Tag Archives: Portland

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