‘That map’s rubbish’, states Peter angrily and I think he might be right. However, when I begin my walk along the Poole Harbour Trail at Wareham Bridge, all seems well in this freezing world and I have yet to meet him. I’ve walked the opposite bank of the River Frome previously but this side is far more attractive and accessible.
To my right, the water meadows are, unsurprisingly, fairly wet although not yet completely immersed. Think of all the usual descriptions of sunlight on water, pick your favourite, and there you have it. I’m not going to make up any new metaphors and similes. And even though a river is not always my favourite of waterways, I am, as usual, disappointed to leave it behind as I make an eventual right turn up a hill, as indicated on the map.
It’s a pictorial map: it depicts three bird varieties, a butterfly, a deer, a couple of trees and two cairns. Not much in the way of directions though; just some dots wriggling across miles of pale green nothingness. Still, I’m looking forward to the cairns. Wareham boasts archaeological evidence of Mesolithic activity around 9000 BCE so you can be sure the ancients were traipsing here eons ago. Perhaps, they, too, were following the Purbeck Way. Later, I will reflect on why I’m actually following signs for the Purbeck Way: possibly because they look rustic and, more importantly, because there aren’t any other signs. Perhaps it means do it in the Purbeck Way – a sort of rural Lambeth Walk. Whatever, it’s only in the evening that I notice the infamous PW isn’t mentioned once on The Map.
So I trickle on down into Ridge. This is nice. I’ve not been to Ridge before which might explain why I don’t know where to go now. I can see where the next wooden signpost is pointing but it doesn’t look very interesting so I ask Peter who’s just emerging from his car having been into town to collect The Telegraph. Bad move Peter. His day was going so well until that irritating woman in a green hat appeared. I show him my map of which, up until this moment, I’d been quite proud. I explain that I’m following the route backwards. He’s unimpressed. ‘This map’s all wrong’, Peter says. ‘Who drew it’, he demands as he looks for names? ‘You need to go down here, turn right at Sunnyside, go up Soldiers Road, turn left, go over the cattle grid and turn right’. I don’t want to go down there but I’m frightened. ‘I’d like to see the cairns’, I suggest. ‘Oh cairns’, says he, ‘nothing but piles of stones’. Correct. I try to engage him in history: ‘Why is it called Soldiers Road’, I ask in my most pleasant voice? ‘I don’t know’, admits the man who clearly knows everything.
During WW1, Wareham became a garrison town, home to 7000 soldiers who lived and trained in the environs. Perhaps they were, from time to time, following the Purbeck Way. Given that it’s a relatively small country town, the cemetery contains many graves of soldiers of diverse nationalities from both of the major wars. I try a spot of green-hatted joviality: ‘perhaps you could go inside and make a lovely new map’, I venture. But Peter’s having none of it. The woman from the tourist information joint lives down the lane and he’s off to make an official complaint.
The thing is, he’s right: I go down there, turn into Sunnyside, up the first part of Soldiers Road, cross the road and arrive, unexpectedly, at a random menhir. So, it’s not a cairn but I like it and it marks my entry to Pike’s Tramway which goes on and on and on and on. Further, this tramway is on my map although its position there bears no relation to the truth of the matter. As ever, I’m all alone. Just the other day, a well-meaning friend suggested that if I was intent on walking alone across vast swathes of countryside populated only by ghosts, it might be an idea to tell someone beforehand and maybe call in from time to time. The trouble is I seldom know where I’m going let alone where I am. And on days as glorious as these, I tend to forget all that outside world stuff which, in truth, is the point of it all.
For example, all I’m aware of now is the thud of a hundred historical horses’ hooves as they gallop across Middlebere carrying armies of soldiers. La de da. Suddenly, to my left, a herd of horses appear, galloping at dangerously high speed across the heath. No soldiers in sight but these animals are both exhilarating and frightening.
Not that long ago, and not too far away, I was driving along happily looking for a ‘pick your own’ joint when I spotted a group of donkeys. I pulled up and left the car in order to take a few snaps of these kindly animals. The kindly animals surged forward. I jumped back in the car whereupon those bastard donkeys surrounded me, showed me their horrid teeth and began to gnaw at the bonnet. That would be the car’s bonnet. I don’t do bonnets: I do lime green knitted hats. Anyway, I’m not too keen on horses, donkeys, cows, unknown dogs and so forth.
The endless Pike’s Tramway is an old clay railway that once traversed the heath from Furzebrook to Ridge Wharf. It was operated by seven steam engines, all of which must have bypassed the cairns as do I. Oh look, here comes Janet and David. It’s been so long since I had a conversation with anyone and those two were having such a nice morning. Before they can blink, I’ve separated them: David, a sensible type, says, humming an old Simon and Garfunkel tune, he’ll just carry on homeward bound. Janet insists on turning tail to help me find the right gate off the tramway. It’s ok Janet – I can do it. But Janet wants to share her fears. It’s her first trip out for months since she fell over at Scotland Farm and broke her wrist. ‘Scotland Farm – National Trust’, she explains as though that thieving crowd are too inept to manage their own sneaky tree roots. And now, with David a mere speck on the horizon, she has to wend her icy way home alone. I feel immensely guilty. All my life, random people who I will never meet again have insisted on sharing their darkest fears. Can’t they see I’m not a kindly type?
I try to change the subject and ask her about Soldiers Road. Not a clue. During the English Civil War, Wareham was a ferocious hive of activity although, like Boris, they kept changing sides every fortnight. In August, 1644, 2000 Cromwellian soldiers besieged the town after which, they all went to the pub. And previously, when Corfe Castle was being sacked, the Parliamentarians invaded. Both parties would’ve come up the River Frome, landed at Wareham and tracked across the heath. Neither comprised affiliated armies – they were simply bored and drunken young men looking for trouble.
I turn from the path and discover that, although I’ve missed the cairns and the so-called view-points, I can see across the harbour. I have lost the path and I’m walking in the wrong direction but it’s difficult to believe I would’ve seen more going the other way. And I find a stile, a wood and a walk down Melancholy Lane which, appropriately, is a ‘no-through road’. Thank goodness, we might have ended in the land of eternal sadness. I walk through Stoborough, cross the path towards Grange, along the causeway, and back into Wareham.
And speaking of the path to Grange, which waits for another day – the Rev John Hutchins records a phantom army, comprising several thousand, seen from Grange Hill in 1678. Perhaps they’d traversed Soldiers Way.