I’d like to begin this account with those timeless words ‘quite early one morning’. I’d like to but, truth be told, it was quite late by the time I got going. And even later that I found out where I was going. I wouldn’t or couldn’t say that the Christmas/New Year week was exhausting so I won’t. Nonetheless, there were a lot of comings and goings, eating and drinking, and general efforts to be merry. And copious amounts of rain, so not much opportunity to escape outdoors.
It’s difficult to get going again. Far easier to stay inside reading A Shepherd’s Life and subsisting on leftovers. At last, however, the sun is shining so it’s time to think about a walk. The incessant deluge has limited many options and the war machine is busy about its business over on the Purbecks so that area is ruled out. I spend some time researching online possibilities and opt for a gentle stroll along the Stour at Cowgrove.
Of course, when I subsequently reach Cowgrove, it’s not damp underfoot – it’s flooded. It’s not even possible to define the outline of the river, let alone walk its banks; it’s spread its watery reaches into neighbouring fields. The lane is too narrow and wet to attempt turning the car around so I carry on until I find an even smaller road which seems to be dwindling into a nothingness. I’ll be in trouble if anything is coming the other way around these twisty bends. Actually, what is coming round the corner on foot is a solitary Dorsetshire type. I wind down the window: ‘Hail fellow, well met. Does this road go anywhere?’ Country yokel looks suitably amused at the fact that anyone would be so stupid as to venture into the unknown. I suppose he puts it down to me being an English type as he proceeds to give me geographical information with more than a hint of an eastern European accent.
Naturally, I ignore his suggestion to turn right at the top of the hill and end up here. Wherever ‘here’ is. It says South Lodge on the sign but that means nothing to me. You might be wondering why I’m travelling without a map. Well, I do have a freshly printed map in my bag. It’s of the submerged Cowgrove Stour walk. Anyway, I’m finally out of the car and off down this track to who knows where. Some way along, I meet two men in a van. Well, one’s in the van and the other one is outside leaning on it. ‘Happy New Year’, I greet them, and reverting to today’s favourite theme, ‘where does this lead?’ And I am a little taken aback by the reply: ‘you can follow this drove all the way round to the Blandford road’.
Yes, he said ‘drove’; not drive or track or path or anything else. Drove. How quaint. A drove was an old English route by which livestock were moved from A to B. Not so Hardyesque it transpires because here in deepest Dorset droves are still used to transfer cattle from one field to another. And when I get home and look at a map of where I’ve been, (the alternative way to travel), I’ll discover that this area is littered with them: Pitt’s Drove, Sweetbriar Drove and suchlike. And along this drove, I passed this strange growth. At first, I thought it to be an old wasps’ nest but now I’m not sure. Answers on a postcard.
For weasel readers who worry about me wandering the countryside alone – and I know you’re out there – I’m pleased to report that a lot of folk were out and about this fine day. None of them were going in my direction but most of them stopped to talk. There go Roger and Helen. I stopped them at a point where the drove divides into two. ‘What are my options here?’ I ask, trying to interject some variety into what’s fast becoming a tedious question. Roger tells me that both tracks are about a mile in length and that he and Helen go up and down one or other of them every day. ‘Ever get bored?’ I don’t ask.
I take the least muddy of the two and meet Jenny and her dog Bodie. Bodie decides to fall in love with me and instantly rejects Jenny. She and I have a conversation about the weather and the treacherous conditions underfoot on this part of the drove. I think she’s probably only passing time until Bodie gets over his crush but, for the dog, it’s the real thing and he’s going nowhere fast. In the end, she has to physically drag him away. There they go. Bye Bodie. Missing you already.
And now what’s this? Just when you think global warming has turned the seasons on their heads, here are the first catkins bursting through the floods. We used to call them lambs’ tails, and speaking of lambs and seasons – in his book, A Shepherd’s Life, Hudson recounts the problems caused by a winter of rain followed by a non-existent Spring which pre-empts a wet and sorry summer. Sound familiar? He wrote this in 1910.
Along the way, I note a farmer busy on his tractor on the ridge. Below him is a lush green field full of rooks feasting, no doubt, on the goodies that have emerged after the flood. It reminds me of Van Gogh’s painting of the crows in the cornfield at Auvers-sur-Ois. My field is greener but still evocative.
Finally, I’m at the end of the drove with yet another choice to make. I’ve already walked some way so I could turn round or I could continue elsewhere. For me, part of the pleasure of a new walk is the thought of writing about it later. The best walking weasels are those with a narrative. Thus, there should really be a beginning, a middle and an end. I have a suspicion that this ramble will not turn out to be circular, yet, to turn tail so soon seems too easy an option. I decide to walk along the beech avenue.
The beech tree avenue is two and a half miles long and was laid out in 1835 on the instructions of William Bankes, allegedly by French prisoners of war. But you don’t want to know that. What you and I want to know is what all these snails are doing up a tree. And I’m saying nothing about the shape of this tree.Tree snails live in tropical countries so that rules out that explanation. Snails like beech litter but all that stuff is down below so that’s also a non-starter. Unless, dear reader, you are the exception, no-one knows what snails are doing up trees. One thought is that they hibernate on the south side (and this is the south side) but why haven’t the birds had them?
I cross the road and get my first view of Badbury Rings, the ancient hill-fort. It’s like a magnet and once again I wonder exactly how long will this walk turn out to be. It has to be done but it’s all uphill from here.
Yet another old track. This one passes the old mediaeval deer park and once more is littered with dogs. French bulldogs proliferate: always ladies and always with suitably beautiful names – Angel and Lola who are glorious in their mud-covered designer coats: ‘Oh don’t let them jump. Oh they really like you’. Yes, I know. I am the dog woman of Dorset.
Miraculously, I reach the summit and here are the rings in all their sunny loveliness. I’ve walked so far and I try not to think about the trudge back to the car which seems to be parked some years in the distant past.
I walk along the bottom of the rings which I’ve never done before. It gives a different perspective of the earthworks. Then, in the most ridiculous move of the day, I take this track across a field thinking I’ll be able to reach the road. I am foiled by a double barbed wire fence that even your intrepid explorer fails to master. What can I say? I must turn back but there is an unanticipated saving grace. A hare that clearly wasn’t expecting human company bounds out from antiquity. Too fast for my camera but a treasure not to escape memory. My home is adorned with images of hares but I’ve seen so few in the wild that this is surely a magical treat.
The sky darkens and the weather is on the change as I wend my way back down the hill. My last photo isn’t very clear but I wanted to include it as it shows Bertie. Bertie is a rescued greyhound from the Margaret Green Foundation. This is only his fourth day with his new owners, Michael and Anne. ‘Can I stroke him?’ I ask. ‘Well’, says Anne, ‘we don’t know what he’s like with strangers yet’. On this muddy Dorset path, Bertie leans against me lovingly. ‘He likes you’, says Michael. Of course he does.
On the way back, I estimated that I’d walked six miles. Turns out it was eight. A warm bath and a bottle of the red stuff will do the trick.