Saturday, 11 July 2020

Allsop's Haggerdown Hill

From its summit on a clear day one can see all the way from Dartmoor sixty miles to the west around to the Isle of Wight sixty miles to the east.  In Thomas Hardy’s novel The Trumpet-Major Eggardon Hill is called ‘Haggerdon’.

And it is somewhere I have been visiting since the summer of 1982.

I've loved this part of West Dorset ever since as a teenager coming on a two week holiday to Toller Porcorum, with my parents. Before then we'd oft holidayed in Bournemouth (including the infamous hot summer of 1976). Despite the 350 mile 8 hour drive from our North East home my parents loved Dorset, but always gravitated towards the east, land of furze heath, sea stacks and long sandy beaches. Why we ended up at Toller Porcorum that year I know not. Though I'm pleased we did. Something clicked. If memory serves me down the years, I recall spending much of the holiday lying in the bath of this holiday cottage reading Far From the Madding Crowd. The huge windows were wide open, not a breath of wind, my view a heat shimmering steep hill hard by the hamlet. Birds sang, swallows swooped and as many a romantic teenager before I enveloped myself in a sepia mist of that imagined artistic self lost in a bedrock chalk landscape.  

Which is interesting as these days I take many sepia photographs such as this one of the view down to Maiden Newton with Eggardon on the far right horizon.

That holiday as a teenager was remarkable for a single moment. Most people have pivotal moments in life, moments which change life and direction forever. Mine was asking my father if I could go for a drive (I'd recently passed my driving test) on the last evening before we trudged back to the north. In the passionate musing of a smitten teenager, I dreaded going back. 

It was mid July, warm, the sun setting slowly, allowing a golden hue to caress the fields and I just drove out of Toller Porcorum with no specific plan in mind. I headed east, not west. Coming back to the cottage I found myself on the Roman road climbing steeply out of Winterbourne Abbas. Vivid remain the memory of excitement, this straight, but crooked, Roman road was bathed in late evening summer light. Tall grasses brushed by the car as I sped along, windows down, I was free, enjoying that freedom teenage boys love when being away from parents. And then I came to a crossroad. In front of me was a single lane track, curiosity bore down on my decision where to go. Ahead. 

Only on writing this piece have I discovered this lane is called King's Lane. For decades it simply was the track on Eggardon Hill, a track with a view which took my breath away on that summers evening.  I stopped the car, got out and stood memorised. Silence, a meandering lane grass growing up through the middle, a hill fort to my left and precipitously to my right a steep steep drop into what I now know is Powerstock Common and beyond. Northumberland had huge skies and empty landscapes, but nothing like this. Of course I was not the first to discover it.

For the last few years of his life, the late great countryside writer Kenneth Allsop lived under the shadow of this "arrowhead plateau" as he called it. It was to become the backbone to this Yorkshire-man's life, as it has become to me. It draws me towards it by unseen threads, once pulled taut resistance is impossible.  

A decade before I discovered this Wessex Height, Allsop in his book In the Country elegantly summed up what Eggardon, or Haggerdown as he called it, meant to him;  I understand fully - it would be futile to add to his words, 

"This rooftop of turfed limestone is a place for kestrels and orchids, for butterflies like flecks of the sky itself, the chalkhill blue and the Adonis blue, they waver among the scabious and harebells, vast angels against the miniaturized woods and barns on the unfolding tracts below"

Allsop continues..

 " On this last great limb, a domination of wind, cloud and turf, there is a sense of pure form and power of rock-formation which I have felt nowhere else. Ahead the vale of clay dissolves into the Devon border"

One of the absolute joys of moving to Somerset in the early 1990's was being able to visit Eggardon as a day tripper. Before my move south, living in the North East of England and despite the distance, I had visited and re-visited this rooftop of turfed limestone every year, sometimes more than once. During a mad moment when I was feeling especially low, I spent a solitary hour on the Hill, after the 16 hour round trip. Youth was on my side for the energy needed to stay awake that long. Luckily I can now head down there as and when the pull of the threads draws me in. As it did this week, only 6 weeks after my last visit. The two days could be no different.

On my visit in May, Dorset was (as indeed was most of England) in the midst of the sunniest and driest spring for decades. On that day the land was parched, 30 degree heat bore down on these turfed ramparts making the day stifling for the few specks of sky I observed fluttering along it's flanks. 

My visit six weeks later reversed the mood. Rain bearing clouds scudded across the vanishing clay lands. Uncoordinated raindrops threatened to, but failed to, materialise into more organised downpours. And the wind blew. It was exactly why I walked along the track. The energy remained from a dilapidated tropical storm which had barrelled over the Atlantic this week. Low pressure squalls added to the feeling of isolation. I had the Hill to myself, just how I like it, though I never feel alone here. I'm always aware that many feet have trod this way since Eggardon's hill-fort was created around 50BC. Each and every owner of those passing feet leaves a presence, unseen, though still felt today.

I'd come to take photographs. Eggardon is almost impossible to either paint or photograph and do it justice.  The landscape is simply huge, omni-directional and never-ending.  I took many many more than are visible here, they will provide reference for the winter months, for I will conquer this image on canvas.  

  Until then I'll leave the last words to Kenneth Allop.

"As ever the gigantic hulk of Haggerdown filled the sky...........to earn the right to love a place you have to learn about it bit by bit. Dear Wessex - 'that wondrous world of sap and leaves' of Hardy"


Allsop, Kenneth. (1972). In the Country. Hamish Hamilton

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Beware of Dragons and Damsels

Can you see me?

"Your Azure damselfly could well be a female Variable Damselfly..they tend to look darker overall and show more blue than other female “blue “ damselflies.  "
And so rang through my mind the morbid seeds of doubt after reading a reply to a number of images I'd submitted to my friend and one of the UK's best naturalists Brett Westwood. I have a lot to learn!

Despite the country being in lockdown for months due to the coronavirus pandemic, I have been working 5 sometimes 6 days a week throughout. Not that this was a problem, I have actually enjoyed the intoxication of working on my own in a building normally swarming with media rugrats. I am an only child. A phrase which explains everything.

Yet, during my free time, I observed a littering the posts from social media friends. A daily maelstrom of images, "we're having a fantastic time away from work", erupted confetti-like in my Facebook timeline. Everyone it seemed had time to stop and stare at the natural world on their doorstep (or Talking Pictures TV which has become a national institution). The Nation de-cluttered their gardens, built bird boxes, ponds, wildflower meadows, posted videos of sparrows on feeders as though this domestic bird was a rare migrant - What? We have all this nature in our garden? Never seen it before. This is great, and yes, it really is great. For years conservation has tried to get people to engage with wildlife, yet in 2020, it's taken a microscopic virus emanating from the natural world in China to kick-start the momentum. I hope it lasts and real good comes out of Covid-19

The penny finally dropped in late May when a great friend said to me on email - have you been enjoying the Self-Isolating Bird Club videos Chris Packham broadcasts live each morning. 

Me : "No, what is this?"

Friend : "Really great broadcast about wildlife goes out around 9 am, I have my breakfast watching it

Me "Ahh, Err I'm at work then"

The penny had dropped. While the nature watchers still in their pyjamas having breakfast were watching Chris and his step daughter (an excellent natural presenter) Megan pour forth tit-bits on well, all tits great, blue and coal, I was entombed in the office packing up yet another microphone to send to a contributor, presumably also in their pyjamas watching Chris Packham. Things had to change, and I'm not talking the purchase of pyjamas. 

I was missing out of what was becoming one of the best springs in living memory. Endless blue skies, no traffic noise, warm too. Wildlife flourished through lack of human disturbance.  I, like millions of others, had observed in the garden. However I needed to get out there into the social distancing landscape of nature. A memo from on high stating we all need to take 2 weeks leave before September made me request 10 days off - not in a lump, but Wednesdays in June and July. I had no plan other than to step lightly outdoors every Wednesday for 8 weeks. I polished my boots and woggle. Anticipation was rife.

Which brings me to Dragonflies and Damselflies. My first couple of Wednesdays didn't involve too much wildlife watching, though a glorious day on Eggardon Hill watching butterflies while having a picnic serenaded by yellowhammer song was sublime. But then a couple of weeks ago my good friend Rob and I headed to the mighty Shapwick Complex on the Somerset Levels. Social distancing ourselves on the swamps, the quest that day was a dragonfly hunt. And very successful it was too.

4 spot chaser 17th June 2020

Black Tailed Skimmer 17th June 2020

Female Common Blue Damselfly 17th June 2020

(Probably) Female Variable Damselfly 17th June 2020

(Possibly) female common blue damselfly 17th June 2020

Now that one above caused much debate and made me realise how little I know about these relatively common insects near my home in Somerset. After spending an hour or so on the British Dragonfly society website I incorrectly identified this as a white legged damselfly. The reply from Brett, and from Rob was.. "....probably a female Common Blue...if it was White-legged it would show broader flanges on the legs and look paler than this. "   Right must remember that.

Male blue tailed damselfly 17th June 2020

Male common blue damselfly 17th June 2020

A different form male common blue damselfly. 17th June 2020
So I was hooked. Three mosquito bitten hours on the Somerset Levels and an evening with various identification guides, I'd become a dragonfly hunter. 

One thing I learnt many years ago when starting out in nature watching was, don't try and fight ignorance. It's all too easy to think every naturalist on earth knows everything about everything. There are a few who know a huge amount - Brett being one, Chris Packham another, but I could count many times over the days I've spent recording a radio programme with an expert on say spiders, only to find out they can't identify butterflies. It made me relax, It made me comfortable in saying to people - what's that? After all it is the only way to learn. 

Thus as a newly formed dragonfly hunter, I needed a second outing, this time on my own. This quest a week later found me returned to Shapwick and during what was to become the hottest day of the year so far, the day was as we say down here "Proper job".

Returning to the car with my wife (who I believe only came along for the entertainment of watching me be eaten alive by bitey-things) we were a bedraggled and flagging pair despite having a fantastic time. No wonder - the temperature recorded at the car as we set off home at nearly 7pm was a chilly, 36oC. We'd been out in that for three hours all told. Dehydrated Dragonfly Madness!

But it was worth it!

Blue tailed damselflies mating - 24th June 2020

Male brown hawker - 24th June 2020

Male emperor dragonfly - 24th June 2020

4 spot chaser - 24th June 2020
But I still have a lot to learn. When I began writing this blog way back in 2008 smartphones and apps to identify wildlife were simply a technological pipe-dream. Yet on my trip out with Rob he produced a new app he'd recently uploaded, Seek. Very good it was too, here seen identifying peacock caterpillars on nettle. I tried to upload it onto my steam driven smart phone but the error message said 'please replace your phone with something that is newer'. It's only 6 years old, but having witnessed Seek in action, it's tempting to upgrade both the phone and my enjoyment outdoors.

SEEK and you WILL find!

There's still mileage though in good old fashioned identification books. This caterpillar intrigued me and after a bit of a flick through of my Boys Own Book of Creepy Crawlies, I thought it was a knot grass caterpillar. Popped it onto Facebook, and initially although some replies came back as a vapourer moth which I'd already dismissed in my semi-ignorant way, this hairy behemoth turned out to be exactly what I'd identified. A knot-grass moth caterpillar. Wow - I'm learning.

Knot-grass caterpillar - 24th June 2020

I have another 4 Wednesdays as leave during July and can't wait to get out again.  There is nothing like being absorbed for hours with wildlife. On that hot Wednesday as I slowly cooked myself a fetching shade of rouge,  I became enveloped in a soundscape of crickets, insect buzzing, birdsong accompanied by the regular zzzz zzzz of a big emperor dragonfly quartering the streams just inches from me. I'll be sad when Lock-Down ends, and may have to seek other avenues of adventure.