Some time ago, I became involved with Friends of the Ridgeway in exploring the accessibility, or otherwise, of a new leg of that famous route. Wires became crossed – I thought I was to research a link with the South Dorset Ridgeway when, in fact, the proposed route was along the south Wiltshire/north Dorset boundary away from my preferred seascapes. The geographical distances made it difficult for a lone walker so I enlisted the help of my trusty walking companions. Today, in yet more February sunshine, we walked the Ox Drove.
To be truthful, I wasn’t entirely sure what an ox is or was. I had vague recall of a book called Brother to the Ox but fear I’ve never read it. This literary omission will be rectified toute de suite. They pretended to know but I’m not convinced. Anyway, we begin north of Cranborne Chase on this ancient stretch of way that extends from Salisbury to Shaftesbury. Perhaps the oxen were driven to market in either of these towns but, as we walk, I am minded of transhumance which I had once thought to be a provencal phenomenon but is actually a generic term to describe the seasonal moving of animals from low to high ground and back again. And we’re very high up.
It seems that no sooner have we started than we leap off piste for reasons that will shortly become clear. Personally, I don’t mind: I’m not a fan of woods, even those with alleged important archaeological goodies within. I’m happy to be out on the sun-soaked hills and it’s not long before a treat appears in the shape of a yellowhammer. I’ve only ever seen one before but it transpires that there are several of them up here. We creep up on this one who is suitably open to a few lucky snaps.
The heat haze refuses to dissipate for the remainder of the day. Nonetheless, what we can see of the views is stunning. In particular, we espy a strange stone in the distance which transpires as a sculpture of a stag. Sadly, I cannot find any information about this entity which seems impossible to access: a challenge for Weasel readers perhaps.
The reason we took this open air detour is because my map reading friends have spotted a memorial in evidence. Well, somebody wanted to remember someone else (Weasel alert) up here in the middle of nowhere where he could overlook his farm and the watercress beds he laid. Much later, in a desperate attempt to find a cup of tea, we pass by the watercress in one of the Chalke villages. Unfortunately, we were back in two cars and I was following Sally who was trying to break the sound barrier so there was no photo opportunity.
Back on a ridiculously muddy track, Sally calls a halt to the incessant plodding. She has espied this wonderful herd of very confused young deer. They are so beautiful that we spend a long time watching them rushing around before Tony points out ‘been there, done that’. Yes, we’d much rather slip and slide through eons of mud.
On our walking instructions, the author offers us a less demanding path. Sadly, all three of us miss this. I explain to Sally that, as I live alone, I never stop talking the minute I meet up with someone. This will explain why I’m not concentrating properly on the route. I don’t know what their excuse is. The path is just too much like hard work and we venture past a gap in a barbed wire fence, down the edge of a field and follow Tony through an extremely overgrown wood to emerge onto the path we should’ve joined earlier. Here, the countryside is extremely busy with tractors and we wander on to a suitable verge on which to eat our picnic. It’s so warm that Sally complains of sunstroke and I feel like a snooze.
An auspicious day: allegedly, it’s the hottest February day on record; but records only began in 1918 and I can’t believe they didn’t have a few variances in the dimmer past. Nonetheless, I’ve finally discarded the winter coat in favour of denim jacket to begin my walk at Osmington. Even though I had little idea where this place was when I set forth this morning, I’ve been wanting to come here for some time, encouraged solely by a solitary photograph I saw last year in one of those free magazines.
It’s Miss Marple country – full of delightful thatched homes with names like Fossil Cottage, Wessex Cottage and so on. And here’s the pretty Victorian water pump that I’m supposed to espy as a way marker. Sadly, I misread the instructions and wander along the wrong path for a while after this. I might’ve carried on and found my own way but the fields are full of beasts so I retrace my steps and quickly find the route I’m supposed to take further down Church Lane.
Immediately, I emerge into open countryside beneath the chalk carving of George III on his trusty steed, created in 1808 to mark his visits to nearby Weymouth where he enjoyed riding Adonis across the Ridgeway. My instructions warn that the way will be muddy – which it is – but this will be counteracted by the views. Correct.
To my left, a Sparrowhawk is enjoying the remains of some indeterminable detritus, whilst to the right, the River Jordan struggles along. I was once lucky enough to visit the ‘original’ Jordan at a point where the Israelis watched over us from the other side. It wasn’t a great deal wider than this Dorset incarnation, named through some obscure etymology, but somehow less threatening. And here is the long path I must take – daunting I suspect in more adverse conditions but a joy in today’s sunshine.
Sutton Poyntz, when I eventually reach it, is also a joy. There’s a spring above the village and it seems as though every building has an accompanying water feature. This is Midsummer territory and I sit on a handy bench to share half my picnic with a local feathered inhabitant whilst I wait for Inspector Barnaby to appear. Afterwards, I take a gentle stroll through a number of lanes. Gentle because I feel there might be hard work ahead.
Firstly, somewhere near Sutton Farm, I meet Gus and the woman who’s walking him today who tells me she’s a professional dog walker. Four a day, apparently. Well, she’s not that professional as, having told her to ‘stroll on’, a euphemism for ‘there’s no way I’m rushing up this incline’, she totally fails to notice that Gus, who keeps looking hopefully at me, is having a massive roll in some fox poo. Oh well, someone will spot that later.
And this is Chalbury Hill Fort which we’re all ascending at our own speeds. Chalbury, being 380 feet above sea level, is one of the oldest known of it’s type, dating from 800BC. Fortunately, it’s over and done with in a reasonable amount of time. I spot Gus and the professional from time to time walking in various directions before going back down the hill from whence they came.
Being anxious to ascend the South Dorset Ridgeway, I am careful with my directions. I take longer than Gus’ guardian but at least I’m going somewhere. The views are astounding. Tiny birds, in pairs, make unexpected appearances and although I capture one or two in my lens, I have no idea what they are. When I see Portland and Weymouth in the distance, I sit, like Miss Muffet, on a tussock and eat the other half of my sandwich.
It’s impossible to know where to look first or next. Some people from Surrey arrive and congratulate me on my choice of luncheon venue. They have those Norwegian sticks and have walked all the way from Hardy’s monument. It’s commendable but I prefer my pace and I feel they’re looking enviously at my hard boiled egg. They stop awhile as we all share the hope that it’s a red kite we can see gracing the thermals. I fear it’s a buzzard, but still beautiful.
And here are some snaps of the glorious ridgeway along which I walk in total isolation
On this sparkling morning, someone delivering a washing machine to someone else has parked his lorry across the front of my car. ‘Excuse me’, I begin and the driver is so quick to move the offending vehicle that, in my inferred hurry, I have to speedily drive away pretending I can see where I’m going. I can’t: the car is frozen solid and the windscreen refuses to clear. It’s a bit parky.
Following a last minute change of plan, my friends and I are undertaking a six and a half miles circular walk from Wimborne St Giles ( the prettiest village in Dorset according to our information sheet) to Gussage All Saints and back. St Giles was a Greek hermit whose feast happens to fall on my birthday. Not much of a feast though as he was a vegan. I assume this village sign depicts him protecting the deer from a juvenile hunter.
Any adverse behaviour would warrant a spell in the stocks, the rotting remainder of which can be seen below this sunken well. It’s probably more relevant to look at the state of the surrounds which will give some indication of just how cold it is today. Despite two pairs of socks, my feet are frozen before we’ve even left the village.
On the other hand, looking upwards to this mistletoe dressed tree illustrates the sun-soaked clear blue skies that we are about to enjoy and the promise of a slight rise in temperature.
Tony wants to walk along the River Allen. Sadly, his desire is short lived as the water will soon disappear. However, what we see of it is beautiful. According to the instructions we’re following, this walk will take a little over two hours. Well, that may be the truth if one fails to stop and imbibe the countryside which is looking a little French on this frosty morning.
Here’s the rub. Just as we’ve left the river and are walking along a fairly boring lane, Sally cries ‘stop, stop’. Tony can’t hear as he’s lagging behind seeking water fowl so its left to we two to try and record the barn owl my eagle-eyed friend has spotted. Such a treat. ‘Might as well go home now’, she says . ‘We won’t better that’.
Well, maybe not in ornithological terms but just look at the sun-soaked countryside: the quiet river Allen wandering through the water meadows of Dorset, a sky-owning kestrel and a couple of swans minding their own business as we trek up the hill to Tenantry Down.
At the top of the hill, and seeing an open prospect ahead, I decide it’s time to take advantage of the facilities. You know that feeling you get that someone’s watching you, especially when it’s impossible to move speedily, well this is what was behind me. I don’t know what it is. A meerkat? I hurry out of the bush.
And there they are, studying the map, some way down the track at a point that made me glad we’d climbed the hill and I was back in the open. I decide against mentioning the meerkat.There’s another person in this sightline. You probably can’t see him and he was the only other person we met out here in the middle of nowhere but, trust me, he was there. I loved it up here: in truth, it’s not my favourite of all that the Dorset countryside has to offer but it was so quiet and peaceful and so vast with that huge blue sky that its a moment worth remembrance.
We amble up hill and down, around and about, past copses and woods that are fairly jammed with little songbirds, and eventually find ourselves in Gussage All Saints. Whoever wrote the directions for the walk estimates that the whole jaunt should take about two hours. Well, they must’ve gone at quite the pace without stopping to look at anything of the countryside. We’ve been out for two and a half hours and have only now reached the half way point. Who cares – it’s lunchtime and I’m christening my brand new bird covered flask that my daughter gave me for Christmas. It’s full of that childhood delight – Heinz tomato soup. Mmmm.
Under watchful eyes, we sit on a bench by the war memorial and eat our picnic. When were up on Tenantry Down, it seemed as if the day had warmed marginally even though we roamed vast open spaces with no cover. Down here, in the shelter of the village, it seems particularly cold once more. Perhaps the sun can’t get in. It’s not uncomfortable but we don’t hang about once we’ve fortified ourselves.
There’s a bit of a dodgy crossroads called Amen Corner as one leaves the village. It’s got one of those roadside safety mirrors which Sally cleverly utilises to get us a group photo. Good job there wasn’t any passing traffic – they would’ve found us bizarre. We’re also momentarily tempted by a wide variety of home-made jams and pickles for sale outside a house but quickly come to our senses on realising this will comprise more things to carry.
There’s still a stretch to go over open farmland and along tree-edged fields. There are also still flocks of birds including long-tailed tits, enjoying the glorious afternoon sunshine. Eventually though, we’re back in Wimborne St Giles where we stop on Bull Bridge to enjoy the calm of the water. Over by the church, things are not so peaceful as the inhabitants of the rookery are raucous. Perhaps they’re glad to see us back after nearly five hours.
Every Christmas, apart from MR James’ ghost stories, there are two pieces of writing I always read. One is Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales ,which I’m determined my tiny grandson will love; although, if he does, it will be a miracle given that I’ve failed with my own three children and two older grandchildren. The other is TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi which I learned at primary school.
The standard of the writing is such that you might be forgiven for thinking I went to a private joint constructed for the elite who would progress to Oxbridge. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was a tiny state school in the backwaters of Berkshire/now Oxfordshire. We were taught by ladies who’d lost their potential husbands in ‘the war’. And we were taught, literally. ‘old school’. We didn’t do bits of books: we did the whole thing – Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens. Eliot – and all before we were ready for the eleven-plus.
Christmas should make you happy but this poem isn’t a celebration of anything. It’s sad and it’s cynical; it does nothing to make one believe in the nativity. Relating the hardship of ‘journey’,it simply illustrates another side of that old story.
Journey of the Magi
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
I’m still trying to avoid the shops. However, in Old Mother Hubbard’s house the larder is completely bare and I’ve had to brave the local Co-op this morning for a ready-made sandwich in order that I can safely walk without fear of passing out from malnutrition. I was minded to travel to Tyneham and walk down to Worbarrow Bay where I could munch said ham and cheese on the beach whilst furkling around in the sand for those little pieces of green polished glass that are strangely prolific thereabouts. I am thwarted in my intention: on turning onto the road to Creech, I find an unwelcome sign indicating that Tyneham is closed this morning due to the MOD practising for impending war against Brussels.
Against my better judgement, I end up at Kimmeridge. It’s not that I don’t want to go to Kimmeridge: it’s just that I don’t want to pay five pounds for the privilege of doing so to the Smedmore estate. As luck would have it, this morning’s grey skies are such that the Master up at the hall has decided that insufficient serfs or intruders would be passing by to warrant paying a keeper of tolls and I speed past the empty kiosk. There’s only one other car parked on the cliffs where Frank Spencer fell over the edge in a long-ago episode of Some Mothers do ‘Ave ‘Em. There’s another equally ambitious soul out there today.
The sea is choppy and the grey sky is undecided in meteorological intention. In any case, the winter tide is so far inshore that traversing the beach is an impossibility. I wrap myself against the keening wind, turning left to walk along the cliff and down towards the marine centre – ‘closed until April’. By this time, the clouds have come to a decision and temporarily raced off elsewhere. Strangely, however, the car park down here hosts around a dozen cars and vans. Where are their owners?
I scramble over the slippery boulders and slip my way around the headland where I spy those who’ve presumably abandoned work to fight their way through and into the waves. There are about thirteen of them. I perch on a rock and have a sneaky look at my phone to see whether it’s time to eat. Since I retired, I rarely wear a watch. It’s a sort of ‘up yours’ to the constraints of work. Doesn’t work too well as I’m always late but I like the vague sense of freedom it affords. Anyway, it’s not lunchtime but, mesmerised by the sea-borne action, I compromise and eat half the Co-op sandwich.
Here’s a latecomer.
I could happily sit here all day watching the changing colours of the seascape but I would feel guilty about the lack of exercise so I retrace my steps back to the marine centre. The water is beginning to recede so, with some difficulty, I slip and slide along part of the beach until the inaccessibility forces me up the cliff via these unfriendly, mud-ridden steps.
The sun has made a brave appearance and through blue skies the folly is silhouetted. Foolishly, I once climbed up there. It was a painful experience and when I reached the summit, I was so dizzy and disorientated I had to sit on the grass away from the edge and gather my spirits. There was no way I could continue as the drop was too frightening. Today, a sign warns that there’s been slippage and walkers should take extra care. Only mountaineers and the foolhardy should proceed.
Having reached terra firma, I’m at last able to look upwards (as opposed to watching every trap below). A lone kestrel is hovering above in search of lunch. Below, a small flock of gulls are enjoying the grey sea.
By the time I reach the other end of the cliff the sea and the sky are somewhere between blue and grey and the water has receded sufficiently for me tread warily down towards the old World War Two defences. It’s not fossil hunting weather on this part of the Jurassic Coast and the place is, initially, buzzing with a million unattractive flies.
Nonetheless, close to the water, the air is pure. I sit on a once dinosaur-trampled slab and eat the other half of my sandwich watching the changes in the light and colours. Further along the beach is an elderly man just finishing his picnic. We are two-happy-to-be alone souls in the moment. He approaches me and comments on the coldness of the season. He’s wearing shorts. I don’t point out the obvious.
Over on the far cliff is a red flag signalling the danger from the shooting that stopped my initial plan. And further on is the nodding donkey: the oil and gas well that I walk to for the first time ever.
And, here, more importantly, is my Dorset that I look back on as I finally return to the car