Ophelia

With no business to be writing, given familial arguments and copiously consumed glasses of red wine, way past the aperitif benchmark, I sit outside in the autumnal darkness of my tiny garden claiming the final breaths of evening air. The gentle sea mist has evolved into a heavy-duty fog that appeared when no-one was looking. The temperature is sufficiently warm to warrant open doors but the dampness clings to the very soul that was believed lost in time a few sad hours ago. It’s almost fearsome to close those doors and invite the night to do its worst. The honking geese have made their evening’s journey to Brownsea Island; my multitude of sparrows is hiding in the hedge whilst the brave fat robin has forsaken my company until tomorrow.

The other day, nature, or something purporting to be normal, frightened twenty-first century folk. In the middle of the day, having spent the morning trying out various shades of yellow, the sky suddenly turned black. At the surgery, undertaking a prosaic pneumonia vaccination, Nurse Judy exclaims, ‘thank-you for coming in on such an auspicious day’. And it’s as if ‘such a day’ is an omen of terrible things to arrive imminently. The receptionist says, ‘have you seen the sky?’ A woman in the waiting room claims, ‘I just want to be home’. Radio 4 interviews a soothsayer.

Back from disease prevention, I stare blankly at the darkness through my French windows. Suddenly, the fierce red sun appears like a terrible omen. A portent of things to come. Well, they arrived. Hopefully, they will pass but I doubt it. The world is spiralling downwards. But the door’s still open.

 

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Every answer begs a question

Today, I undertook my first proper walk since the tendons in my ankle went west in Bromley a couple of months ago: over 5 miles in a designated area of outstanding beauty (see photos for proof).

For a change, I wasn’t alone. Sally and Tony collected me and I was duly bundled into the back of their car with little idea of our destination, and not much more on arrival. ‘Are we there yet?’ I felt like a small child being taken on a day trip – I loved that feeling. Can’t remember the last time this happened. We went uphill and down dale, through woods, along roads and across wide open fields – you can just see the remnants of a path if you click on this photo.

Were we in deepest Dorset? Possibly. Thorncombe, the starting point, certainly resides in our beloved county today but, until 1844, it nestled in Devon. Further, it’s only 5 miles south of Chard, which is in Somerset, so we managed to criss-cross our way over a number of borders and step along a variety of labelled paths. It seems that a walk can be no longer recognised unless it coincides with historical nomenclature so, from time to time, and age to age, Pathfinder Tony informed us which route we currently followed. And that begs the first question: where do the names come from?

Sometimes, we traversed The Monarch’s Way: a massive 615 miles long path that covers swathes of England’s green and pleasant along which Charles 2nd made his escape. At other times, we found ourselves on the Liberty Trail – a mere 28 miles that rebels from Dorset and Somerset took in order to join forces with the Monmouth Rebellion. Mostly, we followed the Jubilee Trail, parts of which I’ve previously trodden on the Dorset Ridgeway.

At Forde Abbey, we noticed a sign stating there were another 90 miles to go until we reached Bokerley Dyke. We’d all heard of it but, as none of us were able to say anything useful about it, more research was required. The Jubilee Trail begins at Forde Abbey (which begs the question ‘why?’) and continues until it reaches the dyke that used to form a boundary between Dorset and Hampshire.

All of this was duly noted whilst sitting on a wall outside the abbey with our lunch. Sally is currently a member of Slimming World which means, by default, so is Tony. I averted my eyes from their meagre midday break and concentrated on my avocado and corned beef sandwiches, my packet of mini-cheddars and my bunch of grapes. As a respectful nod to their willpower, I sadly ignored the Viennese Whirl that was winking at me from the corner of my lunch box. Never mind, I’ll have it for pudding tonight after my spaghetti bolognaise which won’t have been made with low fat mince and grated courgette.

Even though I was able to make such a grown-up decision, I managed to revert to childhood as I recalled the days of the I Spy club wherein a completed book sent to Big Chief I Spy was rewarded with a feather and a merit badge. Those two, being minutes younger than your narrator, couldn’t recall this club which, by 1953, had half a million child members. They claimed to know nothing about the News Chronicle within whose pages Big Chief I Spy resided. But they did remember the books they had: I Spy on a Journey; I Spy at the Seaside. Each for 6d unless you wanted a coloured one for the princely price of 1/-.  ‘I never went to the seaside’, said Pathfinder Tony. ‘What do you mean?’ I demanded. ‘You lived at the seaside!’

This being the season, despite an early start this year, bluebells abounded. As Sally said, whilst crawling through the undergrowth to get the ‘right’ snap, the glorious woodland carpets never look the same in photographs.

There were other flowers which demanded more questions and answers. ‘Lady’s Bedsores’, says Sally. Doesn’t sound quite right. Heart’s Ease – which, to my mind, has a much more interesting name: ‘Love-in-Idleness’. Here we have Ladies’ Smock, also known as Cuckoo Flower due to its coincidence with that bird, and found in wet grassland. Correct. And the rather attractive Yellow Dead Nettle also available as Yellow Archangel; a member of the mint family recommended for ‘ old, filthy, corrupt sores and ulcers’. I thank you.

Later, Tony points out this finger post which sports the grid reference. They notice everything, these two and it’s left to yours truly to investigate on the WWW. And your avid researcher learns absolutely nothing apart from the fact that British road signage has fallen through a loophole of centralised traffic procedure. Basically, apart from a law stating that all signs had to be removed during WW2 to confuse invading Germans – and let’s face it we don’t even know what county we’re in – and replaced in the late 1940s, counties could do pretty much what they wanted as long as the signs were in white with black writing. Except for the red ones. And the blue ones.

And yet to be researched in the annals of ancient way markers, is this lovely stone we happened upon. No stones were necessary for us however. Even though there were times, mostly whilst painfully trudging uphill, that I doubted Pathfinder Tony’s trusty digital directions, he saw us successfully through, managing to skilfully avoid a field full of calves and temperamental mothers on the way; safely home to a Radox bath and a bottle of the red stuff. Another grand day out thanks to kindly friends. And a load of research to undertake.

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.

 

 

 

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.

Max Gate

DSCF4943It’s Sunday morning and we’ve been granted unexpected respite: just  the two of us, eager to make the most of the day before the promised deluge arrives. We’re off to see Max Gate and eldest daughter is on a mission. Devoid of small child whose well-being is paramount, she drives down the Dorchester by-pass like a woman possessed. Mother’s well-being is not a consideration but all my children turn French once behind the wheel. Appraising the slowness of life on the other side of the Channel, I once remarked to a native that those originating in La France do nothing with speed except when they are in their cars. ‘Meh bah’, she replied, ‘you’ve clearly never had sex with a Frenchman’.

I try to disguise my clenched knuckles as Lewis Hamilton points out various examples of natural history which we must simultaneously examine and avoid:

‘What’s the matter’, she asks as we lurch across the dual carriageway? ‘I was just looking at that dead badger’.

‘Never mind, you’ll get your chance on the way back’, I don’t say. Another lurch back into the outside lane:

‘Did you see that’, asks Lewis Hamilton? ‘A deer. With antlers’. No, I had my eyes shut. Oh for a summer’s day when sunglasses can shade one’s fear.

‘I expect it’ll be dead when we return’, she says happily.

The signpost for Higher Bockhampton is upon us with little warning. No worries: with no time to indicate, Lewis Hamilton screeches round a bend and suddenly, in one of those existential moments, it’s as if the highway never existed; although Lewis hasn’t noticed that we’re driving down the smallest, narrowest country lane that deepest Dorset has to offer. We arrive at – Hardy’s birthplace: probably very quaint and interesting and a good place to make a jigsaw from, but Max Gate is not here and I have made an inexcusable error; which, of course, is excused without fuss. We choose a couple in the car park who look as if they might know Max Gate and ask for directions. The good news is that they know Max Gate. The bad news is that they’re about as useful at giving directions as a chocolate teapot.

We follow their instructions, go through Dorchester, are in danger of landing up in shocking Poundbury, try to get new directions from a closed pub, do a U turn, head back down the hill and screech to a halt by what we judge to be a potentially informative pedestrian. Potentially informative pedestrian, who is in charge of an unpleasant looking poodle, turns out to be the maddest woman in Dorchester. She has no knowledge of travelling in cars, refuses to submit to the idea that she may not be of any help and speaks at the rate of five thousand words a minute. During her discourse, I notice a runaway shopping bag on wheels making an escape down the hill. ‘Oh, look’, I comment. Runaway shopping bag on wheels, it transpires, belongs to potentially informative pedestrian who legs it in the direction of Dorchester prison. I think Lewis Hamilton is rather rude for laughing at this.

Back in town, Lewis Hamilton decides to engage her sat nav. I am more than a little surprised that this has not been introduced previously but, as we’ve swerved to an unanticipated halt, I take the opportunity to ask another passing pedestrian if he knows Max Gate. He begins to give directions but is interrupted by Lewis who can only find the box for the sat nav and not the contents. The new helpful pedestrian sticks his wires back into his ears and moves on. We, meanwhile, find ourselves back on the road to Dorchester that we began on and demand instructions from a bloke who claims to know Max Gate. By this time, I’m sure Max Gate will fall far short of what we expected.

I should really have written a piece about how Max Gate, the home of Thomas Hardy, is worth all the hassle of finding it. To say I’m not a fan of the National Trust would be an understatement: they take our heritage and turn it into something without soul. Once inside, they sell things that no-one wants at extortionate prices. Well, as far as I can see, someone with the same impression as your author has managed to secure a position of importance at Max Gate. It’s fantastic. You can sit on the furniture, spend as long as you want reading about Hardy, reading work by Hardy, buying genuine second hand works by Hardy, have free tea and coffee and explore this lovely warm place at your will. You can wander in the delightful gardens and you can congratulate the ladies on the door who are as far from the usual National Trust volunteers as it’s possible to be.

We arrived home, before the floods, really happy. ‘That only took 17 minutes’, says Lewis Hamilton,

Yes, I noticed.