped out of the sun into Clay Coppice, following a narrow muddy path between the trees. A Tortoiseshell butterfly, mottled in woodland shade, led us further in. Wood anemones glowed like white stars on the dark ground. Clumps of celandines, sharp and glinting, grew next to soft pale primroses.

All the time we were walking uphill, eventually emerging on to Common Water Lane. It was like a riverbed, rutted and strewn with rocks, water seeping out from hidden springs then trickling down the steep lane between the stones. It had an ancient feel to it and I found out later it forms part of the pre-Roman Wessex Ridgeway and the Monarch’s Way, associated with the route Charles II took in 1651.

From there we walked downhill with a sharp wind blowing towards us. A magpie was hopping clumsily around in a bare hedge looking for nesting twigs.

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Notes on a Walk – RSPB Radipole Lake

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A soft-focus day – grey skies, slight drizzle and swathes of reeds creating a muffled sensation. The silence was suddenly shattered by what sounded like a tambourine being shaken in my ear – a Cetti’s Warbler. An indistinct grey shadow flitted off only to surprise me once more with its shattering outburst.

On the water, two pairs of Great Crested Grebes drifted in a slow ballet mirroring each other’s movements. Tufted Ducks and Mallards dipped and dived in the silky grey water. A Coot made a noise similar to a rusty gate. On a rock in the middle of the water a young Cormorant’s sharp silhouette – motionless.

In the distance two Shelducks like painted china ornaments posed in front of the reeds. A strong scent of honey filled the air – a Bay Tree in flower. We spotted a pair of Pochards – their red eyes visible through the binoculars. A Dunnock was singing in the Blackthorn. Spring had arrived right on cue in Radipole Nature Reserve with the change of clocks!

IMG_5598Tufted Duck at Radipole