In which I lose a river – twice

Earlier this week I visited Stour Park in Blandford in the company of my parents. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to return – alone. I don’t, of course, mean I didn’t relish their company: I mean that I wanted to do a ‘proper’ walk in the other direction. Turning left as opposed to backwards.

 

In this weasel, other equally welcoming signs will appear. The others will be more obvious in meaning than this one. By the way, the River Stour at this point is renowned for otters and kingfishers as well as the other types of fauna and flora one might expect. Having no idea what electric fishing is, I enquire of one of many folk on the bank clad, Robin Hood-like, in woodland green.

 

Here are a few members of the Environment Agency looking not unlike fisher folk on the sea of Galilee. They’ve set out with a view to stun a few fish, weigh and measure them, check their general health and chuck them back from whence they came. Good work chaps and ladies.

Round about here, I ask Laura, one of the merry men (and women), how easy it is to walk downstream. ‘Virtually impossible’, says she pleasantly, ‘although you could cut down Long Arm, cross at Short Wicket, run through Dead Leg’… I look suitably blank. Laura says she’s in a dreadful rush to help her colleagues and ferrets in her bag for a map. Very generous. You’d be better going upstream’, she advises as she legs it down to the next bench for a quick fag.

I study the map. It appears to be an entirely useless depiction of a blue wavy line with some red dots running alongside. Just then, I hear splashing below. Perhaps it’s an otter. No, it’s a very wet black Labrador which belongs to Barry. Barry is from the seventies. Or maybe the sixties. He has a blue denim shirt and two gold earrings. I ask if he’s seen any otters. ‘There aren’t any otters’, he says knowingly. ‘They’ve cleared off. And I’ve told that lot to clear off too’, he comments, nodding his brown head at the Environment Agency. ‘Disturbing the breeding woodpeckers’, he adds by way of explanation.

I make the mistake of asking Barry, who clearly hasn’t spoken to anyone else in eons, about the possibility of walking downstream. Yet again, I get the heads-up on Long Stretch, Dead Leg etc. etc. plus a confusing set of information about bridges and points that I might reach in the dim and distant future. ‘Of course’, he says, ‘when you climb the five bar gate and cross the field, it’s a bit overgrown’. I actually heed all these directions and, let me tell you, it’s only when I surmount the gate and am attacked by stinging nettles that I realise the truth of Dead Leg.

I turn tail and wander back past the electric fisher folk to the bridge that carries the road into Blandford. I am not to be beaten in my quest for a proper walk even though I’ve probably done a mile as a warm-up.

 

Here’s the view of the Stour from both sides of the bridge. Pretty, isn’t it?

 

 

And here’s the gateway to Bryanston School. I um and er a bit about going through as it says ‘private property’. However, there’s a suspicious looking type hanging around outside so I enter looking a bit confident. Inside, I meet a woman with the obligatory black Labrador who tells me I can turn right and follow the river. Thank-you.

Here are some pictures of the river. I want you to look at them carefully because it’s the last you’ll see of it for some time. Shortly after this, I lose it despite two people telling me I’ll be accompanying it to wherever it chooses to go.

 

Where I go is along this path. On and on and on. At one point, I hear a splashing noise which alerts me to the fact that the water couldn’t be too far away. Perhaps it’s an otter I think optimistically but, no, it’s another black Labrador. It’s owner informs me that I can easily walk to Durweston, cross the bridge, and take the trailway back along the other side of the river.

 

I walk for miles. Literally. Nothing to see except trees and more trees. No sign of the river.

 

 

At one point, I come across this unattractive church which, naturally, is shut. The sign tells me to enter through the west door. I’ve lost all sense of direction but it makes no difference. All doors are closed. There’s not a grave in sight which I take to mean the school dinners aren’t too bad.

 

Eventually, I come to Middle Lodge. The road is bloody endless. At one point, having passed the school buildings, I flag down a passing car and ask for directions for Durweston which I am politely given with the coda, ‘it’s quite a long way’.

 

Looking back, I discover that I’ve finally escaped the confines of Hogwarts. It’s only taken me an hour and a half to walk through their private grounds.

 

 

But look – I’ve emerged into the glorious North Dorset countryside. I feel as if I’ve escaped a terrible torture. But where’s the river? On and on I plod. A surprising amount of vehicles pass, all expecting me to hop onto the bank out of their way, and none bothering to stop to ask if an old lady needs help.

And finally, I end up in Durweston. Or Stourpaine. Or some random playing field where I sit on a handy bench and eat my picnic whilst watching very small people practising for sports day. It’s charming but you’ll have to take my word for it as, these days, you’re not allowed to take photos of other folk’s children. It’s also very, very hot. What a lovely summer we’re having I think, wondering where the hell I am. I ask the playschool leader for directions and she speaks to me as if I’m four years old, repeating everything she says three times. Playschool leader tells me how to find the trailway and what a lovely walk back along the river it will be.

And look, I’ve found the river again. But who lives in a house like this?

 

 

Not very nice people apparently. I told you there’d be more signs. Friendly, aren’t they.

 

Here’s the old railway bridge that used to carry the Somerset and Dorset Railway into the Stourpaine and Durweston Halt.

 

 

And here’s a sunbathing hare.

And, surprise, surprise, a small spotted pony. No sign of Monsieur Martin though.

 

 

And this is the view from the pony’s paddock. Again, look closely because it’s the last you’ll see of the river on this walk. After this, the trailway just drags on for three miles into Blandford. It’s the most soul-destroying route you could wish to take unless you happen to relish plodding on a gravel path alongside the A350. Not a river in sight. Nothing. Plod, plod.

 

I feel I should offer you something along the way so here are three lonely poppies and a glimpse of Bryanston. Eight desultory miles which do NOT comprise the Stour Valley Way.

 

 

 

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There and back again: Commoners’ Way

There’s going to be a spot of action this week: no rain is due in the foreseeable future so it’s time to get walking again. I’m on the top of a hill in the village of Kingston with directions for a new circular walk to Corfe Castle and back. This photo was taken courtesy of my zoom lens: in truth, it’s further away than it looks. Also, owing to the fact that I’m on a hill, it hasn’t escaped your intrepid explorer’s thought processes that there might be some hateful upward striding on the way back. I’ll do a Scarlett O’Hara and worry about that later.

First, there’s a lot of fuss and bother before I’ve even left the car behind. All the bother is me changing into walking boots, transferring worldly goods to backpack and generally faffing around. Susie has escaped from the cottage across the road and arrives to investigate and to be made a fuss of. Look carefully and you’ll see she sports a pink ribbon in her hair. I think this is more to do with vanity than any practical use as it doesn’t seem to be enhancing her vision. In fact, she probably thinks I’m the postman.

Second, there’s St James’ Church to visit. Kingston already had a church but it was deemed unsatisfactory by the third Lord Eldon who coughed up £70,000 for a new one. I don’t know what was wrong with its predecessor. I know what’s wrong with it now because I have to tramp down the side of it. It’s a private house with a frightful dog that runs from room to room barking and snarling at me. St James has a pretty churchyard but the inside is boring. Pevsner I am not.

At first, the over-stile, across-fields walk is charming. It’s Spring (sort of) and the lambs are plentiful and pretty and not as noisy as they were the other day up at Garston Woods where you could barely hear one’s friends’ constant chatter for the endless baaing of lost children.

 

The way is getting a little trickier as the fields disappear into a path between the trees. I will only meet one other person on the first half of this walk. Here he comes: a wild old man with a long white beard and flowing locks. Looks familiar but I expect he thinks the same of me. Dorset is full of we oddities traipsing around. I think he’s David Sterne from Detectorists. Can’t see the Labradors.

 

Because we’re British, we exchange observations on the weather and David tells me he’s glad the ground is drying out. I get lost in a wood and, on finally crossing the Purbeck Way and eventually relocating the path, have to disagree with him. My downloaded directions advise me that the way might be muddy. Are you having a grin? In all my walks, this is the first time I’ve had to fashion a stick from a branch in order to get through. I am fearful of the quagmire.

I’m not entirely sure I’m on the right path as I wander across a number of fields, stopping to clean my boots with a handful of dock leaves. According to the plan, there should be a house on my left. There isn’t but there is a small herd of deer, startled to see the mad woman of Dorset make an unexpected appearance. And there should be footbridges.

Do you mean this one? Ok. I’ll just negotiate a route over the tree trunks. Wait – what’s that noise? Doesn’t sound like a pheasant. Which is because I happen upon four geese that are employed to guard the way. Fortunately, they leg it only to leave space for a random bunch of turkeys. Happy Christmas, I say in passing.

 

 

Finally, I’m away from all that unexpected nonsense and out in the open of Corfe Common; the largest stretch of common land in Dorset where folk still pay a peppercorn rent to house their livestock. I only see a solitary pony as I amble the last mile into Corfe where I treat myself to a jacket potato. With tuna. No butter on the spud thanks – I’m doing Slimming World. And no tomato with the salad. People specifically ask for tomato, the waitress informs me sadly. Well, give them mine then. I study the directions. It’s not looking good for folk who don’t like walking up hills.

I know this picture of the next main part of my walk isn’t particularly interesting but, see that clump of trees on the skyline? Well, that’s where my car is. Depressing or what? Good job the day is glorious as I trudge uphill looking for Blashenwell Farm, number seven on my instructions.

 

 

I walk for a long time and it’s by no means terrible. At last the weather is wonderful and you have to walk the Purbeck alone to appreciate the splendid solitude of it all. However, speaking of solitude, I haven’t seen a living soul since the tomato debacle and I can’t find Blashenwell Farm. I’ve run out of road but here comes Julien on his bike. He’s not very happy at being accosted by me. ‘Are you with a group’, he asks? I look round cautiously. There doesn’t seem to be numerous people to hand. ‘No, I am all alone’, I say pitifully. In this photo, where Julien is cycling away from me as fast as he can, there’s a road between those posts. Well, who knew? Not exactly obvious is it?

And who knew that when I finally located the unsigned Blashenwell Farm there would be this amazing mill wheel? It would have turned mill stones to grind barley and oats for animal feed for the farm.

 

I’m not so far from the end-game now but the last mile is torturous. There are no pictures because, frankly, I wasn’t sure I’d make it and all my strength was taken up with trying to breath. I walked UP a green field, pausing, as instructed, to look back across the valley; UP through a wild garlic infested wood; UP some steep steps alongside a row of cottages; and UP to the church from whence I began my walk. Fortunately, it was still springtime in Kingston. I collapsed in my car seat and, of course, felt rather smug

 

 

 

 

 

Portland ahoy!

 It’s Wednesday. It’s Tony and Sally’s day off so, yet again, I’ve hitched a ride for another brief five mile walk during the course of which, a few birds might be spotted. This time, we’re off to Portland where the stone comes from. The map shows Portland in 1899 and let me tell you, little has changed. At one point, I see a car bearing a sticker in the back window: ‘keep Portland weird’. I think they’ve succeeded. The photograph is the view from the car park: not one of my best but it shows a) the glorious weather after the recent ice age and b) the fabulous view of the Dorset Jurassic Coast.

Here’s Portland’s idea of a cliff-top holiday home. Yes, that is smoke; probably from a fire over which a few locals are roasting a clay-covered hedgehog. In fact, this is what’s left of the allegedly bomb-proof Cheyne Pumping Station, built by The Admiralty in 1861 to supply water for the new Royal Navy base. The station, along with its 10,680 feet cast iron pipe, was purposely covered in grass to give the impression of a grassy knoll. Those damned grassy knolls – they pop up in the least unexpected places in history.

We take a bit of a detour to look along the cliffs for a raven’s nest. I’d already told them I didn’t want to be too near the edge so I stood back and looked the other way. ‘Is that a raven?’ I ask as they’re staring blankly into the distance.

 

After this, we head off back to the road, cross into no-man’s land and head off across country. In the distance, we see the welcoming sight of the prison. There are two prisons on this tiny island and there used to be a prison boat moored off the edge. This is the main one – The Verne. I was once unlucky enough to go there to witness a teaching practice. ‘They’ll be a murderer in the room’, said the candidate happily. ‘Guess which one it is’. Terrific. I didn’t much care for that place.

We jog along past the mediaeval strip lynchetts. In this exclusive part of the world, they call them lawn sheds. It’s a derivation. Or maybe they’re just hard of hearing. Either way, the path is ridiculously muddy and the going is hard. Tony sent me a map beforehand on which he’d written ‘terrain variable’. Well that’s one interpretation. However, we’re high enough that the working lighthouse at Portland Bill is always in view. Not many birds though – just the odd kestrel. What I do notice is the air. I’m lucky enough to live in a part of the country where the freshness of the air is apparent the minute one steps off the train from London Town. Up here, however, breathing is a joy. The clarity of the atmosphere is noticeable enough to warrant comment. We should be struggling this far into and up the incline but it’s joyous.

Eventually, we begin our descent towards the lookout station which is the last thing I’m allowed to photograph before we hit MOD territory. You’ve got to be pretty committed to drive up here and voluntarily pass the day watching out for abnormalities. The place that I can’t take photos of is, apparently, where they make bombs of some sort or another.

We’re getting perilously near the edge again. I lean against the MOD fence and take a picture of that lot who are taking pictures of guillemots. Good luck with that then. In the background, being as we’re now on the other side of the island, you can see the Dorset-into-Devon stretch of the wonderful Jurassic Coast.


Anyway, whilst they’re busy with the seagulls, I’ve spotted a stonechat. What a good job they brought me along.

 

 

Finally, we’re allowed to stop for lunch near Pulpit Rock which is the first photo. The other picture is the view from our picnic place which was freezing. Yesterday, I made chicken tikka for my mum’s birthday; today, I ate the leftovers with hood up and gloves on.

Then, after having a look around, we trundle up to the bird observatory. I think it to be a place of little consequence but, actually, it’s quite nice sitting on the heat-retaining wooden bench. Along comes a large brown rat and all the twitchers start with their cameras. Next, a quite beautiful cock pheasant appears which is marginally better. I notice something tiny and colourful fall below me. It’s a goldfinch which no-one else has noticed. Too speedy for the camera.

Eventually, we begin our trudge up the hill and I point out a buzzard resting on a post. Two ravens do their best to worry it away but its having none of it. The buzzard flies from one post to another. It’s seen the rabbits. And the rabbits in these parts are of a mutant variety. On Portland, it’s unlucky to say ‘rabbits’. They were thought to undermine the workings of the quarries and mines and, having seen the size of them, I can understand this. For a while, we walk along referring to ‘bunnies’ but the temptation is too great: RABBITS I scream. This is what Portland does to you.

I wouldn’t want to be here on a day when the sun wasn’t shining. It’s a bleak old place dependent on the whims of nature. I’ve omitted much of the weirdness of the place because I had such a fabulous walk. But I was pleased to see the car once more and drive away from the scariness that is Chesil Beach. I don’t know why folk try to romanticise the place: the McEwan’s book was a drag along the stones. We sat awhile with a hot chocolate. Then we ran for the hills.

The paths of glory …

…lead but to the grave

Apart for the opening lines – ‘the curfew tolls the knell of parting day’ – I feel I am guilty of unfamiliarity with Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. On visiting St Mary’s, Lytchett Matravers, I can only reflect on this omission in my personal literary canon as unforgivable unless it previously meant nothing to me; a feeble excuse. The word ‘elegy’ requires less thought than ‘country’.

 

A busy morning, occupied with little of significance, demands an afternoon foray into the near-at-hand countryside, just to make sure the sunshine isn’t wasted. On my way down the proverbial long and winding country lane, an animal bounds along the tarmac in front of the car. What is that? Too big for a cat; too small for a deer; wrong shape for a fox. It’s a hare! My second in a week.

‘…that yew tree’s shade, where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap’. Truth be told, I’m here with my trusty little camera because someone said the place is pretty, and is home to several birds. I don’t see them so I wander around for a bit. Obviously, the church is shut. Then I take look around the graveyard and find myself in the extension. Which is when the notion of ‘country’ hits home.

 

For we are not just talking countryside, we’re talking ‘my’ country. Whether or not I’m a patriot is disputable: I don’t stand up for the national anthem, for example. And I don’t much care for what I perceive as us interfering in other folk’s problems. On the other hand …click the picture to read the inscription.

 

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife … I know their base is to hand, but there are other churches closer. For reasons that are presently unclear, St Mary’s is the resting place of many Royal Marines – SBS, SAS, killed In Iraq, Afghanistan and so-forth. They are decorated with poppy wreaths from their squadrons and crosses signed by their compatriots, but their stones bear the inscription ‘daddy’; which gives meaning to the young age at which they were killed. For their country. These are the men who left England’s green and beautiful for some other foreign field. They are the collateral of war games.

It’s unclear why Gray wrote his elegy. 270 years since, it resonates so succinctly that it might’ve been constructed yesterday. And that says a lot about how far we’ve come. Which is nowhere apart from making me wake up to what is given for country. And what is forgotten, unless you happen to be in an English country churchyard.

 

We’re on the road to who knows where

There was always going to be some confusion surrounding this walk. That chap on the swing might look settled enough but, given we’d intended to go to Pentridge and are now parked outside the C12 church of St Bartholomew in Shapwick, derived from the words meaning Sheep Village, things have clearly gone amiss. Blame it on the weather forecast: all points in the direction of Salisbury were giving rain. In any case, the air around that city doesn’t seem to be too fresh at present.

 

 Wikipedia excels on the merits of the interior of St Bart’s.The church is shut so we have a wander around its gardens. I’m in the company of those birders once more and they always claim there’s all sorts of birdlife to be spotted in a churchyard. Well, nothing to see here apart from a solitary war grave. Move along please.

The River Stour is close at hand. So close, in fact, that there are flood barricades outside the church. ‘Where are we off to then?’ I ask Sherpa Tony. I’d brought along printed copies of a possible route and emailed an alternative which seemed to be the same walk backwards. Tony has a third option: a map of a not apparently dissimilar path on a nicely coloured printed card. The first two routes suggested a 4 mile meander so Sally and I assumed the one that was chosen would be more or less the same.

Having left the village far behind, trudged the long and winding road and made a left up a muddy track in the direction of Elm Tree Cottage, we arrive at this signpost which is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. No matter, our leader has switched to his iPad and we gaily follow him up a hill and into the open countryside. And when I say ‘open’, I mean ‘open’..

 

Some hours later, we hit such dizzy heights that the snow that left Dorset four days ago still lingers in these parts. Sally and I are both currently committed to Slimming World so have been content to discuss food for the last couple of miles. Suddenly, she remembers her husband is also on this walk so falls back to keep him company for a while. Actually, she’s really keeping the peace as the Sherpa has two of us questioning his directions.

 

It hasn’t worked: there’s Tony in another world whilst we two discuss the merits of BBQ chicken without fat; and oil; and anything else that’s ‘bad’. In the far distance, we can see Badbury Rings and remark on how the countryside that falls away from them is so remarkably – well, open. Not a lot to see in these parts.

 

Suddenly, Sally sees the hare: an apparently enormous specimen bounding away with such speed that none of us manage to capture it on our cameras. It’s a treat, nonetheless. Just as we’re discussing our luck, a small herd of deer magically appears in front of us. There they go.

After we’ve finally escaped the pastureland, which involved a number of detours and the crossing of a barbed wire fence, we head off downhill. Generally, I’m a fan of ‘downhill’ but the way is comprised of slippery mud from last night’s rain. Sherpa Tony informs us that, according to the iPad, we’ve come nearly a mile. The peasants revolt: how can that be so? We’ve been walking for over two hours and lunch beckons. The leader informs us that, to our left, we can see the church of Tarrant Crawford. Well, sorry old bean but the only visible church is to the right and it belongs to the parish of Tarrant Keyneston. Apparently, the iPad stopped recording some eons ago and has about as much of a clue where we are as we do. I’m hungry.

The sun appears in all its full glory as we’re wandering along a stream – the Tarrant. Rounding a corner, we spot the welcoming site of the Church of St Mary, Tarrant Crawford. Listen reader, if you think this weasel is dragging on a bit, what do you think it was like for us? I spotted a handy luncheon bench and we partook of our frugal, Slimming World inspired grub. For some reason, best known to herself, Sally starts harping on about how culinary life changes mean no more pasties. I hadn’t even thought about those Cornish delicacies – too busy grieving over the loss of cheese – but now you come to mention it.

The door to the church is, amazingly, open. And look – they have frescoes. They date from the C13 but look much older to my untrained eye. What a treat. The church interior is, otherwise, a sullen affair but I can’t help but think they could’ve promoted these beauties a bit further afield.

 

When we emerge from the church it starts raining. Then it starts pouring. And next it begins with the hailstones. And Sherpa Tony turns over the brightly coloured route card and informs us that the walk is 7.5 miles long. And it bloody well feels like it. We decide to omit a field or three and walk along the road; which is just as well because, otherwise, we’d have missed this mediaeval way marker. The bottom and the top cross are later additions but I love it. And it’s stopped raining.

We wander down another long road to see Crawford bridge, first recorded in 1334. It has nine arches spanning two streams of the Stour and was widened in 1819.

 

 

There are handy pedestrian refuge points if you want to take photos of the view; and of lurking egrets. You’ll have to spot them yourself.

And here am I, looking jolly.

 

 

We cross another million fields and finally emerge close to our starting point, welcomed by miniature cyclamen. It was a grand walk, much of which I’ve omitted. Thank-you Sally and Tony

 

 

Big skies

Unforeseen events precluded today’s planned outing to the back of beyond. However, browsing through some back copies of Dorset Life at my parents’ house, some time later, it appears that the afternoon might be rescued with a smaller foray into the countryside. A circular walk entitled ‘Knowlton Church to Gussage All Saints’, allegedly a mere two and a half miles, looks promising. I feel that whoever wrote the directions missed a thing or two.


 

 

 

 

Every cloud … the afternoon’s skies are ENORMOUS when I park, as per instructions, at Knowlton Rings. Said instructions have nothing to say about this weird and wonderful site – they merely want me to press on down the lane. However, I’m having none of that.

There’s bountiful evidence that folk have been here before me. The church, partially constructed from standing stones, is twelfth century and stands in the centre of a Neolithic henge. Thus, 4000 years separate them. There’s no known reason why the two have been conjoined. Oh, I love a mystery. In the fifteenth century, the population of the hamlet of Knowlton was decimated by the plague. Today, the joint is haunted by a phantom horse and rider, a kneeling nun and copious other lost souls.

Here stand two spiritual yew trees. Walk through the gap between them and witness the votive offerings that modern day folk still leave. I love all this stuff although, I have to say, this place makes me feel inexplicably uncomfortable. Apparently, there used to be a line of yews on this horizon.

Anyway, Dorset Life doesn’t want me to hang around: it wants me to continue down Lumber Lane, so I do. Now and then, the instructions speak about the road ‘rising slightly’. Well, that’s your idea of slightly. Seems like a seriously uphill lumber to yours truly. Still, glorious countryside. At the top, I turn left, walk for eons, turn right onto the muddiest track in existence and totally miss the point at which I’m supposed to descend.

 

I didn’t take this photo. I stole it from the interweb. Some guy called Jim Champion took and doctored it. I don’t take any photos when I emerge from the muddy track to find myself looking out over prehistory. My camera is too tiny to give any worth to what I can see. Whilst I feel the beginnings of panic because I know I’ve deviated from the path, I somehow know that I’m looking over the Dorset Cursus on the edge of Cranborne Chase, crossed by Ackling Dyke. I don’t take pictures because the countryside is simply too big. And too ancient. It’s a tiny bit scary in its vastness.

According to my instructions, I’m supposed to descend into the village of Gussage All Saints at the Drovers Inn. I don’t. I reappear by the church. Those aren’t floodlights – that’s the sun bouncing off the stones.

 

In Anglo-Saxon, Gussage (All Saints) means ‘the place where the stream dries up’. In my language, it means an extremely affluent village in which no-one can be seen. The phone box now houses a defibrillator. I hope it’s removable; otherwise, folk short of breath will have to stagger up the hill to gain respite. And look – there’s the missing pub.

The dreaded instructions now direct me to Amen Corner. Wait, weren’t they a 60’s rock band? And there’s Amen Cottage. People used to gather here for prayer. Why?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down in Bowerswain, I must take a left turn, ensuring the stream is on my right. Very good but no-one mentions the snowdrop-covered grave. Who drowned here in the place where the river forgot to dry up? Whoever it was, the land-owners are making sure there’s no repetition and have redirected the path into another abyss. Daylight time is running short and now I’m stuck on a muddy path to who knows where. For the second time on this walk, I’m a little uncomfortable. Still, there are no alternative options.

This is the final treacherous path. In the distance I can see Knowlton Church and press on until I finally meet Lumber Lane once more as the day closes in.

 

 

 

As I relocate my car I look behind to see the dying day and note the skies are still defiant in their hugeness. It was an unexpected walk but glorious nonetheless. On the way home, I play Bowie’s dying Dollar Days in which he repeats the line ‘if I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it means nothing to me’. Not sure I believe him.

 

 

 

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.