Wild Garlic

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.

Depths of Dorset

I set off early for Stoke Water near Beaminster where a friend has a pond full of newts and tadpoles. She said the surface of the water was seething – I imagined a sort of newt soup and couldn’t wait to take photos. Unfortunately I had woken with conjunctivitis and the day, already grey, seemed even more indistinct viewed through my watering eyes.

Low cloud on the hills softened the outlines of trees suggesting reflections rather than hard reality. It began to drizzle as I drove down through the green tunnels of the hollow-ways, a froth of white cow parsley bubbling on the verges and swathes of amethyst bluebells adding to the illusion of being under water.

The pond’s surface was grey. The only signs of life were a few water beetles sculling around. It was too cold for the newts and tadpoles to cavort about – they were probably hiding deep down. So we went for a walk across the fields and through Pucketts Wood (owned by the Woodland Trust).

Cuckoo Pint was nodding pink-bonneted heads above the lush grass in the field. On the edge of the stream the spiky white flowers of Wild Garlic shone out from dark green leaves and the scent was mouth-watering. As we walked through the next field, our boots knocked puffs of smoking pollen from Plantain.

Pucketts Wood is in a river valley and consists predominantly of tall thin oak and ash trees, not yet in leaf. At the foot of the pale trunks, the small mauve flowers of Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) clustered. Further on in the grassy open spaces, Vipers Bugloss and Yellow Archangel flourished along with primroses and bluebells. Hollowed halves of acorns lay among the leaf litter – possibly left by a dormouse. Rabbit holes and mouse holes were everywhere. The newly shooting Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum) had been mostly chewed off, probably by rabbits. A stinkhorn fungus lay like a shed skin beside the path.

We came to a wooden signpost and I realised we were crossing the Wessex Ridgeway which leads to Lyme Regis. We stopped to photograph a tiny chestnut tree planted by my grandson. A row of spear-headed alliums edged the path and I felt a shiver at the thought of the legions of feet which had trodden this ancient way.