On the edge

Another almost-spring morning shines its welcome way through Dorset. The terribly torn tendons still seem far from healed but the day promises to be too good to miss and I’m off to the cliff edge. It’s not a very sensible idea for your intrepid explorer, not least as I fear the notion of a cliff edge threatens all sorts of inner ear antagonism. Just the very thought of the South West Coastal Path makes me dizzy.

The other day, I heard someone on the wireless say that no-one takes a walk without there being an end in sight. Could be a spiritual end but here’s mine: St Adhelm’s 12th century (at least) chapel poised 355 feet above sea level in the parish of Worth Matravers.

 

The old and straightish track doesn’t make for easy walking: it’s comprised of the stony detritus of close at hand quarries from which Purbeck ‘marble’ has been retrieved since Roman times to be sent onwards to St Paul’s Cathedral, Salisbury and Exeter cathedrals, Westminster Abbey and that slightly smaller building to which I’m headed.

The track may not be ideal walking terrain but the views in all directions are grand. Here’s a tease between the hills at the bottom of which may well be Chapman’s Pool. I’d like to see it if I can manage the coastal path. In the meantime, Hugh is striding towards me.

 

‘Glorious morning’, he says cheerfully. Now, as it’s not winter today, I’m not wearing the lime green hat so Hugh is at an immediate disadvantage as a) he doesn’t recognise me and b) he’s unaware that he’s about to be questioned about my latest conundrum.

‘The thing is, Hugh’, I say, ‘the fields are full of birdsong, yet there’s not a bird to be seen’. He doesn’t bat an eyelid:

‘That’s because they’re all in the sky. Skylarks’. Hugh and I stand on a bend in the old straight track, with our necks bent back in superb synchronicity, staring up into the sky-blue sky. The empty sky-blue sky. I can’t see a thing.

‘Must be half a dozen of them up there’, he claims and I am minded of the emperor’s new clothes. And there’s more as Hugh joyously informs me that he’s just been lucky enough to see a waxwing.

‘No way’, I respond, ‘that’s wonderful’. A silence follows in which respective emotions are not conjoined. ‘What’s a waxwing’, I finally ask? He doesn’t care. To see a waxwing has been the highpoint of his day. Well, make that his life and he tells me all about these rare (at this time of the year) visitors to our shores, suggesting that I might see it on a post shortly.

We go our separate ways, me with my eyes peeled. All I see is Marian and Andrew. Actually, I hear them before I see them. They’re having a row. Something about being on holiday and Marian complaining that Andrew still needs her to look after his every need. I am really cross: these two will have frightened off any passing waxwing with all their noisy arguing. ‘Have you two come all the way to the middle of nowhere just to have a row’, I ask in passing? Marian and Andrew are silenced but, twenty feet past me, I can hear them starting up again. No matter because that brave little waxwing has just landed in front of me and is singing a tiny song of gladness. I’m ecstatic. No idea why because what I know about birds could be carved into a fat ball with a taxidermist’s needle. Smugness will ensue tomorrow when I mention the waxwing to a twitcher friend who’s been looking for one for years.

And here’s the chapel: a rum sort of do if you like; another cliff-top conundrum about which, few facts are known. The angles of the building point to the cardinal points which is, apparently, strange. Further, the square shape is very unusual for an ecclesiastical building; thus the orientation and shape hint to a non-religious origin.

Of course, never learning from previous lessons, I’m still an explorer who does their research AFTER the event so I know nothing of angles and shapes. Neither do I know that the chapel occupies a central position on an earlier timber building in pre-Christian earthworks. As the literature informs me, the casual visitor often fails to notice that earthen mounds surround the chapel. Correct, but not so much of the ‘casual’ if you don’t mind. In the 1930s, there was a problem with cows getting into the chapel – hardly surprising if they too suffered from vertigo.

These are the cottages in which the families of coastguards lived. Around the same time that the cows were being problematic, the weekly services at the chapel had declined and were only held fortnightly at Rogation Tide. When I read this, I thought, not entirely illogically, that Rogation Tide must be a marine function like Spring and Neap tides. Well, it’s not and if you’re interested, look it up.

Oh what pleasure to find the chapel open and to have it to myself. There’s some really interesting and ancient graffiti in here but the photos I took failed to give that impression. I help myself to a handy leaflet and perch on an ancient bench behind the door to search my rucksack for thirty pieces of the coins of the realm for payment. I didn’t envisage shopping when I set off, and no-one except me will know whether I paid or not but, having located the due fee, I hear voices outside. As I can’t be seen, I emit a warning of my presence: ‘don’t jump’, I call affably. There’s no answer and the bodies attached to the voices fail to make entry. Maybe they think some ghostly type is warning then not to jump off the nearby cliff. They wait until I leave. Scaredy cats.

Deferring the setting of feet onto the coastal path until the last possible moment, I have a look at the look-out station. Clearly, it’s not about to win any prizes for architectural design but here’s the rub: in 1994, this successor to the original coastguards’ lookout was closed down due to a lack of interest or funding, along with all other visual coastguard services. However, in the very same year, two fishermen died on the Lizard within sight of their closed lookout. In true British fashion, 49 coastguard lookouts were re-opened, manned, naturally, by volunteers. In this part of the world, if you weren’t a fisherman, a farmer or a quarryman, you had no livelihood.

I make three attempts to set foot on the coastal path but, for me, it’s a  non-starter. Why don’t they just be honest and call it the cliff-edge path where you take a deep breath along with your life. I cut across a field, through a gate that says ‘no entry’, just to get the view of Chapman’s Pool.

 

People I ask along the way mention a few steps. If you click on this picture and study the incline, you’ll see some folk’s idea of a few steps. I don’t imagine that I missed anything. Au contraire, I feel nauseous just thinking about it, regardless of tendons, torn or otherwise.

 

Back in the safety of the village, I visit the church of St Nicholas. As with everything else, there’s more to see here than I knew about at the time. I don’t care because an English churchyard in early spring is a thing of beauty regardless of religious inclination. Later, at another church, I will lay flowers on the grave of an old friend; a grave which, less than four months old, seems already to have been consigned to ancient, uncaring history. But here, in Worth Matravers, all is reasonably well with the world although I’m saddened at the stone engraved with corn for Johnny Bray who died whilst harvesting. Is this some nineteenth century memorial to the hardships of the day? No: an accident befell Johnny in 1988 which, along with those dead fishermen, just confirms the eternal hardship and danger facing those who work the land and coast.

Later, I venture into Swanage where, I’m delighted to report that, on this wonderful spring morning, it’s still Christmas; and where, a being, possibly older than St Adhelm’s Chapel, was busy stoking up a real wood and coal fire.

 

 

 

The missing bench

benchThis is the memorial bench previously referred to from which the now infamous Doris and Archie, along with their miserable dog Ivor, were so reluctant to move. Thanks to that pioneering explorer, dad, who has retrieved the photograph from his personal archives and made it available to weasel followers.

Tiny steps

2017_0302swyre0003Even 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.

2017_0302swyre0004I 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.

2017_0302swyre0009There 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.

2017_0302swyre0013I 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.

2017_0302swyre0008‘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.

2017_0302swyre0015I 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.

2017_0302swyre0017And 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.

 

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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.

 

 

2017_0302swyre0029Is 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.

2017_0302swyre0032And, 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.

In Kelsey Park

2017_0208kelsley0014 ‘The hunchback in the park, a solitary mister’, is all I can remember of the Dylan Thomas verse slotted in amongst memories occasioned in the municipal park in Swansea. A sad poem that I always found incongruous in otherwise joyful recollections of childhood. We venture into Kelsey Park, a veritable jewel in Beckenham’s affluent crown. Few solitary misters in evidence here, although at one point I feel a hint of anxiety in finding a lone elderly man in the trees, standing with his back to the path. Nothing of concern as it transpires he is feeding birds. And there are plenty of these.

2017_0208kelsley0021Here are the modern day migrants: a source of squawking irritation to those leafy Londoners whose gardens are ‘infested’ by parakeets but a constant joy to we visitors – Dorset types with nothing but sparrow families to enliven our winter gardens. No parakeets in Beckenham’s past though.

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Harrison is fast asleep, wrapped in the multi-coloured blanket which is the only item grandma knitted in time i.e. the only thing he’s not liable to grow out of five minutes before he takes it on. In my experience, Harrison is always asleep unless the adults fancy a grown-up dinner. Anyway, he misses the squirrels who shamelessly wait for us on the path and hover around our feet in a threatening sort of way. ‘You want to be careful’, I say as I skirt around them, ‘one wrong word and they’ll be in the pram’. She hurries off, leaving me to fend for myself.

2017_0208kelsley0005Those squirrels have probably been harassing folk for years because Kelsey Park has something of an history. In the twelfth century, this place was owned by the Lord of the Manor of Beckenham – not on my manor guvnor. Today, it comprises a mere 21 acres but in the nineteenth century the 3000 acres here included a  post for the stagecoach to Sevenoaks.

2017_0208kelsley0033Naturally, there was a grand mansion house – two in fact. The second went through a number of incarnations, evolving from a private residence into a convent for the Sisters of All Saints, ladies who were leaving their options open. After the sisters left, the house became Kepplestone School for the Daughters of Gentlemen before assuming the status of a WW1 army hospital, with the seriously wounded being possibly nursed by those daughters,

2017_0208kelsley0022Today, the River Beck still runs in and out of two lakes on its way through. Harrison’s mother is some way ahead of her own dawdling mum. She wants to take me back to a place where I can, once more, see the extraordinary heronry where twenty pairs of these graceful birds are nesting and feeding. ‘It’s where the squirrels were talking to you’, she says.

2017_0208kelsley0009I think this is rather sweet. My daughter can be pleasingly childlike at times. After, I realise I’ve missed a joke and that she’s being kind to the elderly. Earlier today, before we ever came to Kelsey Park, my left foot took a turn away from the leg to which it is attached and there was a bit of an incident: ‘mum took a fall’, she reported as though this was the first of many inevitable trips which I can look forward to. Fortuitously, a gas man was to hand. He picked up the crumpled grandma, placed her in his van and drove her home. He reminded me of Jack Branning, a swarthy type from EastEnders, so it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

bowiebandstandAnd after Kelsey Park, we retire to some middle class, pram-populated joint in Beckenham High Street for a toasted organic sandwich. I don’t leave a tip, preferring to put excess coinage in a collection tin for the restoration of the Bowie Bandstand in another of Beckenham’s green spaces. Here he is in the process of becoming famous.

 

 

 

 

NHS (cuts pay for palace renovations)

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He sent out a text from his hospital bed: can you bring in my lap-top was meant to be read by visiting time at two o clock dead. And please send some biscuits in with Ted as I’m now nil by mouth but I need to be fed; and make sure the pigeons are out of the shed. Ignore all the mess – just mind where you tread.

When I see that trolley it fills me with dread, they won’t even give me a slice of dry bread. It’s doing my brain in…it feels just like lead. And in fact he had really done in his head by trying to jump from his hospital bed.

The alarms were flashing in blue and in red and patterns on screen were no longer a zed, but seemed to be straight lines pictured instead.

And his mobile vibrated just under his head with an incoming message that never got read cause he’d run out of credit and the signal was dead, but we’ll pass on the news to Joan and to Fred.

And the nurse had to text the reply instead: he’s taken a turn for the worse she said, I advise that the pigeons stay in the shed and cancel the biscuits: he’s already dead.

The Poole Muriel

Students of Poole Art School|Todd, Cecil; Poole Scenes and People; Poole Museum Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/poole-scenes-and-people-60239

I once had an article, entitled ‘An Unsung Hero of Poole’, published in one of those glossy county type magazines – Dorset or Dorset Life. I forget which but it’s rather remiss of me as in those days, as now, they were an unjustifiably closed shop and breaking in was something of a coup. The hero was H.P. Smith, a man whom I’d discovered whilst writing a thesis about old Poole. The fact that it was published, and that I won a prize for the thesis, did H.P. little good as, nearly twenty years on, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’s ever heard of him.

scaplensH.P. Smith, a secondary school teacher lately of our town, was something of a man of discovery himself: Roman ruins and artefacts, an educator who took his students out of the classroom and encouraged them to take a look around, he was, by all accounts, something that some of us once aspired to: a teacher who made a difference. One day, just off the High  Street, he discovered a whole building of huge importance – Scaplen’s Court. Looking at this photo, you might wonder how no-one else had previously noticed it. Well, you need to see what it used to look like, hidden as it was behind the façade of a bunch of tenement buildings. Look it up if you like – I’ve already accounted for it elsewhere.

2017_0202todd0004I probably didn’t extol the many virtues sufficiently. The reasons why I’m mentioning him are twofold: today, I identified him in a picture and I also discovered another Poole resident of whom so little is apparently known, I can find nothing about him on the WWW. His name is Cecil Todd.

2017_0202todd0006It’s not a day for walking. I meet a friend for coffee at an extraordinarily over-priced joint over at Branksome Chine. I’m guessing it’s a case of location, location, location as we take our refreshment overlooking the sea, which must be delightful on days when Hurricane Doris isn’t making an uninvited appearance. It’s so bloody expensive that we share a round of toast. The waitress must have mistaken us for ‘ladies who lunch’ as she’s so overly enthusiastic on arriving to take the order that I have to warn her of impending disappointment. All thoughts of a walk are banished and my partner in poverty says she’s off to Home Bargains where, rumour has it, Vanish is on sale for a mere two pounds. She has a nasty stain on a carpet.

2017_0202todd0005I, meanwhile, decide to spend an hour in Poole Museum. They have two or three paintings within that I very much like but I initially venture into what was once the Town Cellars. These days, it’s the home of the Poole History Centre, a wonderful beamed ceiling secret inhabited by two or three folk that might well have been in situ throughout its various incarnations. Ancient tomes abound along with old filing cabinets that house documents of possible interest and a small model of seventeenth century Poole with a surprising windmill invitingly placed for query. It’s the sort of joint that one would visit only if you had a vague idea of what you were looking for.

mural1I have no idea. I have a mantra, though, learned from my walking: ‘look back, look up’. And looking up, I spot the relics of the Muriel. Years ago, in another lifetime, Hilda Ogden, stalwart of Coronation Street, had a whole wall in the front room of her terraced house decorated with this glorious scene of which she ever after proudly referred to as her ‘muriel’.

Students of Poole Art School|Todd, Cecil; Poole Scenes and People; Poole Museum Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/poole-scenes-and-people-60242

So here is the Poole Mural. And peering out from the door of Scaplen’s Court, I think I espy an unknown hero. I rush up the rickety staircase, past two old codgers having a chat, then I rush back down to accost one of the ancients: ‘excuse me, is that H.P. Smith discovering Scaplen’s Court?’ Yes it is, and on questioning the provenance of the Muriel, I am presented with an old book by Andrew Hawkes entitled ‘A Pint of Good Poole Ale’ and I am hooked. Doris, you can blow your heart out for I am ensconced within these ancient walls learning about the London Hotel.

Nash, Eustace P. E.; Poole Quay from Hamworthy, Dorset; Poole Museum Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/poole-quay-from-hamworthy-dorset-60214

Here’s one of the paintings I came to see. It’s a view of Poole Quay from Hamworthy by Eustace Nash. It’s lovely but so is my discovery of the London Hotel, a former posting stage for no fewer than eleven omnibuses a day, which was refurbished in 1936. At this point, Mr Cecil Todd, along with students from the former Poole Art School, created all the glorious frames that comprise the Poole Mural, encapsulating a portrait of our town as it was then, to be housed on the four walls of the main lounge. I doubt they called it a lounge in those days but who cares – it must’ve been something to behold as this wonderful reflection of social history graced a room furnished by Harvey Nichols.

 

It didn’t last long: in 1940, the joint was hit by a German bomb. But, reader, you don’t want to know that, I know you’re waiting for the punchline – something quirky. Well, here it is. Whilst I was hunched over my unexpected research, one of the visiting old codgers passed by. ‘That’s a very good book’, says he, almost from the grave. ‘Are you the author?’ ‘Yes, I’m Andrew Hawkes’. Oh, serendipity. You never fail.

To hell and back

2017_0122ridgeway20018Having been much inspired by my walk along the South Dorset Ridgeway the other week, I decide to try a trek the other side of Hardy’s Monument. It’s a seven miles hike which, in truth, comprises two more miles than I’d like – it’s the old persons’ keep-fit class tomorrow and I’d prefer to be in with a chance. The new walk is an AA route march which includes the Valley of the Stones.

I’ve prepared really well. For a start, I deferred the walk from yesterday to a time when the sun is supposed to shine. I’ve pored over my OS map with a view to finding how I might lose a couple of miles without losing any of the stones and I think I’ve cracked it. I only have a single glass of the red stuff on Friday and none yesterday so I can be super-fit. What’s taken the most time is folding up the OS map in the opposite way to which the creases naturally sit: it takes ages and the result is an unpleasant bulky mess and, frankly, the ruination of what was, half an hour ago, a pristine representation of half the county. Not to worry. I have a brand spanking new rucksack purchased in the sales and all the usual paraphernalia. Lovely.

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It’s minus 3C when I leave home but the day has gained four degrees by the time I reach my starting point. The lane that wanders somewhat torturously away from the randomly placed McDonalds above Martinstown and up to Hardy’s Monument is still icy in patches. It has yet to benefit from the sun which, in truth, is struggling to make headway in the morning mist. Still, it means the ground will be hard rather than muddy. Coat on, rucksack on and where’s the map? Both of them, stuffed into their plastic folder are where I left them. On the settee indoors. Now that my son has pushed me screaming into the 21st century with a smart phone, I consider looking on it for a substitute. But I’m in the ancient past and there is, of course, no signal.

I know I’ll never remember the original route, let alone the shortening adjustment I was going to take – it was simply too complex. All those lost stones: the Hellstone, the Grey Mare and her Colts, Hampton stone circle, Kingston Russell stone circle, all gone in careless haste to get outside and ‘in the open air’. Disconsolately, I tramp up a slope so steep that the sharpness of the incline, combined with the bloody freezing ‘open air’, finds me gasping for breath less than ten minutes into the walk. I consider giving it all up as a bad idea and going home to redecorate the conservatory (another already out-of-hand idea born of the simple plan to invest in new blinds. Bloody, bloody plans). Still, the morning is too lovely to waste on washing plastic and pretending I know how to fill cracks in walls.

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Further, on reaching and passing the strikingly unattractive monument, I find three of those pictorial boards that tell you what you’re looking at. The one that draws me in is the one about the Valley of the Stones and names all my missing ports of call plus a few more. The area is, I am usefully informed, home to one of the largest number of circles, dolmens and long barrows in the UK and thus comprises a most significant archaeological centre. I’m advised to look all around for any amount of important stones that have been lying around for eons. There’s even a sort of footpath marked in blue spots. It’s not the best rendition of a footpath but, nonetheless, the Valley of the Stones being where it’s all happening (or where it all happened), I head off downhill. Quite a long way downhill actually. My head’s spinning like a remake of The Exorcist: I don’t want to miss a single one of these stones that have waited so long for my arrival, especially the Hellstone which will be along shortly. I can’t actually see any stones. All I can see is Hardy’s horrid monument becoming a dot on the top of a hill I presume I’ll have to climb up at some point if I ever want to see my car again.

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Once, I think I’ve spotted a couple of rows of stones reminiscent of Carnac on a faraway hill but then I realise that their uniform shape means they’re actually those huge rolls of straw or corn or wheat or whatever those things are that farmers make and wrap in plastic. I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your stones down. Some time after, and in another direction, I become excited after spotting a promising looking field. The possible stones within are the right colour but then I notice that a couple of them are moving and I realise they’re sheep. Sick of struggling across scrubland, all alone in this world, I make a right turn and follow a proper path. And here’s Dennis and Irene and their dog, George, who has a stone stuck in his paw. Not a dolmen or a cairn though. ‘Good morning’, I chirp (far more brightly than how I feel). ‘Have you seen any stones?’ I’m not even wearing the green hat today but I might as well be dressed as a pixie judging by the expression on their faces. ‘It’s the Valley of the Stones’, I continue. ‘Dolmens and suchlike’. They’re pleasant enough, in the way people are when they’re nervous, but they’ve been walking these paths for years and have never yet seen any stones.

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A group of riders appear. Their horses are like gypsies’ ponies. I don’t mean that in a discriminatory way. Folk in the know will immediately understand that these equines are of the heavy footed, long-haired variety. I completely forget the fact that I’m uncomfortable in close proximity to horses and, standing in their path, demand to know the whereabouts of the stones. The lead rider claims to have been trotting around these parts for five years and has never seen a dolmen or stone circle: ‘do you mean stones with writing on’, she asks? I find this an exceedingly curious question. As I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking for, I’m not sure of the answer. I doubt whether the stones I have in mind are inscribed with ‘Lludd was here’ or ‘Mynogan loves Belinus’.

I’ve already walked miles and can no longer see the monument which, devoid of a map, is my marker. I decide to turn right again and begin the ascent up a muddy, tree-lined path whereupon I meet Rachel and Gerry. Wearily, I commence my Valley of the Stones mantra. ‘This isn’t the Valley of the Stones’, Gerry says pleasantly; ‘it’s a couple of miles west of here’. And just as I’m retrieving my Swiss Army knife, in order to slash my wrists, Rachel says, ‘but while you’re here, you should see the Hellstone’. Hoorah! And they walk me back down the path and give me explicit directions on how to locate the Hellstone which, they claim, is well worth the visit.

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So I’m back on the South Dorset Ridgeway and life is grand. I’m off to see a stone except that when I get to the next field, it contains three ginormous cows and not an udder between them. Fortuitously, Simon and Linda are close at hand with their children, Oscar and Liam aged four and six. Reader, I’m going to let you into a secret: sometimes, I make up the names of folk I meet along the way. I attached myself to this family to the extent that not only do I know their names, I become a temporary extended member of their tribe. It’s a case of safety in numbers in the face of udderless cows who, as it transpires, have no interest in us whatsoever.

2017_0122ridgeway20004That farmer has done everything possible to thwart us reaching the Hellstone – Simon et al also having this as their goal, plus a map: we tramp though knee-high mud and poo, shimmy past electric fences, climb the most unfriendly stiles and still can’t find the thing. The brave children ask for sweets and are told they can have one when they get there. ‘How will we know when we’ve got there’, asks Liam?

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Good point son, none of has a clue what we’re looking for. Simon decides we’ve passed it and we all turn tail back into the mud. Then we spot it, high on a hill and I trudge upwards with my new acquaintances. I have to say, I’m impressed. I’d made my mind up to be impressed whatever, but I love it. Overlooking the sea, it’s Neolithic and is the oldest man-made structure still standing in Dorset. Oscar isn’t keen. ‘You’re so lucky that your mum and dad have brought you here’, I say. And I mean it and hope it doesn’t sound too patronising. ‘What would you rather be doing’, I ask. ‘Going to McDonalds and watching television’, he promptly replies.

Once back down and through the cow-infested mud, I leave them and trudge uphill to be a welcome toy for many and varied joyously stupid spaniels. By the time I reach the summit, I am a muddy, exhausted mess. I sit on a stone and eat my lunch. When I get up and look behind, I notice the writing. Stones with writing. So that’s what she meant.

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2017_0122ridgeway20015