According to the census of 1881, the total population of Kingcombe was a grand 46, and there are not that many more these days. It is a place landscaped down the centuries by farming, orchards and wood production, and not much has changed there either. Quilted from cider orchards, coppiced woods and pastureland, the gently rolling hills of west Dorset are stitched together with hedgerow seams of willow, ash and hazel.
Here the Dorset Wildlife Trust has a visitor centre in a nature reserve that covers 450 acres, including Powerstock Common and Kingcombe Meadows. The meadows, in the parish of Toller Porcorum, extend either side of the River Hooke. This is one of the very few places in the country that have never been treated with agricultural chemicals or fertilizers, making it a haven for insects, wildflowers, and birds that have been driven out of other parts of England.
Kingcombe is a quietly enchanting place. The people are few, the cars are fewer and the wild world is left largely to its own devices. I suggest you leave your own devices at home – network coverage here is blessedly patchy – and come and see it for yourself, whatever the season. Over the coming year, I will be posting a nature diary once a month, tracking the changing seasons of Kingcombe and the natural and working rhythms of this unique place.
The frost had melted away in the strong winter sunshine, and the road ahead was a great silver sheet of shining tarmac. I drove to Kingcombe in a haze of pure dazzle from above and below: the seasons battling it out in a blazing tug of war.
Just before Cricket St Thomas, a smattering of yellow appeared on the verge: daffodils? Already? They seem to be getting earlier each year, and I found myself already, in January, wistful for winter.
Winter, at Kingcombe, is all about spring. I found the visitor centre closed and the tearoom occupied by decorators, but in the wildlife garden outside, a small group of people in boots and hats were staring earnestly at a small muddy pond. “I wondered – just an idea and I don’t know if it’ll work – but I did wonder about maybe, in the island, a… you know… a statue or something.” The speaker, a gentleman clutching a notebook, turned out to be Tony Bates, president of the Dorset Wildlife Trust and gardening aficionado. “A statue, hmmm?” Sam Hamer, West Dorset area manager, sounded diplomatically skeptical. “That could work.” They discussed where to plant the fernery and how to keep the pollinators happy all year round, and then scrutinized clumps of snowdrops in the flowerbeds. To garden, according to Audrey Hepburn, is to believe in tomorrow – and the team were already preparing the ground not for this spring, but next, when they would launch the Dorset Wildlife Trust’s wildlife gardening campaign in earnest.
Leaving them to their forward planning, I went for a walk. I headed up the lane and passed the farmhouse where a lichen-encrusted bench looked like it had been dredged up from a shipwreck. At the dogleg in the lane, a wide, muddy pathway forked up to the right. This section of the Wessex Ridgeway was more like a river: it gurgled and sparkled as I trudged upstream under the tunnel of arching naked trees, glad of my wellies.
I walked along the sunken track, the only sounds the distant roar of planes overhead and the rhythmic squelch of my boots. The footpath was lined with hazel hedges, trunks deeply fletched and keeled over sideways, new growth sprouting at right angles from horizontal trunks. Robins and the occasional wren wove their way through the wooded loom. On one side, the bank was covered with a thick cushion of moss. I tested its depth: my thumb disappeared up to the joint. I noticed a tiny whorl of bumpy green leaves, a cluster of buds in their centre – the first primrose of the year – about to bloom! Then I spotted another – and another. How had I not noticed them before?
That’s the thing about walking in the countryside, especially on your own. You spot something unique, extraordinary, exciting – and then like one of those 3D paintings, your eyes refocus, and snap: they’re all over the place. Walking in the woods, a bright red splotch on the ground caught my eye. It was so incongruously vivid in that winter wash of beige and brown leaf-litter, I thought it must be a coke bottle cap. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a fungus – a scarlet elf cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea) – and as soon as I’d seen one, of course, others popped into view as if by magic.
I realized I was missing so much, even at a slow walk, so I sat among the fallen leaves and simply looked. The pale tree trunks flared and faded in a slow strobe as the clouds chased across the sun. I noticed an old willow whose massive trunk bent over almost parallel to the ground. Its underside was deeply scored, its moss hung in tatters. It seemed more than simple wear and tear. Then I spotted the culprit lying on the ground: a roe deer antler. Seven inches long with three tines at one end and a ridged frill of bone at the other, it fit snug in my hand like the handle of a cup. We seemed made for each other.
The deer were all around – invisible yet present. Their prints in the soft earth far outnumbered those of humans, horses or dogs, and cylindrical tree guards lay scattered about like spent shotgun casings. And then I looked up – and our eyes met, for a fraction of a second matching each other startle for startle, and then the deer disappeared with a flash of white rump. I stayed frozen, and wondered, if I stayed still for long enough, whether my eyes would refocus and all the deer hidden among the trees would suddenly be revealed, like the primroses and the elf cups, there all the while at the edge of our sight, just waiting for us to pay attention.
First published in The Clearing magazine, February 2018