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Simons Challenge- Day 1

May 31, 2011

By Simon Cripps
Dorset Wildlife Trust Chief Executive

Day 1 – Monday

Looking good despite the weather?

Looking good despite the weather?

After the warmest, driest April and May on record I was looking forward to heading into the Dorset countryside in some beautiful early summer sunshine. It seems however that higher powers were having a joke as I woke on this fine Bank Holiday morning to rain, fog and wind. Only snow, earthquakes and tornados were missing.
Had I been younger, fitter and very much smarter I would have put the start date back a day, but instead out came the cycling rain gear. Luckily as you see it suited me and I cut quite a handsome dash in the ensemble as I ceremonially stamped the first point at Brooklands.
At this point I should draw your attention to the technical gear to make life marginally more pleasant as I trudge around. Developed by NASA and tested by the SAS my natty handlebar bag and map pouch filled nicely with water 20 seconds out and ensured all paper and electrical gear were washed beautifully clean.

Forcing my way through the adoring crowds who turned out to see me off on this Bank Holiday.

Forcing my way through the adoring crowds who turned out to see me off on this Bank Holiday.

Brooklands, as well as being the HQ of DWT has a wonderful hay meadow covered in downland flowers created by spreading hay brought in from our other more established reserves in the area. The pond that was created was colonised naturally in record time, but was no wetter than me.
At 10.00am I headed through the hordes of adoring and supportive crowds and disappeared at sub-light speed down the Cerne Valley.
One of the shortest distances on the route is Brooklands to Hayden Hill at about 500m. I took it as a good omen that a buzzard kept pace with me just above the hedgerow all the way down to Hayden Hill. As I look very little like the worms this majestic but much maligned bird prefers to eat, I can only assume that the wildlife of the county had sent an emissary to wish me luck.

Haydon Hill

Haydon Hill

Hayden Hill is an unimproved grassland. That is to say that for many years now, in our ownership, no fertilisers have been added allowing the north facing fields to return to their natural state. No sign today of any of the butterflies that it now has – such as orange tips. The only blue tips were my fingers in the cold.
I’ve cycled down the next part of the route many times because rain or shine the Frome trail (National Cycle Route 26) is a lovely track, most of which follows the river closely. It’s off main roads and has a variety of track types so its particularly good for families.

Dorset vs. Tuscany

Dorset vs. Tuscany

DWT’s reserve Nunnery Mead is itself a water meadow site on the River Frome which still has the Victorian sluices. The reserve also contains the remains of a sizeable Roman villa from which one of the country’s finest mosaics is now preserved at the British museum. Looking across it today its hard to imagine why some Romans lived in their boring warm villas in Tuscany when they could live here.
Retracing my steps allowed me to prove the old adage that the wind blows against you whichever direction you are going. Passing through Bradford Peverell and Muckleford I noticed loads of sparrows. I’ve seen a more this year than for many years and wonder if they are finally on their way back after years of decline.

Deep in the heart of Dorchester lies the All Saints Wildlife Garden. Owned by W Dorset District Council this garden is a great example of what any of us can do to make our gardens more friendly to wildlife yet still beautiful. It’s a peaceful spot in the centre of town. The garden’s creation was mainly funded by the Marks & Spencer carrier bag scheme, yet ironically there wasn’t a single plastic bag in the garden.
Tempting as it was to interview the neighbouring publican and test how much better his beer tasted so close to a nature reserve, I bravely scaled the heights of the south Dorset ridge along the new Weymouth relief road. One of the biggest successes of the road is the footpath and cycleway which, on a nice day, is packed with people taking advantage of the new link from depths of Weymouth to the giddy heights of the ridgeway.

That said, the relief road is not aptly named if you are a cyclist unless it means you are relieved to make it down alive. The bridges and cycleway aren’t yet finished, so halfway down you take your life in your hands as you have to cross 3 lanes of fast traffic. Clearly I made it, but others of a more nervous disposition would still be there now. You are treated to fantastic views of Weymouth and Lyme Bays as well as Portland and Weymouth – see my picture.

Panoramic view of Weymouth & Portland from the relief road

Panoramic view of Weymouth & Portland from the relief road

The Lorton Valley, my 5th stop (excluding the other 20 for rests, drinks, food and general whinging), is just fabulous. It really is a Living Landscape running from the top of the valley right down into the heart of Weymouth and even out to sea. With DWT, RSPB, Woodland Trust and Weymouth & Portland Borough Council land all joining together, its a resource that any other town would be jealous of. I may be a Poole boy myself but I like Weymouth (there I’ve written it – my secret’s out!) and the Lorton Valley is one of the main reasons.
Following the relief road further down, then along the side of Radipole Lake you pass the most complex junction since spaghetti junction at the bottom of Boot Hill. If the junction doesn’t get you the Hill will. Then it’s on to the Rodwell Trail following an old railway line along the banks of Portland Harbour.
I find it interesting that Dorset has two strikingly similar causeways – to Portland and to Sandbanks. Similar in geography rather than land prices that is. Do you remember that 1970s film where the explorers found a land with dinosaurs on the top of a plateau in the jungle? Bizarrely Portland reminds me of that. The climb is daunting but if you make it to the top you are rewarded with another world. Perhaps less live dinosaurs, but certainly plenty to see in the many quarries that cover the Isle. Kingbarrow is one such Quarry, restored for wildlife. Birds, bats, butterflies and specialised plants have recolonised these surprisingly wildlife rich sites. I also saw the increasingly rare Truckus wheelii, a threatened species (had I caught him) Motorcyclus spp. and cotoniaster.

The latter is a garden escapee which is hard to treat and is inexorably spreading.
Whizzing down the hill at Portland you soon come on the Chesil Centre. There I had a chat with 15 year volunteer Derek who told me the little tern colony had about 28 birds and currently 14 eggs. That sounds good but its a long way to go yet as the colony has some major predation problems.
The last stretch of the day is the longest of the whole 42todo route between Chesil and W Bexington. With beautiful views of the S Dorset coast its a nice road, but not, I would suggest, for a tired old cyclist with a dodgy leg that finally gave up the ghost at Abbotsbury. A cocktail of anti-inflamatories and a double-decker did the trick.

Lorton Meadows

Lorton Meadows

Talking of tricks I avoided the deadly hill out of Abbotsbury by dropping down past the Gardens onto the back of Chesil beach. What a treat that was. I didn’t know the track existed through such picturesque scenery right along to W Bexington. I’d really recommend this part of the Coast Path. W Bexington is one of DWT’s ‘discovery sites’. I think that means you’ll be lucky if you discover it! Nevertheless if you persevere and attack it from the rear you may be lucky and clamber your way in to see a section of salt marsh behind Chesil Beach. I have seen bearded tits there before, but it was far too wet this time.
So ended my first day around the first 7 on DWT’s list of nature reserves. As I soak my aching legs in a hot bath I am reminded to point out that you don’t have to do them at speed or with endurance. Do though go and see what it is that makes this natural county natural.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. John Gaye permalink
    May 31, 2011 8:19 pm

    What fun it all sounds. I do wish I was doing it with you but sadly I just have to be in London for two days. Quelle Domage! Fancy a lift in a Land Cruiser when I return?

  2. May 31, 2011 8:31 pm

    A crackingly excellent read Simon! Just to clarify.. the doubledecker that came to your aid.. It was the chocolate bar type of course?
    A great effort – keep up the blogging!

  3. June 1, 2011 5:34 pm

    Really enjoyed reading your blog post. Shame about the rain… we know how you feel (as it rained at our Corfe Mullen BioBlitz on Saturday – insects don’t like rain, so we had to look under the leaves to find them). Looking forward to visiting some of these reserves though! Jane

  4. jo davies permalink
    June 1, 2011 7:29 pm

    good read simon. thought of you in the rain on monday. we were at sopley common and troublefield having done bracketts copice and hibbitts wood the day before on our bikes. having bought bike racks for the purpose of not cycling quite so far we spent most of the day trying to fit them and the bikes to the car. we then laughed our way round for most of the day as we kept getting things wrong! old age is a bit of a drawback Now in your old home town and visited IUCN in Gland – could kick myself for not going across the road to WWF. IUCN have an amazing new building – I had not heard of them – are they a useful org? anyway have acquired a lot of useful publications for our library.

    good luck for rest of week – keep us posted.

  5. June 2, 2011 6:23 pm

    We were out today Thursday doing our latest three in the Frome valley, bringing our total so far to 16. We were thinking of you, and seeing the conditions you started in, hope you were enjoying the hot sunshine that we enjoyed! You’ll certainly be a hit when you speak at the DCN AGM if it’s anything like your blog!

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