Mid-February and the weather gods have decided to put the rain on pause. In the month since I last drove to Kingcombe, the season has changed. The roadside daffodils have lost their startled look and settled into a confident yellow.
The Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve here is spread over two locations: the visitor centre and wildflower meadows of Kingcombe itself and a couple of miles away along some picturesque country lanes, the nature reserve of Powerstock Common. This patch of land has never been farmed or ploughed, though animals have grazed here off and on for centuries. A few years before drawing up the Magna Carta, King John claimed it as Royal Forest and hunted here. During the First World War, most of the mature trees were felled and hauled away to fuel the war effort and later, in the 1960s, parts were planted with spruce and Scots pine by the Forestry Commission. Those arid timber factories have been done away with, and now the hills are full of hazel, birch and oak woods, blackthorn and brambles.
The reserve is shaped like a bat in flight, its two wings tapered to a sharp point on either side of its wicker coppice head. I parked my car at the tip of one wing-claw, pulled on my wellington boots and set out, following the signs along the disused railway line marking the reserve’s northern edge.
The Victorian railway barons thought that ‘Poorstock’ as the place was called hardly sounded like a ringing endorsement of the glorious age of steam, so they quickly rechristened it to the far more muscular and thrilling ‘Powerstock’. Trains ran here for 118 years before puffing their last in 1975. The rails have long since disappeared, and the only sleepers left have been refashioned into benches. Occasionally, a piece of rusted iron studded with mysterious hooked cogs pokes up through the undergrowth, like a miniature totem pole dedicated to the forgotten gods of the industrial age.
I stood still for a while and listened. For most of the last twenty years, my eardrums have been assaulted with the noise of urban India: here, in rural Dorset, it felt like they had the space to breathe again – if ears can breathe. Somewhere close by was the tik tik chik of tits – though whether they were Blue or Coal or Great or what, I couldn’t make out from the brief flickers of black and white as the tiny birds dashed from branch to branch through the trees. In the distance, I could hear faint staccato bursts of a wooden football ratchet – a woodpecker at work, I presumed, though again Great or Green or Pied – who knew? Not me.
Being both slightly hearing and thoroughly ornithologically impaired, the ability to identify a bird from its song seems to me a kind of superpower. Not just naming the bird, but understanding what it is saying: issuing a challenge, sending out a warning, serenading a mate. All I can do is to stand among the catkins, and quieten until, as the rumble of one plane fades into the distance and before the next arrives, a space opens up and springtime birdsong crescendos into the gap.
I decided to go off-piste a little and soon found myself in the woods, shin-deep in mud. Each step was accompanied by a rather obscene sucking and squelching as I broke through the frosty crust of fallen leaves and sank into the thick, wet earth below. It was like wading through crème brûlée.
When I finally regained the track my jeans were plastered with mud from the knees down and my hands filthy – the result of a particularly slippery slope and a prat-fall – but I was happy as a lark (at least a mudlark). I was on the look-out for fallen deer antlers, since last time I’d found a perfect beauty, but so far, nothing.
Coming towards me was a family of four, half-termers out walking the dog. The little boy’s father was carrying his son’s find: a pair of magnificent antlers still attached to the skull of a deer. I stopped to admire his treasure.
“It’s a bit chewed,” said the boy doubtfully.
“Are you going to hang it up in your bedroom?”
“Hmmm. If his mum lets him,” said his dad. The two exchanged a look, like that was ever going to happen.
Heading back towards the car, I noticed what looked like a small white rock, among the tussocks of rough grass that dot the slopes either side of the track. When I squatted down for a closer look, it revealed itself to be not stone but bone: the skull of a small mammal, the filigree of bone exposed on the underside, half a jaw, with a good set of teeth, lying separately. Hans Holbein couldn’t have devised it more perfectly: shift your angle just a little, look at something askance, and there’s a death’s head grinning back at you.
Back at the visitors’ centre, two more corpses: a stoat looking much the worse for wear and a rat, obviously killed more recently. They are lying neatly head-to-tail, as though spelling out a message or forming a rather fluffy and slightly disgusting rune.
Death, this afternoon, seems to have decided to come in threes: the antlered deer head, the skull on the hillside, the furry bodies by the door. It’s all very cryptic.
With spring in the air, buoyed along by birdsong, catkins aflutter and sheep lambing in the fields, you might think that these sudden reminders of death were morbid or depressing. But, on the contrary, it was the lovely deciduous, organic mulch, the everchangingness of seed, flower, root and shoot, of munch and chew and shit, of fungus and rotting, of the transience of flesh and the slower rot of bone and the inevitable process by which we all decay that put a spring in my step and made me smile.
First Published in The Clearing magazine, Feb 2018