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

 

 

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Over the hills and far away

There’s a prevalent view that the English always talk (and moan) about nothing except the weather. I’m here to tell you that it’s no different in Provence: I remember one spring-time when I was told ‘this is the wettest May on record’. This June, they said ‘it’s never been as hot’. Now it’s September and all are agreed ‘it’s unseasonably cold’. One thing is as certain as death and taxes: the wind! Today, however, despite the ravages of the mistral, we three set off in glorious sunshine to walk in the hills behind Aramon.

This is no ordinary walk: this is the Sentier des Capitelles d’Aramon. We have crossed the mighty Rhône to be here, thus we are officially in the region known as the Gard. No big deal you might think but, the very words remind you that, until the beginning of the twentieth century, there was no such language as French. For example, the capitelles are small dry stone buildings once used for shelter by shepherds. Twenty minutes from here, they’re known as bories but we are in another country. This photo, taken by my hostess, Keryn, shows the route we’re about to take. I might have been astute enough to take my own snap but I was preoccupied with the birds. I don’t know the difference between swallows and swifts but there they all were, skirting the vivid blue skyline, contemplating a move even further south.

The French are economically sparing with paint. The sign shows the yellow path and we follow this and the subsequent yellow arrow. After this, the decorators have lost the will and we must look for yellow blobs on movable stones to ensure we might be, literally, on the right track.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It doesn’t really matter: we regularly come across capitelles in various conditions which we duly enter and inspect as we climb higher and higher. The wind is not so bad – maybe we’re sheltered by the little mountains. There was an initial plan to leave the struggler (me) behind at an appropriate spot. There isn’t an appropriate spot: the garrigue is stunningly beautiful, but relentless. Leave me here and I’ll be lost forever. But then, I look back and see the river which inspires me to climb higher.

At one point, I see something brown crossing the track. No-one else is looking and when I mention this apparition, I am, as usual, ignored. ‘Perhaps it was a boar’, some comedian comments. And the next minute, everyone sees five or six unidentifiable birds scurrying along the path. Told you so. They were too quick for the cameras but even I know they weren’t swallows.

 

Eventually, we reach the heights which is well worth the climb. From here, we can see, in a 360 degrees turn, the Ventoux, the Alpilles, the Montagnette, Tarasçon and beyond. We’re on the top of the world, under the bluest of skies and the sunshine of the South.

 

We begin our descent. ‘Here’s another capitelle’, exclaims the kiwi. Haven’t we been to this one before, I query? What I like about being with Keryn and Eleanor is, no matter where we are, we never stop talking. And I don’t mean talking about nothing, for we don’t know each other that well to engage in the quotidian. At this particular point, I am minded of the chapter in Three Men and a Boat whereby the intrepid triumvate, with a crowd of followers, deny being lost in the maze at Hampton Court. Someone says, ‘didn’t we pass that bun half an hour ago?’ This, naturally, leads on to an explanation of Longleat and a discussion about PD James and Pride and Prejudice.

And then we are back at the car. And, of course, lunch beckons. Sadly, Aramon doesn’t boast a plethora of eateries. Nonetheless, we manage to secure a spot on the terrace of an apparently non-descript joint where, as Keryn reports, we enjoy ‘a five star meal for the price of a two star restaurant’. Fish for my compatriots and mignon of porc for me… a million miles from the damp offerings in Avignon yesterday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

To hell and back

2017_0122ridgeway20018Having been much inspired by my walk along the South Dorset Ridgeway the other week, I decide to try a trek the other side of Hardy’s Monument. It’s a seven miles hike which, in truth, comprises two more miles than I’d like – it’s the old persons’ keep-fit class tomorrow and I’d prefer to be in with a chance. The new walk is an AA route march which includes the Valley of the Stones.

I’ve prepared really well. For a start, I deferred the walk from yesterday to a time when the sun is supposed to shine. I’ve pored over my OS map with a view to finding how I might lose a couple of miles without losing any of the stones and I think I’ve cracked it. I only have a single glass of the red stuff on Friday and none yesterday so I can be super-fit. What’s taken the most time is folding up the OS map in the opposite way to which the creases naturally sit: it takes ages and the result is an unpleasant bulky mess and, frankly, the ruination of what was, half an hour ago, a pristine representation of half the county. Not to worry. I have a brand spanking new rucksack purchased in the sales and all the usual paraphernalia. Lovely.

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It’s minus 3C when I leave home but the day has gained four degrees by the time I reach my starting point. The lane that wanders somewhat torturously away from the randomly placed McDonalds above Martinstown and up to Hardy’s Monument is still icy in patches. It has yet to benefit from the sun which, in truth, is struggling to make headway in the morning mist. Still, it means the ground will be hard rather than muddy. Coat on, rucksack on and where’s the map? Both of them, stuffed into their plastic folder are where I left them. On the settee indoors. Now that my son has pushed me screaming into the 21st century with a smart phone, I consider looking on it for a substitute. But I’m in the ancient past and there is, of course, no signal.

I know I’ll never remember the original route, let alone the shortening adjustment I was going to take – it was simply too complex. All those lost stones: the Hellstone, the Grey Mare and her Colts, Hampton stone circle, Kingston Russell stone circle, all gone in careless haste to get outside and ‘in the open air’. Disconsolately, I tramp up a slope so steep that the sharpness of the incline, combined with the bloody freezing ‘open air’, finds me gasping for breath less than ten minutes into the walk. I consider giving it all up as a bad idea and going home to redecorate the conservatory (another already out-of-hand idea born of the simple plan to invest in new blinds. Bloody, bloody plans). Still, the morning is too lovely to waste on washing plastic and pretending I know how to fill cracks in walls.

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Further, on reaching and passing the strikingly unattractive monument, I find three of those pictorial boards that tell you what you’re looking at. The one that draws me in is the one about the Valley of the Stones and names all my missing ports of call plus a few more. The area is, I am usefully informed, home to one of the largest number of circles, dolmens and long barrows in the UK and thus comprises a most significant archaeological centre. I’m advised to look all around for any amount of important stones that have been lying around for eons. There’s even a sort of footpath marked in blue spots. It’s not the best rendition of a footpath but, nonetheless, the Valley of the Stones being where it’s all happening (or where it all happened), I head off downhill. Quite a long way downhill actually. My head’s spinning like a remake of The Exorcist: I don’t want to miss a single one of these stones that have waited so long for my arrival, especially the Hellstone which will be along shortly. I can’t actually see any stones. All I can see is Hardy’s horrid monument becoming a dot on the top of a hill I presume I’ll have to climb up at some point if I ever want to see my car again.

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Once, I think I’ve spotted a couple of rows of stones reminiscent of Carnac on a faraway hill but then I realise that their uniform shape means they’re actually those huge rolls of straw or corn or wheat or whatever those things are that farmers make and wrap in plastic. I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your stones down. Some time after, and in another direction, I become excited after spotting a promising looking field. The possible stones within are the right colour but then I notice that a couple of them are moving and I realise they’re sheep. Sick of struggling across scrubland, all alone in this world, I make a right turn and follow a proper path. And here’s Dennis and Irene and their dog, George, who has a stone stuck in his paw. Not a dolmen or a cairn though. ‘Good morning’, I chirp (far more brightly than how I feel). ‘Have you seen any stones?’ I’m not even wearing the green hat today but I might as well be dressed as a pixie judging by the expression on their faces. ‘It’s the Valley of the Stones’, I continue. ‘Dolmens and suchlike’. They’re pleasant enough, in the way people are when they’re nervous, but they’ve been walking these paths for years and have never yet seen any stones.

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A group of riders appear. Their horses are like gypsies’ ponies. I don’t mean that in a discriminatory way. Folk in the know will immediately understand that these equines are of the heavy footed, long-haired variety. I completely forget the fact that I’m uncomfortable in close proximity to horses and, standing in their path, demand to know the whereabouts of the stones. The lead rider claims to have been trotting around these parts for five years and has never seen a dolmen or stone circle: ‘do you mean stones with writing on’, she asks? I find this an exceedingly curious question. As I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking for, I’m not sure of the answer. I doubt whether the stones I have in mind are inscribed with ‘Lludd was here’ or ‘Mynogan loves Belinus’.

I’ve already walked miles and can no longer see the monument which, devoid of a map, is my marker. I decide to turn right again and begin the ascent up a muddy, tree-lined path whereupon I meet Rachel and Gerry. Wearily, I commence my Valley of the Stones mantra. ‘This isn’t the Valley of the Stones’, Gerry says pleasantly; ‘it’s a couple of miles west of here’. And just as I’m retrieving my Swiss Army knife, in order to slash my wrists, Rachel says, ‘but while you’re here, you should see the Hellstone’. Hoorah! And they walk me back down the path and give me explicit directions on how to locate the Hellstone which, they claim, is well worth the visit.

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So I’m back on the South Dorset Ridgeway and life is grand. I’m off to see a stone except that when I get to the next field, it contains three ginormous cows and not an udder between them. Fortuitously, Simon and Linda are close at hand with their children, Oscar and Liam aged four and six. Reader, I’m going to let you into a secret: sometimes, I make up the names of folk I meet along the way. I attached myself to this family to the extent that not only do I know their names, I become a temporary extended member of their tribe. It’s a case of safety in numbers in the face of udderless cows who, as it transpires, have no interest in us whatsoever.

2017_0122ridgeway20004That farmer has done everything possible to thwart us reaching the Hellstone – Simon et al also having this as their goal, plus a map: we tramp though knee-high mud and poo, shimmy past electric fences, climb the most unfriendly stiles and still can’t find the thing. The brave children ask for sweets and are told they can have one when they get there. ‘How will we know when we’ve got there’, asks Liam?

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Good point son, none of has a clue what we’re looking for. Simon decides we’ve passed it and we all turn tail back into the mud. Then we spot it, high on a hill and I trudge upwards with my new acquaintances. I have to say, I’m impressed. I’d made my mind up to be impressed whatever, but I love it. Overlooking the sea, it’s Neolithic and is the oldest man-made structure still standing in Dorset. Oscar isn’t keen. ‘You’re so lucky that your mum and dad have brought you here’, I say. And I mean it and hope it doesn’t sound too patronising. ‘What would you rather be doing’, I ask. ‘Going to McDonalds and watching television’, he promptly replies.

Once back down and through the cow-infested mud, I leave them and trudge uphill to be a welcome toy for many and varied joyously stupid spaniels. By the time I reach the summit, I am a muddy, exhausted mess. I sit on a stone and eat my lunch. When I get up and look behind, I notice the writing. Stones with writing. So that’s what she meant.

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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.

 

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.