A virtual walk to Brian Johnston's field

It is time that I invited you on another walk.  This is going to be a short one, so it will be easy going, but - I warn you - it will be slow.  Be patient, take your time; don’t rush.  There is too much to take in.

Let’s start at the Black Swan, happily back in business, if only for take-away examples of their fine meals and beers.  The temptation to linger and consider a good evening to come may hold back those who have promised themselves a quiet dinner in, but haven’t booked yet.  Have no fear, you can do it on your return!

So let’s take off up the hill, on a familiar path past friends and the ever-changing view of gardens under care, and designed for year-round interest.  Reaching Dinosaur Footprints we catch the sound of woodwork in the garage as John prepares his latest project, whilst casting our eyes the other way to banks of flowers and novelty sculptures and fantasy creatures that peep out of the foliage. But, up we go, and soon the road enters heavy overhead branches and thick leaf-cover; horse-chestnut and sycamore, with dying back cow parsley underneath.  Not much will survive in that shade, but on a hot day we are appreciating the cool, as we generate our own warmth toiling uphill.  

 This is specked wood country, with fast-flying whites and an odd red admiral for company, but after fifty paces or so, we are emerging into full sun and the banks of late May verges; long grasses, nettles, and associated plants of the fertile soil.  We are going to enter the Townsend Nature Reserve at this point, not at the hidden way through the shrubs and trees, but on the open path, just beyond it.  Do you know the place?  There is a gate with a thick bank of brambles to your right, that the sun always seems to be on, and are a reminder that this is a superb blackberry-picking area later in the year.

The predominant colour of flowers is yellow, and they are at our feet; mostly buttercups, but here and there other blooms from lemon to deep, rich canary-yellow.  If you have been through this gate before, you will know that now there is a choice.  We can take the broad path ahead, or the grass track up the rise in the ground on the left.  This skirts more brambles and plenty of nettles too, but it is a good path and as hard as concrete in this dry weather.  Are you happy enough to take this one with me?  Mind your head here and there too, as we need to duck under an odd hawthorn on the way, as we wind our way to the next gate, not far away, but easily missed.

This way is full of distraction.  We are watching for the bird we cannot see, but it is singing, trilling merrily from that bush.  Let’s stop and stare, take a breath as we have been climbing steadily, and look more closely, but, it won’t show itself; it is in there, I know by the slight movement of leaf, here and there, and from the direction of the singing. Can you sort out these warblers?

 Cresting the rise, the gate is just to our left, and a bit of a vista is opening up as we look onwards to the fields towards the sea.  There is a downward passage around some shrubs, as the path leads to a quarry track that we cross on the way to the flower meadows.  Sad to see the hawthorn dying back, and the white of cow parsley, already fading, and the hedgerows turning to their summer green, but there are compensations - wonderful ones - in the form of roses and honeysuckle.  They are only just beginning, but the promise is there!

As the flower meadows open, do think from your armchair of what is most glorious to be seen in an English flower meadow, as we pass the stone plaque announcing that this field was sown in 1994 in memory of Brian Johnston, the cricket commentator and writer who is remembered fondly in Swanage.  We enter a field of sublime beauty, a breeze lifting the grasses, shaded with faint colours of massed stamens from palest cream to mauve; the flowers drift back and forth as the light wind runs through their soft stems, bending them one way and then another.  

Pale flax is dominant in this meadow, but there are dozens of flowers, with ox-eye or moon daisies,  yellow rattle is really opening up now, vetches and clovers, so, let’s get down and have a bee’s eye view through the stems of the meadow grasses, to pick out the smaller and most delicate plants like the scarlet pimpernel or the mimosa-like tiny flower heads of yellow suckling clover - which grows on the grass in the rectory garden too - a mass of it will face the mower later. 

 If you can tear yourself from a meadow reverie, we shall press on.  “But how about the butterflies?  How can I leave the skylarks?”  You will say, and I agree.  The blues are moving too quickly from flower to flower to know for certain which is what, but I think they are mostly common blues, except those tiny ones at the path edge, some really dark, almost black, like the shadow of a butterfly, flickering low and tantalising us, “Get back on your knees”, they say, “and spend some time with us.”  That one, near the hedge, has a damaged wing, “Can you see it?” Small heaths are bolder, stronger and try to trip us up on the path before us. We can stay on our feet for them.

Eventually (has it really taken us three-quarters of an hour to walk less than a mile?) we reach a T-junction in the path.  We are going to turn right, through the bottom of another vast meadow, with dingy skippers at our feet, through a gate into a stoney lane for a few yards, before another gate takes us into the open pasture area of land towards the sea. Here we shall go right again.

 The route takes us along a broad grass area with paths that make for easy walking.  As we go, this is really the place to take in the constant sound of the skylarks, whilst our eyes are drawn beyond a partially broken stone wall towards another vast field to our right, with the palest of blue sheen upon it.  There is often a person standing or sitting here, near what was a pond earlier in the year, but is now a muddy hole, but their eyes and ears are far beyond, stretching to the blue sky above for that madly fluttering little bird that floats down, then ascends high into the sky once more.

Onto the higher coastal path we turn left towards Anvil Point, with the blue of milkwort and the yellows of kidney vetch and birds foot trefoil competing for our close attention, though only too readily we lift our eyes to the sunshine dancing on the waves below.  Down we go, skirting the lighthouse to the north and descending to the well-worn track past the Tilly Whim Caves.  Now the dominance of thrift coats the ground pink, against the white surf and blue water of the sea below.

Up the rocky steps and onto the estate paths with stone walls between us and the precipice.  Below us more than a hundred guillemots are bobbing in the water.  The sea is so clear that, here and there, we can see them under the water too, and the smell of fish where we stand high above their hidden nests on the ledge below, remind us of their incessant need to feed their chicks.

We are going to cut back through the main path up to castle and then take the way through the woods on the wood-clip and bark track with ferns along the way, which opens to a short stretch of road, and we turn left.  Through a gate-way we find ourselves above the lighthouse and glimpse the sea once more.  We are going to take the second of the gates/stiles on the right, past the dying-back and seeding cowslips and patches of brilliant pink sainfoin.  The plantains that we have seen but not mentioned all the way, are calling to us here, the corona of stamens quivering in the light breeze.   But, the time is marching on and we must move.

 Over another stile through some bushes that were white with blackthorn blossom some weeks ago and in autumn will be full of sloes, but now give shelter to the speckled wood butterflies and the ever-present songbirds.  Two more fields of gorgeous flowers and the track to the Townsend Nature Reserve is before us.  I am sorry that three miles has taken us so long - well, not really; it would be a pity to rush it, wouldn’t it!

 Time for a cuppa, or maybe a refreshing glass of elderflower cordial - new season’s is now available!

John Mann