Nothing to see here folks. Move along please

2017_0119badbury0012I could’ve done with a friend today. Or a dog. I walk the best part of six miles and never see a soul. Tell a lie: at one point, near nowhere, I see a chap on a bicycle. I’m busy trying to negotiate a gateway of cow poo at the time so don’t have the wherewithal to accost him. In any case, he either doesn’t see me or, alternatively, he’s spotted the hat which could explain why he’s going like the clappers along the edge of the field. I truly am Norma-no-Mates for at least two hours which makes me question the reason for walking alone in the country. Well, the reason is that no-one who’s free to accompany me will do so because they say it’s always too far. But, in the absence of a companion, and after planning tomorrow’s dinner menu, what I’m debating with myself has something to do with ‘place’.

2017_0119badbury0010Clearly, I have a constant desire to be outside, ‘in the air’ as grown-ups used to say when they didn’t want you indoors. And certainly I don’t mind going with me, myself and I on these expeditions. But I don’t crave constant solitude: it’s the little chats with strangers along the way that make the thing meaningful. Fossils and flints hold little sway for your narrator: discovering an interesting nugget of information from another person’s life is what inspires me to write my traveller’s logs. The photographs are by way of a contextual backdrop or an aide memoire if you like.

2017_0119badbury0001This morning, I head off inland to an old favourite – Badbury Rings, with a view to walking the paths behind this Iron Age hill fort that I haven’t previously traversed. Badbury Rings is the 5th in a chain of six earthworks. For the more spiritually minded, there’s a world of esotericism to be explored in the notion of links between these named sites and others such as the geomantic (and close at hand) Knowlton Church and rings which are not in the ‘official’ chain. I’m not immune to such things. I’ve dabbled in the not-so-distant past. More prosaically, many of the routes I follow are the leftovers of five Roman roads that formed an important junction outside the rings and today’s walk commences on one such old straight track that eventually embraces the Ackling Dyke. So when I say, ‘I never see a soul’, I like to think I’m amongst them.

2017_0119badbury0005I purposely skirt the Rings: like the chocolate caramel, I’m leaving them for last. I have to earn them by traipsing along slippery tracks that have no chance of defrosting in the foreseeable future. Had I known that the man with a dog coming in the opposite direction would be the last human being I’d see for some time, I might’ve have waylaid him. But I don’t.

 

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2017_0119badbury0016I have two maps both of which I’m following the wrong way. By this, I mean I can’t usefully relate to the accompanying written instructions and as I’m in open, unmarked countryside, there’s no useful landmarks which is why I called this weasel ‘nothing to see’. There’s plenty to see in terms of open countryside and all sorts of hints that this was once an important landscape. One of my maps, which is honest enough to admit is has no sense of scale, promises two stars on Kingdown: different symbols to our beloved Ordnance Survey but I suspect they may be tumuli.

2017_0119badbury0023And, all of a sudden, there they are: dutifully protected by a circle of wooden markers in the middle of otherwise organised agriculture. At this point, I’m on The Hardy Way. Never heard of it and when I look it up later, I find it starts at Chesil Beach and ends five minutes away at Portland. In between, having taken the scenic route, it ambles through most of north Dorset and south Wiltshire which I feel is stretching a point or two.

2017_0119badbury0026Finally, I arrive at Sterley Bushes which is the mediaeval name for The Oaks; a plantation of seven hundred years old trees that have been allowed to naturally rot in order that rare beetles and fungi can prosper. In the old days, I’ve been up here on the winter solstice and hugged a tree or three whilst ancient men told even older tales in the oral story telling tradition. That’s all dead and gone now as are they to be replaced by the despicable National Trust – an organisation whose very name comprises an hideous and confusing lie.

2017_0119badbury00282017_0119badbury0031I emerge, much later than anticipated, back on the Rings. In the summer these grasslands will be covered in thirty two varieties of wild orchid and even though there’s no colour today, I feel at ease and thankful.

2017_0119badbury0030After my solitary walk, I drive back into Wimborne and visit not only my favourite shop in that town, but possibly the nicest retail joint in Dorset, with the most gentle proprietor one could meet. After careful deliberation, I choose a gift for my London type friends. As ever, Alan takes a year and a day to dress the present during which time we catch up on our emotions.

decorumThe last time I saw him, just before Christmas, we were both attending a funeral the following day and we exchange thoughts. And Alan tells me how he used to be a famous costumier. I never knew this. He’d just signed a contract to do Madonna’s dresses for the film of Evita when, the following day, he had a massive heart attack. He left that life and opened his delightful shop in Wimborne. ‘I wanted to be a world away’, he says. I tell him about my walk and he laughs at me having no-one to talk with. But I don’t because I’ve just had the most interesting conversation with someone I thought I knew.

 

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In which I lose two cairns, miss a turning and invent a route

2017_0114warehamwalk0003‘That map’s rubbish’, states Peter angrily and I think he might be right. However, when I begin my walk along the Poole Harbour Trail at Wareham Bridge, all seems well in this freezing world and I have yet to meet him. I’ve walked the opposite bank of the River Frome previously but this side is far more attractive and accessible.

 

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2017_0114warehamwalk0006To my right, the water meadows are, unsurprisingly, fairly wet although not yet completely immersed. Think of all the usual descriptions of sunlight on water, pick your favourite, and there you have it. I’m not going to make up any new metaphors and similes. And even though a river is not always my favourite of waterways, I am, as usual, disappointed to leave it behind as I make an eventual right turn up a hill, as indicated on the map.

2017_0114warehamwalk0012It’s a pictorial map: it depicts three bird varieties, a butterfly, a deer, a couple of trees and two cairns. Not much in the way of directions though; just some dots wriggling across miles of pale green nothingness. Still, I’m looking forward to the cairns. Wareham boasts archaeological evidence of Mesolithic activity around 9000 BCE so you can be sure the ancients were traipsing  here eons ago. Perhaps, they, too, were following the Purbeck Way. Later, I will reflect on why I’m actually following signs for the Purbeck Way: possibly because they look rustic and, more importantly, because there aren’t any other signs. Perhaps it means do it in the Purbeck Way – a sort of rural Lambeth Walk. Whatever, it’s only in the evening that I notice the infamous PW isn’t mentioned once on The Map.

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So I trickle on down into Ridge. This is nice. I’ve not been to Ridge before which might explain why I don’t know where to go now. I can see where the next wooden signpost is pointing but it doesn’t look very interesting so I ask Peter who’s just emerging from his car having been into town to collect The Telegraph. Bad move Peter. His day was going so well until that irritating woman in a green hat appeared. I show him my map of which, up until this moment, I’d been quite proud. I explain that I’m following the route backwards. He’s unimpressed. ‘This map’s all wrong’, Peter says. ‘Who drew it’, he demands as he looks for names? ‘You need to go down here, turn right at Sunnyside, go up Soldiers Road, turn left, go over the cattle grid and turn right’. I don’t want to go down there but I’m frightened. ‘I’d like to see the cairns’, I suggest. ‘Oh cairns’, says he, ‘nothing but piles of stones’. Correct. I try to engage him in history: ‘Why is it called Soldiers Road’, I ask in my most pleasant voice? ‘I don’t know’, admits the man who clearly knows everything.

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During WW1, Wareham became a garrison town, home to 7000 soldiers who lived and trained in the environs. Perhaps they were, from time to time, following the Purbeck Way. Given that it’s a relatively small country town, the cemetery contains many graves of soldiers of diverse nationalities from both of the major wars. I try a spot of green-hatted joviality: ‘perhaps you could go inside and make a lovely new map’, I venture. But Peter’s having none of it. The woman from the tourist information joint lives down the lane and he’s off to make an official complaint.

2017_0114warehamwalk0013The thing is, he’s right: I go down there, turn into Sunnyside, up the first part of Soldiers Road, cross the road and arrive, unexpectedly, at a random menhir. So, it’s not a cairn but I like it and it marks my entry to Pike’s Tramway which goes on and on and on and on. Further, this tramway is on my map although its position there bears no relation to the truth of the matter. As ever, I’m all alone. Just the other day, a well-meaning friend suggested that if I was intent on walking alone across vast swathes of countryside populated only by ghosts, it might be an idea to tell someone beforehand and maybe call in from time to time. The trouble is I seldom know where I’m going let alone where I am. And on days as glorious as these, I tend to forget all that outside world stuff which, in truth, is the point of it all.

2017_0114warehamwalk0017For example, all I’m aware of now is the thud of a hundred historical horses’ hooves as they gallop across Middlebere carrying armies of soldiers. La de da. Suddenly, to my left, a herd of horses appear, galloping at dangerously high speed across the heath. No soldiers in sight but these animals are both exhilarating and frightening.

Not that long ago, and not too far away, I was driving along happily looking for a ‘pick your own’ joint when I spotted a group of donkeys. I pulled up and left the car in order to take a few snaps of these kindly animals. The kindly animals surged forward. I jumped back in the car whereupon those bastard donkeys surrounded me, showed me their horrid teeth and began to gnaw at the bonnet. That would be the car’s bonnet. I don’t do bonnets: I do lime green knitted hats. Anyway, I’m not too keen on horses, donkeys, cows, unknown dogs and so forth.

2017_0114warehamwalk0019The endless Pike’s Tramway is an old clay railway that once traversed the heath from Furzebrook to Ridge Wharf. It was operated by seven steam engines, all of which must have bypassed the cairns as do I. Oh look, here comes Janet and David. It’s been so long since I had a conversation with anyone and those two were having such a nice morning. Before they can blink, I’ve separated them: David, a sensible type, says, humming an old Simon and Garfunkel tune, he’ll just carry on homeward bound. Janet insists on turning tail to help me find the right gate off the tramway. It’s ok Janet – I can do it. But Janet wants to share her fears. It’s her first trip out for months since she fell over at Scotland Farm and broke her wrist. ‘Scotland Farm – National Trust’, she explains as though that thieving crowd are too inept to manage their own sneaky tree roots. And now, with David a mere speck on the horizon, she has to wend her icy way home alone. I feel immensely guilty. All my life, random people who I will never meet again have insisted on sharing their darkest fears. Can’t they see I’m not a kindly type?

2017_0114warehamwalk0030I try to change the subject and ask her about Soldiers Road. Not a clue. During the English Civil War, Wareham was a ferocious hive of activity although, like Boris, they kept changing sides every fortnight. In August, 1644, 2000 Cromwellian soldiers besieged the town after which, they all went to the pub. And previously, when Corfe Castle was being sacked, the Parliamentarians invaded. Both parties would’ve come up the River Frome, landed at Wareham and tracked across the heath. Neither comprised affiliated armies – they were simply bored and drunken young men looking for trouble.

2017_0114warehamwalk0039 I turn from the path and discover that, although I’ve missed the cairns and the so-called view-points, I can see across the harbour. I have lost the path and I’m walking in the wrong direction but it’s difficult to believe I would’ve seen more going the other way. And I find a stile, a wood and a walk down Melancholy Lane which, appropriately, is a ‘no-through road’. Thank goodness, we might have ended in the land of eternal sadness. I walk through Stoborough, cross the path towards Grange, along the causeway, and back into Wareham.

2017_0114warehamwalk0032And speaking of the path to Grange, which waits for another day – the Rev John Hutchins records a phantom army, comprising several thousand, seen from Grange Hill in 1678. Perhaps they’d traversed Soldiers Way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A barrowful of prehistory

(NB: the photos are rather small but you can click on them if you’d like to see more detail)

2017_0102ridgeway0039A new year and a new walk through the oldest of times. So often I’ve driven along that part of the A35 between Winterborne Abbas and Bridport with my eyes anywhere except on the road. Here are huge skies in which large birds soar, glide and hover over a sacred landscape, harmoniously mapped by nature and the ancients who lived within. To the left, the countryside is especially alluring with its abundance of prehistoric barrows, seemingly aligned with other haunting sites both near and far. When I used to make those weekly trips to Cornwall, with my heart in my boots, this was the only part of that god-awful drive I looked forward to. The only reason I’ve never traversed the South Dorset Ridgeway on foot is because it’s an awfully long way up there. And you know me and hills. But I find instructions for a walk that, whilst sadly not categorised in the ‘easy’ range, might nonetheless be a suitable taster for future adventures.

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I park outside the mediaeval church in Martinstown. I like the idea that Monsieur Martin shadows me, even if he isn’t chez lui with the ponies. The clock-face on the tower reports 10.35 so I should easily be back in time for lunch. Forging a way up the initial incline, I discover that my freshly printed sheets of directions have somehow come into contact with my water bottle and are already blurred. Further, by the time I reach instruction number two, I am already lost and the only way forward seems to involve cows. I don’t much care for cows. Fortuitously, Steven and Linda have simultaneously arrived in the same field at the same time on their way from Maiden Castle to who-knows-where. I look at their map and they look at my water-logged instructions. Linda and I discuss possibilities, Steven yawns, we all wish each other a better year than the last and, whilst the cows have their backs turned, I scamper across the muddy field, through a handy gate and into the woods. There’s a rumpus in the trees to my left: must be a very big bird. Two pigeons scatter away. Bloody pigeons, I think; they’re always making so much noise you’d think a big bird was at hand. And before I’ve time to reach for the camera, a huge brown bird of prey emerges and flies all the way down the path in front of me before disappearing into the ages.

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My damp instructions remind me of Marty McFly’s photographs in Back to the Future: every time I look at them, a bit more of the writing has faded away. Soon, nothing will exist. The wet words, prompts in a surreal pantomime, advise me to look back if I want to see Clandon Bowl Barrow: altogether now – ‘it’s behind you’. And there it is, resting like a huge breast on the skyline. Too late, Marty, the present has gone.

 

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The paperwork comprises largely unhelpful directions such as ‘ignore this track’, ‘look for this gate’, ‘turn right at this barrow’. In my world there are only tracks, gates and barrows. And sheep. But, in this most glorious of sun-soaked mornings, what a fabulous existence it is even if it’s something of a struggle to locate the right track, gate and barrow.

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Suddenly, as promised, I’m alone on the Ridgeway overlooking the ocean, the lagoon, Chesil Beach, Weymouth or Budmouth as Hardy would have it. I am Eustacia Vye. I am Tess. I am Bathsheba. I’m an unknown heroine of a literary landscape.

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‘Excuse me’, says the Daily Express reader, ‘are you an archaeologist?’ I’m holding the gate open for this unexpected and unwanted intruder. That’s all. Why does he ascribe this profession to me? Could it be my lime green knitted hat? I’ve observed that archaeologists on television sometimes wear bold clothing. ‘No’, I confess. ‘Have you discovered something?’ He mutters incomprehensibly. I discern the word ‘tumuli’ but little else. As I’m about to ascend Bronkham Hill, I graciously share my limited knowledge of this well-known Bronze Age cemetery. I tell him it’s the most famous of its type in the world. As far as I know, this is a lie but it does the trick and he’s off.

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Actually, I’m a little concerned by what’s left of my instruction sheet which suggests I explore the cemetery but beware of the shake holes. I don’t know what a shake hole is so I ask a passer-by. This part of the Ridgeway is rather busy this fine day, particularly with men in lycra pushing bicycles. Here’s one now: ‘excuse-me my good fellow, do you know what a shake hole is?’ His face is expressionless. I imagine he’s probably up here far from the madding crowd with the specific intention of avoiding old women in lime green knitted hats. Helpfully, I read him my instructions and reiterate my anxieties regarding the ground suddenly opening up. Sergeant Troy tells me to wave if I fall down a hole and I will then be assured of rescue. I ask him if he’s ever heard of Stevie Smith.

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I see a middle-aged couple on their way down Bronkham Hill. I don’t really know what middle age looks like any more although I’ve more than a fleeting suspicion that I no longer qualify. These two look older than me but not yet in elderly territory. She is striding ahead purposefully with a couple of those tall sticks that are all the rage in Norway. He, meanwhile, is some way behind, apparently talking on a mobile phone. Why would you bother to climb to the top of the world (where there’s unlikely to be any sort of signal) to have a chat on a bloody phone? ‘Hope he’s not ringing for a pizza’, I remark on passing stick woman. As he approaches, I can hear the conversation he’s having: ‘the lord be with you and with thy spirit’. I kid you not. ‘Amen, amen’, he continues. What’s going on? Has he forgotten he’s supposed to be elsewhere and is now conducting a service by phone? Has he come up here to be nearer to his god with whom he’s currently communing?

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Or is he taking care to avoid this place?

 

 

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I’m perilously near the onset of shake hole country and still no wiser. A final couple of healthy looking types are close to hand. They don’t look like Daily Mail or Express people so I accost them politely but without context: ‘morning. Any idea what a shake hole looks like?’ She immediately, and also devoid of apparent context, launches into total recall of a holiday once spent in North Yorkshire. Just as I’m wondering whether she’s about to show me some snaps of this pleasant interlude, they both commence a discourse on the many and varied differences between the swallow holes and sink holes that proliferate in those distant climes. After this, I am educated on the effects of acidic rainfall on calciferous limestone in the Jurassic. Bloody hell, Observer readers with a lifetime subscription to National Geographic. ‘Don’t worry’, she titters, ‘I’m sure your family will miss you and come looking if you disappear’. Hmm.

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Due to the frequent mention (which I have omitted to mention) of Hardy’s Monument in the decrepit remains of my instructions, I assume that the highest high point of this walk will be said erection. At various stages, I’m reliably and accurately informed that I will be able to see the tower which, confusingly, has not been constructed in memory of Thomas the writer. Rather, it was finished when Thomas was only four years old and has more to do with the Hardy whom Nelson asked for a kiss on the good ship Victory. An online search informs me that the views from all sides of the monument are glorious which I read as a euphemistic suggestion not to bother looking at the actual erection. This may explain why my journey never actually reaches its presumed summit but, instead, suddenly takes a sharp right across a field. To be more precise, I have to go through a gate next to two barrows. I wonder whether the joker who wrote these directions ever actually took this walk; and if they did, did they count the number of gates and barrows up here?

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I descend more rapidly than my knees might care for given the choice. I am truly sorry to leave the ridgeway and the company of the sea although, for a while, I do have the pleasure of seeing the barrows from another side. The remaining fragments of paper tell me to traverse the track alongside Ballarat Farm until I come to a tarmac path.

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Nowhere is any indication of the length of this track given. It goes on and on and on with no sign of life until I see a woman of indiscernible age by an ancient wooden gate. The woman has long unkempt hair, a black shawl and an old, full-length, mud-splattered skirt. It’s difficult to say which of us is the most surprised at this meeting. She smiles awkwardly and even though I know I’ve walked into a lesser known Hardy novel where tragedy is all pervasive, I offer a polite greeting. I can feel her hopeful eyes on my back as I continue down the interminable track and I feel inexplicably disturbed. Only the welcome sight of an egret in a field of cows breaks the temporary gloom that has enveloped me.

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The remainder of the walk involves a bewildering number of stiles, all of which are in an horrendous state of rotting decay. It’s as much as I can do to drag my aching legs up and over them and my trousers become caked in unattractive green slime that contrasts nicely with the knitted hat. At one point, I lose a stile and find myself in a huge private garden replete with lake and summer house. I am mightily concerned as this looks like the type of joint that would employ professional guard dogs and it takes me some considerable time to locate the exit. The penultimate field is a bumpy affair with rutted, uneven ground. This is all that’s left of the mediaeval village of Rew which was long since abandoned and of which I can find nothing during a brief period of research.

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As I re-enter Martinstown, I recall that the now totally disintegrated instruction sheet advised me, rather casually, to do so past the sheep washing pool. I may be wrong but since when did the appearance of sheep washing pools next to village pubs become so frequent that they can be mentioned so glibly? And if you’re bothering to click on the pictures, perhaps you can suggest what that ghostly white blob in the background might be.

 

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I arrive back at the church exactly four hours after I first left. A final oddity to end this most excellent of walks: as I was sitting sideways on in the driver’s seat, door open, struggling to remove my muddy walking boots, a leopard skin cat appeared from nowhere, jumped into the car, leaped over the passenger seat and briefly sat on the parcel ledge before leaving again without so much as a purr or miaow. I like cats nearly as much as I like hills. It was rather pretty though. It was too quick for a photo opportunity so here’s an identical one I found on the WWW.