Tag Archives: cross leaved heath

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.

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