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Off the Grid in Dorset

July 6, 2013

We met Pip and Angie at a Saturday-night dance in a village hall. They offered a guided tour of their wildflower meadows and woodland if we could get together a party of at least six interested people. Within the week, seven members of a local folk-dance club were heading towards the remote farm on a fine evening after a damp day. Pip met us at the cattle-grid where an unmarked farm track meets a narrow country lane. We climbed into his Land-Rover for a bumpy mile-long ride to the farmhouse, where Pip’s wife Angie joined us.

Click on any photo to see it full-size.

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Electricity is provided by a generator and a bank of photo-voltaic panels on a nearby barn roof. The water supply comes from a spring on the farm. The land was farmed by Pip’s father and grandfather. It was Pip’s mother who vetoed the “improvement” of the last remnant of ancient meadow in the days when hedges were being uprooted, land was being artificially fertilised and productivity was paramount.

We walked to a 12-acre meadow that has not been fertilised or had any pesticides applied. This is what meadows were like when I was a child. The complete absence of traffic noise during our two-hour walk was sheer bliss.

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Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus crista-galli, a semi-parasitic annual that feeds on the roots of neighbouring plants, suppressing grass growth and encouraging plant diversity.

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A seed-head of Goatsbeard, Tragopogon pratensis, also known as Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon because the dandelion-like flower is open only in the morning. Unlike Dandelion, the leaves are smooth and grass-like, sheathing the stem.

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Eyebright, Euphrasia officinalis, another semi-parasitic annual.

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Birdsfoot trefoil or Eggs-and-bacon, Lotus corniculatus.

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Common spotted orchid, Dactylorchis fuchsii, or possibly a hybrid with Southern marsh orchid. The spotted leaves are visible at the base of the stem.

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Dyer’s greenweed, Genista tinctoria, a low-growing broom that gives a yellow dye. It is used with woad to produce shades of green.

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Flower-buds of the purple thistle-like Sawwort, Serratula tinctoria (above) and its stems and leaves (below).

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A pair of Six-spot burnet moths, Zygaena filipendulae, a handsome day-flying species.

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Fragrant orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea, recognisable by its long spurs and slightly spicy scent.

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The next field  had been left unfertilised for only five or six years and was dominated by buttercups and hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium.

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Pip told us that “Hogweed follows sheep”; it does not grow in a pasture that has been grazed by cattle.

In the wood we saw Herb paris, Paris quadrifolia, a distinctive and unusual plant,

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and the strange green-flowered Twayblade, Listera ovata,  which proved difficult to photograph, and a Butterfly orchid, Platanthera chlorantha, sweet-scented, greenish-white and ethereal in the gloom under a massive ancient oak tree.

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We emerged into a magical area of park-like meadow, formerly scrubby woodland, where all the smaller trees and shrubs had been cleared.

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My friend Pat, queen of the lichens, could identify these, but I am not going to try!

This memorable evening ended with tea, beer and good conversation round the kitchen table. We are so very grateful to Pip and Angie for their time and hospitality, for the deep knowledge that they shared with us, and for the huge effort that goes into safeguarding this very special piece of English countryside. Oh, and for finding and returning Peter’s phone, which had jolted out of his pocket into the back of the Land-rover!

I was reminded of the year I was ten – the best year of my nomadic childhood. We lived for a while in a rural part of Surrey, close to the Sussex border, and I used to walk with my younger brother through the fields to the village primary school. It seemed like paradise. We had moved from central London and a vast, brutal inner-city school. At house-moving time our grandmother had taken us children out of the way, to stay with an aunt who worked on a dairy farm in the Isle of Skye. That was another sort of paradise. My aunt gave me the Collins Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers. Friendless in a new place, I spent my first summer in the country finding and identifying wild flowers. I have been consulting the same book tonight, more than fifty years later.

This is one of a series of hendecasyllabic poems I wrote in 2002.

She longs to lie down again in that lost place
in the waist-high grass where no one could see her
stopping on the way home from the village school
in a triangle of land between two fields
where she found brown-spotted-yellow ladybirds
and swallows flitted twittering overhead:
to be there between the dreaming teeming earth
and the blue void fringed with feathery grass-tops:
to be absolutely elsewhere and alone
a hundred miles away and fifty years gone.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Karen Young permalink
    July 6, 2013 10:21 pm

    How lovely – we have some secret wild flower meadows not far from us off the Fivehead to Langport road. Such a joy to visit to see the orchids, butterflies etc etc Love Karen

    Sent from my iPad

  2. July 6, 2013 11:24 pm

    Thank you, Karen. Have you been to Babcary Meadows? Well worth a visit in late spring/early summer, indeed probably at any time of year.

  3. July 7, 2013 11:58 am

    Wow! I think I’ll send you my wildflower poem for the new anthology, but can’t yet as it’s in a comp…

  4. July 10, 2013 9:51 am

    Looking forward to it …

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