Sand Martins, Solitary Bees and a walk from Swanage to Studland
After another sublimely beautiful sunset last night, today is calling me to another virtual walk, underlined by the refrain to the morning psalm in Common Worship, today: “From the rising of the sun to its setting let the name of the Lord be praised”, a repeat of verse 3 of Psalm 113. As many are confined to their homes and can only by memory and imagination tread the paths of the ancient ways around Swanage and Studland, let us use our minds and inner eye to follow the way over Ballard Down from one parish to the other.
We shall need to observe social distancing, and the route I have in mind has narrow sections along which we shall have to manage single-file and be apart from one another. However, it is mostly along broad lanes and some roads, which are all quiet at the moment. I choose to take the route this way, for it will be familiar to many, and we can step it together within our rooms and homes, with our minds lost in birdsong and sunshine, whilst possessing the finest views in Dorset.
It is the walk from Swanage to Studland; Studland to Swanage. We may start and finish either end, but I shall begin on the seafront in Swanage and make my way along Beach Road, up, past All Saints’ to the Ballard Down Stores and into Ballard Way, following the signs through Ballard Estate to the coastal path. Emerging onto the grass there are always flowers to be seen here, but what really catches our eye is the view. Walkers access the beach from here, down steps taped off until recently because of the landslip, but everything seems hard as rock at the moment and the path is in general use, but from the bottom of the first flight of steps we are going straight on, upwards rather than to the shore.
We are in single file, and without a word at distance from one another; the chattering of the birds is all around us in the bushes. The blackthorn blossom is getting that slightly tired look as the leaves are coming and the thickets generally filling in with their late spring glory. I think if we stood still long enough we would feel the leaves opening as we look, such is the strength of growth. Tramping ever upwards and passing brambles, the taste of last September’s blackberries on the tongue, a dark, almost black flicker of activity is a peacock butterfly, with twirling pairs of speckled woods in the dappled light. Bluebells are in patches here and there and the young nettles catch sandalled feet and bare ankles unawares.
Let’s take the steps nice and easy and get our breath back, while admiring the views in every direction. Looking upwards into the blue beyond, to the top of the hill, we catch a single person or some cattle against the sky, then, trailing on upwards, we come to the decision point: Do we go through the kissing gate onto the narrow track above the sea, or straight on upwards as the path becomes a broad expanse of grassland? Do you mind coming through the gate and staying in single file? Feel the openness at this moment, having emerged from the shrubbery. Now there is just low growth of bushes and wild flowers, and there is the sea and the land and the sky. All very elemental, and with today’s breeze we are cooling a bit after the warmth of the climb. This part of the path always seems a little longer than I imagine, but it is just perfect.
Joining the wider track again we soon begin the descent to the Pinnacles, Old Harry and The Foreland. This is one of the finest points of the walk, with both distant views and the sight of the glistening sea at the foot of the chalk cliffs. There are bees and skylarks, crows and gulls, a flight of goldfinches and the gentle breeze that brings the scents of the land and sea to fill our senses with wonder.
The sand martins are back now in my mind, flitting over the cliff edge, hoovering up insects, nesting in the band of soil above the chalk. Solitary bees emerging from they tiny burrows in the bare ground before the viewing point of the Old Harry Rocks; others are buzzing around busy at their own business, with ants and beetles, the soil at our feet is worth a close-up look. Then onwards to Studland Village and St Nicholas’ Church.
We leave via Manor Farm and the road that winds, as it has done for an age, till it straights out and rises steeply to the Glebe Estate, and beyond through a gate to the stone track to the top of Ballard Down. Now we can spread out and, when we have breath enough from our climb, share the view over the foreground of Godlingston Heath to Poole Harbour, Brownsea Island and beyond. This cannot be rushed. Let us take a moment to look at the fields and the trees, the line of the track before us and behind, the circling bird pf prey and the songbirds in the hedge. It is truly magnificent.
Up, up we go, to the stone seat and signpost at the crossing of the paths, then straight on to the descent to Whitecliff Farm and back to Swanage. This return is itself a place of warm sunshine and shelter, as we leave the top and return to single file walking, through the narrow final stretch between the arching trees and luxuriant banks. At this time we hope no one is coming up, for it is hard to pass and give space. But emerging once again through the last fields to the road and back to the shore, it is a walk of seven miles and a time to wave our goodbyes and remind ourselves that we are actually still in an armchair and not out - in the hill and sea air of this lovely place.