A walk in the holloways of West Dorset

I took a walk on my Birthday. My wife, Lydia, came with me, both of us freed from sleeping children by a kindly babysitter. It was evening, late August. Dusk was spreading its purple-yellow tinge across the clear sky and the day’s warmth was slowly fading from the air. The route I had picked out was inspired by Holloway, by Robert Macfarlane. His prose-poetry exploration of the sunken lanes that weave through the landscape north of Chideock issued a call I could not ignore – a call to get to know my local area through my own feet and breath, to exchange physical effort and time for something more valuable and lasting. In another of his books, The Old Ways, Macfarlane speaks of how the paths we walk become mental and emotional routes etched in our memories, as footpaths and tracks are etched into the land – sequences of experiences that resonate and contain deep relevance, just as holloways are an essential part of the character of the countryside around Bridport. Apart from a knowledge of the land itself, this is what I was seeking that evening. I longed for depth both topographical and spiritual. Accepting that whatever I encountered, however this walk turned out, it would matter, in one way or another. I knew the memory of the coming walk would fade, change, but surely rise again to become part of how I experienced those same paths the next time I travelled along them… if I ever do.

The geology of this particular landscape is dominated by soft sandstone, laid down in tropical seas some 180 million years ago. Over hundreds of years sandy tracks were deepened by the wearing action of feet, cartwheels and rain, driving a path into the bedrock itself. It is marvellous to me that the towering sheer walls of rock, cathedral-like spaces and micro-habitats of the holloways could all have been created as an accidental by-product of such mundane, repetitive activity. But then, why should I be surprised? I am a geologist. This is the very substance of creation to me – slow and incremental changes that weave stories of staggering magnificence. It is pleasing to know that my footfalls are contributing to, no, sustaining an element of a landscape that is important to me.

Leaving North Chideock my wife and I headed north along a farm track that doubled as a footpath and bridleway. We talked about people we knew, family and friends, and we walked upwards. Our first objective was Coppet Hill, and from there eastwards to Denhay Hill. In the fading light we watched white tails flash as rabbits fled from our noisy approach. I wondered what our prehistoric ancestors would have thought of our brazen scaring off of would-be prey. But then, it is surely undeniable that they, like us, would have simply walked and talked at times. Between Coppet Hill and Denhay Hill a trig station marked the highest point of our walk and made a convenient rest stop. To the west the last gasps of the dying day, like the light of a guttering candle flame. To the south, the sea – deep blue and eternal in its benevolence, having provided the bedrock we were stood on: a mind-boggling trick of temporality. A couple of photos, a cuddle to ward off the chill, and we continued. At Jan’s Hill we turned south towards Quarry Cross and after a quarter of a mile we entered the first of the true holloways. There was no name given for it on the map. It was narrow, and the dense vegetation on the shoulder-high banks either side grew over above to enclose the path, shutting out whatever dusk-light was left. We had to walk single file by torchlight through the darkness. Lydia was in front, me behind. The entrances to badger sets became traps for unwary feet and occasionally stray bramble and ivy tendrils snagged hair and clothes. While we talked I recalled being terrified by the hoarse grunts and snuffles of a badger on Pilsdon Pen while I was star gazing there alone one night. On cue a badger surprised us and crossed our path 25 yards ahead, moving quickly along a trail of his own. Lydia said she felt like she was walking down a badger’s tunnel. This acutely lucid analogy solidified the experience of that particular holloway into my memory and it remains starkly vivid in my mind. A clear demonstration of how language and thought are utterly inseparable.

Quarry Cross is a meeting of five footpaths. It is a place I have arrived at from different directions on many occasions by daylight. The darkness changed everything. I was uncertain of my bearings and of which path was which. At last the correct one was identified and we entered the next holloway – Hell Lane. Treacherous underfoot and inconsistent in character Hell Lane lived up to its name. It twisted and turned in ways that instilled a distinct sense of uncertainty. Fallen trees and collapsed sandy walls made this all the more a reality when navigating our way through. It felt somehow an unstable and chaotic place. A stark contrast to the ‘badger tunnel’ we had just come down. The ground had been chewed and rutted and I remembered that it was a favourite haunt of trail bikers. The idea of a shrill motorbike engine roaring in this lonely place was almost impossible to imagine. Slowly we made our way, finally traversing what seemed to be a shallow stream that had dissected the holloway, which itself petered out soon after. Sandstone walls giving way to unkempt hedges. Then, suddenly, brutally, the track transformed into a tarmac road. After being immersed in the dark and unforgiving wildness of Hell Lane the appearance of farm houses and holiday homes, with their occupants milling about inside, was confusing. With our minds suitably adjusted we were now alert to approaching cars and undrawn curtains. My wife is an incorrigible people-watcher and the views on offer into well let rooms were irresistible. I was reminded of the winter walk taken by Mole and Rat in The Wind in The Willows, where the cosy interior of the houses they passed looked so inviting. And just like the Mole we soon had the smell of home in our nostrils. Thoughts like ‘hot tea’ and ‘comfy sofa’ came, as they always do, at the end of a most satisfying walk. The car, the road, the kettle, but part of me remained, keeping watch with the badgers over those sandy ways and the wheeling stars above.

by Sam Scriven, August 2014

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