Tag Archives: Robert Macfarlane

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.

Butterflies, flowers and imaginings by the River Avon in Devon

On a sunny day in late July, we walked by one of Devon’s rivers. With holidays and visitors, it’s taken me until now to write about it.

We started our walk from the village of Loddiswell, high above the river valley. On this warm late July day, we descended through quiet lanes confined by steep Devon Banks alive with a confetti of butterflies (mostly Meadow Brown and White). In spring, these banks are painted white with the starry flowers of Wild Garlic (Ramsons) mixed with splashes of Red Campion, but although there are few flowers now, something must be attracting the butterflies. At Reads Farm we left the road and took a path under trees and beside a stream to reach open grassland bordering the river.

River Avon near Loddiswell
The river Avon near Loddiswell

This is the middle Avon, part of this Devon river that rises high on Dartmoor dropping down to reach the sea at Bantham and Bigbury on Sea. Rain had been sparse recently and the quiet state of the river reflected this.

Comma butterfly
A Comma butterfly

We headed upstream on a riverside path enclosed by tall grasses and brambles, accompanied by more butterflies including this beautiful Comma. The dry, warm summer has been good for butterflies and I can’t remember having seen so many for some years.

Marsh woundwort
Marsh woundwort

Near the same spot was a stand of tall plants with striking orchid-like pink flowers; these are Marsh Woundwort, a plant of damp places. Woundwort features in both Gerard’s and Culpeper’s Herbals and, as the name implies, it has a long history in folk medicine for use in wound healing.

Soon the path entered woodland. The river was still close by and the tree-canopy cooled the air and dimmed the light. There are supposed to be Dippers and Grey Wagtails but we don’t see these birds today. We do see a Blackcap and my daughter sees the unmistakeable iridescent blue flash of a Kingfisher. There are Otters in the Avon and sometimes you can see otter spraint on the river bank, the closest I have come to a seeing a wild otter.

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The old railway bridge over the Avon

Eventually, the old railway bridge appeared ahead of us. Although the bridge is a human artefact, its mellow brick now blends in well with the trees surrounding it. The sunlight filtering through the trees and reflecting from the water produced ever changing dappled patterns on the old brickwork. In the photograph of the bridge (below) the image is confusing because of the almost perfect reflection of the bridge on the surface of the still water.

Railway Bridge over Avon

We crossed the bridge to head downstream on a path continuing through woodland along the track bed of the former South Brent-Kingsbridge railway. This opened in 1893 and ran for seventy years; some called it the Primrose Line because of the profusion of these flowers in spring. Eventually, we come upon the old Loddiswell Station, largely intact. This used to serve legendary cream teas but we are out of luck today as the buildings are up for sale. When the trains ran, the station was said to be a “brisk walk away” from the village. What they didn’t say was that this included a steep hill and, after crossing the river again, that is our route back to the car.
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I recently read “The Old Ways” by Robert Macfarlane describing his many walks along long-established paths. I was particularly interested in his idea that in walking along an old path it might be possible to “slip back out of this modern world”, to conjure up traces of past lives. As we walked along the track bed of the old railway, I thought again about this idea. Could I find any trace of former lives as we walked here?

When this railway came to Kingsbridge near the end of the 19th century, it would have changed people’s lives. South Devon would have become more accessible. Local produce could be sent further afield; this included crabs and lobsters for London and Southampton (for the liners). The railway would have carried men off to two wars and the lucky ones would have returned. The railway would have brought people to Kingsbridge for holidays and in 1939 children evacuated to Kingsbridge would have passed this way.

Many of these events would have been coloured with high emotion. As I walked, I could imagine some of the events and how people might have felt. These sensations were heightened by finding the old station buildings which gave me a tangible framework for my imaginings. Perhaps that’s what Macfarlane means by slipping out of this modern world.

The photographs are by Hazel Strange.