Tag Archives: green lanes

The Dorsetshire Gap – a special place

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

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The ridgeway track approaching the Dorsetshire Gap

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

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The view from the chalk ridge looking towards the Blackmore Vale

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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The southern track in summer. Note the sunken lane.

 

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

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The westward track rising towards Folly

 

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

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

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

 

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

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The visitor’s book

 

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

Waves, storms, seals and sweethearts

Light rain peppered the windscreen as we began our drive across the rolling south Devon countryside. We were mindful of the mixed weather forecast but as we headed south, conditions improved markedly and eventually the sun was shining from a nearly cloud-free, blue sky. Perhaps we should have paid more attention to the grey shroud of cloud that covered Dartmoor behind us, but the lure of the coast was too strong.

We planned to walk a circular route starting at Hope Cove, a small village on the Devon coast with its mixture of permanent homes, many holiday homes and a few cafes and pubs. It’s very popular in summer but now there are only a few people about despite it being half term for some. Hope Cove is actually two coves, one with a sandy beach and another with a small harbour and a life boat station.

waves

When we arrive at Hope Cove, the sun is still shining and our attention is grabbed by the panorama of a steely blue sea and many white wave crests. The stiff breeze coming off the sea makes a “Devon” flag stand to attention as though it had been starched. This breeze also whips up a strong swell and a succession of chunky waves that attack the sandy beach. Retreating waves leave a pattern of foam which, caught by the sun, sparkles jewel-like with a myriad of colours.

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The “glittering” foam

At the harbour, the tide is high and waves are beating against the harbour wall, throwing up irregular plumes of spray. A family is standing on the beach in the spray zone and there is much shrieking and darting from the children as each wave breaks. Elsewhere on the harbour beach, we see a group of pied wagtails, perhaps as many as ten. The black and white birds skitter about rather like the children. They also make occasional flights to the neighbouring roofs and when they return we imagine that their wagging tells us how pleased they are to be here.

outer hope 1

Outer hope 2

There is so much to see; it’s mesmerising but we need to move on if we are actually going to do this walk. So we continue up hill to a high promontory called Bolt Tail. From here the view takes in the full sweep of coast round to the Mew Stone at Plymouth and on a good day over to the Dodman peninsula in Cornwall. But today all we can see is a thick misty greyness signalling a succession of storms tracking eastward. The weather has changed; it’s clear we are going to be drenched and it’s only a question of when. The first storm largely misses us but the second is bang on target and we shelter under an umbrella in the lea of a large gorse bush.

There are very few flowers to see at this time of year but despite the weather there is quite a bit of wildlife. As we were walking up the hill out of Hope we looked back and noticed a seal playing in the water near the harbour. The conical black head is unmistakable but it’s pure chance that we were looking when it came up for air. On Bolt Tail we saw stonechats, the males looking very spruce with their pale ruddy brown breasts, white collar and black head. They were, as you might expect chatting to one another. Further on, we looked from the cliff and noticed a kestrel just below, its brown plumage clear even in this light. This small bird of prey seemed to hang in the air; head down, watching for prey, it repeatedly adjusted its wings and managed to stay in one place even in the strong wind.

sweethearts lane

Eventually we leave the coast path and head inland along quiet minor roads and a green lane named Sweethearts Lane. I can’t help wondering about the name, who were the sweethearts, were they fulfilled or unrequited? The trees lining this path have created a tunnel-like canopy and the bed of the lane lies below the adjacent fields, perhaps the result of repeated passage of feet, hooves, wheels and weather. Sweethearts Lane, therefore, also qualifies to be called a sunken lane or holloway.

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The sunken lane
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View of Sweethearts Lane with the sun behind the tunnel

Finally, we climb up to a high path that follows field edges and takes us back to Hope Cove. The storms have now gone and the sun is shining again. The views along the coast are clear and spectacular. At Hope, even this late in October, people are sun-bathing and a large family, in wet suits, is enjoying the sea. As they frolic in the water I am reminded of the seal.

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The view to the west above Hope Cove and towards Burgh Island

Thanks to Hazel Strange for the lovely photos.

The hills are alive with the sound of …… bees!

The fishing port of Brixham lies at the southern end of Torbay in South Devon. Last week, we walked along Brixham’s minor roads and quiet residential streets to reach a green lane leading away from the town and towards the coast path. The green lanes in Devon form a network of ancient tracks and here the green canopy, the high banks and the exposed bedrock kept us cool before we headed up hill over fields. As we climbed, we were rewarded with ever improving views over the entire panorama of Torbay. Here is a view towards Torquay with Brixham in the foreground.

Torbay from Brixham

The wide curve of the bay is certainly spectacular especially when the sun shines and if you imagine the bay without the scar of housing then you can see why visitors to Torbay in the late 18th century might have been reminded of Italy. One such visitor enthused: “It is not England but a bit of sunny Italy taken bodily from its rugged coast and placed here amid the green places and the pleasant pastoral lanes of beautiful Devon”. Even nowadays, the red valerian found in the summer all over this part of Devon manages to create some feeling of the Mediterranean although the modern, rather unsympathetic development of Torbay detracts.

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Red Valerian lining the walls in the village of Dittisham

Another picture below shows the fields above Brixham and if you look carefully at the surface of the field in the foreground, it appears to be covered with a white sheen. This is in fact white clover mixed with buttercups and other wild flowers.

Field above Brixham

We paused here to take in the view and to catch our breath on this warm day. It was very quiet but gradually we became aware of a low level hum. It took a while to realise what was causing this but when we looked more closely we could see that the field was full of bees, both honeybees and bumblebees; wherever we looked there were bees enjoying the clover. All our attempts to photograph the bees failed but here is a close-up of the clover.

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White Clover

Emily Heath has recently talked about how honeybees and bumblebees like white clover on her AdventuresinBeeland Blog.

The noise we heard, let’s call it a “midsummer hum”, took me back to my first year at senior school when we read a book, Bevis by Richard Jeffries. This book, written in 1882, tells the story of two boys, Bevis and his friend Mark, and their adventures. These include mock battles with other children, rigging a boat and sailing to an island. At one point, the boys remark that the only sound they can hear is the “midsummer hum”. I can’t now imagine why this book was chosen for us to read; perhaps my English teacher thought it would capture the imagination of a class of eleven year old boys. The story also has clear parallels with the Swallows and Amazons books of Arthur Ransome, which were quite popular at the time. I remember not liking the book (Bevis) but for some reason, the idea of a “midsummer hum” has stayed with me all these years.

[The photos were taken by Hazel Strange]