Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Jon Woolcott

2nd January 2021

It’s time for the annual musings known as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap in 2020, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Jon Woolcott.

In January I took a new part-time job, working on a landscape scheme in the heart of the medieval hunting forest of Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. By day it was all chalk, sheep and beech, big skies, isolated villages; at night the bright ribbon of the Milky Way arched above, soft moonlight bathing the fields, earning the AONB a Dark Sky Reserve designation. I’d stand in the garden in midsummer blackness, watching the dusty dart of the unromantically named comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE), and unlocking an old obsession with constellations, our solar system and the Apollo missions.  Cranborne Chase was somewhere I thought I knew well; my first long teenage bike rides were explorations here, skinny thighs wobbling and burning up the steep hills, and in recent years I’ve sometimes cycled the same lanes, encountering the bittersweet afterglow of rediscovery. But winter afternoons poring over Ordnance Survey maps with new colleagues, clutching hot drinks and outlining projects, revealed many gaps in my knowledge.

Close to the year’s midpoint I took an hour’s hot bike ride through the lanes of the Chalke Valley to Martin Down, where Dorset fringes into Hampshire. If this was work, I liked it. In the carpark of the Nature Reserve, I met Roland, the team’s Ranger, unloading his bike from a car packed with the practicalities of his life: strimmers, rope, a hefty toolbox. We set off along a wide path into the chalky landscape. We had not seen each other since March, and I was too chatty, probably rambling about moon missions. If Roland was bored, he was too polite to say so.

Martin Down is the second largest area of chalk downland in Britain, and an important habitat. But this is no pristine wilderness, nor is it conventionally pretty or emblematic of the English countryside, although I thought perhaps it should be. W. H. Hudson wrote that Martin Down was ‘a wide empty land, with nothing on it to look at but a furze bush.’  The Down had been one of my knowledge gaps but as I came to know it through the seasons, from sharp winter-lines to summer’s soft fuzz, I wondered if Hudson had been looking properly. Furze there was, blazing yellow, but there was much more besides spiky gorse. Viewed from its higher points the Down was a bowl of grassland, criss-crossed with paths, slippery under the bike tyre when rain whitened the chalk. Maybe it’s best to imagine the sort of countryside favoured by period dramas set in the early nineteenth century, where stagecoaches rumble and bounce over rutted tracks, conveying anxious heroines to grand houses. Much of southern England would once have resembled this scrubby landscape. But looking closer, especially in the company of more knowledgeable colleagues, revealed burnt tip orchids, knapweed and small skipper butterflies, the grassland palpably alive. Here too were hares, larks burbling and whistling; and in one magical moment, the not-too-distant churr of a turtle dove. 

Over millennia humans left their mark. The Dorset Cursus, now all but lost under fields to the south of the Down, is the largest Neolithic earthwork in Britain, stretching for ten kilometres in a bow-legged span towards Thickthorn Down, although its purpose remains obscure. In Sightlines Kathleen Jamie gently ribbed archaeologists for their free use of ‘baggy’ words like ‘ceremonial’ or ‘ritual’, but without a more obvious purpose, what else are we left with when confronted with such a huge but vanished structure? The lower, older section of the Cursus aligned with the midwinter sunset and the surrounding barrows were arranged suggestively, so we assume a purpose beyond the mundane. Even around here the Cursus is little known; its haunting absence, mostly grainy soil marks on aerial photography, was compelling. Its northern section terminated close to Bokerley Ditch, also newly incredible to me. If the Cursus was shy, Bokerley was a brute, a massive Iron Age defensive ditch and bank re-fortified by the Romans. In places it loomed menacingly, presumably deliberately, marching up Blagdon Hill and marking the edge of the Nature Reserve. War and its threat seemed close on Martin Down. Close to Bokerley Ditch was a huge bank – a rifle range made for training First World War Tommies and pressed into service again for the fight against Hitler, now nibbled by sheep who, I presumed, occasionally spat out a bullet.

Roland and I made our way south and onto a narrow path — the ghostlines of the Cursus sunk in the land to our right, and a long, thin patch of woodland to our left, low boughs occasionally making us duck and weave. It was still hot, but rain was threatening. Cycling the gentle slope we came to a parting in the trees and stopped to consult maps. Suddenly, and with some force, it began raining, the cracking sky emptying weeks of rain in minutes. We folded our maps, pulled out pac-a-macs, munched squashed sandwiches and retreated a little more under the tree cover where only occasional drips found the space between our necks and clothing.  Roland pointed out that recent forestry had removed the conifers, leaving native woodland trees and in the process revealing some modest lumps and bumps, which might have been barrows or a part of the ancient Grim’s Ditch complex, elsewhere rubbed out by the plough. But I was still talking about the Apollo missions, specifically the thousands of photographs taken on the moon. These were some of the most recognisable images of the 20th Century: from the prints left by the astronauts’ feet on the lunar surface to the huge, beautiful desolation of the landing zone, and of course, ‘Earthrise’ – the moment of the fragile Earth’s milky elevation above the dust-scape, a turning point in the way we see ourselves, maybe. 

As the rain slackened we pushed our bikes along the muddy path that led through the narrow stand of trees, emerging into light.  Opening before us was a large field of a pale-green crop which we later identified as unripe oats, cut through with a neat, straight path leading to more woodland, trees too fringed the field to our north. To the south the land rose to the horizon, meeting a greasy napkin sky. 

Sketch of Martin Down by Charlotte Moreton

Some places have something. In 2006 the CPRE* commissioned a Tranquillity Survey, attempting to pin down a sense of peace or calm or isolation, and mapping England’s quiet spots, county by county. When out and about our little team had been looking for places that had that special quality, as a focus for future projects. Arriving at this insignificant spot on the edge of a field, a small distance from the wonders of Martin Down and identifiable only by an OS grid reference, both Roland and I recognised it immediately. But its essence remained unquantifiable and for me at least, indescribable. Others summon with ease the spirit of mountains or Paris, deserts or Trieste, but I couldn’t conjure the unexpected intensity of this ordinary field margin.  Later I searched books for some significance to this spot but could find nothing. 

We swung our legs over crossbars and began the slow grind of the incline of the path through the field. My front wheeI wobbled, the back wheel spun on the soft earth made softer by rain, the chain slipped off. A pedal made sharp contact with my shin. The crop provided a soft landing and the fall provoked only a surprised chortle from me. Roland, further ahead and more competent in the saddle, didn’t notice. For a few seconds while lying on the bent stalks I let myself imagine the spirits of the Grim’s Ditch diggers watching me, or the Barrows’ dead up and about, or the Ghost Warrior of local legend galloping over my tangled limbs and slowly turning wheels. These thoughts were easily banished; there was something more profound here: my own tranquillity base, just a few miles from home, the haunt of no-one. The rustle of the leaves above in a high summer shower, the pulse of heat, the wet shimmer of the crop, all left an imprint long after the bruise had faded from my leg, something found and always mine. This was something of a revelation: I’m wary of nature cure blandishments – the natural world isn’t here to provide us with solace – but sometimes it does so anyway. It was anonymity which lent the place personal wonder, these seconds as precious as the turtle dove’s call or the lark’s tumbling cascade of song. I’ve not returned to the spot since, but still I feel the strange, quiet, pull of a small copse and a field near nowhere; a modest still-point and turning point, comfort and retreat.

*CPRE was formerly known as the Campaign for Protection of Rural England. 

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Jon Woolcott lives in north Dorset. He works for the publisher Little Toller, but has recently left the Chase & Chalke Scheme at Cranborne Chase AONB in order to spend more time indoors. He’s writing a book about southern England. You can follow him on Twitter or Instagram

Roland the Ranger writes on the AONB blog, ‘Chalkeboard’, here