Tag Archives: stonebarrow hill

Flower-rich hay meadows on the Golden Cap Estate in west Dorset

For hundreds of years, colourful, flower-rich hay meadows were a defining feature of the British countryside and its way of life.  The 20th century saw a tidal wave of agricultural intensification sweep through the countryside accompanied by increased use of herbicides and pesticides.  The flower-rich hay meadows were a major casualty of this change and 97% of those present in the 1930s disappeared.  Dorset still has some traditionally managed meadows and, at the beginning of May, I went to Westhay Farm below Stonebarrow Hill on the Golden Cap Estate in west Dorset where the National Trust maintains this age-old agricultural system.

Westhay Farm Meadows
Westhay Farm hidden away in the Golden Cap Estate

 

I followed the narrow lane as it rose steeply between houses and through woodland along the course of the old ridgeway road towards Stonebarrow Hill.  Red campion, cow parsley, stitchwort and bluebells grew thickly along the grassy verges and bright sunlight filtered through the trees giving an unexpected transparency to overhanging leaves.  Emerging from the tree cover, the lane levelled out and, to the right, the land fell away steeply in a patchwork of fields, hedges and trees towards a calm sea with just a light surface stippling.

Hidden away in this landscape is Westhay Farm, with its long, mellow-stone farmhouse set in a lush garden and surrounded by hay meadows.  At this time of year, the meadows are richly carpeted with knee-high, yellow buttercups and tall, rough grass with prominent flaky seed heads.  When breezes meander across the valley towards the meadows, the grasses and flowers respond, moving together in waves, like the swell on the sea below.

Partly concealed within the rough grass were tight clusters of lemon yellow flowers above thick reddish green stems.  This is yellow rattle, a traditional meadowland plant, with its tubular flowers open at one end where the upper petal widens to a smooth, cowl-like structure above protruding purple stamens.   A black and yellow-striped bumblebee systematically visited each flower pushing the two petals apart so that its long tongue could reach the nectar at the base.   When it left with its sugary reward it also took away a dusting of pollen from the overhanging stamens to pass on to the next flower.

Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasite; although it can use sunlight energy itself by the process of photosynthesis, it does better when it also establishes physical connections to the roots of other plants in the meadow such as grasses.  The yellow rattle siphons off nutrients from the grasses, suppressing their vigour and creating space for other plants to thrive.  This is very important for establishing a meadow with a wide range of species.

Some of the meadows contained drifts of the glittering, brightly coloured flowers of green-winged orchids, standing defiantly in the grass on thick green stems.  Many of the orchids were purple, some were magenta, some violet and a few were white or pink, lending a mosaic of contrasting colour to the meadow.  Each flower was composed of several florets arranged around the stem like jewels on a bracelet.  The most visible and exquisite part of each orchid floret was the broad, apron-like, lower petal with its central white stripe contained within a coloured halo.  This white region was decorated with a pattern of eight or more irregular darker spots, the pattern unique to each floret and perhaps decoded by visiting pollinators.  Green-winged orchids are a speciality of these meadows and their name refers to the green-veined sepals that protect each developing floret, now thrown back like wings.

The Westhay meadows were a fine sight in early May with their colourful flowers and seemingly unfettered growth.  As the seasons progress, the meadows will mature, the yellow rattle and orchids will disappear, their place taken by other flowers.  By July the grasses will be dry and cheerful newcomers such as purple knapweed and buttery-yellow bird’s foot trefoil will bring their colours to the mosaic.  In late July, the hay will be cut, this joyous, abundant growth converted into winter animal feed.

Flower-rich hay meadows such as these were a feature of the British countryside in the spring and summer for centuries.  Cultivation followed the rhythm of the seasons.  Grasses and flowers grew in the warmth and wet of spring and early summer and a unique species-rich environment developed.   Hay was cut in late summer and removed for winter animal feed, after the flowers had set seed.  Animals grazed the fields in autumn taking advantage of the late-summer grass growth, the aftermath. No chemicals were used and the only fertiliser came from the autumn-grazing animals. The following spring, plants grew, seeds germinated and the cycle began again.  This was a carefully managed land cultivation system, in tune with the seasons and their weather.

Haymaking was an important part of the rural calendar, a natural part of each year’s cycle, celebrated in literature and art.  Here is part of William Barnes’ poem Haymeaken depicting a 19th century rural Dorset scene:

‘Tis merry ov a zummer’s day,

Where vo’k be out a-meaken hay ;

Where men an’ women, in a string,

Do ted or turn the grass, an’ zing,

Wi’ cheemen vaices, merry zongs,

A-tossen o’ their sheenen prongs

Wi’ earms a-zwangen left an’ right,

In colour’d gowns an’ shirtsleeves white

All this was set to change in the 20th century.  Fears for food security during the two world wars led to agricultural intensification and an increased dependence on artificial fertilisers.  Flower-rich hay meadows all but disappeared, a way of life evaporated and the look of the countryside changed.

It wasn’t just the look that changed.  Adoption of new methods coupled with increased use of herbicides and pesticides significantly affected wildlife in the countryside.  Loss of farmland birds and pollinating insects such as bees, butterflies, wasps, moths, flies and beetles has been severe.

This article appeared in the July 2017 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Meadow with orchids 4

Yellow rattle 2
Yellow rattle

 

Gree-winged orchid (magenta)
Green-winged orchid, magenta form, showing pattern of spots on lower petal.

 

Gree-winged orchid (violet)
Green-winged orchid, violet form.

 

Gree-winged orchid (white)
Green-winged orchid, white form, showing green veins

 

Meadow with orchids 7 reduced

Golden Cap – a special place in west Dorset

Golden Cap 5
The west Dorset coast with Charmouth to the left. Golden Cap stands out just right of centre.

 

The west Dorset coast contains many wonders but one stands out above all others.  This is Golden Cap, the distinctive steep-sided, flat-topped hill with its golden edge and cliffs falling precipitously to the sea.  Visible for miles around and rising above all its neighbours, it stands 191 metres above sea level and is the highest point on the south coast of England.  It is a local landmark, a place of legend, and an inspiration to writers and artists. 

Golden Cap path
The path from Stonebarrrow leading eventually to Golden Cap. Portland can be seen in the distance.

 

I first climbed Golden Cap nearly thirty years ago.  It was a mild, early spring weekend and I was entranced by the experience.  It’s now one of those places I like to visit periodically so, on a warm mid-July day earlier this year, I set out from the Stonebarrow Hill car park above Charmouth.   The grassy track descended steeply between brambles and bracken towards Westhay Farm with its mellow stone buildings decorated with roses, honeysuckle and solar panels.  I paused in a gateway near the farmhouse to look at one of the hay meadows.  Bees and butterflies enjoyed the thick covering of grasses and colourful flowers while the sun gradually won its battle with the clouds.   Flower-rich hay meadows were once an important feature of the countryside but they have mostly been lost since 1930 as a result of agricultural intensification.  Managed in the traditional way with a late July cut for hay, they support a rich community of invertebrates, birds and flowers. The meadows at Westhay Farm are no exception and rare plants such as the green-winged orchid thrive here.   My gateway reverie was interrupted when a fox suddenly appeared in one of the breaks in the meadow.  We stood looking at one another, a moment out of time, before the fox lolloped off through the long vegetation.

Westhay Farm Golden Cap Estate
Westhay Farm

 

Hay meadow Golden Cap
A flower-rich hay meadow.

 

Beyond the farmhouse, the path descended across open grassland dotted with sunny stands of ragwort and tall, purple thistles populated with bumblebees.  The sea, a pale steely blue, was now ahead of me, dominating the view.  Today it was calm but the slight swell was a warning of its power.  Golden Cap loomed to the east like a steep pleat in the coastline and, when the sun shone, the cliff face revealed some of its geological secrets.  About half way up, a large area of rough grey rock was visible. This was laid down some 200 million years ago and is mainly unstable grey clays of the Middle and Lower Lias prone to rock falls and mud slides.  Towards the summit, tracts of distinctive “golden” rock glowed in the sunshine.  The rock here is Upper Greensand, sandstone laid down about 100 million years ago, forming the “cap”.

Golden Cap 2
Looking towards Golden Cap; the golden sandstone cap and the grey rock below can be seen despite the vegetation.

 

Golden Cap from the east
Golden Cap viewed from the east at Seatown on another day. The golden sandstone cap and the grey rocks beneath can be seen very clearly from this aspect.

 

Fingerpost
A helpful fingerpost

 

solitary bee
A solitary bee on ragwort, possibly Andrena flavipes.

 

beetles
Common red soldier beetles, qualifying for their popular name of “hogweed bonking beetles”.

 

The coast path continued eastwards in a roller coaster fashion.  Prominent fingerposts pointed the way and I passed vast inaccessible coastal landslips and descended into deep valleys with rapidly flowing water, only to climb again on the other side.  In meadows alongside the path, bees, moths, beetles and butterflies flitted among the many flowers including purple selfheal and knapweed, yellow catsear and meadow vetchling.    The final push towards the summit of Golden Cap began very steeply across open grassland before entering a stepped, zigzag track which was easier to negotiate.  As the path rose there was a change in the landscape.  Bright purple bell heather began to show and bracken surrounded the stepped path; a kestrel hovered briefly above.

antrim stone
The Antrim stone

 

Suddenly the path levelled out; I had reached the summit and here were the familiar landmarks:  a low stone marker informing me how far I had walked and the larger stone memorial to the Earl of Antrim.  The dedication told me that the Earl was the Chairman of the National Trust between 1966 and 1977. What it didn’t tell me was that he recognised the importance of preserving our coastline from encroaching development and spearheaded the Enterprise Neptune appeal which led to the purchase of 574 miles of coast saving it for future generations.  Golden Cap was one of two coastal sites purchased in his memory after he died.

Golden Cap view east
The view to the east over Thorncombe Beacon with Portland in the distance.

 

Golden Cap view west
The view to the west towards Lyme Regis and the Devon coastline.

 

I reminded myself of the long views from this high, flat-topped hill:  to the east across Seatown, Thorncombe Beacon, West Bay and Portland, to the west over Lyme Regis and the wide sweep of Devon coastline, to the north across the Marshwood Vale.   Looking down, I saw water skiers carving patterns in the sea surface far below.  The sea now seemed so far away that I felt momentarily separated from the rest of the world.

On my return journey, I headed down and slightly inland to the remains of the 13th century chapel at Stanton St. Gabriel.  Set in meadowland beneath the western slope of Golden Cap, the derelict, grey stone walls and the porch of the old chapel are all that remain.   There is also a cottage nearby and a large building, originally an 18th century manor house, now restored by the National Trust as four holiday apartments.   But why was a chapel built in this isolated spot and why is it now derelict?  A settlement existed here for many hundreds of years and Stanton St. Gabriel was mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086).  There was a farming community of about 20 families in the vicinity until the 18th century and this was their chapel but the settlement was abandoned when some people were lured to Bridport to work in the flax and hemp industry.  Others may have moved to Morcombelake when the coach road from Charmouth to Bridport along the flank of Stonebarrow Hill was moved away from the settlement to its present route.

stanton st gabriel
The derelict chapel at Stanton St Gabriel.

 

The derelict chapel provides a potent reminder of the community that once lived in this isolated but beautiful spot beneath one of west Dorset’s most striking landmarks, Golden Cap.

This article appeared in the September 2016 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.