Even those of us ancient beings who sadly fell from grace via a slippery manhole cover in Bromley, thus tearing previously unknown tendons, eventually have to rouse themselves from the confines of the settee and try to return to the old routine. There’s only so many baby-sized jumpers that can be knitted with enthusiasm; only a finite number of DVDs of Dickens’ greatest hits with Dutch sub-titles one can bear. It’s time for tentative, tiny steps if I want to be walking before my grandson.
I plan a little walk – only two miles. I am doubly inspired my father who will attain 91 years of age tomorrow. Firstly, on the same day that I was being lifted from a Bromley pavement and transported to safer environs by a passing gas man, he and my mother walked to Old Harry and back, a round trip of four miles. Secondly, since they moved to Dorset, those two have also walked to Swyre Head and back after which he painted a beautiful picture of the view which is the reason why anyone bothers with this particular amble. I’d never been before.
There are a lot of sheep to negotiate on this walk. I park in Sheep Pens Car Park which might be a clue. Everything I do at present takes an age. Whilst I’m changing into woolly socks and walking boots, I notice Doris and Archie setting off through the gate on their way to the highest point on the Purbeck hills. Doris is striding ahead with gay abandon. Archie looks despondent and down-trodden. He’s bent almost double and tags along behind wrapped in an aura of resignation that I know has accompanied him for many a year.
I track up the hill and look down on Encombe House, another pile belonging to the landed gentry that, allegedly, both Madonna and Brad Pitt discarded in their search to own a bit of England’s heritage. They open the joint once a year to the plebs but on the only occasion I’ve ever bothered with it, they wouldn’t let my then small son in. ‘Too small. He might break something’. Well, up yours then. I turn away and here’s Doris and Archie and their unpleasant dog sitting on a bench. The bench is adorned with poppies.
‘Hello’, I begin. ‘Why are those poppies there?’ Archie is curled up in a life-threatening heap, No way is he about to communicate anything but Doris gives me a potted version of history which I later research. On 18 March, 1938, an RAF Swordfish plane fell to the Dorset earth here. And, obviously this being a damned spot, a Liberator plane also crashed on 15 June, 1945 with the loss of 27 lives. And now you come to mention it Doris, I can see there’s some sort of inscription behind you. Any chance of you moving so I can take a snap? No. Apparently not. Those two are glued to the spot. I decide to stroke their unpliant dog as a way in but Archie suddenly springs back into life: ‘don’t touch Ivor’, he advises. ‘He’s a bit snappy’, and instantly falls asleep again.
I am really irritated, especially when I later arrive home and discover that there’s not a single picture of this bench on the WWW. I press on to the top of the hill and find the gate that opens onto THE view. Thinking I might rest my weary legs on another handy bench prior to proceeding, I find that this too is occupied by two people and a large rucksack. No matter, I can see I’m at the point where dad painted his picture.
And here t’is. Surely the best view in Dorset, if not the world. The weather is glorious and the leg has, temporarily, stopped hurting. There is no other place to be and I spend a considerable amount of time just looking. Keep your benches. It’s just me and the sheep and this. I walk through a random gate which is like a portal into ancient, untouched times and track along Smedmore Hill.
And passing through another gate, on the way to who knows where, I spy Bob and John sat on a bench overlooking Smedmore House; the neighbours of those over at Encombe.
‘Is this your bench then’, I ask by way of jocular introduction? ‘Well, yes’, says Bob. And yes it is. Bob used to be the gamekeeper at Encombe House and his wife, Angela, worked in the estate office. She’s dead now and this is her bench. This is the downfall of speaking to people that only want a bit of peace and quiet. I discover things and they move away. ‘There’s often a robin here’, continues Bob sadly. It’s blowing a gale up here. How the hell does a robin survive? There’s nothing to perch on. And Bob and his mate turn tail and leave. I feel sad. I’ve barged into their silence. I sit on Angela’s bench for a while. He picked a good spot.
And, with the open sea behind, and the vista of Poole Harbour ahead, I trudge back through the fields and past the farm with a tinge of sadness. But I can see Bob and his friend some way ahead. They aren’t wrapped against the elements like I am and everyone else I’ve seen on this windy Purbeck morning. And yet again, I am minded of my friends, Derek and Abna, middle-aged men who have never left Dorset and who somehow manage, without thinking, to remain an integral part of this timeless and enduring landscape.