Golden Cap – a special place in west Dorset

Golden Cap 5
The west Dorset coast with Charmouth to the left. Golden Cap stands out just right of centre.


The west Dorset coast contains many wonders but one stands out above all others.  This is Golden Cap, the distinctive steep-sided, flat-topped hill with its golden edge and cliffs falling precipitously to the sea.  Visible for miles around and rising above all its neighbours, it stands 191 metres above sea level and is the highest point on the south coast of England.  It is a local landmark, a place of legend, and an inspiration to writers and artists. 

Golden Cap path
The path from Stonebarrrow leading eventually to Golden Cap. Portland can be seen in the distance.


I first climbed Golden Cap nearly thirty years ago.  It was a mild, early spring weekend and I was entranced by the experience.  It’s now one of those places I like to visit periodically so, on a warm mid-July day earlier this year, I set out from the Stonebarrow Hill car park above Charmouth.   The grassy track descended steeply between brambles and bracken towards Westhay Farm with its mellow stone buildings decorated with roses, honeysuckle and solar panels.  I paused in a gateway near the farmhouse to look at one of the hay meadows.  Bees and butterflies enjoyed the thick covering of grasses and colourful flowers while the sun gradually won its battle with the clouds.   Flower-rich hay meadows were once an important feature of the countryside but they have mostly been lost since 1930 as a result of agricultural intensification.  Managed in the traditional way with a late July cut for hay, they support a rich community of invertebrates, birds and flowers. The meadows at Westhay Farm are no exception and rare plants such as the green-winged orchid thrive here.   My gateway reverie was interrupted when a fox suddenly appeared in one of the breaks in the meadow.  We stood looking at one another, a moment out of time, before the fox lolloped off through the long vegetation.

Westhay Farm Golden Cap Estate
Westhay Farm


Hay meadow Golden Cap
A flower-rich hay meadow.


Beyond the farmhouse, the path descended across open grassland dotted with sunny stands of ragwort and tall, purple thistles populated with bumblebees.  The sea, a pale steely blue, was now ahead of me, dominating the view.  Today it was calm but the slight swell was a warning of its power.  Golden Cap loomed to the east like a steep pleat in the coastline and, when the sun shone, the cliff face revealed some of its geological secrets.  About half way up, a large area of rough grey rock was visible. This was laid down some 200 million years ago and is mainly unstable grey clays of the Middle and Lower Lias prone to rock falls and mud slides.  Towards the summit, tracts of distinctive “golden” rock glowed in the sunshine.  The rock here is Upper Greensand, sandstone laid down about 100 million years ago, forming the “cap”.

Golden Cap 2
Looking towards Golden Cap; the golden sandstone cap and the grey rock below can be seen despite the vegetation.


Golden Cap from the east
Golden Cap viewed from the east at Seatown on another day. The golden sandstone cap and the grey rocks beneath can be seen very clearly from this aspect.


A helpful fingerpost


solitary bee
A solitary bee on ragwort, possibly Andrena flavipes.


Common red soldier beetles, qualifying for their popular name of “hogweed bonking beetles”.


The coast path continued eastwards in a roller coaster fashion.  Prominent fingerposts pointed the way and I passed vast inaccessible coastal landslips and descended into deep valleys with rapidly flowing water, only to climb again on the other side.  In meadows alongside the path, bees, moths, beetles and butterflies flitted among the many flowers including purple selfheal and knapweed, yellow catsear and meadow vetchling.    The final push towards the summit of Golden Cap began very steeply across open grassland before entering a stepped, zigzag track which was easier to negotiate.  As the path rose there was a change in the landscape.  Bright purple bell heather began to show and bracken surrounded the stepped path; a kestrel hovered briefly above.

antrim stone
The Antrim stone


Suddenly the path levelled out; I had reached the summit and here were the familiar landmarks:  a low stone marker informing me how far I had walked and the larger stone memorial to the Earl of Antrim.  The dedication told me that the Earl was the Chairman of the National Trust between 1966 and 1977. What it didn’t tell me was that he recognised the importance of preserving our coastline from encroaching development and spearheaded the Enterprise Neptune appeal which led to the purchase of 574 miles of coast saving it for future generations.  Golden Cap was one of two coastal sites purchased in his memory after he died.

Golden Cap view east
The view to the east over Thorncombe Beacon with Portland in the distance.


Golden Cap view west
The view to the west towards Lyme Regis and the Devon coastline.


I reminded myself of the long views from this high, flat-topped hill:  to the east across Seatown, Thorncombe Beacon, West Bay and Portland, to the west over Lyme Regis and the wide sweep of Devon coastline, to the north across the Marshwood Vale.   Looking down, I saw water skiers carving patterns in the sea surface far below.  The sea now seemed so far away that I felt momentarily separated from the rest of the world.

On my return journey, I headed down and slightly inland to the remains of the 13th century chapel at Stanton St. Gabriel.  Set in meadowland beneath the western slope of Golden Cap, the derelict, grey stone walls and the porch of the old chapel are all that remain.   There is also a cottage nearby and a large building, originally an 18th century manor house, now restored by the National Trust as four holiday apartments.   But why was a chapel built in this isolated spot and why is it now derelict?  A settlement existed here for many hundreds of years and Stanton St. Gabriel was mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086).  There was a farming community of about 20 families in the vicinity until the 18th century and this was their chapel but the settlement was abandoned when some people were lured to Bridport to work in the flax and hemp industry.  Others may have moved to Morcombelake when the coach road from Charmouth to Bridport along the flank of Stonebarrow Hill was moved away from the settlement to its present route.

stanton st gabriel
The derelict chapel at Stanton St Gabriel.


The derelict chapel provides a potent reminder of the community that once lived in this isolated but beautiful spot beneath one of west Dorset’s most striking landmarks, Golden Cap.

This article appeared in the September 2016 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The colours of a Dartmoor Sunset

Last week, on a clear, warmish evening, we went up to Haytor on the south eastern corner of Dartmoor to watch the sunset.  Haytor consists of two huge outcrops of granite, one larger, one smaller, set on a hill some 450 metres above sea level. The two huge outcrops of granite are a local landmark visible for miles around, and the position of the Tor affords panoramic views across the surrounding countryside.

Haytor contrails
Approaching the larger of the Haytor rocks from the east; contrails in the sky


A wide, grassy track led steeply up to Haytor from the car park. The sun was setting directly behind the great granite outcrop that evening so the path and the surrounding countryside were in shadow, bathed in an eerie twilight.  Stands of yellow gorse and vivid purple bell heather lined the path and a few crows pottered about on the track ahead of us.  The rock itself was a flat grey in this light but, behind it, the sky was a luminous pale blue engraved with contrails left by passing aircraft, brilliant white shooting stars.  Turning to look back, there were long but slightly hazy views across rolling countryside to Newton Abbot and on to the sea more than 10 miles away at Teignmouth.  Much of this land was still illuminated by the sun and we could see woodland, small towns and the white scars of clay mine workings.  Increasingly, however, a portion of the land lay in shadow as the sun set.

Eastern view
The view to the east from Haytor towards the sea


Heather and gorse
Heather and gorse


Under the eastern flank of the larger rock, shadow dominated and the air was cool but upon reaching the western side it was as though we had entered a different, more optimistic world – a world of orange light, brightness and warmth.  The sun was still some distance above the horizon but its low rays created a curious moonscape on the nearby moorland.  Every tussock of grass and every craggy stone were illuminated along with the occasional sheep; every object cast a long shadow.  The rich light lent a warm glow to the grey Haytor stone probing every crack, crevice and fissure.  Two German children and later, several local lads in reverse baseball caps clambered in to an alcove in the rock to enjoy the view.  One or two small birds tracked across the landscape together with a lone bee returning to its burrow. In the distance the western hills acquired an apricot halo.

Dartmoor moonscape
Dartmoor “moonscape”


Moonscape on Haytor
The smaller of the Haytor rocks with the “moonscape” created by the setting sun


As the earth turned, the sun continued to approach the horizon but for some time, corresponding changes in the landscape were slow.  Looking back to the east, increasing amounts of land were enclosed in shadow, and, around the Tor, shadows lengthened.  The colour of the rock changed slowly from a warm pale brown at 20.00 to a deep reddish brown over the next twenty minutes.

Haytor rock 2002
The larger Haytor rock at 20.02


Then events seemed to accelerate and I detected a change in the light level as if someone were turning down a dimmer switch.  I suppose the sun had begun to dip below the horizon but it was difficult to be sure as it was still too bright to look.  Shadows became longer still and the rock took on a pinker almost red hue, not unlike the colour of the stone used in some of south Devon’s older buildings.  For a few minutes, the sun painted the landscape surrounding the rock in the surreal colours of pink and a luminous green.

Haytor rock 2024
The larger Haytor rock at 20.24


Haytor rock 2027
The larger Haytor rock at 20.27


The colour of the rock continued to change and by 20.25, with the sun about half way below the horizon, (based on a photograph), the colour lost its warmth as if it were being drained away.  By 20.26, grey started to insinuate and a minute later the sun had disappeared.  The rock was now a uniform grey and the sun had set.

Sunset Haytor 2027
The western view at 20.27


All that was left on the western horizon was an orange glow above the hills, a memory of the sun, with increasing apricot fringes either side.  Overflying aircraft and their contrails were now tinged with pink and, above all this colour, the sky was a very washed out, pale blue.

Eastern view 2


We walked back to the car in the half light, the air cooler now.  Ahead of us and in the distance, the eastern hills were bathed in a hazy dark blue light that extended above the land for a short distance.  Above this blue layer was a distinctive red layer that shaded to orange and yellow before merging with the clear blue sky above.

A white moon, almost full but not quite, now hung in the sky like a ghostly eye.


I’ve seen many impressive sunsets but I don’t recall ever being able to follow the changes so clearly.   What we witnessed that evening was a spectacular natural phenomenon, a celestial light show.

But can we understand how all these colours arise?  The explanation comes from considering the position of the sun at different times of the day and the effect of the earth’s atmosphere on the sun’s light.

Although the light coming from the sun is white, we know from looking at rainbows that it is in fact composed of light of different colours (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).  These colours of light have different physical properties that mean that they respond differentially when they meet particles in the atmosphere.

For much of the day, the sun is roughly overhead and as its light travels through the earth’s atmosphere it encounters molecules in the air (nitrogen and oxygen mainly) and some of the light is scattered during this encounter.  The blue light, and the violet, are scattered more than the other colours and our eyes preferentially detect this scattered blue light; this gives the sky its colour.  Because a small part of the blue light is lost through this scattering, sunlight appears slightly yellow rather than pure white.

When the sun is very low in the sky, towards the end of the day (sunset) and also near the beginning (sunrise), sunlight has to travel much further through the atmosphere.  Blue light is scattered as before but, because there is so much more atmosphere to traverse, the blue light is eventually lost, so that red and orange colours dominate at sunset and sunrise.


But what about the colours in the eastern sky?  The layer I described as “hazy dark blue light” was actually the earth’s shadow, where our planet casts a shadow on the atmosphere as the sun sinks below the horizon.  As the sun falls further, this shadow layer increases, only to disappear eventually in to the deepening blue of the night sky. The red layer goes by the wonderful name of the Belt of Venus and arises from residual sunlight encountering dust particles in the atmosphere.  These particles scatter the light (red by now) backwards.


Thanks go to Hazel who had the idea for sunset watching.

A barbecue summer – but what about the charcoal?


Sunny days, long evenings, a barbecue at the beach? Sounds idyllic doesn’t it? But as we light the charcoal , do we ever think about where it comes from? I wanted to know, so I went to Higher Halstock in north Dorset to meet woodsman and charcoal burner, Rick Smith.

Halstock Vale
The countryside approaching Halstock


From Winyard’s Gap I followed a narrow lane downhill, past woodland and open pasture, between verges full with spring flowers. It was the first noticeably warmer spring day of the year and the low morning sunshine seemed to breathe new life in to the Dorset countryside. At the sign for Winford Rural Workshops I parked and went to look for Rick Smith. I found him leaning over one of his kilns, unloading charcoal in to sacks labelled “British Barbecue Charcoal”.

Rick Smith
Rick Smith by one of his kilns


The origins of charcoal

Most people nowadays know charcoal for the richly glowing fire it creates in their barbeque, but the fuel has a long history and enabled one of mankind’s earliest technologies, the smelting of metals. Charcoal is made by heating wood in a low oxygen atmosphere so that it carbonises but does not burn; moisture and other volatile substances are driven off and eventually the large molecules making up the structure of wood are broken down, leaving the carbon and a little ash. Because charcoal is largely carbon, it burns in the presence of oxygen at a much higher temperature than wood and that’s one reason why it’s good for the barbecue.

The big discovery, several thousand years ago was that not only was a charcoal fire hot enough to melt and work metals but that the fire released pure metals such as copper from their ores. This is smelting, a technology that allowed man to move from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age. The same basic technology continued to be used, with charcoal as a fuel, until the beginning of the 18th century when coke took over. Until that time, charcoal was made by skilled itinerant workers, charcoal burners, who lived solitary lives in woods where they could continually oversee their work. The craft of charcoal burning has been revived by a handful of people in Dorset, and Rick Smith is one of these.

Charcoal burning


Rick showed me the kilns he uses for making charcoal (charcoal burning). These are large metal cylinders about 3 metres in diameter set in to the ground with several ports at ground level that allow air to enter and escape. Each kiln is filled with wood, dried outdoors for a year before use and arranged in the kiln so that air can circulate. The fire is started by pouring lighted charcoal in to the centre of the kiln and the lid is placed loosely on top. Rick watches the fire spread through the wood and once it is uniform, he seals the lid and places chimneys on half the ports to act as flues. Air in the kiln can be regulated through the other ports and kept at a low level so that the wood is carbonised but not burnt. The experienced charcoal burner knows the state of the fire from the colour of the smoke.

The kilns need to be watched carefully throughout this phase of the burn which lasts 12-18 hours, and Rick stays on site in a cabin for the entire period. I wondered how he felt about this commitment.
“It’s part of the job, but anyway, this is an amazing place to be, especially at night” he explained “no noise pollution, no light pollution, just imagine the stars!”
When the colour of the smoke changes from white to blue, Rick knows that the conversion of wood to charcoal is complete; he seals the kiln completely and allows it to cool for another 24 hours. The fuel is then ready to use, a jumble of pieces of charcoal, still retaining the original shape of the wood but now a mosaic of greys, blacks and silvers.


Coppiced woodland

woodland 4
Coppiced woodland in the late spring




Most of the wood used in Rick’s kilns comes from woodland adjacent to the site. This is ancient semi-natural broadleaf woodland containing mainly blackthorn and hazel, managed by the traditional technique of coppicing where trees are cut to the ground periodically and the stool left to regenerate. New shoots grow vigorously providing they are protected from browsing deer, forming multiple new stems which are ready to be cut again and used for charcoal burning after 7-10 years. Because there is continuous renewal, coppicing is a sustainable process; it also keeps the wood light and airy, encouraging wildlife among the trees and on the woodland floor. When I visited, the woods were a tapestry of bluebells and celandine, birds were singing and bumblebees were feeding from yellow archangel.

Common carder bee on yellow archangel


Barbecue charcoal – think before you buy

charcoal sacks
British Barbecue Charcoal from Rick Smith’s kilns


The British love affair with the barbecue consumes a massive 60,000 tons of charcoal each year, 90% of that being imported. Namibia is the UK’s biggest supplier and much of this charcoal is produced under dismal circumstances using illegally harvested trees leading to deforestation and lack of sustainability; working conditions are deplorable and archaic equipment is used causing damage to both the environment and to workers’ health. Major supermarkets buy imported charcoal in bulk to drive down prices but at least they now require that the product bears the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) label; this provides some oversight of production methods but the labelling system seems far from watertight. Non FSC charcoal is still imported in to the UK for barbecues and the restaurant trade.

British Barbecue Charcoal, the sort Rick Smith produces, avoids all of these problems: it is produced using sustainable methods that support rather than destroy ancient woodland; it often contains a higher percentage carbon than the imported product so that it burns better and, when you buy locally, carbon emissions from transport are minimal compared with the 5000 mile journey from Namibia. Home-produced charcoal is widely available and buying the local product supports local employment. What could be better?

Lady's Smock
Lady’s Smock growing on the Winford Rural Workshops site at Higher Halstock – Rick leaves these plants to flower to provide food for the Orange Tip Butterfly


This article appeared in the July 2016 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine. It was chosen by Science Seekers as one of their Picks of the Week.

One of my favourite early spring bees

This year I promised myself I would try to get to know one our early solitary bees. I’d seen them in previous years but I knew there was more to learn so, from early March, I started looking carefully at the flowers in the local community garden, the Leechwell Garden. It was a bit frustrating as spring didn’t seem to know how to get started, rather like a sulky teenager on their way to school. The slow season had its effect on the flowers; there were plenty of primroses and dandelions and some rosemary but the early lungwort, a favourite of my chosen bee, was a bit short on blooms. It didn’t help my mood when a friend phoned to say she had seen one of the bees in a garden in Cornwall.

A plumipes on rosemary 2
Male Hairy-footed Flower Bee (A.plumipes) on rosemary, showing the pale facial markings.


I had to wait another week after the phone call but eventually I was rewarded. Around lunchtime one sunny but cool March day, I heard a harsh buzz from the direction of some rosemary growing against one of the old stone walls. When I investigated, I saw one of my chosen bees working the disorderly blue-grey flowers, but he saw me coming and promptly flew away. Nevertheless, the spell had been broken and I began to see one or more of the bees each time I visited.
Rosemary and lungwort were their favourites and they moved deftly from bloom to bloom in search of nectar, long tongue often extended in readiness. Pausing to feed each time for a second or so, they emitted an urgent buzz as they moved, sometimes hovering briefly as if to take stock, their wings a pale blur in the sunshine. Despite the rapid staccato movements, I could see that they were roughly the size of a small bumblebee and covered in pale brown hair. Their distinctive, pale facial markings also stood out, reminding me of masked revellers at the Venice carnival.

These were male Hairy-footed Flower Bees (Anthophora plumipes), some of the earliest solitary bees to appear in the UK as winter stumbles slowly away. In this part of Devon, my first sighting was in March, around the time of the Spring Solstice, their presence providing a rather wonderful indicator of the new season. They are partial to lungwort flowers but feed from a wide variety of others. This year I have seen them feeding from banks of rosemary in a seafront garden, from aubretia cascading down an ancient wall and from three cornered leek growing in a long border near the sea. They forage at lower temperatures than many other bees making them important early season pollinators. In a rural setting, they are important pollinators for broad beans.

A.plumipes 3
Male A.plumipes showing hairy leg and foot.


I tried to photograph them but they were rarely still, moving very quickly, seeming to object when I got too close, hovering in the air and buzzing loudly as if to frighten me away. After some persistence I managed to get a good photo showing their hairy middle legs and feet, celebrated in their name. The photo also shows their subtly marked abdomen with its alternate pale and dark stripes.

A. plumipes 18 04 16
Female Hairy-footed Flower bee (A.plumipes) on lungwort showing orang/tan pollen hairs.


By early April, the lungwort was flowering well and the pale brown males were regular visitors to these trumpet-shaped flowers. They were joined by another chunky bee, this one jet-black except for two orange-tan flashes towards their rear. Easily confused with a small bumblebee and surprisingly different from the males, this was the female Hairy-footed Flower Bee. The female bees moved around the flowers as quickly and as edgily as the males, like small mobile black bullets. The splashes of colour come from thick tufts of orange/tan hairs on their back legs. These are their pollen hairs, used for collecting as they visit different flowers. A female with her yellow-loaded pollen hairs is a fine sight at this time of year.

Longcause 2
Female A.plumipes approaching aubretia


Longcause 5
Female A.plumipes feeding from aubretia – is that the tongue I can see?


The females were just as sensitive to my presence as the males, displaying a belligerent attitude as they hover and buzz aggressively in mid air. Occasionally they would check me out, hovering and looking, darting to right or left, hovering and looking, sometimes circling right round me. Bumblebees sometimes also take a good look, circling around me, even landing on my sleeve but this is a dialogue whereas my interaction with the Hairy-footed Flower Bee felt more confrontational.

For a few weeks, I saw a mixture of males and females feeding on flowers and it’s surprising how common they are. Occasionally they performed an aerial dance, circling around one another. Sometimes the males were more aggressive, hovering a few centimetres behind a feeding female, buzzing loudly and then pouncing, knocking the female off the flower. Given that the females have usually already mated, this behaviour is counter-productive and wastes valuable female foraging time. Perhaps the males are just hard-wired to behave in this manner as it ensures mating success.

Female A plumipes 2
Female A.plumipes feeding from rosemary


By the third week of April I saw mostly the jet-black females, working hard, busily collecting for their nests, visiting a wide range of flowers. It takes each female about a day to provision one cell with pollen and nectar for the developing egg. Nests tend to be in sunny vertical surfaces such as cliffs, soil banks or holes in soft walls but although there are many old walls in Totnes with loose mortar I haven’t located a nest yet. John Walters wrote a nice description of A. plumipes nests in a soft cob wall near a Devon church. The cob wall offers good nesting conditions so the bees tend to nest in aggregations even though they are solitary bees.

The few males about looked faded and discoloured and noticeably slower than earlier in the season. They play an essential role in the survival of the species but they have mated with the females and are not needed anymore.

My last sighting of these bees was on May 15th. This seemed a little early and I can’t be sure if it reflected the lifetime of the bees or the bees foraging elsewhere. We won’t see the bees again for nine or ten months and the action now switches to the nests where eggs develop in to larvae eventually producing the new bees that will emerge next spring.

The surprising story of oil in Dorset.

A few months ago, I visited Kimmeridge Bay in Dorset in the south west of the UK.  I went  to look at the oil well on the cliffs above the beach and wrote about my experience.  The Kimmeridge oil reserve is quite small but further east there are huge additional reserves of oil extending for several kilometres under Poole Harbour and Poole Bay.  I wanted to write about these much larger deposits and the environmental effects of extraction: my article, which also takes another look at some of the Kimmeridge story, appeared in the May edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine. Here is the article:

It’s difficult to believe but one of the most beautiful parts of Dorset in the south west of the UK is home to the largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe. And yet the day to day impact on most residents and on the local environment is minimal. Perhaps the Dorset oil experience can help us predict the potential environmental effects of shale gas extraction by fracking in other parts of the UK? Let’s look at the story of oil in Dorset and see what we can learn.

“Kimmeridge Coal”

Medieval times were harsh for most people but if you lived near Kimmeridge Bay in the Isle of Purbeck, you had one thing going for you; some of the rocks exposed in the cliffs would burn so you had a ready-made fuel for heating and cooking. The locals called it “Kimmeridge Coal” and it didn’t matter that it smelt awful, it was available and it was free. The same logic drove Sir William Clavell in the 17th century to set up alum works at Kimmeridge using the fuel. His efforts came to nothing because of patent restrictions so he turned to making salt by boiling sea water and subsequently he set up a glass works, but neither enterprise prospered.

“Kimmeridge Coal” is found in bands of bituminous shale in the cliffs around Kimmeridge Bay but further exploitation of the material had to wait until the 19th century when it was realised that useful hydrocarbons might be extractable. Processing plants were set up at Weymouth and at Wareham making varnish, grease, pitch, naphtha, paraffin and paraffin wax and in 1848 the street lights of Wareham were lit by 130 lamps powered by gas derived from the shale. The industry never prospered, possibly because the high sulphur content made the gas unsuitable for domestic use.

Kimmeridge oil shale is a useful material but it is not a source of conventional crude oil. Ironically, the first discovery of crude oil in Dorset also occurred at Kimmeridge Bay but it comes from rocks lying well below the shale deposits.

The Kimmeridge “nodding donkey”

Oil pump
The Kimmeridge nodding donkey

The search for oil in Dorset began in the 1930s but it was not until 1959 that the first well producing oil and gas was discovered below Kimmeridge Bay. The well is extracted by a single beam “nodding donkey” pump on the cliffs above the Bay that has worked continuously for more than 50 years; it is the oldest working oil well in the UK and the “nodding donkey” is now part of the local scenery. The Kimmeridge well produced 350 barrels of oil a day at its peak but this has now declined to a fifth of that level. Although the Kimmeridge reservoir is not large, the discovery prompted the search for other oil deposits in Dorset.

The largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe – hidden near Poole Harbour

The energy crises of the 1970s led to further exploration in Dorset and in 1974, oil and gas were discovered by the Gas Council at Wytch Farm on the southern side of Poole Harbour. Production started in 1979 and nowadays the Anglo-French company Perenco owns the majority stake in the oil field. There are three large reservoirs of oil 1-2 km below the sea, extending up to 10 km under Poole Harbour, Brownsea Island, Sandbanks and to the south of Bournemouth. Peak production was in 1997 at 110,000 barrels of oil per day; current levels are about 18,000 barrels per day. The field also produces natural gas (for domestic use) and liquid petroleum gas.

nodding donkeys Wytch Farm
Some of the Wytch Farm nodding donkeys (photo courtesy of Perenco)


Furzey Island
Furzey Island in Poole Harbour showing the “hidden” oil wells (photo courtesy of Perenco)


There are 12 well sites distributed around Wytch Farm, the Goathorn Peninsula and Furzey island from which more than 100 wells have been drilled. There is also a gathering station where the products of the wells are collected, processed and distributed. This is a large industrial enterprise, the largest on-shore oil field in Western Europe and the second largest consumer of electricity in the South of England (after Heathrow Airport).

Hengistbury Head looking west
Poole Bay viewed from Hengistbury Head – oil reservoirs and long distance drills extend under the sea 1-2 km below the surface (from Wikipedia).
The paradox is that this industrial complex operates in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty so the site has been developed with this is mind. Buildings are on sites that have been excavated to reduce height and are screened by trees. Facilities are painted a dull brown and the number of well sites has been minimised by drilling long distances horizontally away from the well site in to the oil deposits; until 2008 Wytch Farm held the world record for the longest drill extending 10.1 km under Poole Bay. In consequence, this large industrial complex has minimal impact on the surrounding countryside and most people are unaware of the activity.

Goathorn Peninsula
An oil rig on the Goathorn Peninsula used for long distance directional drilling (Photo from Wikipedia, taken in 2006) .


Lessons from Dorset oil

Wytch Farm is a great success story, both in terms of the oil and gas produced and the minimal environmental impact. Some have used the Wytch Farm experience to suggest that fracking (hydraulic fracturing for shale gas) in other parts of the UK will also have a minimal environmental impact, even suggesting, incorrectly, that fracking has already occurred at Wytch Farm.

Although similar drilling technology is used to extract crude oil and to release shale gas, fracking uses large volumes of high pressure liquid (mostly water) to create fissures in low permeability rock and this has not been carried out at Wytch Farm. Also each potential fracking site is likely to be unique and different from Wytch Farm in terms of the density of wells required, the density of population and the nature of the countryside. Dorset oil has been managed to minimise environmental impact but it would be wrong to use the Dorset oil experience to predict the general environmental impact of fracking elsewhere.

There is, of course, one important issue I have not considered here:  should we continue to extract and use oil given the need to prevent global climate change?  Take a look at the complementary article for my views on that.

Love bugs and other surprises at Bantham Beach in south Devon

Last weekend we took advantage of the mild weather and went to Bantham Beach for a picnic and a walk. It being Sunday, we weren’t the only ones with this idea and, by the time we arrived, a flotilla of windbreaks had appeared on the beach, sails flapping in the breeze and barbeque smoke drifting aimlessly. Bathing didn’t seem to be high on the agenda; the tide was very low and the water still rather cool, so there was much paternal sandcastle building and a group of young men worked off their testosterone in a game of head-the-football. Despite this, there was plenty of space and the situation and the views were glorious.

Burgh Island with thrift
Burgh Island with thrift


After our picnic, Hazel wanted to do some sketching so Elizabeth and I walked on the cliff path where there are good views across the Avon estuary to Burgh Island and its art deco, icing sugar, hotel. Thrift was beginning to form its pink, cliff-top drifts and yellow kidney vetch was showing well. A couple of rock pipits skittered skilfully around the cliffs.

As we walked, I watched out for interesting insects and was well rewarded. Several small solitary bees with black abdomens and pale stripes bathed in dandelion petals, nectaring I suppose. The BWARS experts told me that these were Andrena males but from my pictures we couldn’t identify the species.

solitary bee
male Andrena on dandelion


Later on we saw two black St Mark’s Flies “loved up” (I owe this expression to Emma Sarah Tennant). It is, in fact, a very appropriate expression as these flies are also called “love bugs” because of their ability to copulate in mid air.

St Mark's flies
St Mark’s Flies, mating pair. The male on the right has a much larger head and eyes despite being slightly smaller overall.


On a rising part of the cliff path we found a long section of hard, grass-free soil with many small holes. We also found some of the occupants, one dead and one alive. These are Polymorphic Sweat Bees (Halictus rubicundus); the females have a pale- striped, black abdomen and their hind legs are coated in yellow/orange hairs.

Halictus nests
Halictus nests. If you look carefully at the small bank on the left of the photo you can see crumbly soil coming from the nest holes.


Halictus rubicundus
Halictus rubicundus on hard ground.


Halictus rubicundus dead
dead Halictus rubicundus – they nest on the main path up the cliff and so are very vulnerable to passing walkers


We had agreed to meet Hazel near the Gastrobus for a drink. Elizabeth and I arrived a bit early but eventually I saw Hazel coming along the sandy path across the dunes from the beach. Suddenly she shouted: “Come quickly, get your camera, it’s an adder”. I did as she said and fumbled my camera out of its case. Sure enough slithering across the path was a very fine adder that disappeared in to the rough grass on the other side of the path leaving only swirly patterns on the sand. As I was taking the photos I did my best to look at the snake; the zigzag patterns and the colours did make an impression but the photos tell the story better.

Adder at Bantham 1
starting to cross


Adder at Bantham 2
nearly across


Adder at Bantham 3
entering the undergrowth


Adder at Bantham 4
the evidence


There are many signs dotted around the dunes at Bantham warning about ”Adders”. Now we know why!

Renewable energy from a Devon river – the new Totnes Weir Hydro

About a mile upstream of the south Devon town of Totnes, the tree-lined tranquillity of the river Dart is interrupted by a weir. Water cascades over this concrete barrier and after heavy rain there is a spectacular display of power with swirling whirlpools and foamy white water. Slate-grey herons and sparkling white egrets stand sentinel by the weir and the occasional grey seal lurks below, waiting to feast on fish that linger too long. There has been a weir at this bend in the Dart since the 16th century, built originally to harness the power of the river; the present rather bland construction dates largely from the 20th century.

Totnes weir
The Totnes Weir viewed from the upstream pool. The picture shows the concrete weir after the installation of the new Hydro (off the picture to the right) and after a period of low rainfall so that water flow across the weir is quite low. The gulls are enjoying the calm conditions.


The weir is a downwards-sloping concrete barrier that interrupts the flow of the river so that a large pool of water accumulates upstream, isolated from the tidal downstream water about three metres below. This pool of water is a store of potential energy that was used in the past to drive several water mills in the town a mile away. A channel, the leat, ran from the pool all the way in to Totnes and providing the leat stayed above the level of the river it contained the energy to drive a water wheel. Only one mill building now survives: the Town Mill dating from the 17th century but with 19th century additions. This was used as a water mill until 1945 and currently houses the Tourist Information Centre. The leat is still intact and can be viewed along much of its path, through an industrial estate, under the main railway line and passing near the front of Morrisons superstore. The leat is celebrated in the name of the town’s large medical centre, the Leatside Surgery.

Water Mill
A water mill at Dartington in Devon showing the principle of the leat. The leat takes water from the stream and providing the leat stays above the stream it can drive the mill wheel.


Turbine Building exterior
The turbine building of the Totnes Weir Hydro. The Archimedes Screws can be seen on the right.


Hydro and weir
The two Archimedes Screws alongside the weir


Over the past year, a neat, stone-clad, turf-roofed building has materialised by the side of the weir. This is the turbine house of the new Totnes Hydro which once again harnesses the power of the Dart. On the downstream side of the building are two tube-like structures roughly aligned with the descending surface of the weir, each tube containing an Archimedes Screw. Water from the pool behind the weir passes under the turbine building to enter the tubes, pressing on the blades of each Archimedes Screw causing them to turn and driving the turbines. The Archimedes Screws can be viewed from the downstream side and I find them mesmerising – turning steadily, water splashing, feeling almost alive – as they transform the potential energy of the water in to kinetic energy and subsequently electrical energy.

turbine in action
Renewable energy in action: a close up of water emerging from one Archimedes Screw.


When there is a good head of water, the turbines generate about 250 kW of power.  Output will depend on flow in the river (higher power after heavy rain) and the head across the weir (typically about 3m but reduced by spring tides).   Generation may cease altogether for about two weeks in a dry summer when water flow in the Dart is low.   Currently, the electricity generated is powering the local comprehensive school and an aluminium foundry on the nearby industrial estate and any surplus enters the grid.  To put this in to perspective the overall energy produced is enough to power the equivalent of about 300 homes. In time, the hydro will also provide electricity for the new ATMOS project.  This is a community-led development of homes and businesses on the former Dairy Crest site in Totnes.

The river Dart is an important route for migrating fish and the weir already contained a fish pass to help sea trout and salmon overcome the barrier. The pass was, however, in poor condition so that fish were having difficulty moving up the weir leading to losses to hungry herons and seals. The new Hydro project includes renovating the existing fish pass and building an additional modern fish pass alongside the turbine building. These should help migrating fish so that, in time, the piscine population on the Dart increases; new fish counters have also been installed to help monitor traffic.


So far so good, but if equipment is installed to capture the energy of the river it is bound to alter the flow over and around the weir.   You can see this clearly on the upstream side of the turbine house where water in the pool flows towards the new building to enter the Archimedes Screws, eventually discharging in to the river below.   Although water flow through the turbines is carefully regulated by sluices to make sure that the weir does not dry out, less water now flows across the weir than before.  This redistribution of water has remodelled islands in the river downstream and night fishermen have had to relearn safety on the river.    We should not forget, however, that when the weir was first built and water was directed down the leat to power the Totnes mills some 500 years ago, water flow in the river must have been changed to a much greater extent.    There is also the question of noise.  The new Archimedes Screw turbines do emit noise as they turn and there is some splashing of water.  The turbine building is insulated and the current level of noise from the new installation is no more than I can remember coming from the weir on a full flood.

Water enters hydro
The pool of water behind the weir showing water preferentially entering the turbine building.


The Weir Hydro project was developed by the owners of the weir, Dart Renewables, working closely with the Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC). TRESOC was set up by local residents to enable the community to develop renewable energy and to retain control of the resources. On a practical level TRESOC aims to supply local homes and businesses with “local” energy. If everything works to plan, the Totnes Weir Hydro should generate 1.35 GWh of electricity each year, saving 550 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The majority of this electricity will be used to power local enterprises.

Disclaimer: I am a member of TRESOC and have invested in some of their projects.

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