(NB: the photos are rather small but you can click on them if you’d like to see more detail)
A 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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?
Or is he taking care to avoid this place?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.