Tag Archives: Portland

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.

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.

Cogden Beach: a special and unusual Dorset place

A place of sea and sky. A vast shingle beach. A unique wild garden with spectacular flowers. Wave watching, walking, fishing, or just being alone with nature. This is Cogden Beach near Burton Bradstock in West Dorset in the South West of the UK.

It was a fitfully sunny but warm day in late May when I visited Cogden. I parked the car and descended towards the beach between dense stands of gorse, hawthorn and bramble and, once I had escaped the coast road-noise, the air was filled with birdsong. A very visible chaffinch sang from the top of a tree as if to salute the fine weather and the see-saw song of the chiffchaff echoed from the undergrowth.

View from road
The view from the coast road with the beach and the sea

Cogden is a place where you can literally “see for miles” and the distinctive outlines of Portland to the East and Golden Cap to the West were clear. Spread out ahead of me was the broad shingle beach, a yellowish-brown stripe cutting across my field of vision. Beyond the beach lay the sea, its mirror surface a steely blue, disturbed only by wavelets that glittered in the occasional sunshine as though a host of fireflies were dancing.

View east from Cogden
The seaward face of the shingle beach at Cogden looking towards Portland – with people fishing and walking

Eventually, the path flattened out and I made my way on to the shingle beach, hard work on the pea-sized pebbles. The beach near the land is broad and flat and relatively sheltered but eventually it descends steeply to the sea. This seaward face is a harsher environment as the bank is attacked relentlessly by a procession of waves and, in a strong swell, the pebbles move in sympathy, roaring as they go.

Cogden Beach 2
Sea Kale on the landward side of Cogden Beach – looking towards Portland

I’ve walked on the Cogden shingle many times and thought I knew it well, but today I was greeted by an extraordinary vision. Vast tracts of the stony beach bordering the land seemed, when viewed from a distance, to have been splashed with daubs of white paint. Upon closer inspection, I saw that these daubs were huge clumps of Sea Kale, some more than a metre across. The base of each clump comprised many thick, crinkly, grey-green leaves and the centre a prodigious display of flower stems topped with a froth of small white flowers so that each clump had more than a passing resemblance to an oversized cauliflower. By the time winter arrives, this riot of vegetation will have disappeared, leaving a sad scattering of brown leaves and stems but, under the pebbles, the crown will be waiting to produce next spring’s fantastic display.

Cogden Beach 1
Sea Kale flowers (and leaves)

Sea Kale has a long culinary history. The Victorians loved Sea Kale as a vegetable, particularly the young shoots which they forced by covering with pebbles. They picked it almost to extinction and, thanks to their efforts, it is now found only in a handful of places in the UK. There has been a recent resurgence of interest in Sea Kale, stimulated by celebrity chefs, but don’t be tempted to forage in the wild: Sea Kale is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and anyway seeds and plants are available commercially.

Cogden Beach 3
Drifts of Thrift on Cogden Beach – with Sea Kale on the left of the picture.

 

Thrift at Cogden Beach
Flowers of Thrift (Sea Pink)

The dominant plant at Cogden in spring is Sea Kale, but it is by no means alone on the beach. Parts of the shingle are colonised by large drifts of pink Thrift, its flowers nodding merrily in a light breeze. I also saw Yellow Horned Poppies, just coming in to flower above their frizzy, silvery-green leaves. They will produce a succession of delicate lemon yellow blooms all summer and are named for their long, horn-like seed pods. There were a few clumps of Sea Campion covered with white trumpet-shaped flowers and some large mats of Sea Sandwort decorated with many small, starry, white blooms. The shingle garden is a profusion of flowers at this time of year but by the winter, there will be little to see and the beach will feel almost post-apocalyptic in its desolation.

Yellow Horned Poppy 1
Yellow Horned Poppy growing on the shingle at Cogden Beach

 

Yellow Horned Poppy 2
Close up of a Yellow Horned Poppy flower

 

Sea Campion at Cogden Beach
Sea Campion at Cogden Beach

 

Sea sandwort at Cogden
A dense mat of Sea Sandwort growing on the shingle at Cogden Beach

 

But how do these plants survive and prosper here? Cogden Beach is a harsh environment in all seasons with high winds, salt spray, occasional saline inundation and little or no soil or fresh water. Anyone who has stood on the pebble bank in a strong wind will know what I mean. If they managed to stay upright they will have tasted strong salt on the blustery air.

In fact, the plants are quite choosy about where they grow. The majority of beach plants at Cogden grow above the strandline on the sheltered landward side of the beach. Here there is an extensive tract of stable shingle stretching eastwards and the plants colonise this special environment. The plants that thrive here are also adapted to cope with harsh conditions. Frequently their leaves are fleshy with a waxy coating to prevent loss of water. The roots of some plants extend deeply in to the shingle in search of fresh water; in the case of Sea Kale they can stretch up to two metres. Some plants grow as large mats with extensive root systems to help them adhere in high winds. At the cellular level the plants have multiple mechanisms for dealing with the prevailing high salt.

But it’s not just the plant life that inspires people when they visit Cogden. Whenever I go there I find “beach art”, usually clever constructions made with the flat stones lying around the beach. This time I found a mini “Stonehenge” that must have taken hours to build.

Beach art at Cogden
“Beach Art”

 

 The featured image at the top of this post shows Sea Kale at Cogden looking west towards Golden Cap.  All the pictures were taken on May 26th 2015.  This article features in the July edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

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.

National trust sign at Cogden

Coast path at Cogden