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High on Hardown Hill

It was a luminous spring morning in early May when I trekked up Hardown Hill in west Dorset in the south west of the UK. Hardown rises steeply above Morcombelake and the surrounding countryside affording fine views of the coast and of the Marshwood Vale. Compared with its well-known cousin, Golden Cap, across the valley (see picture above), this flat-topped hill is unjustly ignored but its heathland summit boasts a rich ecology supporting several rare species and, for many years, Hardown Hill was a busy semi-industrial site where building stone was mined.

Heathland track on Hardown Hill small
Heathland track across Hardown Hill

It’s a steep climb to the top of Hardown Hill but finally the stony track flattens out and I enter a heathland landscape, rare in this part of Dorset. The summit is broad and flat and typical low-growing heathland plants such as gorse and several species of heather flourish here on the acid soil. Pale sandy tracks cut swathes across the heath but, even on a sunny morning in springtime, the feeling is sombre, dominated by dark browns and greens. A few mature birch trees and a small copse of pine trees provide relief and I come across a pond surrounded by tall clumps of pale, dried grass and a struggling sallow. This heath habitat is also the home of rare nightjars, sand lizards and Dartford warblers.

Standing on the Hardown summit is an elemental experience. Today, a moderate wind blows from the west, rising and falling like the sound of surf on the strand. The heath vegetation rustles and fidgets in response, accompanied by skylarks trilling high overhead. I watch a spirited storm tracking across Lyme Bay and prepare to shelter but, in the end, it mostly avoids the land leaving the sun to return. All of this is overlaid on the southern side by the ebb and flow of traffic noise from the busy A35 some distance below.

The heath may look uninviting and barren, but this is springtime and there are many signs of renewal. A few clumps of yellow gorse stand out above fresh grey-green growth and heathers push feathery green and red shoots upwards. Submerged in the thick heath vegetation are the small bright blue and white flowers of heath milkwort piercing the darkness like stars in the night sky. In the past, the flowers were thought to resemble small udders and this may account for the plant’s name as well as its administration to nursing mothers by medieval herbalists. Along path edges on the northern side of the heath, I find several generous clumps of a shrub with pale fleshy leaves, green with a tinge of pink. This is bilberry, covered at this time of year with delicate, almost transparent, pale red, lantern-shaped flowers looking out of place in this harsh environment but proving popular with bumblebees and hoverflies. Late summer will see the plants covered with succulent black fruits.

I encounter only one other person on the heath but it hasn’t always been such a quiet place. From medieval times, Hardown Hill would have resounded to the clash of picks and shovels wielded by men mining the landscape for building materials. Beneath the thin layer of soil that covers the summit, there are layers of clay and a yellow/brown sandy material containing substantial lumps of flint-like, hard rock, the chert cobs. A mixture of clay, stone and sand was taken for road construction and the chert cobs were used for building. Mining occurred on the southern slopes of the Hill, either in open pits or in adits (mine shafts) cut into the hillside. Nowadays there are few traces of this busy activity. The mining area has mostly been colonised by rough grass and bracken, brightened today by a haze of bluebells.  One open pit has been preserved near the top of Love’s Lane displaying the layers of rock and the chert cobs. The adits are inaccessible for safety reasons but one serves an important role as a hibernation area for the rare lesser horseshoe bat.

The chert cobs were split using a small hammer on a long handle, the Hardown hammer. Cobs were held on an iron bar with three claws and covered in damp hessian to protect the eyes of workmen who also wore wire goggles. Split cobs were used to provide a tough outer surface, silvery-blue or yellowish, on domestic and farm buildings around the Marshwood Vale. Good examples of the use of Hardown chert can also be found on the 14th century abandoned chapel at Stanton St Gabriel beneath Golden Cap and on the tiny 19th century church at Catherston Leweston.

But it is to the height of Hardown Hill that I want to return. Its prominence above the surrounding countryside gives spectacular views with new perspectives on some of west Dorset’s notable landmarks. Looking southwards, we see Golden Cap and the darkly-wooded Langdon Hill rising steeply across the valley with a backdrop of the waters of Lyme Bay (see picture at the top of this post). Towards the east, Portland floats unsettlingly as if cast adrift. To the north, especially from Hardown’s rough grassy flanks, we look across the patchwork of fields and the ring of hills that make up the Marshwood Vale with the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum cradled in its green embrace. New perspectives challenge us to think differently and the relative isolation of Hardown fosters quiet contemplation away from the cares of everyday life.

Perhaps that’s what Thomas Hardy meant when he wrote in his poem “Wessex Heights”:
“There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, ………….”

Marshwood Vale and the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum, from Hardown Hill
Marshwood Vale and Whitchurch Canonicorum from Hardown Hill

 

Bilberry on Hardown Hill
Bilberry on Hardown Hill

 

Heath Milkwort on Hardown Hill
Heath Milkwort on Hardown Hill

 

Orange-tailed mining bee (A. haemorrhoa)
Orange-tailed mining bee (A. haemorrhoa) on Hardown Hill

 

Exposed chert on Hardwon Hill
Exposed chert seam on Hardown Hill

 

Hardown Chert on Catherston Leweston Church
Hardown Chert on Catherston Leweston Church

This piece was originally publsihed in the July 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

A midsummer’s day surprise

Last week we saw this beautiful and surprising creature, a hummingbird-hawk moth, feeding from the red valerian that grows so profusely in Totnes.

Here are two more photos I managed before it flew away.

moth 4

moth 3

The wing span is about 5cm to give some scale.  These day flying moths come into the UK from southern Europe in the summer.

Seeing this insect was all the more surprising as I have recently had several conversations with people about how few moths they see nowadays and that is my experience as well. If you want to read about the general decline of insects in the UK here is an interesting article from the Observer.

An amazing natural phenomenon goes unnoticed

Brixham view

After so many cool, damp and grey days, spring arrived in a rush in the third week of April. Temperatures soared by nearly ten degrees and the sun shone strongly from a virtually cloud-free sky, filling the air with an unexpected brightness, at least for a few days. The sudden change in the weather demanded that I get outside so I drove the short distance to the fishing port of Brixham, parking on the clifftop road on the eastern edge of the town. A steep stone stairway took me down the hillside past curious, deserted, rectangular buildings and wide sweeps of concrete enclosed by thick scrub echoing with birdsong. These are remnants of the Brixham Battery, built in 1940 to guard Torbay against a German invasion, now Grade 2 listed and an informal, unplanned nature reserve. Dandelions and cowslips were dotted about grassy areas and fleshy-leaved green alkanet with its grey-blue flowers provided a contrasting colour. The stairway continued downwards among trees until I was just above the sea where I joined the coast path.

This section of the coast path is enclosed by low scrub and, at this time of year, blackthorn dominates, its branches covered with a snow of small flowers, creating a curtain of white with occasional glimpses of the blue sea. In the bright sunshine, the delicate white petals were almost transparent below a confused mass of yellow-tipped stamens. Eventually, this enclosed path gave on to an open, grassy area roughly the size of a football pitch, overlooking the water of Torbay and backed by thick trees creating a sense of seclusion. Wooden benches positioned along the sea side were popular, occupied by people wearing sun hats and enjoying the spectacular view.  The full panorama of Torbay was spread out ahead like an enticing display in a travel brochure: the red cliffs, the white seafront buildings, the pine trees, the big wheel and, in the foreground, the Brixham breakwater with its white lighthouse. The sea was a bright, slightly greenish blue textured with patches of silvery sheen  and pleasure boats shuttled across the water to and from Torquay.  It was a holiday scene and felt almost Mediterranean.

Amongst all this human activity, no one seemed to be paying any attention to the many mini-volcanoes of crumbly soil partly concealed beneath the rough grass or to the many bees moving about the area just above the grass. Everywhere I looked there were bees flying about, backwards and forwards, swinging from side to side, as if they were trying to find something; a few were walking about on the red soil. There must have been thousands of bees, an amazing natural phenomenon and very exciting to watch. When I looked carefully, I saw that they were mostly black but with distinctive bands of pale hair. These are Ashy Mining Bees (Andrena cineraria), one of our more common solitary bees, and the soil volcanoes in the ground are their nests.

While I was taking in the scene, a couple arrived, both carrying plastic bags. He was in his sixties with long white hair roughly corralled into a pony tail. She was in her late fifties with copious dark hair. They threw down a blanket into the middle of the grassy area, stripped down to their underwear, cracked open some cans and proceeded to sunbathe. Like the other people, they didn’t notice the bees swirling about the grass around them and I wondered how they might react if they encountered the insects. Luckily for them, only the females of these kinds of mining bees possess a sting and they use it only when threatened.

I wanted to take some photos of the bees but, wishing to avoid any misunderstandings as I waved my camera about, I moved to the other end of the grassy area, passing a small turf-roofed building that used to contain the searchlight for the wartime Battery. I found an unoccupied bench, sat down, and providing I was still, the bees resumed their incessant movement around me. The bench turned out to be a front-row seat as, on several occasions, I saw one bee rush at another and the two struggled for a while on the ground. Two or three others tried to join in and it all got a bit confused and messy for a while. Eventually, however, only two were left coupled together, end to end. They stayed like this for a few minutes before separating and flying off. I presumed they were mating but it seemed rather sedate compared to the frantic copulatory behaviour of some solitary bees.

Photographing the flying bees is difficult, but for the short time they were occupied in mating they were relatively still, making it easier. My photographs showed that the honeybee-sized females have shiny black abdomens with a blue sheen in some lights. Two thick, furry bands of grey-white hair line the front and back of the thorax and the face is white-haired with black antennae. The slimmer and smaller males also have black abdomens but differ from the females in having white hairs on the sides of the thorax and thick tufts of white hair on the face. With their pale hairs and contrasting dark abdomens, Ashy Mining Bees are one of the most distinctive and beautiful species of mining bee in the UK.

Despite all this excitement on the ground, I kept an occasional watch on the sea and got quite excited when I saw a shiny black head emerge from the water. This was one of the local colony of grey seals swimming towards Fishcombe Cove. The water was so clear and calm that the seal’s huge body was clearly visible as it passed.

When I had finished, I walked back past the lush banks of three cornered leek that grow along the low cliff edge. I saw male Ashy Mining bees nectaring from the delicate white-belled flowers. Further on, I stopped to look at the blackthorn flowers. Here there were more Ashy Mining Bees foraging together with one very different bee with a shock of orange-brown hair on the thorax and a largely black abdomen tipped with orange-red hair. I later identified this as an Orange-tailed Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa). With all this insect interest, there should be a good crop of sloes on the blackthorn here in the autumn.

If you are interested to learn more about these wonderful bees, here are three more descriptions:

https://standingoutinmyfield.wordpress.com/2018/04/25/a-nesting-aggregation-of-ashy-mining-bees/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/14/mining-bees-create-theatre-enchantments-shropshire

https://beesinafrenchgarden.wordpress.com/2014/03/13/under-the-plum-tree-again/

 

Soil mini-volcanoes
soil volcanoes

 

Female Ashy Mining Bee
Female Ashy Mining Bee showing thick bands of white hair

 

Male Ashy Mining Bee
Male Ashy Mining Bee showing thick tuft of white facial hair

 

Brixham view. 2jpg
The grassy area showing the “searchlight building” and the breakwater and lighthouse

 

Ashy Mining Bees mating
Mating bees with extra hopefuls

 

Ashy Mining Bees mating 3
Mating pair

 

Seal
grey seal

 

bee 2
orange-tailed mining bee on blackthorn

 

 

 

A country walk, a clean beach and the fallacy of perpetual growth

The Christmas weather in south Devon was stormy and very wet so when we woke on December 27th to bright sunshine and clear, pale blue skies we had to get out for a walk.   We chose one combining countryside and sea, one we often walk after heavy rain as it mostly follows minor roads or paved paths.

We started at Townstal, a suburb on the edge of Dartmouth.  Townstal is noted for its leisure centre and two supermarkets but it does provide easy parking and quick access to open countryside.  Our route headed gradually southwards towards the sea along narrow roads edged by high grassy banks.   Volleys of gulls and crows rose from adjacent fields and the low sunshine created strongly contrasting areas of light and dark on the deep valleys and rolling countryside, emphasising even the slightest undulation.

Some steep ups and downs took us to Venn Cross where we turned to descend along the Blackpool Valley with its spirited stream, growing ever fuller as it gathered water from springs or from the sodden fields.  This part of the walk is tree lined and the minor road is cut into the hillside well above the stream.  Several former water mills are dotted along the valley; they are now rather grand private houses but one has installed a turbine to harness the power of the water once again.

Old Mill in the Blackpool Valley
Blackpool Mill, one of the old mills found along the Blackpool Valley. This hidden valley has changed very little over the years. Have a look at the painting below of a nearby farm to see how the area looked nearly a century ago.

 

Apple Blossom, Riversbridge Farm, Blackpool by Lucien Pissarro, 1921, from Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter

 

At this time of year, the trees are dark latticeworks of bare branches but pale brown immature catkins were showing well on some of the trees, readying themselves for the spring.  Patches of winter heliotrope spread along verges enclosing the ground with their fleshy, green, heart-shaped leaves.  Purple and white lollipop flowers struck through the leaves, broadcasting their characteristic almond odour.

Catkins and running water in the Blackpool Valley
Catkins above running water in the Blackpool Valley

 

Winter Heliotrope in the Blackpool Valley
Winter heliotrope in the Blackpool Valley

 

Eventually, we reached Blackpool Sands, a popular shingle beach and café, surrounded by pine trees and sheltered by steeply rising hills.    The low winter sun created strongly contrasting colours: the yellowish- brown shingle, the fringe of frothy white waves, the sea a rich dark blue tinged with turquoise highlights, and there were clear views across the bay to Start Point with its lighthouse.   Near the café, a hardy group of swimmers were struggling on their wet suits in readiness for a dip.  They passed me as they ventured in to the sea accompanied by audible yelps and shrieks.

View across Start Bay from Blackpool Sands to Start Point
View across Start Bay from Blackpool Sands to Start Point

 

Swimmers at Blackpool Sands
Swimmers at Blackpool Sands …… with friend.

 

I was keen to have a look at the shingle beach for two reasons.  There had been a very successful beach clean four days previously organised by Amanda Keetley of Less Plastic.  We hadn’t been able to be there owing to family commitments but there had also been storms since then and I wondered how much more plastic had washed up.  I didn’t find any, the beach was still clean which should have been good news.

To be honest, however, I was feeling disheartened about efforts to reduce the load of plastic in our seas after reading two articles in the Guardian over the Christmas period.  It seems that the US, along with financial support from Saudi Arabia, is planning a huge increase in plastic production, the driver being cheap shale gas.  If we are to reduce the amount of plastic in our seas we need to reduce the amount in circulation and this new plan runs directly counter to this.

Here are links to the two articles:

$180 billion investment in plastic factories feeds global packaging binge

World’s largest plastics plant rings alarm bells on Texas coast

I am not sure how this can be stopped but I am convinced that the drive for perpetual economic growth, espoused thoughtlessly by so many of our politicians, is ultimately very damaging for our planet.

If we love our beaches and our seas, we have to talk about plastic

Towards the end of October, I spent a day at Cogden Beach, just east of Burton Bradstock in west Dorset.   It’s a beautiful, natural spot, a rich concoction of sea, sky and shingle where wildlife prospers despite the sometimes harsh conditions.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult, however, to ignore the scatter of plastic pollution on the beach and the potential effects of this manmade material on marine life.

Cogden Beach looking towards Golden Cap
Looking west along Cogden Beach towards Golden Cap, showing the clumps of sea kale and yellow horned-poppy

 

It felt unseasonably warm as I walked downhill from the car park, more like a late summer’s day, although the blood-red rose hips and smoky-black sloes decorating the leafless scrub spoke of a different season. The vast shingle bank of Chesil Beach dominated the long view, a yellowish-brown convexity edged with white waves sweeping eastwards towards a mistily mysterious Isle of Portland.  The sea was calm and a steely grey except where the low sun’s rays highlighted individual wavelets whose reflections merged in to a broad, silvery band of light.

When I reached the shingle bank I found traces of the special beach plants that grow so profusely here in spring and summer.  Well weathered, blue-green and brownish-grey leaves were all that remained of the sea kale that dominates in May whereas, beneath the brown remnants of this season’s vegetation, fresh glaucous leaves were showing from the yellow horned-poppies.  Small flocks of starlings skittered about puddles at the back of the beach like children in a school playground and, in a low sandy cliff, I was surprised to find bees busily filling nests.  These were ivy bees (Colletes hederae), the last of our solitary bees to emerge, the females collecting chrome-yellow pollen from nearby clumps of flowering ivy.  To the west, there were spectacular views of Burton Bradstock’s yellow cliffs and the distinctive flat top of Golden Cap.

It seemed like the perfect natural spot.  But was it?  Almost all the clumps of beach plants contained plastic waste including pieces of plastic wrap, colourful plastic rope or plastic fishing line.  On the shingle between the clumps, I saw the occasional plastic drink bottle, some were intact, some in pieces.   The prominent strandline about half way up the beach contained dark, dry seaweed and small pieces of wood mixed liberally with shards of plastic as though objects had shattered in their continual buffeting by the sea.  Plastic drink bottles or their fragments also appeared at regular intervals along the strandline.  This beach is no longer a completely natural, wild place, it has been contaminated by our throwaway plastic culture.   Perhaps the most poignant symbol of this tension was a chunk of expanded polystyrene covered with pale grey goose barnacles.

Plastic is, of course, both versatile and cheap.  It has transformed our lives but its very ubiquity and ease of use means that we don’t value it enough.  Think how much you throw away each week: plastic wrap or bags from supermarket produce, drink containers and lids, plastic trays, pots and so on.  We have embraced a “disposable” lifestyle where about half of the plastic we produce is used once and thrown away.   Some countries manage to recycle or energy-recover a large proportion of their plastic waste but the UK is not one of them.  In this country, more than 60% of plastic waste ends up in landfill where it does not break down and is effectively lost.  We are squandering resources and energy on a massive scale, an appalling indictment of our way of life.

But what about the plastic waste I found on Cogden Beach, how does it get there?  It comes from the sea and is left behind by the retreating tide.  We have turned our oceans into a “plastic soup” composed of plastic bottles and bags, plastic fragments formed by breakdown of these larger items, also microplastics (5 mm or less in size) such as industrial pellets, small fragments and very small fibres from clothing or from car tyres.  This is a huge global problem and shows no sign of abating.  A staggering 12 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans each year. All countries contribute but a large proportion comes from several in the Far East with poor waste management systems.

The consequences for marine wildlife are alarming.  Consider, for example, the Northern Fulmar, a bird that forages exclusively at sea.  A study in the North Atlantic showed that 91% of dead Fulmars found on beaches had plastic in their gut, having mistaken the plastic for food, reducing their ability to feed and sometimes damaging their digestive tract.  At the other end of the food chain, zooplankton have been shown to ingest tiny microplastic fragments that may end up in fish and perhaps in humans.  Plastic fragments also attract toxic chemicals that may affect the creatures consuming them.  Our throwaway lifestyle is disturbing the entire global marine ecosystem. The problem is just as serious as climate change.

What can be done?  First, we must reduce the amount of plastic in circulation by moving away from single-use items such as plastic bottles, takeaway cups, plastic cutlery, plastic wrap and plastic packaging.  The introduction of the 5p charge on plastic bags led to an 85% reduction in use, so a levy on single-use takeaway cups and plastic cutlery may also be effective.    Second, we need to encourage a “circular economy” where as much plastic as possible is recovered and recycled and none goes to landfill.  A deposit return scheme for plastic drink bottles would increase recovery but greater recycling of other plastic containers must also be achieved.   It is encouraging that some government ministers are now talking about the problems of plastic waste, but their words must be translated into actions.

Individual decisions can also bring about change.  We can refuse to use plastic cutlery.  We can choose to drink only from reusable cups.  We can use and reuse our own shopping bag.  We can recycle all plastic bottles and containers. We can pressurise local businesses to reduce plastic waste.  We can participate in beach cleans.  If we love our beaches and our seas we must do this.

 

Plastic Bottle and Sea Kale, Cogden Beach
Plastic bottle and sea kale on Cogden Beach

 

Well travelled bottle fragment on Cogden Beach
A well-travelled plastic bottle remnant on Cogden Beach

 

Bottle and Yellow Horned-Poppy, Cogden Beach
New growth on yellow horned-poppy, with plastic bottle

 

Plastic on Cogden Beach
Plastic waste on Cogden Beach

 

Goose Barnacles on expanded polystyrene, Cogden Beach
Goose barnacles on expanded polystyrene

 

low cliff at Cogden
Low cliffs at Cogden Beach with ivy bee nests

 

Ivy Bee at Cogden Beach 2
Female Ivy bee (Colletes hederae) returning to her sandy burrow with pollen, at Cogden Beach

 

This article appeared in the January 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Plastic waste and Portuguese Men O’War on a Devon beach

Last week, on a very windy day well before storm Ophelia arrived, we visited Leas Foot Sands, one of the small coves clustered around Thurlestone Bay in South Devon.  Thurlestone Rock, a stone arch or “thirled stone” is a prominent local landmark located in the Bay.  As well as being a popular attraction for canoeists and wild swimmers, the Rock gives the village of Thurlestone its name.

Leas Foot Sands
Leas Foot Sands

When we reached Leas Foot Sands, we stood and gazed across the water at the elemental scene.  A gusty, gale force wind blew from the sea, a powerful natural force affecting everything in its path. It had been hard enough to walk there, buffeted as we were from side to side and, now, above the beach and just about able to stand, we felt specks of sand flick across our faces.  The sea was a uniform grey under the overcast sky, but the wind created many white horses offshore and a sense of agitated movement.  Chunky waves continually attacked the curving apron of yellowish-brown sand, each one finishing in a foaming mass of white water that mingled with the wind giving the air a moist, salty essence.

At the southern side of the beach, the sand and rocks were coated with a slightly unsavoury looking, brownish foam.  I remember being alarmed, some years ago, when I first saw this spume on a beach in Cornwall and feared effects of detergents. I now know that it is a mostly natural phenomenon, caused by a high wind interacting with organic matter from marine phytoplankton.

A few hardy plants grew at the back of the beach beyond the strandline, bringing welcome colour on this mostly monochrome day.  Brash yellow and white daisy-like flowers of sea mayweed bobbed in the wind and pale lilac blooms of sea rocket kept safely close to the sand along with their fleshy green leaves.  A few pink lollipop flowers of thrift struggled on exposed cliff edges.

Further down the beach, bands of dark seaweed stretched in broad arcs parallel to the shore.   The thickest band of seaweed was the result of the morning’s high tide; here the seaweed sparkled, seawater dripping off dark fronds as the tide receded.  Mixed with the seaweed were various colourful examples of plastic waste, mostly bits and pieces of fishing tackle or rope, but I also saw an old plastic yoghurt container, a bright green plastic straw and several smaller shards of plastic.  A bright pink balloon-like object clung to a flat stone nestling among the damp seaweed.  I wondered if this was some kind of joke as it vaguely resembled an inflated condom but I abandoned that idea when, further along, I came across several similar objects.  Hazel put me right, telling me that these were Portuguese Men O’War, very colourful but dangerously stinging organisms that float on the sea surface trailing long tentacles, until driven in by high winds.  There have been reports of swarms of these colourful creatures on several beaches along the south coast and warnings that the number will increase with storm Ophelia.

Behind the wet strandline was a sparser band of dry, black seaweed, presumably resulting from sporadic higher tides.  I started looking around this sector digging up the sand with a garden trowel to see what I could find.  This was too much for a woman who had recently arrived on the beach with her child and friend.

“What are you looking for?” she asked me.

“I’m trying to find plastic nurdles, have you heard of them? “ I replied

“Do you mean those small bits of industrial plastic?”

“That’s right, but I can’t find any here” I continued.

“I suppose that’s good” she suggested.

I carried on looking but was unsuccessful.  Hazel, however, found six of the lentil-sized plastic pellets, a mixture of grey and blue, on the other side of the beach.  Earlier in the year, someone had reported collecting hundreds of plastic nurdles from this beach; perhaps we were unlucky or perhaps conditions had changed.

………………………………………….

Marine plastic pollution is one of the major environmental challenges of our time and something I want to return to in future posts.

……………………………………………….

Sea Mayweed at Leas Foot Sands
Sea Mayweed

 

 

Sea Rocket at Leas Foot Sands
Sea Rocket

 

Plastic beach waste at Leas Foot Sands 1
Plastic waste

 

 

Plastic beach waste at Leas Foot Sands 2
Plastic fragments

 

 

Portuguese Man O'War on Leas Foot Sands
Portuguese Man O’War with fragments of dark blue tentacles

 

Plastic nurdles collected at Leas Foot Sands 11 10 17
nurdles

 

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