December. It’s coming on Christmas and you have to take your chances when and where you can on a last-minute Sunday. Those beautiful huge Dorset skies could promise a sunny winter’s day; or they could be the harbingers of rain-laden doom. We zip up our coats and don hats, hoods and gloves against the deceptive chill with the intention of heading out towards the timelessness of Corfe Common.
Daughter number one thinks we should commence our journey via the village but I disagree: we’ll be side-tracked by festive jollity and miss our ramble. In any case, she knew nothing of the existence of a second castle other than the one that Corfe is famous for. ‘The Rings’ comprise a Norman motte and bailey siege fort founded by King Stephen and currently guarded by a flock of equally ancient sheep.
There’s to be a lot of boundary climbing involved in this walk. After a photo opportunity, we try to leave The Rings but find the gate to the field we require tied and wired and probably set with ammunition. She’s new to this walking malarkey and wants to retrace our steps. I’m all for the quicker alternative and we bundle our way up and over and locate the pathway that runs to the village from Knowle Hill. It’s not really a pathway: more of an animal track, but a clear and straight line is apparent. At the bottom is an option: continue along the path or deviate.
The trouble with the countryside is that it’s full of animals. Cows are dodgy but generally stupid. The field ahead, that I’m keen to avoid, contains horses. In these parts a lot of folk travel by horse. They even have signs along the roads depicting people on horseback inside red triangles. You might think that these horses would be familiar with humans and not give a jot to a couple of strangers traversing their territory. I’m old school: I think red triangles indicate danger. We deviate.
I can see the Common in the distance but our route, gained by climbing another fence, is wet and getting wetter. We wander across a treacherous marsh seeking a way to the bridge which I’m sure I remember from a dream I once had. Here’s the thing – we can hear voices but can see no-one and there’s no exit from this land without a public right of way. In the end, loath to turn tail, we fight a few rotten trees, climb over a barbed wire fence, venture through a gate and finally locate the bridge. On the other side we find the voices: a bunch of volunteers clearing the pathway and having a jolly time around a large bonfire. Or, we’ve walked into a remake of The Wicker Man. They seem startled to see us and send us on our way up to the Common.
I told you this was horse country. It’s not too bad though as there’s a lot of space up here. This is Thomas Hardy territory. Egdon Heath is, in truth, a composite of various Dorset heathland. However, it seems pretty certain that Return of the Native was mostly set on Corfe Common. Timelessness is not a cliché around here.
Ever since she was a child, she’s had a mantra which we’ve repeated endlessly over the years: ‘how lucky we are to live here’. To the left are the ruts caused by long-ago smugglers wheeling their contraband-laden carts down into the village ready for transport to Wareham and on to London. To the right, is the great Purbeck Ridge which wanders across the southern most part of Dorset before choosing either a seaward destination or continuing along other ridgeways.
A large and unfriendly looking black horse suddenly gallops out of the past and frightens us. We rush into water-ridden land so deep that it creeps up our legs and into our boots. I ask if she wants to take that little lane into the village but the horse has gone and the sun is shining. She wants to continue. What happiness it is to be with someone who is only now discovering the joy of walking the countryside.
We accost the only other person up here and beg her to record our day as we sit smugly on a handy stone seat and laugh inwardly at all those people currently undertaking their Christmas shopping while we have all of this pretty much to ourselves. Later, we’ll go into Corfe and discover that the tiny village shop stocks two hundred varieties of gin.
I suppose that when it’s too dark to stop taking photographs there’s nothing else to do while you’re waiting for the next day.