Category Archives: marshwood vale magazine

The myth and the magic of hares

The minor road headed roughly northwards, climbing gradually across chalk downland towards Ansty Cross. At least that’s what we had planned until a large red and white placard loomed ahead of us at a four-way junction declaring “Road Closed” in capital letters.  It didn’t specify which road was closed and we could see no sign of roadworks so we decided to take the risk and press on past the sign.  At the next junction, though, another sign was more specific.  The road ahead, our planned route, was closed and, this time, we could see the roadworks blocking our way.  A few minutes of frantic map reading revealed that an alternative was possible and soon we were on our way northwards again.   We were now following a very quiet one car’s width-road lined by hawthorn scrub and low fences with grassy downland rising on the western side, a pleasant if unanticipated place to be on this mild, sunny early May morning.

Suddenly as we drove on, two animals, the size of medium dogs, shot out from the hedge and proceeded to chase one another up the road ahead of us.  We slowed down to avoid upsetting them and watched, transfixed. My initial reaction was “two deer, possibly muntjac”.    I was wrong, though, because just as suddenly as they appeared, they turned and ran back into the hedge and it became clear that these were hares, running fast.  One came out again on to the road briefly before returning through the hedge on to the downland.

We moved forward, stopped the car and looked through a gap in the hedge on to the nearby field. It was like looking through a portal into another world as there on the downland were three hares with their long ears and sandy brown fur, almost golden in the morning sunshine.  One was very still and held its ears down but the other two proceeded to have a rough and tumble, squaring up aggressively, running about at high-speed, chasing, even jumping over one another.  After a few minutes, one ran off, “defeated” and we decided to leave the hares in peace.  We drove on, in total silence for some time but glowing, after one of the more surprising and emotional wildlife encounters we have ever experienced.    

hares “boxing”

 The animals we saw are more properly called brown hares to distinguish them from the other species found in the UK, the mountain hare, now mostly confined to the Highlands of Scotland.  Brown hares are large animals, about twice the size of a rabbit with sandy brown fur, long black-tipped ears, powerful back legs and staring eyes set so that they have almost all-round vision.  They are herbivores inhabiting grassland and open woodland, feeding mainly on young cereals, grasses and herbs.   In autumn and winter, brown hares are nocturnal, solitary creatures ranging widely and feeding at night.  They have no burrow and rest during the day in a hollow in the ground where from a distance they are largely invisible.  The lack of burrow makes them potentially vulnerable to predators such as foxes or birds of prey so they are always on the watch for threats, helped by their superb vision and hearing.  They can usually elude predators by being able to run at speeds up to 40 mph.

Their lives change in the spring months when mating becomes the driving force leading to the sort of daytime display we witnessed that morning.  The classic behaviour is “boxing” when two animals square up to one another and may exchange blows but chasing and jumping also often occur.  This pattern is now thought to reflect a persistent male encountering a reluctant female who tries to fend him off and the energetic leaping and wild chasing have given rise to the phrase “as mad as a March hare”.   The pattern may also be part of a ritual where the female selects a suitable mate based on his strength and endurance.

Female hares are receptive to males for much of the year, they can conceive even when already pregnant and can have up to four litters in a year.  Young hares, leverets, are born fully furred and with eyes open into a depression in the ground.   The adult female leaves the young during the day returning at night to give one feed.  The young leverets left like this are vulnerable to predators and some may also be killed by grass cutting equipment.  Other threats facing hares come from intensification of farming which has removed some food sources needed for good nutrition and there has also been an increase in the number of foxes. The result is a 75% reduction in the brown hare population since WW2.

With their lives lived mostly at night and often unseen there is something elusive and undefinable about hares.  Add to this their surprising behaviour during the breeding season and it’s easy to see why these creatures have become associated over the years with myth and magic.  One widespread belief in medieval times was that hares were shape shifters linked to witches and related stories of this transformation may be found in various parts of the country.  

A Dorset version of the shape shifter myth is told by local story teller Martin Maudsley.  It concerns a group of four farm labourers from the village of Littlebredy who went out at night hunting with dogs to catch animals for food.  While they went hunting, they left their farming tools by the house of an old woman whom some people in the village thought was a witch and others respected as a healer.  One evening when the men were out hunting, they glimpsed a mysterious and magical creature, a pure white hare and tried unsuccessfully to catch her.  Catching the white hare became an obsession for the men and one evening they were almost successful.  They cornered the white hare and she was thrown about and bitten by the dogs but still managed to escape.   

When the men went to collect their tools, they found the old woman lying on the floor in her cottage badly injured with her clothes ripped and bloody.  Most of the men left quickly, filled with fear and guilt, but one stayed with the old woman and nursed her back to health.  Chastened by this experience, the men vowed never to hunt the white hare again.  

The full story of the white hare may be read at https://www.dorsetaonb.org.uk/the-white-hare/.

This article appeared in the October2022 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The pictures are from Wikipedia

When the Moon came to Exeter Cathedral

It was a rare, cloud-free evening in mid-February earlier this year and I had stopped to gaze up at the sky, by now a deepening dark blue.  Although the sun had set nearly an hour previously, vestiges of light lingered in the west and only the brightest stars were visible.   Almost directly above me, though, it was the Moon that captured my attention.  It was bright and well defined that evening and just over half illuminated.  I gazed upwards for a while and this set me thinking about our relationship with this celestial body. 

The Moon is the Earth’s only natural satellite and the only place away from the Earth where humans have set foot.  It orbits our planet at a distance of 384,400 km and although that may seem a long way away, the Moon influences life on Earth to a surprising extent.  It is the main driver of tides on the Earth setting up important rhythms that dominate lives lived near the sea.  It can also influence the timing of migration and reproduction in the non-human world.  Its prominence in the Earthly sky and its regular phases (new Moon, full Moon etc) have given the Moon great cultural significance influencing ancient religions as well as many artists, musicians, poets and writers. 

Before the advent of widespread street lighting, the Moon was the only source of night time illumination.  Travelling in the dark, without moonlight, was hazardous and evening social gatherings were often planned to take advantage of a full Moon.  Nowadays, darkness features less in our lives and awareness of the phases of the Moon and the night sky is minimal.  Despite this, everyday speech still contains references to the Moon in terms such as “once in a blue moon”, “over the moon”, “honeymoon” and “lunacy”.

The Moon was uppermost in my mind that evening because, the following day, we were booked to visit the Museum of the Moon exhibition in Exeter Cathedral.  This exhibition featured UK artist Luke Jerram’s massive travelling artwork depicting the Moon.  Jerram’s artwork had already been exhibited in several other places locally including Bournemouth, Sherborne, Taunton and Wells.

The view upon entry to the Cathedral

When we arrived in the Cathedral Close that morning, a small queue of people, each wearing a mask, had formed at the entrance door.  After a short delay we were ushered in and were immediately confronted by the huge pale sphere.  It hung between the roof and floor of the Cathedral, almost filling the vast space, dominating the view and capturing our attention. Most people reacted with surprise and there were audible exclamations of “Wow! or Gosh!”

Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon is a massive blue-grey globe, seven metres in diameter with a mottled surface, depicting the geography of the moon.    The artwork is a 1/500,000 scale model based on precise lunar imaging from NASA combined with modern printing techniques and with internal lighting to create as realistic a representation as possible.  In Exeter Cathedral, it was accompanied by a soundtrack specially created by composer Dan Jones. 

We walked around the installation, looking from different directions, trying to take it in, not quite sure what to make of it.  We weren’t alone, though, as there were quite a few people about that morning making it feel busy.  Small children were running here and there, lying down beneath the huge sphere to look up, shrieking.   School children, some in uniform, were drawing, colouring in shapes. Adults were standing, looking, holding their phones up to capture images.  Some adults also wanted to lie down and “moonbathe”, but adults don’t, do they?

Luke Jerram’s Moon is a great concept but I wasn’t as impressed by it as I thought I would be.  Perhaps in today’s culture where we are barraged with so many graphic images it is difficult to impress?  Perhaps having witnessed the first Moon landings half a century ago it is hard to better those moments?  I also found it difficult to concentrate on the artwork with all the other people, noise and movement around me.  Despite these comments, it was good to see the children running about, enjoying the installation and engaging with its ideas.   Perhaps that’s what we should all have been doing?

It’s also difficult for any artwork to compete with the splendour of Exeter Cathedral and I couldn’t help being drawn away from the Moon to gaze at the architecture, the medieval vaulted ceiling, the colourful roof bosses, the stained glass and some of the memorials and chapels.  It felt as though having the Moon artwork there made me look afresh at the Cathedral.  In the end, we stayed for more than an hour suggesting that we were very engaged with the totality of the experience.

One of my favourite artefacts in Exeter Cathedral is the Astronomical Clock.  Dating from the 15th century but still in use, the main face of the clock shows the hour in its outer dial and on the inner dial the days of the lunar month (the time between successive new Moons).  The sphere representing the Moon also rotates to show its phase.  When we visited, the Moon on the clock was roughly half illuminated, very similar to what it had been in reality the night before.  Despite these obvious references to the Moon, I noticed no attempt to link the Astronomical Clock to the artwork and, for the visit of the Moon to Exeter Cathedral, this was a missed opportunity.

Overall, though, Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon has been a huge global success having been presented more than 250 times in more than 30 countries (there are several Moon artworks circulating) and experienced by more than 10 million people.  The Museum of the Moon is still on the move inspiring different creative responses wherever it appears.  One of its notable recent outings has been at WOMAD 2022 where it was accompanied by an immersive sonic experience inspired by the ethos of the Festival and composed by Yazz Ahmed. 

For many who have witnessed the artwork, this will have been their most intimate interaction with the Moon generating considerable new interest in this celestial body.  Hopefully, this will have gone some way towards reconnecting people with their only natural satellite.

The Museum of the Moon
The Great East Window in Exeter Cathedral
The Astronomical Clock with the Moon (half illuminated) in the inner ring.

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

Spring flowers at Cogden in west Dorset

More than six weeks ago I went searching for spring flowers in west Dorset. I wrote about this for the Marshwood Vale Magazine and the article below appeared in the June edition.

It was an unexpectedly bright morning in the first week of May and I had come to one of my favourite places, Cogden in west Dorset in the south west of the UK.  I stood in the car park for a few moments enjoying the gentle warmth of the air and taking in the familiar view set out below me.  There was the sea, calm that day and a uniform greenish-blue merging into the distant mist with no clear horizon.  There, also, was the yellowish-brown shingle beach with its fringe of white water, part of the larger Chesil Beach sweeping eastwards towards Portland, the wedge shape barely visible in the mist.  I was here to see what flowers were in bloom on this spring day and I hoped I might find some of the first orchids. 

The view down to Cogden Beach

I began my search by heading eastwards through the gate from the Car Park into the meadows that slope down below the coast road towards the sea.  Despite the traffic noise, skylarks trilled overhead and a green woodpecker “yaffled” nearby.  The ground was quite uneven, perhaps churned up by cattle when wet and muddy, making for awkward walking.  Rough grass predominated but a few bright yellow cowslips were dotted about and spikes of bugle with their pale blue flowers were also showing well.  Bugle is an unassuming flower, often overlooked but a closer examination revealed the delicately beautiful patterns of darker stripes and pale patches that decorate the flowers.  Elsewhere in the meadow, the first yellow cushiony flowers of bird’s foot trefoil were emerging, a foretaste of times to come.

I asked some passing dog walkers if they had seen any orchids.  They hadn’t, but kindly warned me to beware of adders. I continued to the east through several fields and across stiles gradually descending towards the sea.  Traffic noise from the coast road gave way to the soothing sound of pebbles driven rhythmically back and forth by waves on the beach.   When I reached the coast path, I turned to walk westwards, first along a narrow track enclosed by lush green vegetation and later above a broad grassy area bordering the reed bed and shingle beach.  Colourful drifts of wild flowers grew here, mostly cowslip and cuckooflower. 

I have always loved cowslips for their clusters of bright yellow, frilly-edged, trumpet shaped flowers (see picture at the head of this post). Seeing so many here reminded me of my childhood when it was common to find large numbers growing across chalk grassland and railway embankments in Dorset.  Nowadays, it is a treat to see even just a few of the flowers, a reminder of how much has been lost from our countryside, mainly through urbanisation and the relentless march of intensive agriculture.   

Cuckooflower is a very attractive, rather delicate looking flower, also called lady’s smock (picture below). The petals here were white with variable amounts of lilac pigmentation and lilac filigree markings.  Cuckooflower is one of several plants whose name honours the cuckoo; the flowers are said to bloom at about the same time as the bird arrives from its migration.  Cuckooflower is also one of the larval food plants for the orange tip butterfly.

In time, the reed bed petered out and I reached the first paved access track from the Cogden Car Park.  The shingle beach near here is a very special place where many unusual plants flourish despite the harsh environment by throwing down long roots to harvest fresh water from the underlying soils.   Sea kale is one of the main attractions.  It is now rather uncommon in the UK but numerous clumps of the plant with their fleshy, cabbage-type, dark green leaves were evident that day.  A few flowers, yellow at first then turning to white, were also showing.   It was, though, too early for their great display when each clump will be covered with white flowers making the beach look as though a heavy snow has fallen.  Another plant was, however, providing interest in the interim.  This was sea campion and large mats of the plant were growing across the shingle, each covered in hundreds of white bowl-shaped flowers.    

I still hadn’t found any orchids and was about to give up when, almost accidentally, I came across several groups of the flowers in an area of longish rough grass, bramble and gorse behind the shingle beach.   There were, perhaps, twenty or more spikes of flowers of a brilliant purplish-pink held on thick stems emerging through the drab, rough grass, looking as if someone had splashed pink paint across a dull canvas.  Many were in peak condition.  A few were already past their best but others were just emerging.   The flower spikes were loosely decorated with florets, like jewels on a bracelet. Each floret comprised a prominent extended lower lip, mostly purplish-pink but white towards the throat with a pattern of pink spots.  An overhanging hood, marked white on some spikes, contained the reproductive parts of the plant and behind the hood a spur curved upwards.  These are early purple orchids (Orchis mascula), usually the first of the species to appear each year and they conjure an otherworldly beauty wherever they grow.  Early purple orchids were once common across the UK but have suffered in the same way as cowslips. 

My visit to Cogden had been fascinating, as always, and I was particularly pleased to have found the orchids.  It was, though, early May and many flowers were only just beginning to show.   In a few weeks, the shingle beach will be dominated by the white flowers of sea kale, large drifts of pink thrift will appear across the low coastal cliffs and yellow horned poppy will begin to bloom.  In the meadows and in the grassy areas near the reed bed many flowers will appear including several species of orchid.    

Cuckooflower

Sea campion growing across the shingle on Cogden Beach

Sea campion
Early purple orchid
Early purple orchids

Sighting seals along the south west coast of the UK

A glistening black head suddenly broke through the surface of the water a metre or two offshore.  A long, dark, shadowy shape was also just visible and we realised that this was a seal.  We watched, captivated, as it swam slowly south westwards, staying roughly parallel to the beach, leaving a trail of ripples in its wake.  Along the beach, people were swimming and when they saw the seal coming, they quickly made their way to dry land but the seal had already disappeared. 

A grey seal swimming, (not the one referred to in the text whch took us completely by surprise)

This magical encounter occurred last year as we were walking along a shingle beach in south Devon, but chance sightings of seals can occur almost anywhere along the Dorset and Devon coasts in the south west of the UK and are unpredictable and surprising.   Each observation, though, is a reminder that these fascinating creatures live alongside us, and gives an insight, however brief, into their lives.

Seals are the largest land-breeding marine mammals found in the UK and two species may be seen around our coasts, the grey seal and the common or harbour seal.  The grey seal is the larger of the two with males up to 2.6 metres in length and 300kg in weight.  The grey seal is one of the rarest species of seal globally and the UK has more than a third of the world’s population, mostly found around the west coast of Scotland, also the Orkneys and the Shetlands with a few significant colonies along the East coast of England.  Common seals are smaller, with males up to 2 metres in length and 150 kg in weight.  Numerically, UK waters contain fewer common seals but the population is still significant amounting to 30% of the European sub species.  Common seals have a similar UK distribution to that of the grey seal. 

Grey seal

Should you sight a seal, it can be tricky to decide which species but if you can see the head, that may help.  Common seals have relatively smaller heads compared to body size with a clearly defined forehead and short snout.  Grey seals have larger heads with longer flat noses and no forehead.   Fur colour is deceptive as both species vary in colour from grey to pale brown and whether the animal is wet or dry.  Fur patterns, though, may help identification with grey seals having irregular darker blotches and common seals being more uniformly spotted.

Common Seal (photo by CJ Sharp from Wikimedia Commons)

Seals spend their lives partly on land and partly in the water.  They haul out, often in groups, on uninhabited rocky islands, secluded beaches and sandbanks to rest, to digest their food or to give birth.  More than half of their time, though, is spent in the water feeding and they can travel long distances to forage.  They are superb swimmers, capable of diving to a depth of up to 100 metres to find food on the sea bed and during a dive they slow their heart rate in order to conserve oxygen.    On land, seals can appear ponderous and ungainly, dragging themselves about using their front flippers, but once in the water they swim with grace, elegance and speed.  This ability to slip effortlessly between two distinct lives, one on land and the other in the water, seen and largely unseen, gives seals an aura of mystery. It is no surprise that a wealth of myth and story has attached itself to the creatures.

A grey seal hauled out on rocks

Because the majority of seals in the UK are found along northern and north western coasts, sightings as far south as Dorset and Devon are infrequent but of great interest.  There are no regular haul out sites along the Dorset and east Devon coasts so sightings are usually of seals moving about.  Most of these casual sightings are of grey seals although there are thought to be a few common seals resident in Poole Harbour.  The picture changes as we move into south Devon where several regular haul out sites are found along the coast.  Here grey seals gather in small numbers at low tide to rest although they can also be seen swimming nearby.  Seals are also seen in the Exe and Dart estuaries sometimes a distance from the coast. 

The Dorset Wildlife Trust Fine Foundation Wild Seas Centre at Kimmeridge is trying to build up a catalogue of seal sightings.  Individual seals have characteristic marking patterns on their fur, so that photos can be used, rather like a fingerprint, to identify seals seen regularly in Dorset or moving about along the coast.  By sharing their findings with other seal recorders, they already know that some seals seen along the Dorset coast have also been spotted in Hampshire, south Devon, Cornwall or France.   Should you see a seal, you can help this project by reporting your sighting (with photographs if available, see below for details).

There is increasing concern, however, that seals are being disturbed by encounters with humans.  They are large wild animals and, although they are curious creatures, they can be easily upset and disturbed.   Seals haul out to rest and digest food and this essential quiet time can be interrupted if humans get too close.  Disturbed seals may even panic, jumping from rocks into the sea so risking injuring themselves.   There are also sporadic reports of humans being bitten when trying to feed or pat seals.  Feeding seals additionally risks disturbing their natural feeding patterns.

The Dorset Wildlife Trust has compiled a code of conduct to try to deal with these problems.  This code should be followed at all times when encountering seals or taking photographs, to protect both seals and humans and to minimise disturbance of these wild creatures:

  • Keep well away from seals so that they can’t see, hear or smell you
  • Use a camera zoom or binoculars for a better view
  • Keep dogs on a lead if seals are known to be in the area
  • Never feed seals 
  • Take all litter home 
  • Do not seek out encounters with seals in the water 

Seals are iconic wild creatures and we are privileged to be able to see them along our coasts.  We must, however, treat them with respect.  They have their own lives, very different from ours, and they have as much right to occupy the environment as we do.  We should enjoy watching these beautiful creatures but make sure that they can live their lives undisturbed.

I should like to thank Sarah Hodgson of the Dorset Wildlife Trust for her generous help and guidance when I was preparing this article

All photos shown here were taken using a zoom lens.

To report seal sightings in Dorset, use this link: http://seals.dorsetwildlifetrust.net/  , seal sightings elsewhere in the south west can be reported by emailing:   sightings@cornwallsealgroup.co.uk

This article also appeared in the April 2022 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Mooching about by mahonia

If, like me, you enjoy looking at flowers, then winter can be a pretty dismal time.  The plants that give colour to the autumn such as asters and sedums have long since faded and there’s a gap of several weeks before the winter flowers, snowdrops, aconites and pulmonaria show their faces.  It hasn’t helped this winter that the December weather, although very mild, brought many overcast days.  Ceilings of thick grey cloud hung overhead, keeping light levels low and draining the landscape of colour so that I yearned for some brightness. 

A large mahonia in full flower

But there is help at hand in the form of winter flowering shrubs and plants which bring welcome colour to the gloom.   These include winter honeysuckle and winter flowering heathers but my favourite is mahonia with its starbursts of lemon-yellow flowers and its spiky evergreen leaves.  Mahonia works hard, flowering from November with some varieties continuing to bloom well into the New Year.   A large stand of the shrub is a fine sight in winter, sometimes as much as three metres in height, covered with multiple plumes of flowers reaching upwards above sprays of spiky mid green holly-like leaves.  Even on the darkest winter day, the yellow flowers light up their surroundings like banks of fluorescent tubes and should the sun shine, both flowers and leaves glow in reply.  As an added bonus, stands of mahonia are often enveloped in a cloud of sweet fragrance said to resemble lily of the valley, a rare experience in these low months.   If all that wasn’t enough, as the flowers mature, they produce attractive blue-black berries dusted with a white bloom.

Sprays of mahonia flowers showing the developing unripe berries that will eventually turn black

Mahonia was first discovered during the Lewis and Clark expedition sent to explore the newly acquired north western territory of the United States during the early years of the 19th century.  The shrub was found growing extensively between the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean.  The prominent Irish/American nurseryman Bernard McMahon based in Philadelphia was responsible for propagating the seeds and plants brought back from the expedition and mahonia was named in recognition of his work.  Mahonia is also referred to as Oregon grape after the resemblance of its berries to the vine fruit and the part of the US where the shrub was first seen.

The native US shrub was imported into the UK in the 19th century and different varieties were also found in Asia at about the same time.  These and their hybrids are now very popular in this country contributing architectural interest to gardens as well as winter colour.  They are often planted around the edges of car parks and outside buildings where their potential size can be readily accommodated. 

It’s not just humans, though, who take pleasure from mahonia in winter.  Both insects and birds relish the profusion of flowers and berries on the shrub.  The long arching racemes thrown upwards by mahonia are densely packed with small flowers, each shaped like an upturned bell and formed from concentric rings of petals and sepals. The flowers are rich sources of pollen and nectar providing important forage for insects on mild winter days and, as the insects feed, they contribute to pollination. 

Among the insects visiting mahonia in winter, bumblebees are regular foragers in the south of the UK and I have seen both workers and queens even in late December, sometimes liberally dusted with yellow pollen.  Honeybees and hoverflies will also venture out to feed on milder winter days and they may occasionally be joined by red admiral butterflies.   It’s fascinating to watch bumblebees working the flowers, moving systematically along a raceme, dislodging yellow petals which fall to decorate nearby leaves and create a yellow “snow” on pavements below.  Birds such as blackcaps and blue tits also take sugar-rich nectar from mahonia flowers.  When they visit, they may pick up pollen on their beaks contributing to pollination.

Close-up view of mahonia flower showing the ring of stamens just inside the petals (see also the picture at the head of this post).
The same mahonia flower but after stimulation causing stamens to move inwards

The flowers have a special mechanism for increasing the efficiency of pollination by visiting insects and birds.  In each flower, the pollen-loaded stamens are arranged in a ring just inside the petals.  Stimulating the flower, as would happen if a pollinator visits, causes the stamens to move inwards increasing the likelihood that the pollinator will pick up pollen to transfer to the next flower.  Pollination leads to formation of the berries, each about the size of a blackcurrant which start green and mature to blue-black with a white bloom.  The berries provide winter food for birds later in the season and blackcaps, blackbirds and song thrushes may be seen feeding.

Although mahonia was a new discovery for colonists in the US in the early 19th century, the native American tribes of the north west were already familiar with its properties.  Some ate the berries, either raw or cooked and some used preparations of the shrub for medicinal purposes.  Yellow dyes derived from the plant were also used by the tribes for colouring fabrics and basketry.   Preparations of mahonia have been employed in traditional Chinese medicine over many years and are used by some contemporary herbalists but rigorous scientific studies of their effects have not been performed. 

It is interesting to reflect on how mahonia, a shrub native to parts of the US and Asia, has successfully travelled to the UK where not only does it brighten our winters but it also supports wildlife across this low season.

Worker buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) on mahonia flower with pollen (November 25th 2021)
Queen buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) on mahonia flowers (December 4th 2021)
Red admiral butterfly on mahonia (November 25th 2021)

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

The Holly and the Ivy

Even amid the glitz and glitter of our commercialised Christmas, certain seasonal songs have surprising power.  For me, The Holly and the Ivy is one of those songs.  I probably first heard the carol and began to internalise the words and tune before I was ten years old.  Now, although I am not religious, all it takes is a mere mention of the title or a hint of the tune to set the carol going in my head evoking memories of past Christmases.  The carol has an interesting history and although the words are staunchly Christian, references to holly and ivy come from much earlier pre-Christian times. 

In case you need reminding, here is the first verse of the carol, with the refrain:

The holly and the ivy

When they are both full grown

Of all the trees that are in the wood

The holly bears the crown

Refrain: The rising of the sun

               And the running of the deer

              The playing of the merry organ

              Sweet singing in the choir

The most popular version of this carol, the one you will most likely encounter this Christmas, was first published as recently as 1911.  The folk song collector, Cecil Sharp was visiting the Cotswolds in January 1909 and heard this version sung by Mary Clayton of Chipping Campden.  Sharp transcribed the words and tune and published them together for the first time in his book English Folk-Carols and this has become the accepted version.   Here is a link to a recording:     

The words of the song can be found before that time in several early 19th century and one early 18th century Broadsides (early forms of printed lyrics).   None of these versions, though, gives the tune and, most likely, the carol was sung to different melodies with local modifications of the words in different parts of the country, and passed between generations as part of the oral tradition. 

One of these local melodies has recently become very popular with folk singers.  It was first recorded in 1952 by Maud Karpeles and Pat Shaw from the singing of Peter Jones of Bromsash in Herefordshire.  I remember hearing this version myself for the first time about twenty years ago sung in a very lively manner by Magpie Lane and it transforms The Holly and the Ivy into a celebratory Christmas song that is great fun to sing.   Here is a link to a recording by the Oxford Waits and the Mellstock Band:

The existence of different versions of the song passed on orally in different parts of the country suggests that The Holly and the Ivy is a very old, possibly medieval song. We tend to think of all Christmas songs as timeless accompaniments to traditional Christmas festivities but many were, in fact, written in the 19th century or later.  A few, including The Holly and the Ivy, are much older.

Ivy with its shiny, dark green leaves, covered in autumn with pale flowers that attract many insects including this red admiral butterfly

But why holly and why ivy?   Holly can grow as a tree or it may be part of a hedge restrained by cutting and shaping.  Its dense mass of prickle-edged leaves acts as a barrier, a natural barbed wire, and its red berries glitter with welcome colour even on the darkest winter day.   Ivy with its prolific climbing habit can, given the chance, rapidly overwhelm walls and hedges and is often treated as a nuisance or simply ignored.  It is, though, covered in flowers in the autumn providing late season pollen and nectar for insects and its dark berries are relished by birds in the winter.   

The Christmas significance of the two plants derives from their evergreen nature.  Both bear shiny green leaves seemingly brimming with life throughout the winter when most other plants and trees are leafless. Holly and ivy were popularly gathered along with mistletoe and other evergreens to decorate churches, houses and streets at Christmas time from at least as early as the 16th century and probably before.  This custom may be a relic of pagan midwinter celebrations with the evergreens symbolising rebirth, the return of the light and the greening of the landscape in spring.  The custom survives and holly and mistletoe, both preferably with berries, are still used as Christmas decorations although ivy seems to have fallen out of fashion.

But what about the words of the carol?  Perhaps we shouldn’t delve too deeply into such a traditional song but the first verse does seem counterintuitive.  Holly is rarely a large tree and unlikely to dominate all others and this verse contains the only reference to ivy in the entire song.    The refrain contains some pleasant imagery but it also seems out of place and the editors of the New Oxford Book of Carols believe it may have been a later addition to older medieval words.

Holly flowers

Overall, though, the carol tells the story of Christ’s life interwoven with the life of the holly tree.  So, verse 2: “The holly bears a blossom as white as the lily flower” refers to the white flowers borne on the bush in late spring with white signifying the purity of Mary and Jesus.  Verse 3: “The holly bears a berry as red as any blood” refers to Christ’s blood.  Verse 4: “The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn” refers to the crown of thorns.  Verse 5: “The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall” is another reference to the crucifixion.

Holly with its red berries and shiny, spiky leaves

The Holly and the Ivy is also one of several carols from medieval England that tells of the rivalry between holly and ivy for mastery of the forest, a contest with its origins in ancient folklore.  In The Holly and the Ivy, the holly “bears the crown” so winning the contest; perhaps that’s why we hear no more about the ivy.  Holly was also traditionally seen as a masculine symbol perhaps because of its stouter prickly leaves and ivy a feminine symbol with its softer leaves.  The carol may, therefore, contain a gentle reference to the ups and downs of relationships between men and women. 

So, in The Holly and the Ivy, we have a much-loved, traditional Christmas carol suffused with Christian and pre-Christian symbolism.  Even among the approaching Christmas clamour, the song never fails to bring pleasure whichever version we choose to sing.

I wrote this piece for the December 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

A glimpse of ancient history in East Devon – Woodbury Castle

The Pebblebed Heaths in East Devon constitute the largest block of lowland heath in the county.  Named for the underlying pebble-rich geology, this extensive area of heathland lies along a ridge between the Otter and Exe rivers.   Many rare creatures flourish here and numerous remnants of past lives are also dotted about. These include prehistoric burial mounds and earthworks but the archaeological jewel in the crown of this special East Devon place is the Iron Age hillfort of Woodbury Castle.  Its extensive ramparts are at least 2500 years old but remarkably well preserved and holding a history well worth uncovering, as I found when I visited on a sunny day towards the end of August.

Woodbury Castle is situated on Woodbury Common, one of the tracts of heathland making up the Pebblebed Heaths and I parked in the visitors car park, set in a clearing surrounded by trees and scrub.  Rose bay willowherb also grew there, its bright pink flowers partly replaced by white cotton wool seeds, a rather unsubtle reminder of the impending approach of autumn.  The earthworks of Woodbury Castle were a short walk from the car park, partly concealed in a grove of broad leaf trees.

It was only when I got closer to the Castle that the size and extent of the earthen ramparts became clear.   The main fortification consists of two impressive soil ridges, separated by a deep ditch, that snake their way around the perimeter of the site (see plan below). Further soil barriers and ditches provide additional protection in some parts.  In the past, visitors were able to scramble across the earthworks leading to considerable erosion.  Recent repairs have added wooden stairways to protect the ramparts and provide easier access. 

The ditch between the outer (right) and inner (left) ramparts at Woodbury Castle

I climbed the stairway over the lower ridge and paused at the bottom of the ditch to get a better view of the ramparts and to appreciate their size.   After scaling the second, higher ridge, I descended about 3 metres into a large, roughly oval, open area approximately the size of two football pitches.  This is the main enclosure protected by the fortifications. Dappled light filtered through the mature beech trees growing there creating a peaceful scene. 

The edge of the main enclosure (left) and the inner rampart (right) at Woodbury Castle

Helpful information boards with pictorial reconstructions were provided, giving some idea about contemporary life.  Large earthworks such as these were probably centres for tribal groups.  They would have required a huge effort to build and perhaps reflected the status of the community, being as much about display as defence.  Excavations have provided evidence that the enclosure contained several thatched roundhouses where people lived and a granary raised above the ground to protect the contents.  The site is interrupted by the road splitting it into two sections, making it difficult to envisage the full extent of the enclosure.  This apparent desecration of an ancient site is not, however, recent and a track is thought to have existed here for many hundreds of years.

A plan of how the Woodbury Castle hill fort is thought to have looked showing the two main ramparts and the track (now the road) that cuts through. (taken from the information board at the site).

I paused to stand in the enclosed area and tried to imagine life at the time.  I smelt woodsmoke from fires in the roundhouses and heard the chatter of people and the noises they created as they went about their work including fashioning wooden items and spinning wool.  A few were standing on the ramparts, perhaps watching for new arrivals or even invaders.  Woodbury Castle is set on the highest point on the Heaths, 185 metres above sea level, and there would have been little tree cover at that time.  Our lookouts would have enjoyed panoramic views across Woodbury Common – to the East over the Otter Valley, towards the sea at what are now Exmouth and Budleigh Salterton and to the west over the Exe Valley with views as far as Dartmoor and Exmoor on a clear day.

We know very little about what has happened at Woodbury Castle since prehistoric times but there are a few clues. In 1549 during the bloody Prayerbook Rebellion, armed forces may have camped in the earthworks before the inconclusive Battle of Woodbury Common.  During the Napoleonic Wars, the Castle was used as an army training camp and since then Woodbury Common has been exploited periodically for military preparation.  A large Royal Marines camp was built on the Common in the run up to the D-Day landings during WW2 and remains of the buildings can still be found among the heather.  To this day, parts of the Common are used regularly for training by Royal Marines from Lympstone Barracks.

Most of the time, though, Woodbury Common is quiet and a popular place for walking.  In the main, the landscape is undulating dry heathland with a low covering of gorse, bracken, heathers and a few trees but there are some small areas of wetland where the vegetation is richer.  The Common is criss-crossed by clear paths and walking is exhilarating with occasional views across Lyme Bay to the south.  Some paths are quite pebbly reflecting the underlying geology.  Many rare species including the Dartford warbler, the nightjar and the heath potter wasp can be seen on the Common and the area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In 2020, the East Devon Pebblebed Heaths were designated as a National Nature Reserve in recognition of their unique habitat and wildlife.

When I visited, the heathers were in flower lending the heath a subtle purple tinge.  Bell heather was beginning to turn but the ling (heather) was in full purplish-pink flower.  Cross leaved heath with its pink bells also showed well in places.   Whenever I stopped to look at the heather flowers, there was a background low buzz from the many honeybees foraging; local beekeepers were clearly doing well.  On one occasion, though, I had left the main path and walked a little way on to the heath to examine the heathers when a voice boomed out behind me: “There are quite a few adders about!  Just warning you!” I hadn’t seen any adders but I thanked the owner of the voice and retreated quickly back on to the path to continue my walk.  A good number of butterflies were on the wing in the sunshine including small tortoiseshell and gatekeeper but the highlight was several brimstone butterflies dancing about above the heath like fragments of bright greenish sunshine. 

Brimstone butterfly on bell heather showing how the butterfly might be mistaken for a leaf.
View across the heathland on Woodbury Common
Ling (purplish-pink) and bell heather (reddish-purple) flowering on Woodbury Common
Cross-leaved heath on Woodbury Common

This article also appeared in the October 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

West Dorset surprises

The minor road that climbs past the Spyway Inn near Askerswell was quiet that day, a welcome relief from the seemingly endless traffic clogging the A35.  Eventually, though, Eggardon Hill came into view, the road levelled out and our attention was captured by the stunning panorama laid out to the west.  Below, the land unfolded in a mosaic of fields, trees and hedges with different colours and textures, backed by the hills of west Dorset rising mysteriously in the slight haze that softened the air.  To the south west, the sea and the familiar ups and downs of the Jurassic Coast completed the image.  [The picture at the top of this post shows the view in a slightly spread out panoramic form] We drove on and, just before the road dipped under the old railway bridge, turned into the car park at the Powerstock Common Nature Reserve.

Trees surrounded the car park and bright early June sunshine filtered through the leaf cover casting dappled light across the parking area.  Birdsong echoed around us and the rippling sound of running water emerged from the nearby woodland.  Common vetch scrambled through the fences along the car park edge and its purplish-pink pea-type flowers were proving popular with plump, furry, pale brown bumblebees.

We set out along the woodland path taking a right fork to stay on the northern edge of the reserve.  The track felt enclosed but wildflowers grew along the margins including the inconspicuous bright blue speedwell and the purplish-blue spikes of bugle.  In time, the woodland melted away leaving the path to run between broad sloping banks topped by trees and scrub.  This is the Witherstone cutting, once the path of the Bridport branch railway as it ran between Powerstock and Toller stations.

The old railway cutting

This branch Line opened in 1857 linking Bridport to Maiden Newton and the main line.   The coming of the railway to West Dorset revolutionised social and commercial life in the area which, at the time, was poorly served by roads.   People could travel more widely and I tried to imagine trains passing through the cutting, drawn in a haze of smoke and noise by the small steam engines of the Great Western Railway.  I pictured people on the trains, travelling for work or for leisure or moving about during the two world wars.  The line was also important for the transport of milk, watercress and the net and twine produced in Bridport.  As motor transport came to dominate, traffic on the railway declined resulting in its closure in 1975.  Although the tracks were lifted, there are still signs of the old railway, notably the rusty fence posts that line the track.   The remains of an old brickworks can also be found in the nearby wood.  This was set up near the railway to take advantage of the clay that remained when the cutting was excavated.

On the day of our visit, the sloping banks on either side of the path were mostly clad in short rough grass although there were some areas of exposed grey soil, perhaps a result of slippage.  The former railway cutting felt very sheltered and the bright yellow flowers of bird’s foot trefoil grew across the grassy areas.  We also found many small flowers of milkwort, almost hidden in the grass.  Milkwort is a common plant on rough grassland and the flowers exist in several colours.  Pink and purplish-blue flowers grew at Powerstock Common but each flower also had one white petal divided into finger-like lobes giving it a passing resemblance to a miniature cow’s udder.  This may account for the name of the flower and its use in the past for increasing milk production.  We also found one common spotted orchid with beautiful purple markings but more will have appeared, along with many other flowers, as the season advanced.

The abundance of flowers attracted insects and several common blue butterflies flew past or around us displaying their sky-blue upper wings and intricately patterned lower wings.   Two yellow butterflies also passed by, dancing around one another in the air.  I hoped they would land so that I could identify the species but they did not oblige. Bumblebees moved lazily among the flowers but we made our most exciting observation on a slightly raised area of rough grass with some exposed grey soil not far from the main path. 

Here we found bees flying about at high speed, backwards and forwards and from side to side, just above the ground, accompanied by a clearly audible buzz.  There were perhaps a hundred or more of the insects, and with their incessant movement this was an impressive sight.   It was difficult to identify them at first owing to their frantic activity but they were honeybee-sized and I thought I could see shiny black abdomens.  Very occasionally, one would pause to feed from the bird’s foot trefoil revealing a yellow face, a pale brown-haired thorax and two very long antennae, each as long as the rest of their body. Such long antennae, resembling shiny black bootlaces, are seen only on one UK species of bee, the male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis).

The obvious excitement of these male bees arose because they were anticipating the emergence of females and wanted to try to mate.  Indeed, on several occasions some left their frantic flying to coalesce into a small mobile cluster.  Others tried to join in, some left the melee.  This was a mating cluster and formed when a virgin female emerged from her nest chamber.  Many males then pounced upon her hoping to mate but only one was successful.  Once mated, females get on with nest building and laying of eggs to secure the population of next year’s long-horned bees. 

The long-horned bee was once a common sight in May and June across the southern half of the UK, unmistakeable from the long antennae of the males.  Agricultural intensification led to destruction of habitat used by these bees along with a loss of their favoured flowers such as wild vetches and peas.  As a result, the species is now quite rare being restricted to twenty or so UK sites many of which are along the southern coast.  The Powerstock colony is large and seems to be prospering; it was a treat to see it that day. 

Powerstock Common is a rich and varied nature reserve and we glimpsed only a small part during our visit.  Even so, we enjoyed the peace and the floral beauty of the old railway cutting and discovered a fascinating mixture of natural and industrial history. 

At the beginning of July, Natural England announced that the combined land at Powerstock Common and nearby Kingcombe Meadows, both managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust, would become a National Nature Reserve recognising the unique character of these west Dorset sites and the rare wildlife they contain. 

Three short videos of the long-horned bees showing their behaviour that day can be seen on my YouTube channel  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvXWn_9QYdx0AU6guJ3iYLA

common vetch
milkwort (pink version) showing white petal
Male long-horned bee (Eucera longicornis) in flight showing his long antennae
Female Eucera longcornis showing her pollen-collecting hairs on her back legs. The female also has antennae of a more conventional length.
mating cluster
mating cluster with male looking on
common spotted orchid

This article appeared in the August 2021 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

The Jurassic Coast – where do you start?

The East Devon and Dorset coast in the south west of the UK, popularly known as the Jurassic Coast, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 putting it on a par with the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef.  The Jurassic Coast is unique in being the only place on the planet where 185 million years of the earth’s history are sequentially exposed in cliffs, coves, and other coastal features.   Since 2001, museums and visitor centres have sprung up along its 95-mile length and a fine stone sculpture, the Geoneedle at Orcombe Point, Exmouth celebrates the beginning of the World Heritage Site in East Devon.  On a sunny day in early November, just before the second lockdown, I went to take a look.

The Geoneedle at Orcombe Point with the view towards the Exe estuary and Dawlish Warren

The sea front at Exmouth was quiet when I arrived, there were just a few people about taking morning walks or enjoying the beach and the sunshine.    I left the car and walked to the end of the promenade where red cliffs strike out across the beach.  From here, it is an easy walk up a zig zag path, past the café, to the cliff top and the area known as the High Land of Orcombe.  By now, the early mist had evaporated affording spectacular views from the cliff top across the Exe estuary, Dawlish Warren and the south Devon coast as far Torquay.  The mild sunny weather had also brought out late season insects including bumblebees, hoverflies and an ageing red admiral butterfly.  A short stroll then took me to an open grassy area above the cliffs where the Geoneedle stands and the Jurassic Coast begins.  

A hoverfly that I saw near the Geoneedle

An ageing red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)

The Geoneedle is an impressive modernist sculpture about 5 metres in height and one-metre square at the base tapering to a stainless-steel point that takes on the colour of the sky, a clear blue that day but catching the sun at certain angles.   It was designed by public artist, Michael Fairfax and is constructed from three kinds of Portland stone with insets of eight different rocks representing the principal building stones found along the Jurassic Coast. The site also includes a compass showing some of the local landmarks and a Jurassic Coast hopscotch, both made from stones set into the ground.  The sculpture was inaugurated by Prince Charles in 2002. 

Not only is the Geoneedle a beautiful object, it also cleverly encapsulates the story of the Jurassic Coast in its design.  The eight stone insets are arranged so that they correspond to the three different geological time periods of the many kinds of rock found along the 95 mile stretch of coast between Orcombe Point and Studland Bay.  Starting at the bottom, the first two stone insets come from the oldest time period, the Triassic (about 250 million years ago); the hard, red rocks and softer mudstones below Orcombe Point are from this time period and were formed as sediment accumulated when the earth was an arid desert.  The middle four insets are from the Jurassic period (about 170 million years ago) when southern England was under a tropical sea; some of the best-known coastal features in West Dorset, Portland and the Purbecks were laid down at this time.  Finally, the two topmost insets are from the Cretaceous period (about 65 million years ago) when sea levels fell and sediments from lagoons, swamps and rivers were deposited.  The Cretaceous rocks are the youngest along the Jurassic Coast and can be seen at various points notably in the white cliffs at Beer in East Devon and in the chalk stacks of Old Harry Rocks near Studland.  

The Geoneedle showing the eight stone insets

Much of our knowledge of the origins of the different rocks comes from studies of the fossils and minerals found along the coast giving important information on the plants and animals that lived there and the climatic conditions prevailing during the different time periods.  The findings of local geologists and palaeontologists were crucial in this and the most important of these was Mary Anning, working in the 19th century, discovering fossils dating from the Jurassic period in the mobile cliffs around Lyme Regis.  Her discoveries illustrated a hitherto unknown, bygone world dominated by massive marine reptiles swimming in a tropical sea.

When I had finished looking at the Geoneedle, I walked back down the zig zag path, across the promenade and on to the beach.   By now, the tide had receded leaving large swathes of pale, firm sand and the area was very busy with people, many walking dogs, all enjoying the gift of this sunny pre-lockdown day.  There were even two horses with riders at the water’s edge making for a very evocative image.  

The low tide made it possible for me to walk around Orcombe Point to examine the red cliffs and their rocks. Starting from the beach road, red cliffs extend at right angles up to the jagged outcrop of Rodney Point.  The exposed rock here is a hard sandstone of the Triassic period with considerable honeycomb weathering caused by wind and rain.  Beyond Rodney Point, red cliffs continue but there is also a very striking red rock formation, the Devil’s Ledge, a broad wave-cut platform.    Orcombe Point lies a little further to the east with the Geoneedle just visible, high above.  These red Triassic rocks owe their colour to iron oxides and they continue with some interruptions along the coast to Ladram Bay, Sidmouth and beyond Seaton before Jurassic rocks take over near Lyme Regis.

The red cliffs near Orcombe Point showing the downwards tilt in the strata

To the east of Orcombe Point, the hard, red sandstone is overlaid by softer rocks and the strata exposed in the cliffs exhibit a pronounced downwards tilt to the east.  This tilt occurred after the Jurassic period and brought the older Triassic rocks to the surface.  Cretaceous material was then deposited and, after many millions of years of weathering, the Jurassic Coast of today was created with its distinctive pattern of exposed rocks from the three time periods. 

If, therefore, we take a notional walk along the entire length of the Jurassic Coast, starting at Orcombe Point and finishing at Studland Bay, we will encounter a multitude of different landforms including dramatic cliffs, stone stacks, pebble beaches and rocky coves.  These coastal features, and the rocks they contain, represent an almost continuous record of 185 million years of the earth’s history, rather like the pages of a book or the travels of a time machine. 

That day, of course, I had only skimmed the pages of the first chapter of the book.  As I walked back to the car, though, on that mild late autumn day, I reflected on how my visit had given me a renewed sense of the importance and of the unique nature of the Jurassic Coast.

This article appeared in the December 2020 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

Cogden beach in west dorset – a late summer’s day visit

[This article appeared in the October edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine and describes a visit I made to Cogden Beach on July 30th this year. ]

I’ve driven along the coast road eastwards from Burton Bradstock many times but the view as the road levels out at the top of the first hill never fails to lift my spirits.  That first glimpse of the sea.   Those coastal hills spread out ahead as they slope gently down to the water.  That vast shingle beach with its fringe of foam, stretching into the distance.  This time I was on my way to Cogden Beach, part of the larger Chesil Beach and one of my favourite west Dorset places where I can be outside in the air, close to the sea and surrounded by nature.

The road dipped down and I reached the car park above Cogden but I had never seen it this full.  Many people were taking advantage of the warm, sunny, late July day and I was lucky to find one of the last parking spaces.    The view from the car park across Chesil Beach was as familiar and fascinating as always.  The strip of pale brown shingle swept eastwards across my field of vision in a broad arc turning sharply towards Portland, its distinctive wedge shape held in a blue haze as if suspended above the water.  The sea was a uniform azure, a colour so intense in that day’s strong sun that I couldn’t stop looking. Towards Portland, though, the sun intervened, casting its light downwards across the sea, silvering the surface which shimmered in the breeze like crumpled aluminium foil. 

I left the car park and headed down hill towards the sea across the short grass that appeared to have been grazed recently, a pity as this had eliminated most of the flowers, and the insects.  Dark sloes and ripening blackberries showed in the path-side scrub, sure signs that the year was moving on.  Families passed me, some laden with colourful beach kit, others dressed for coastal walking.  Stands of intensely pink, great willowherb and sun-yellow fleabane grew in a damp area as the path approached the shingle.  A small flock of about 50 birds, probably starlings, surprised me by flying up from the scrub in a mini-murmuration.  They banked and wheeled, flying back and forth for a short time before settling back on the bushes where they chatted noisily to one another. 

I walked on to the shingle beach where, ahead of me, a small windbreak village had grown up. Some of the inhabitants were simply soaking up the sun, others were swimming or enjoying stand up paddleboards while some concentrated on their fishing.   Heat shimmered from the pea-sized pebbles but a light breeze kept the temperature pleasant.  Desultory waves made their way up the beach disturbing the shingle which retreated in a rush leaving some white water.

The wild garden of beach plants looking west

Towards the back of the shingle was the wild garden of beach plants that emerges afresh from the pebbles each spring and summer making this place so special.   I stopped to look at the sea kale that grows so profusely here.   Its thick, cabbage-like leaves were a glaucous green tinged with varying amounts of purple that seemed to come and go according to the angle of vision rather like the colours on a soap bubble.  Flowering season was long past but the memory lingered and each clump was adorned with a large fan of hundreds of spherical greenish yellow seeds    Among the clumps of sea kale were the roughly crimped leaves of yellow horned-poppy, displaying its distinctive papery yellow flowers alongside some of the very long, scimitar-like seeds pods.  The almost primeval vision created by these rare and unusual plants growing from the shingle was completed by clumps of burdock with its prickly green and purple hedgehog-like flowers.

Sea kale showing the glaucous leaves and the fan of greenish yellow seeds
Yellow horned-poppy

The coast path heads westwards along the back edge of this wild garden of beach plants and for the most part it is rough and stony.  In places, however, shallow holes have appeared exposing the sandy soil beneath.  Large black and yellow striped insects were moving about in some of these exposed holes.  Sometimes these insects would dig, rather like a dog with sand shooting out behind them.  Sometimes they encountered a small stone and lifted it away, secured between two legs.  These are beewolves (Philanthus triangulum), spectacular solitary wasps up to 17mm long that were once very rare in the UK but, since the 1980s, have expanded their range. 

I watched them for a short time before heading west on to the shingle.   I soon reached the area where there are low cliffs at the back of the beach composed of thickly packed firm sand, topped by rough grass and clumps of desiccated thrift.  These cliffs were punctuated by small holes, sometimes with a spill of sand emerging and here I found the same beewolves with their distinctive yellow and black markings. They were coming and going from the holes regularly and sometimes they would rest in a hole and look outwards. 

Male beewolf with distinctive facial markings
Female beewolf with prey

Beewolves have an interesting lifecycle.  The insects emerge from hibernation in the summer and the females begin to dig nest burrows up to a metre long in friable soil or sand with as many as 30 side burrows that act as brood chambers.   At about the same time the females choose males for mating.   Each female then hunts honeybees, paralysing them with her sting and bringing them back to place in each brood chamber where she also lays a single egg. This matures into a larva that feeds from the honeybees, hibernates over winter and emerges the following summer as a new beewolf.   Although this may seem slightly gruesome, the number of beewolves in the UK is still low and does not impact significantly on the honeybee community.  Also, adult beewolves are herbivores feeding only on pollen and nectar collected from flowers so acting as important pollinators.

I was able to witness some of this activity including a female returning with prey held beneath her to be mobbed by other beewolves and common wasps trying to steal her cargo.  For most of the time, however, these insects get on with their lives quietly, unseen by visitors.  I did notice one couple who chose a pleasant spot on the top of the low cliffs to sit and admire the view, only to find they were surrounded by beewolves.  The couple moved but in fact these beautiful insects are not predatory and pose no threat to humans.

By mid-afternoon, it was time for me to leave.  I took in one last view along the coast and headed back up the hill knowing that I would return in another season.

Cogden Beach is at the western end of Chesil Beach and can be accessed either via the South West Coast Path or from the National Trust Car Park on the coast road (B3157) between Burton Bradstock and Abbotsbury. OS grid reference SY 50401 88083, GPS coordinates 50.690271, -2.7035263.