The past beckons

And so it begins, somewhere around 4,500 years ago at Woodhenge. The weather is nothing short of glorious which is fortuitous as I’ve been looking forward to this walk in the Stonehenge landscape which, according to the instructions, is a mere 5 miles. There are, of course, numerous explanations for the existence of everything around here. Suffice to know that Woodhenge was only ‘discovered’ in 1926 with the advent of aerial photography and that at the centre the burial of a child with a split skull was found – allegedly, a dedicatory sacrifice.

For once, I’m walking in company. Tony and Sally are keen photographers and bird watchers. This is good news as they take even longer than I do to walk a few yards. Nothing like people who stride out to ruin a good walk. We amble along, stopping every five minutes to take in something or other.

For example, here’s Tony dawdling though Durrington Walls looking for birds. And here’s a Sparrowhawk looking at Tony. Durrington Walls is the largest complete henge in Britain – an earthwork of the Neolithic. It’s thought to be the same age as Stonehenge and, as it used to contain shrines and houses, there’s a suggestion that the folk who built Stonehenge might have stayed here – a sort of stopover for construction workers. I’m not totally convinced – in reality, the stones will turn out to be quite a commute from this place which has proven a bit of a deviation.

Back on the right track, we trudge across a field to the Cuckoo Stone which, according to our NT notes, is a ‘mysterious megalith’, once standing, but now fallen. We stop to discuss the nomenclature which, we decide, has something to do with the lonely cuckoo living away from company.

Here’s the track which we followed in search of the King Barrow Ridge. Being ‘types’, both Tony and I have printed copies of the walk about which neither of us can agree. To be fair, they aren’t brilliant instructions.



Eventually, we emerge onto the King Barrow ridge which is littered with ancient burial sites. At this particular barrow, having walked for a couple of hours, we pause for our picnic. How unusually excellent it is to sit on a grave in early January munching on our goodies. And as I reflect on the Neolithic, I can’t help but think what a good idea it was to make some bread pudding last night, sufficient to share. After our feast, I warn them that I’m off for a wee behind a handy beech tree; after which, Sally, also in need, asks which tree I visited. The one with the sign!

There are a lot of barrows on the ridge, of which this is the most accessible. They seem intermittently placed but this is because many have disappeared over time.

When we finally reach our destination, we can look back and see that they actually form a line.


And finally, we get our first view of Stonehenge and are able to walk down the avenue to our destination.




We’re in a vast expanse of countryside. Miniscule figures walking in the footsteps of the ancients. It’s too good to be true. Tony is miles ahead, lost in his own wilderness of thought. Sally is busy snapping but I call her over to look at something I’ve seen but am unable to catch on my little camera: Shimmering over these timeless tufts is a myriad of spider webs which form a field of glistening haze.

The sheep are grazing as they will have done through the ages and I am given a lesson on tupping. For the uninitiated, this ram wears a sack of chalk which will alert farmers to which ewe has undergone lovemaking; or lambmaking.


There’s the Heel Stone to which we are drawn.




And here’s our final destination. As you can see, the day is at its end and we are weary-worn. As usual, the map has lied, yet we have no inclination to leave, drawn as we are, like the ancients before us. Oh, to be in England and seeped within history. There are veritable miles, mostly uphill, back to the car. Who cares. There surely can’t be a walk with a better finale.






Cold enough to make you cry

There’s a lot to be said for walking at home, especially if you’re a fan of Ordnance Survey maps. They show one so much of not only the topography of place, but also the history, particularly if the countryside is sufficiently fortuitous  to have suffered little in the way of change. England has lost much of its ancient chalk grassland due to the vagaries of the plough but Fontmell Down has been saved owing to its inaccessibility by machine. No Luddites, or their agrarian forerunners needed to step this way. I once read that the Ordnance Survey, in all its visual glory, provides great interest and happiness to those physically unable to explore outside. Well, it may sound patronising, but I think not.

I’ve passed by Fontmell Down many times on my way to deepest Wiltshire. In fact, more than once, I’ve temporarily abandoned the car to look over the wonderful view of the Blackmore Vale. And, having studied both the map and the weather forecast, today I decide to stretch my legs a little further. After all, the morning is glorious although I detect a slight breeze in the trees along the way.

During a particularly violent Mistral in Provence, a friend once asked me to open the car door carefully in case it blew away. Ridiculous, I thought, but that warning comes to mind as I try to leave my vehicle today. I was going to do the circular walk but this seems a little adventurous. Instead, I head off down the hill at quite the pace with the wind blowing me along. Along the way, I meet those struggling back up and they are, indeed, a sorry sight. Children, particularly, are crying with the cold. I note that fully formed icicles hang from their little noses as I accost the parents to ask about access to Melbury Hill.

Melbury Hill was to be a part of my walk. I don’t think it’s going to happen. It’s 863 feet high and, in 1588, was one of the Armada beacons that stretched from London to Plymouth. No-one I ask has any idea how to get up it nor any interest. I think we’ve all set out with the intention of doing the round trip and in the face of the biting wind have discovered there are better things indoors.

The ubiquitous National Trust ‘bought’ Fontmell Down and Melbury Hill in 1977 in memory of Thomas Hardy. I’m afraid one of the few people who stuck with me at university was Rousseau. If you’re not familiar, listen to Billy Bragg. How can someone own such vast swathes of land. Anyway, at least the NT don’t charge you for being here even if the Hardy link is tenuous. Hardy called the Blackmore Vale the ‘vale of little dairies’ and novels such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles were set hereabouts. Roughly.

The Dorset Wildlife Trust suggests that the best time to visit is Spring or Summer to see the huge variety of wild flowers, including nine types of orchid as well as the pictured, and apparently rare, early Gentian. Actually, I didn’t read that until I got home. Let’s be clear, there’s stuff all to see this morning; and even if there was, one’s view would be blinded by the spiteful tears streaming from wind-sore eyes.

This is the cross-dyke as shown on the map. At least I’ve seen something. A cross-dyke is a linear earthwork believed to be a prehistoric boundary. I expect it looks really nice in the Summer, covered in butterflies and orchids.


I meet a man with a tortured dog coming through a gate and ask whether there’s any possibility of a circular path. Well, there is if I head towards those trees. But the wind has made him short-tempered and the dog sits in front of him, looking up and howling hopelessly. I am no longer the dog-whisperer of Dorset. I am an irritation. I press on towards the trees – and to a herd of ginormous cows. Behind me is a family replete with crying children. ‘Are you going up there?’ I ask, thinking I’ll latch on to them. ‘We were’, man of the house replies, ‘but my wife is scared of cows so now we’re not’.  ‘I’ didn’t say scared’, she butts in crossly. ‘I’m a bit anxious too’, I try to console her, but now they’re having a row and I can’t take any more. I head back to the car and let me tell you, I have no idea how I get back up that hill with the arctic wind in my face. I’ve only been walking an hour and I’m exhausted. How much better it might’ve been to stay indoors with a hot chocolate and a map.

I’ve only been indoors five minutes when my son phones. ‘Do you fancy a walk’, he asks? ‘We haven’t been outside yet’. Well, of course I do. What could be better? And here we are in the cold but calm of Upton Country Park prior to a comforting cup of mint tea. Lovely.

After the deluge

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.






Christmas 2017

On wondering what to write for this year’s Christmas weasel, I had, somewhat unimaginatively, considered yet another excerpt from my favourite seasonal reading, A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. To my mind, it can’t be beaten and I wait impatiently for the day when Harrison, currently 15 months old, can be given his own copy. He’ll be so happy. I know this because his mother will tell me so whether it be the truth or not. And it will be a shorter wait than this year’s gift which, being authored by Robert Macfarlane, might be read around the time of his twenty-first birthday; at which point I’ll be either dead or enfeebled so no-one will have to say ‘what a splendid present that was’.

Thomas begins his (to my mind) masterpiece with the reflection that ‘one Christmas was so much like another, in those years’. Of course it was: the whole point of Christmas is continuity; to replicate something known and pleasurable. Well, at least for a few short years of childhood excitement. This week, I’ve been listening to Laurie Lee’s reminiscences of Christmas and they’re no different. Unsurprising I suppose, given that he and Thomas lived and wrote at much the same time. Women abound in kitchens, children have adventures in the snow and men – well men seem to have no useful part to play. Apart from smoking cigars by the fire.

In my mid-sixties, one’s reflections might start with ‘one year is so much like another’. They’re not really. 2016 was memorable for the number of icons who left without warning, beginning with Bowie. In the aftershock, it became tediously de rigeur to listen to who’d gone next. 2017 is memorable only for the fact that it’s passed so speedily. And a good job too you might say as it’s dismissed all thoughts of continuity and expectation. Now the unexpected is to be expected.

Anyway folks, grasp the family while you can and have a very merry time. I intend to do so.



How lovely (and more so if you click on the pictures)

Over at Studland, Derek’s plot is looking rather festive: alongside his tractors, he is now adorned with red roses, a snow-covered Christmas tree and a holly wreath. Readers exiled from the village might like to be reminded of the view from his resting and restful place.


The traditionally decorated church door drew me inside. And what a treat awaited …..















And here’s Lesley who, having been responsible for a lot of this marvellous decoration, was happily watering the displays, anxious that they’d see the season through.



Homewards via the chain ferry where someone else has also made an effort.



And there’s a little fishing boat, chased by hungry gulls as it  heads back to Poole. How lovely; and how lucky we are to live here.


As ever

For me, Christmas officially started last night. I can’t remember how many years I’ve been attending a seasonal performance of Handel’s Messiah; or how many years I’ve been inspired to write about it. Back in the day, when children were too old for the pantomimes that I never took them to, we went to Messiah. I think I might’ve been about four years old the last time I went to panto and, having been scarred for life, I never subjected my offspring to such puerile offerings. The poor deprived things had to wait for grandparents to take them. I think it was a long wait. Actually, they might still be waiting. Oh no they’re not.

I once had a thing for Oxford. In truth, I once had a thing for a man who lived in Oxford, but, like all the others, he faded into oblivion. But Oxford didn’t: happy days hunting the Snark in the Botanical Gardens; walking into random college chapels and listening to choirs; open-air Shakespeare above the Said Business School. Thus, for a while, Christmas wasn’t complete without a family trip to hear something culturally festive. The day comprised a visit to the Oxford indoor market to remark upon all the dead animals hanging from the exterior. Next, Debenhams of which the Oxford branch was always far superior to any other. Hot chocolate in the Turl and, finally, off to the cheap seats in the Sheldonian for the grand finale. Allelujah.

It was a bloody disaster. Barbara and I sat entranced and my children managed to get chewing gum stuck in someone’s coat collar and the whole row got involved in the removal of said gum. Everyone was too preoccupied to stand up for the chorus and the kids said they liked the Oxford trip thank you but could we please do something else in the evening. After that, we finished off our subsequent days out with attendance at Christchurch Chapel for the carol service, readings courtesy of Jean Marsh and Robert Hardy. Sadly, Robert Hardy is dead now and Jean Marsh, like the rest of us, is really old.

Latterly, via some ad hoc attempts at atmosphere, I’ve moved on to the Lighthouse in Poole where, each year, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus do a turn. The venue isn’t pretty but the acoustics are wonderful. Generally, I go alone but, once again, Barbara was present. The chorus comprises 125 this year and there are no words to describe them. However, we were greatly distracted by the conductor, Laurence Cummings, who managed to play the harpsichord whilst simultaneously organising the orchestra and chorus.

Laurence is a flamboyant type. He’s also rather small. From the front, we both recognised him as Pierre, who once, in another life, ran a bed and breakfast joint in Provence. From the rear, jumping at the harpsichord, legs and arms waving, he was Elton John. Never has there been such an interpretation of Messiah. The normally staid crowd loved it, as did we.

And after, being old but happy, we avoided the throngs by taking a circuitous route and went smugly home for a cup of tea. Happy days.



A new routine

It’s hard to grasp just how bitterly cold it was this morning. It was 2C. The temperature’s been lower on other days but not as cold if you know what I mean. There was something evil in today’s air. Something nasty and spiky that pierced the very bones and all but froze the blood. When I awoke at 6.15 to go swimming, the wind was howling and the rain was beating down. I thought about that pool for at least a nanosecond and snuggled back under the duvet. Swim on you masochists; I’m staying where I am.

There’s always a downside though: as it’s Monday, and as I didn’t swim, there was no escaping that shivering but insistent part of my wide-awake conscience with its mantra – you must exercise. And if you’ve missed your swimming window on a Monday, then you must return to the over-sixties fitness group.

I didn’t go last week. I don’t think I even bothered with an excuse. It was so excruciatingly awful the week before, I’d simply lost the will and stayed home to watch a jelly set. Speaking of which, I rather resemble a jelly myself. There seems to have been a surfeit of feasting lately and I missed out on swimming last week due to travelling east. So, I girded my loins which, according to Wikipedia, means ‘preparing for a dangerous situation’. That’s the one.

There weren’t many of us present today. Something to do with the arctic conditions I suppose. Wimps. If you want to be a die-hard, you might as well go somewhere that you know is odds on for dying hard. Janice and Ginny, who are the only two other normal ladies in the group, were present, faces set in stony resignation. ‘Feeling any better’, we ask Janice? ‘Not really’, she replies bitterly: ‘stiff as a board and aching all over’. ‘Doing anything nice for Christmas’, I venture kindly. ‘Not really. My son’s coming on Boxing Day if he can remember where I live’.

I don’t know whether it’s because there are so few of us, or because the instructor thinks we need our ancient body temperatures raised quickly, but the routine has changed. And not for the better. The so-called warming-up session lasts forever and is of little help to the terminally confused. We’re straight into one jump right and two jumps left; arms in front, arms behind, one arm up, two to the side. ‘Single’, shouts the instructor. ‘Double’, she shouts before any of us have mastered the first movement. ‘Treble’, shouts someone at the back hoping for a little continuity. To make matters worse, this week we are exercising to Christmas music of which there is only a limited repertoire. I hate Wham’s Last Christmas. When we finally slow down in order to deal with what were once the pelvic floor muscles, she plays Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Everyone begins to enjoy a festive singalong but before we’ve even started a collective wave she decides the music is too slow. Wham make the first of several comebacks. The pelvic floor muscles can’t cope and there’s general rush towards the loos.

Next, we have to join hands and make a circle which is not de rigueur and causes much consternation. The giggly women on the left want nothing to do with the foul-faced women on the right. Holding hands is a step too far from their comfort zones but we manage it. The purpose of the circle is, of course, so that we don’t fall over during the balancing exercises that are forthcoming. The people to our right and left will support us. Well, that’s the theory but it requires more than a tentative touching of fingers ladies.

Actually, I quite like the circle. When we’re in our normal positions, we can only see the instructor because this is the only person we look at. In a circle, it’s possible to see how absolutely bloody useless everyone else is. There’s a woman opposite me who not only has no apparent clue of what’s required, or whether there’s any useful difference between left and right, it’s clearly obvious that she also has no idea of where she is or who any of these other people are. The lady next to her, who’s always immaculately made-up and wears designer-type exercise clothes, looks appalled. Ginny tells me this person didn’t come last week although she did spot her having a fag at the bus stop. Apparently, she looked very smart

The instructor instructs us to fetch something. Unfortunately, bloody George Michael is still moaning on about last Christmas so her words are drowned and no-one knows what it is we’re supposed to fetch. I look around in the hope of copying someone who has their hearing aids turned up. Sadly, all the other ladies are wandering about vaguely in slow motion. It’s like the senior version of Dawn of the Dead with no notion of who’s still alive. ‘MATS’, shouts the instructor. Oh, mats. Why didn’t you say? Time for a nice lay down after which she says, ‘roll over and get up smoothly’. Of all the instructions she gives, this is the most ridiculously ambitious. There isn’t a single person in the room who can either roll over or get up smoothly. We are like a school of beached whales, huffing and puffing, creaking and moaning, incapable of controlling our noisy bodily functions.

And just when you think it can’t get any worse, we are told to get in threes for the Gay Gordons. Janice suddenly remembers an urgent appointment with the dentist. ‘If I don’t see you next week, have a lovely Christmas’, she says. I think I know what Janice’s new year’s resolution is. I am with Ginny and a rather stony-faced woman in a shocking pink top. ‘I’m not sure what to do’, I mention. ‘Follow those three in front’, says Ginny. I look at those three in front who remind me of that old programme, Lost in Space.

‘I don’t want to be in the middle’, says Ginny. ‘You have to move on and dance with other people’. This seems to me to be a bit unsociable so I offer to go in the middle. I remember the Gay Gordons from school days so I’m happy to give it a whirl. Of course, not only do the lycra ladies cling together, so do the midgets (and if, in these politically correct times, we can still say ‘Gay Gordons’, then we can jolly well say midgets), or porgs (persons of restricted growth). Anyway, when I become the middle turn between two elderly porgs, I can see her rationale. It’s really difficult to go under-arm and round-the-houses with people who are two feet smaller than oneself.

And it’s the end. ‘I don’t like that pink woman’, says Ginny. And I don’t like Wham.