Category Archives: art/science

Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath

Mistaken marriages, passionate affairs, tragic deaths, richly interwoven with folklore and superstition.  This is the complex concoction contained in The Return of the Native, one of Thomas Hardy’s great novels.  Hardy set his narrative on the semi-fictional Egdon Heath, a “vast tract of unenclosed wild” that assumes a claustrophobic, controlling influence on his characters.  Hardy’s Egdon Heath has many of the features of the heath landscape that once filled the space between Dorchester and Bournemouth.  I wanted to experience Egdon so, on a warm, humid day towards the end of July, I went to Winfrith Heath one of the surviving fragments of this Dorset heathland.

Winfrith Heath 1
Looking across the heath showing the subtle colour effect of the heather flowers

 

I followed a sandy soil track on to the heath, descending gradually between borders of gorse and low trees.  As I gained distance from the road, long views opened up across the gently undulating terrain surrounding me and an eerie quiet descended, broken only by trains passing on the heath-edge line.  Apart from the occasional stunted tree and a few drifts of pale green bracken much of this part of the heath appeared featureless and barren.

Closer inspection, however, revealed some of the heath’s special wildlife.   Near the path edge, the cheerful purples, pinks and violets of the three common species of heather showed well.   These heathers flourish across the heath alongside rough grasses and gorse, and their bright pastel-coloured flowers lend a purple-pink tinge to long views at this time of year, the colour augmented by sunshine but lost in a mass of dull browns and greens when cloud covers.   Large, metallic blue and green emperor dragon flies, the size of small birds, were attracted to the ponds scattered across the heath.  They swept back and forth across the water making repeated, aerial, hairpin turns in a constant search for insect food.  Heather spikes dipped momentarily when yellow-striped bumblebees moved among the flower-bells collecting pollen and nectar.

The sandy path levelled out. Heathland now spread extensively on both sides and, together with the grey cloud cover, created a claustrophobic feeling.  Ahead of me was a band of trees with a gate and standing water.  The trees mark a drainage ditch feeding into the Tadnoll Brook, a chalk-stream tributary of the River Frome.  I crossed the ditch on a very solid brick bridge, and was transported to a different world, one of damp meadows and thick rushy grass.  The wet meadow, soggy underfoot, was dominated by untidy stands of shoulder-high marsh thistles with multiple, prolific, spiny stems.  Each stem was topped by a starburst of flower heads, a mixture of shaggy purple flowers and brown and white fluffy seed heads.  Between the thistles, the lemon-yellow cushion flowers of bird’s foot trefoil scrambled through the undergrowth and, as I walked, pale brown grasshoppers soared in long arcs from the rough grass, seeking safety away from me.

Butterflies danced around the unruly thistle flowers like confetti caught in the breeze, pausing occasionally to take nectar.  Small tortoiseshell, marbled white and peacock resembled colourful modernist stained glass and a pair of gatekeepers performed an airborne ballet.   This enclosed wetland felt like a land of plenty, a land of unconstrained, fulsome growth.  Even in high summer, however, the meadow was wet and marshy so that after winter rain the area will become boggy and treacherous.  A group of cows lurked in a corner of the meadow watching me; they help to control growth of vegetation but create further hazards for the unwary walker.

These two very different habitats, the larger lowland heath and the smaller wet meadow make up the majority of the Winfrith reserve as we see it today but the area hasn’t always looked like this.  Until the Bronze Age, this land was covered with forest (birch, pine, hazel, elm, oak) but 3-4000 years ago trees began to be felled exposing the underlying soil.  Nutrients were gradually washed away from freely draining soils leaving behind a relatively acidic surface where heathers and gorse flourished, eventually creating the heath we see today.  This landscape was maintained and scrub encroachment prevented through a combination of grazing by cattle and ponies and by heathland practices such as furze, turf and peat cutting.

Heathland once stretched from Dorchester in the west to the Avon Valley in the east but much has been lost following changes in agricultural practices or through building; a large part of Winfrith Heath was swallowed up when the nuclear research facility was built in the 1950s and still lies behind forbidding fences.  Today, only 15% of the original heath is left but what remains is a very important and rare landscape and part of Dorset’s history.  Its importance as a special habitat supporting rare species such as the Dartford warbler and the nightjar is recognised by its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest but the heathland is still threatened directly or indirectly by development.

But did I get any sense of what Hardy’s Egdon Heath was like from my visit?  Even on a small area like Winfrith, there was a definite sense of isolation in the central part of the heath, and that feeling was only partially lifted when the sun shone and the heath took on some colour.   So, if it’s solitude you are after, then it’s a perfect place.  One person’s solitude is, however, another person’s loneliness and it’s not difficult to see how Egdon might have depressed some of Hardy’s characters.  Neither is the heath a benign environment; care is required in all seasons but in winter, it is bleak, brown and very windy with boggy areas dangerous especially after wet weather.  Having said all that, the heath does have an undeniable grandeur but its very rarity as a landscape nowadays means that we may not know how to react to it.  Perhaps like Hardy’s “survivors” we should simply accept and embrace the heath for what it is, foibles and all.

Winfrith Heath lies to the west of Gatemore Road in Winfrith Newburgh and a Dorset Wildlife Trust information board marks the entrance. 

 

Bell heather and ling with gorse on Winfrith Heath
Bell heather, ling and gorse on Winfrith Heath

 

Cross-leaved heath.
Cross-leaved heath

 

 

Emperor dragonfly on Winfrith Heath
A pond on the heath with an emperor dragonfly

 

 

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on marsh thistle.
Small tortoiseshell butterfly on marsh thistle

 

Peacock butterfly on Winfrith Heath
Peacock butterfly on marsh thistle with bumblebee

 

Nuclear research centre Winfrith Heath
The former nuclear research facility seen through trees and behind forbidding fences on the other side of Gatemore Road.

 

 

This article appeared in the September 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Bees in a landscape

I’ve always loved visiting galleries, discovering what an artist has created, but in the first week of May, the tables were turned.  For the first time, I was on the other side presenting a joint exhibition with my artist wife, Hazel.   We called the exhibition, “Bees in a Landscape”, and it was based around Hazel’s semi-abstract paintings of memorable views from the South West of the UK depicting the local landscape in all its glories.  Alongside the paintings, I showed photographs of some of the bees I have encountered in these same locations.   We hoped that the exhibition would raise awareness of the variety, beauty and importance of these beneficial insects as well as showing how we can all support them.

Poster for Birdwood & P.V
The Exhibition Poster

It was more than a year and a half ago that we agreed to put on the exhibition and throughout 2016 I photographed bees and Hazel worked hard on her paintings.  I didn’t spend hours looking for rare examples, I just photographed the bees that I saw, often in local gardens or when Hazel and I were out walking together by the coast.  It has certainly made me look more carefully at insects and flowers when we go out.

As the week of the exhibition approached there were many things to arrange: had we done enough publicity, did we have enough wine for the Private View, had we sent out all the invitations, would enough people come? Fortunately Hazel has a lot of experience in putting on exhibitions.  When we spoke to people in the run up to the exhibition, we detected a genuine interest in the topic of bees and the landscape which was very reassuring.

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Hanging the Exhibition finally finished!

The most stressful time was “hanging” the exhibition.  All the paintings and photos were ready but we couldn’t get in to the gallery until 1730, the evening before the exhibition opened on the Sunday.  There were a few distractions, and it took longer than we expected to decide how to place the work around the gallery and to mount it on the walls, and we had to come back on Sunday morning to complete the job.  In the end, we finished with just enough time to nip home to change and be back to welcome guests for the Private View.

Totnes women's choir, Viva
Roz Walker and Totnes Women’s Choir Viva singing at the Private View

The Private View is one of those special artists’ events that goes with an exhibition.   It’s a chance to invite friends, other artists, and people with a special interest to share a glass of wine before the exhibition is open to the public.  Many people came and everyone seemed genuinely interested and impressed by the work.  We were also very fortunate that, during the Private View, Totnes women’s choir Viva, sang for us creating a magical atmosphere with their beautiful harmonies.  Led by Roz Walker, and dressed in yellow and black, they sang songs about bees based on poems by Rudyard Kipling, Carol Ann Duffy, Vita Sackville-West and one based on the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala.   We were so grateful that they gave their time to come and sing for us.

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Hazel stewarding in the gallery

The Exhibition was open that afternoon and then daily until the following Saturday.  Hazel and I split the stewarding duties which meant we each did a morning or an afternoon in the gallery.  Totnes is a busy place and the gallery is in the centre of town so up to 100 people came in each day.  We both had many interesting and unexpected conversations with visitors and I was very surprised at the warmth and interest shown by people who came to look at the pictures, both landscapes and bees.  On many occasions, I heard the comment:  ” I didn’t realise how many kinds of bee there were in this country and how beautiful they are!”  Hazel found that her paintings evoked memories for visitors: of childhood picnics, happy holidays and even a honeymoon.  The greetings cards featuring images from the Exhibition were also very popular.

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Two of the bee pictures (actual size of each picture is A4)
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Hazel’s painting of “Bantham – the promise of summer” (two canvases each measuring 60X50 cm)

On the Tuesday, I took a small group on a Bee Tour of the public gardens dotted around the centre of Totnes.  It wasn’t a very sunny day but we had wide-ranging discussions and were able to see some interesting bees foraging on large patches of comfrey and cerinthe including female Hairy-footed flower bees, early and tree bumblebee workers and a garden bumblebee queen.

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My debut on Soundart Radio

Our exhibition was featured on Soundart, a local community radio station.  One of the presenters interviewed Hazel in the gallery and I went to the studio to talk about bees.  This was an interesting experience, if not altogether satisfactory.  After Hazel’s interview had been played, the presenters asked me about the exhibition and about bees which was fine.  When we got on to neonicotinoids, however, the discussion was hijacked by one presenter.  He challenged the possibility of obtaining “evidence” in scientific investigations of complex systems like bees and after his intervention, the bee discussion petered out which was a shame as there were many other aspects we could have covered.

Hazel and I were extremely pleased with the exhibition.  Many people came to look and we had some fascinating conversations.  Several people made special journeys to visit and talk to us.  People went away knowing more about bees.  What more could you we have asked for!?

For more about Hazel’s paintings click here.  The featured image at the top of this post  is Hazel’s painting “Seal Bay (Brixham from Churston Cove)”.

Birdwood House Gallery  web site can be viewed here

Still ticking after all these years – the Ottery St Mary Astronomical Clock

Ottery St Mary is a small town in East Devon in the south west of the UK. The town has several claims to fame: not only is it the birthplace of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge but Harry Potter fans will know it as the inspiration for Ottery St Catchpole, home of the Weasleys. Then there is St Mary’s Church, a magnficent building, a mini-cathedral. There is much to see within the church but one of its more unusual features is the ancient astronomical clock. As well as telling the time, it also shows the age and phase of the moon, and it has done so for more than five centuries. This beautiful clock is a rare example of medieval craftsmanship and gives us a unique insight into life many centuries ago.

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St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary

 

Perhaps there is a chiming clock in the town where you live that insists on telling you the hour. You probably also wear a wristwatch and, failing that, your computer or phone provides minute by minute updates of the time. But it hasn’t always been like this, so how were clocks developed and how did time come to rule us?

The earliest clocks

In Western Europe, the first rudimentary clocks began to appear only during the medieval era. They were the preserve of monasteries and their purpose was to provide a signal to the sacristan who then rang the cloister bell, calling the monks to prayer at regular intervals. These simple timepieces were probably water clocks, where time was measured via the flow of water in to or out of a vessel. Although they were not very accurate, they were a great improvement on sundials in a cloud-prone country.

Then, in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, a major breakthrough in clock development occurred. Reports of new mechanical clocks began to appear from various places in Europe including Exeter (1284) and Salisbury (1306) and, most likely, this coincided with the invention of the escapement. These new clocks would probably have been driven by a weight attached to a rope wound round a drive shaft. The escapement was a device that enabled the weight to descend in a stepwise manner, each step representing the passing of time which could be displayed on the clock face. The familiar “tick, tock” of these clocks is the sound of the escapement. So began a new era of mechanical clocks composed solely of metal wheels and gears. These clocks were enthusiastically installed in church towers and other public buildings allowing a bell to be rung at intervals throughout the day, broadcasting time to the inhabitants of the town and, for example, signalling the opening of trading at the market.

As these mechanical clocks became more sophisticated they were elaborated to show not only time but also the age and phase of the moon. The south west of England has four well preserved examples of these ancient astronomical clocks that have survived for at least five centuries, perhaps because of their novelty or their beauty. They are to be found in Exeter Cathedral, Wells Cathedral, Wimborne Minster and in Ottery St Mary Church.

The Astronomical Clock in St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary

The clock hangs high above the south transept and below the bell tower. Its bright blue face, about a metre and a half square, is liberally decorated with gold and red and topped with a gold angel blowing a trumpet. Unashamedly beautiful and garish at the same time, it dominates the scene.

Astronomical Clock in Ottery St Mary Church
The astronomical clock in St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary

 

The clock has two circular dials. The outer dial shows the hour with two sets of twelve Roman numerals. A golden sphere, representing the sun, moves to show the time. The inner dial contains thirty Arabic numerals with a gold star moving between them to show the age of the moon. Within the inner dial is a sphere painted half white, half black which rotates on its axis once every 29.5 days depicting the moon and its phases; the moon sphere also moves around the dial once every 24 hours. A black sphere at the centre of the clock shows the earth as the centre of the universe. The clock mechanism is visible behind the face.

Clock Mechanism Ottery St Mary
The clock mechanism

 

The exact age of the clock is not known but we may get a hint from the strong similarity between the Ottery St Mary clock and the astronomical clock in Exeter Cathedral, which dates from the 15th century. Also, both timepieces depict a medieval view of the structure of the universe where the sun rotates about the earth. This model was only superseded in 1543 when Copernicus proposed that the earth actually rotates about the sun, so we can be fairly sure that both are older than this date.

Astronomical Clock in Exeter Cathedral
The astronomical clock in Exeter Cathedral. The Latin inscription translates as “The hours pass and are reckoned to our account”.

 

Why astronomical clocks?

It is easy to understand the purpose of a clock that broadcasts the time of day to a busy town but why would the medieval clockmaker go to the trouble to include information about the age and phase of the moon and the apparent movement of the sun about the earth? One possibility may have been a desire of the contemporary Church to create a model of God’s celestial universe but perhaps there were secular reasons as well. For example, knowledge of the phases of the moon would have been useful in planning a long journey at night or a meeting in winter. Also, because of the influence of the moon on tides, knowledge of the state of the moon would have been useful for seafarers.

When they first appeared, these clocks must have seemed miraculous: man had constructed a machine that would predict the motion of the sun and moon and show the hours of the day. Possession of such a clock would have been a source of civic and ecclesiastical pride and conferred distinction on a town. For Ottery St Mary, perhaps it was considered fitting to install such a clock in its “mini-cathedral” of St Mary’s church.

The 21st century observer, surrounded by technology and gadgets, might, however, simply view the Ottery St Mary clock as an ancient curiosity. This would be a mistake: the clock is a rare example of advanced medieval craftsmanship as well as offering considerable insight into how life was lived so many years ago. It is a true medieval marvel.

 

This article appeared in the November edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The music of place, the place of nature

Great Hall - with tapestries representing the original departments hanging
The Great Hall at Dartington (image from the web site)

The Northumbrian pipes carried the melody at first but gradually this was passed to the other instruments: a harp, a cello, an accordion, creating an unexpected sound-fusion of classical and folk music. As those first few magical notes echoed around the medieval hall, I knew this would be a special evening and we were treated to a mixture of traditional reels and hornpipes, slow airs and original compositions. Each musician made her own important contribution to the overall effect but my attention was captivated by the flame-haired woman standing at the centre of the stage. She moved gracefully and sensually with the music, driving forward with her virtuoso pipe and fiddle playing and occasionally smiling with pleasure at her fellow players. This was Kathryn Tickell with her new band, The Side, and I was in the Great Hall at Dartington recently for this memorable performance.

This video shows Kathryn Tickell and her former band performing a traditional tune.

I was particularly taken by a tune she played on the fiddle, accompanied by the cello, entitled Yeavering. She explained that she had written this tune in response to Yeavering Bell, a distinctive, broad, double-peaked hill in her home county of Northumberland. Yeavering Bell was once an Iron Age hill fort and the tune was intended to convey some of her feelings about the shape of the hill, the views from the summit and the general impression of space. The video below is of a live performance of Yeavering played on two fiddles by Kathryn Tickell and her band.  There is a bit of background noise but if you want a more pristine version click here.

Everyone will have their own personal reaction to this music but as I listened I found my mind wandering to open spaces and moorland. For me the music also speaks of mysticism, of older times and of danger when the clashing chords occur. Whatever your reaction to her tune, writing a piece of music about a place you love is a wonderful way to express your respect for nature.

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Wheat field in Kent (photo by Hazel Strange)

A few days before the concert, we had returned from a week’s holiday in Kent. Coming as we do from damp Devon, the semi-drought in the south east was surprising and the look of the land was more early autumn than high summer. We stayed in a very comfortable converted barn surrounded by gently rolling countryside largely devoted to cereal growth. Fields here are big and hedges sparse and I noticed few flowers.

One of our walks took us across fields from the picture-perfect village of Appledore. Striking out from the village recreation ground we had expected to walk through wheat fields but instead we quickly came to large tracts of vines planted in neat rows and supported by perfectly parallel wire supports. Many of the vines had been planted quite recently and were far from cropping, but later we did see some maturing Chardonnay grapes. These are part of the Gusborne Estate, “England’s most prestigious boutique wine producer”, whatever that means.

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The Gusborne Vineyard (photo by Hazel Strange)

The vines looked very healthy but the whole effect felt sterile and in many parts of the vineyard very little grew between the rows of vines, just a few hardy weeds and the occasional flower, so that we saw few if any insects. At the ends of some of the rows we were surprised to see roses with red or white flowers. Roses are more susceptible to some of the diseases that infect vines and are planted to provide an early warning system for problems in the vineyard.

As I looked along the bleak rows of vines I couldn’t help remembering that a major contributor to the declining bee populations in this country has been the 97%  loss of wild flower meadows since the mid 20th century. Land clothed with a vine monoculture feels like part of this problem.

The vineyard claims, on its web site, to have a “deep respect for nature” and it wouldn’t take much land away from their vines if they planted wild flowers along the field edges. This would massively increase their green credentials, demonstrate respect for nature and it would bring back the bees and other insects. Some of these might be beneficial insects that would suppress vine pests.

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It doesn’t feel like a very good time for nature and the recent decision of the UK government to reintroduce neonicotinoid insecticides, albeit on a small number of farms, has been deeply depressing. This decision was apparently taken against the advice of their scientific advisers and with some secrecy so that the presence of the agrochemical companies at these crucial meetings might be concealed. People confident of their decisions do not take them behind closed doors so this tells us a lot about the present government.

Another decision that takes little account of nature is the recent proposal to “fast-track” planning applications involving fracking when local councils appear to be acting slowly. The energy secretary, Amber Rudd has said she will “deliver shale” and this commitment has potentially profound environmental implications.

So what do we do to increase respect for nature and to give nature its rightful place alongside humans? It’s a difficult question with no easy answers but I can think of two ways forward. First, we must celebrate nature in all its glories by writing, by photographing and by generally spreading the word wherever possible. Second, we must expose and oppose policies of governments and companies that result in a loss of nature in all its different facets: wildlife, countryside, rivers, beaches etc.

The charm of goldfinches

Sometimes goldfinches one by one will drop
From low hung branches; little space they stop;
But sip, and twitter, and their feathers sleek;
Then off at once, as in a wanton freak:
Or perhaps, to show their black, and golden wings
Pausing upon their yellow flutterings.

From I stood tip-toe upon a little hill by John Keats (1817)

I suppose it’s the time of year. Our neighbours have taken to decorating their garden trees. But don’t think Christmas lights, think bird feeders. Every imaginable variety of feeder swings merrily on the breeze offering an avian cafeteria that no right-thinking bird can resist. There are peanuts, fat balls, fat-filled coconut halves and several kinds of seed and don’t the birds know it. The feeder array is as busy as a city-centre fast-food joint with the main customers being house sparrows, blue tits and great tits. A few blackbirds and coal tits also muscle in occasionally only to be overtaken by opportunistic starlings and crows.

But the birds that have surprised and delighted me most are the goldfinches. They patronise one particular feeder containing black seed (nyjer seed) and the two perches are busy until the light begins to fade. Frequently one or more hopefuls will also be waiting above the feeder and when they try to supplant the incumbent this results in much twittering and “yellow fluttering”. They are not restful birds; while they are feeding, goldfinches continually look around checking for threats. Sometimes something spooks them and they all fly off to apparent safety. A pair of crows occasionally blunders their way on to one of the nearby peanut feeders and these swaggering adolescents invariably empty the tree of all other birds.

I thought I had a rough idea of what a goldfinch looked like but having an almost captive supply of the birds has been a revelation. I knew about the blood-red “face”, the black and white head and the signature lemon-yellow wing flash but I hadn’t realised how intricately patterned the birds were. Their eyes appear to be surrounded by black “goggles” making them look like jaunty bank robbers. The tan-coloured feathers on their backs contrast with white feathers on the chest and underparts although some tan colouration extends in hand-like protrusions on to the chest. Just as interesting, when the bird turns away, are the patterns of the folded wings. Above the yellow flash, each jet- black upper wing exhibits a regular geometric pattern of small white spots resembling quotation marks. And then there is the song. I watch through a window so I can’t hear their song but I can recommend a recording on the RSPB web site or Mark Cocker’s description: “a filigree music grained with joy”.

But I am still not sure why they are here? We don’t normally see many goldfinches in the gardens and I don’t think it’s because I haven’t previously been looking. I suspect it’s because of the availability of a popular food (nyjer seed) combined with a reduction in weed seed in the countryside, partly seasonal and partly because of agricultural intensification. Whatever the explanation, I must have a word with our neighbours and encourage them to keep putting out the seed.

Goldfinches frequently appear in literature and in painting. Here is an excellent article on goldfinch-associated symbolism.

Picture credits: “Carduelis carduelis close up” by Francis Franklin – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carduelis_carduelis_close_up.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Carduelis_carduelis_close_up.jpg

The Dorsetshire Gap – a special place

A medieval crossroads, a motorway junction from a former time, a secret spot, a time/space vortex, a geological oddity. These are some of the descriptions of the Dorsetshire Gap, a curious conjunction of ancient trackways and chalk landscape deep in rural Dorset.

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The ridgeway track approaching the Dorsetshire Gap

The Dorsetshire Gap is a special and unusual place. Buried in mid-Dorset countryside between Ansty and Folly, it is at least a mile from even minor roads and accessible only on foot. I first came here more than twenty years ago and since then I have been unable to resist the periodic lure of this spot. Earlier this year, under a cloudless, sapphire-blue sky, we approached from the East along a chalk ridge clothed in rough grass and purple punctuations of knapweed and thistles. Encouraged by the midsummer heat, butterflies and bees flitted purposefully between wild flowers and we admired the long, green view northwards over the Blackmore Vale.

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The view from the chalk ridge looking towards the Blackmore Vale

 

Eventually, the path dipped down between trees and through a gate to reveal a flattened clearing, seemingly enclosed by rough woodland and high chalk banks. Looking about, you notice other tracks converging on the same spot from different angles and elevations. One track, from the south, climbs through a clear gap between chalk banks. A prominent four-way signpost gives directions. The Dorsetshire Gap is a complex motorway junction but dating from another age.

[This link gives a map and this link gives the Grid Reference and other location details]

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The approach from the East. “The path dipped down between trees and through a gate”

 

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Approaching the Gap from the East in spring. The four-way sign, the box containing the visitor’s book and the chalk banks are visible

 

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The four-way sign and the southern track illustrating the break in the chalk ridge

 

Geologically speaking, this remote part of Dorset lies at the northern edge of a broad band of chalk that runs south west across the county from the Wiltshire border. Where the chalk ends, it tilts upwards to form a steep escarpment facing the northern clay. This chalk escarpment provides a natural barrier to north/south passage and the Dorsetshire Gap is a break in this ridge allowing access of tracks from the chalky south to the wet claylands of the Blackmore Vale. Other routes, including ancient Ridgeway tracks from Wiltshire and Devon, converge here so that the Dorsetshire Gap is a crossroads, recognised for centuries, where people and animals moving east/west on the Ridgeway were able to access north/south tracks.

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The southern track in summer. Note the sunken lane.

 

How does a place like this arise? No one really knows; how much is natural and how much is man-made is also in dispute. There are numerous earthworks in the vicinity and the remains of a medieval village in the valley below so human influence seems likely. We do know that the Dorsetshire Gap was an important road crossing from the Middle Ages until the 19th century and the paths coming together here are ancient trackways. Some of these trackways may have been used for the movement of goods by packhorse trains, or for the movement of animals by drovers; these practices stopped only with the advent of the railways. If you follow paths westwards from the Gap towards Folly, you eventually reach the road and an isolated house that was formerly an Inn. According to Ralph Wightman this used to be called the Fox Inn and closed only in the mid 20th century. In the past, this may have been a refuge for travellers on the Ridgeway, including drovers and their animals, providing a safe haven for the night.

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The westward track rising towards Folly

 

Several of the trackways are also sunken lanes where tramping feet, heavy hoofs, scraping wheels and foul weather have, over centuries, worn the soft rock away so that the path now lies below the level of the surrounding countryside. Some call these sunken lanes Holloways and further to the west in Dorset there are some striking examples of very deep Holloways. There is a mystique attached to these sunken paths: they are visible remnants of a wilder time, they provide tangible evidence of long forgotten lives and of older ways of travel. Perhaps because of this mystique, Geoffrey Household, in his 1939 novel “Rogue Male”, has his fugitive hero hide in a deep Holloway in west Dorset. Robert McFarlane has written lyrically about these sunken paths and his unsuccessful quest to find Household’s holloway-hideaway north of Chideock.

So what makes the Dorsetshire Gap a special place, one that people write about, one that people actively seek out, one whose name is even inscribed on Ordnance Survey maps?

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The four-way sign and the box containing the visitor’s book, in summer

 

I believe this relates to history and to the power of the imagination. The Dorsetshire Gap has been an important crossroads for hundreds of years. It is an important relic of times past and, as we stand here, we can imagine the sights and sounds of past lives: fragments of conversation from chance meetings, clinking harness as animals are driven through, cries for help as people are robbed, people heading quickly for the ancient drovers’ refuge at Folly. The Gap probably hasn’t changed much over the years so when we visit, we can “slip back out of this modern world” (using the words of W.H. Hudson). Perhaps this is why the Gap has its own visitor’s book. According to Priscilla Houston, the book was first put there in 1972 by a writer known as “Valesman” in the hope that this might help preserve the Gap. For many years it was kept in an old biscuit tin, replaced nowadays by a more secure plastic box. The book allows visitors to record their reflections on visiting this very old, very “Dorset” and very special place.

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The visitor’s book

 

This article appeared in the December edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine. The photographs were taken by Hazel Strange in Spring 2007 and Summer 2014.

The Queen of Seaweeds – the story of Amelia Griffiths, an early 19th century pioneer of marine botany.

In 2010, the Royal Society compiled a list of the ten most influential female scientists in British History. One of the ten was Mary Anning (1799-1847) who from humble beginnings in Lyme Regis, Dorset came to be recognised as the “greatest fossil hunter ever known”. Her discoveries of long extinct, fossilised creatures in the cliffs around Lyme Regis were central to the development of new ideas about the history of the earth at the start of the 19th century. She became an expert in her field but did not get the recognition she deserved because science at the time was an exclusively male profession. Nowadays she is receiving this recognition and the fascination of her story has spawned biographies, novels and children’s books. The Lyme Regis Museum has well-developed plans to build an extension, to be called the Mary Anning Wing.

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Mary Anning

I had thought that Anning was the only prominent West Country female scientist of her time until, walking along the coast path near Torquay recently, I paused to read an information board. This included a panel dedicated to the work of Amelia Griffiths (1768-1858) “who collected and preserved nearly 250 species of seaweed ……. one of the first women to be recognised for their contribution to science.” Never having heard of Griffiths, my interest was piqued, especially when I discovered that, in the 19th century, she was described as “facile Regina – the willingly acknowledged Queen of Algologists”. [Seaweeds are large multicellular marine algae.]

So who was Griffiths and what did she do?

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Part of the information board that alerted me to Amelia Griffiths

Amelia Warren Rogers was born in Pilton, North Devon in 1768. In 1794 she married Rev. William Griffiths and the couple moved to Cornwall. Eight years later, her husband died suddenly under mysterious circumstances leaving his widow with five young children but not without money. Amelia Griffiths decided to leave Cornwall for Devon, living first at Ottery St Mary before settling in Torquay where she could best follow her favourite pursuit of studying seaweeds.

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One of the Torbay coves that Griffiths may have frequented when she lived in Torquay. Plenty of seaweed is still visible.

For much of her adult life she collected seaweeds avidly: in north Devon and Cornwall, in Dorset and along the East and South Devon coasts. When she began, identification of species was difficult as many had not been named or clearly described so Amelia devised her own names – “bottle brush”, “cobweb” etc. She helped male seaweed enthusiasts in producing scholarly studies on the larger and smaller seaweeds, generously giving her knowledge and donating samples. One such enthusiast was the leading botanist William Henry Harvey with whom she corresponded and who eventually became a close friend. Her reputation grew and in 1817, the Swedish botanist Carl Agardh named a genus of red seaweed Griffithsia in her honour.

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Griffithsia setacea from Griffiths’ books. © 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council

Dried samples of seaweeds collected by Griffiths are held in several museums including Kew, Torquay and Exeter. Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum holds three slightly battered leather-bound volumes of her seaweeds which I recently had the privilege to see. Each sample is mounted on stiff white paper and annotated with the name and location in Griffiths’ neat handwriting. Many of the seaweeds still retain their bright colours despite being collected more than a century and a half ago.

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Enteromorpha intestinalis. Collected in Torbay. The name suggests that early collectors saw the resemblance with the human intestine. From Griffiths’ books. © 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council

Griffiths was often accompanied on her seaweed sorties by Mary Wyatt, formerly a servant in the Griffiths household but eventually the proprietor of a Torquay shop selling shells, polished madrepores and pressed plants. Harvey encouraged Mary Wyatt to sell books of pressed and named seaweeds to help identification. Supervised by Amelia, she produced the first two volumes of Algae Danmonienses (Seaweeds of Devon) by 1833. Each volume contained 50 species and cost 25 shillings or £1 if you subscribed to the series. The books sold well, being partly responsible for making seaweed collecting the must-do pastime at seaside resorts in early Victorian Britain. Followers of this seaweed craze were able to explore nature, improve their scientific knowledge and perhaps produce a memento of their seaside holiday.

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The title page of one of Mary Wyatt’s books of seaweeds with a special Royal dedication. © 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter City Council.

Despite their extensive correspondence, Harvey and Amelia Griffiths did not meet until 1839 when he visited Torquay. At her urging, he wrote a hand-book of British Marine Algae later expanded to Phycologia Britannica, illustrating all known British Marine Algae. This great work required constant correspondence with Griffiths who despite being in her late 70s provided extensive knowledge of the plants in their natural state. Harvey held her in high regard and his hand-book contained the following dedication: “To Mrs Griffiths of Torquay, Devon, a lady whose long-continued researches have, more than those of any other observer in Britain, contributed to the present advanced state of marine botany….”

The more I investigated the story of Amelia Griffiths, the more I found similarities with Mary Anning. Both were systematic collectors, acquiring immense expertise in their fields and passing on samples to male scientists who furthered their own careers as a result. Both were strong women who pursued their interests whether or not these conformed to norms of society. Griffiths is known to have collected at Lyme Regis so perhaps she encountered Anning on the beach; it is an interesting thought. Anning is now better known, partly because her discoveries were much more significant for science and partly because of the well developed Mary Anning-industry in her home town.

Griffiths lived until nearly 90 maintaining her passion for seaweeds to the end. We must not forget that she began her systematic study of seaweeds in the early years of the 19th century, a time when women could not develop independent scientific careers. Despite this, she made a major contribution to marine botany and deserves to be more widely known.

I should like to thank Holly Morgenroth of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, who showed me Griffiths’ books of seaweeds and took the photographs.

This article first appeared in the August edition of the Dorset-based Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The picture at the top of this post is of Phycodrys rubens (formerly Delesseria sinuosa) in Griffiths’ books (copyright 2014 Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter City Council).