On a gloriously sunny morning, when vast swathes of humanity are indoors watching an event on TV, I head north to the old Neolithic chalk grasslands of Martin Down. Actually, these earthworks aren’t so old: they’re the remnants of a WW2 firing range.
The ancient downland, which has been unploughed for centuries, is important for ground-nesting birds. (Have you noticed how this blog is evolving into a birding site?) This morning, the grassland is full of sound: some insects, but mostly skylarks which, every now and again, ascend, soaring into the sky. I doubt those latter-day riflemen disturbed them: I recently read Lewis-Stempel’s moving account of nature at the front in WW1 wherein, despite continuous shelling doing its very best to destroy the habitat of the once beautiful Somme, the larks continued to soar; much to the delight of the battle weary country type Tommies.
Naturally, I have instructions to follow for this walk and, as ever, I lose my way. This overgrown hollow is full of butterflies and moths, none of which stay long enough in any one spot for my photographic skills to capture. In this very sheltered place, the sun is fairly beating down and the temperature is akin to the hothouses at Kew. Alas, and not according to the plan, I end up back on the track I’d previously followed.
I’m supposed to be walking diagonally across a field and past a barn. No sign of either. No sign of anything, in fact until four horses and their riders cross in the distance. ‘Fancy a canter’, shouts the one in front? ‘Definitely’, says the one at the rear in an uncertain voice.
I walk for some miles with the downland to myself until, suddenly, the place is teeming with birders. Clearly, I’ve hit an ornithological hotspot. ‘Seen any turtles’, one group asks of another? ‘Loads, comes the reply. Not a drop of water in sight but even I know they’re talking about turtle doves. I wish my friend Sally was here: she has a deep-seated desire to see a turtle dove.
It’s so hot, and I’ve walked so far already, that I decide to take a rest on Ronald’s bench. Poor Ron – he didn’t last long did he? Anyway, I’m surrounded by birding types. I’ve noticed that they fall into a typology of two: those (always men) who hang around in flocks and are dismissive of people whom they deem to know nothing; and those nice ones who are embracing and keen to make helpful conversation. Luckily for me Sean, who asks if he can share the bench to eat his lunch, is of the latter variety.
Ever since I purchased the binoculars, folk seem to start their conversations with ‘looking for something special’ or ‘have you seen anything of interest’? No and no I have to explain. I wouldn’t have a clue what I’d seen. I just got the binoculars so I can see further. I don’t say that last bit. Yet. ‘Lot’s of turtle doves’, says Sean and, at my request, he helpfully tells me how to spot one. Apparently, I have to know what a collared dove looks like so I lie and say I’m familiar with that breed. Sean has come all the way from Yeovil with his pal. ‘You might call it a bit of a twitch’, he says. This is helpful because now I learn that twitchers rush around the countryside to see birds whereas birders just go for walks.
There’s no sign of Sean’s pal so we have quite the chat about one thing and another until the lost friend appears from nowhere. ‘Lots of turtle doves here’, says the lost friend. Who knew? He gets nowhere with the turtle doves so we move on to my favourite bird – the red kite. Forty-six red kites at Beaconsfied recycling tip last weekend. ‘Did you happen upon them when you were recycling’, I ask? Sean’s friend looks askance. Of course he didn’t; he went there to see the red kites. Eighty-three in Cornwall. Well, obviously England is fairly overburdened with red kites and turtle doves I muse as I munch on my Slimming World Louisiana Chicken.
My redundant instructions mention a church so I head off down a handy lane for about two miles until I begin to see roofs and suchlike. Must be near civilisation.
Now, this old water pump in the village of Martin is definitely on my crumpled piece of paper so, even though I’ve misplaced a barn, I’m back on course.
This memorial isn’t listed in the points of interest which is irritating. I would like to know why, in the middle of nowhere, there’s a sign telling me I’m 37 miles from Glastonbury.
Here’s All Saints’ Church which I’m supposed to visit. It’s got a beautiful overgrown churchyard but the joint is very disappointing.
Oh look, is that a turtle dove?
And I wander across sheep-ridden pasture trying to find my way out. Who wrote these instructions?
Eventually, I end up back on the reserve but not before I’ve been accosted by a woman who asks me if I’m looking for anything interesting. I can’t be bothered to fill her in so she starts telling me that turtle doves are just sitting around the place. Really? However, she does tell me how to hear one and this is very useful because, as I’m running away from her, up Pentridge Hill, I hear one purring in a hedge.
I walk all the way up to Grim’s Ditch which is either a bronze age or early iron age earthwork running for fourteen miles. And let me tell you, I feel like I’ve walked it all. There’s not a soul in sight but every time I think I’ll stop for a pee, around the corner comes a type muttering about bloody turtle doves or, just for a change, early orchids.
Mind you, the view up here, across the Wiltshire/Dorset/Hampshire countryside is pretty spectacular.
Daughter number two texts at this point to say the wedding dress was simple and clean. Clean? Did she think it had been bought from a car boot sale? I finally find my way back to the car. From the instructions and the actual route and the state of my feet I calculate that I’ve probably walked at least eight miles. And let me tell you, I could think of worse places to be.