Updated: Dec 13, 2020
As I drove along the quiet road traversing Stoborough Heath it was evident that a beautiful evening was unfolding. The window was down, and I could feel the comforting warmth of the sinking sun on the side of my face. Through a gap in some old oak trees a small group of Sika deer were just visible in the shade. My idea had been to spend a little more time exploring Arne Peninsula, in particular to seek out some views across the margins of Poole Harbour, towards Corfe Castle. Not only would this provide some exciting new material for future paintings, but it would be an opportunity to spend a warm, late spring evening on the heathland.
It is hard to know why, but the British heathland is perhaps the landscape in which I feel most content. Ashdown Forest, Studland Heath, Arne, the New Forest, all are wonderful places to walk, watch and while away the hours. Perhaps I am drawn to the apparent lack of human intervention - the unkempt look of the old clumps of heather, tousled gorse, and scruffy Scots Pines that seem to be just as nature intended. The lack of woodland promotes a breadth and openness to the views, and when the heather flowers in late July the landscape becomes an explosion of pink and purple prettiness. It smells rather good too. Traditional wet and dry heathlands are somewhat in decline in the UK; the reason for this hints at these areas being far from natural, and indeed they have been shaped by significant human interference over many generations. Most of our existing heathland areas were created by activity some 3000 years back in the Bronze Age, when wooded areas were cleared to create space for livestock grazing and also to make hunting easier. This was often in areas where soil fertility was not conducive to agricultural productivity, and as grazing continued so the sandy soil deteriorated further, becoming more acidic. Such conditions encouraged the growth of certain plant species that we consider today to be irreplaceable constituents of the heathland; heather, gorse, bent and fescue grasses. The loss of much of our ancient heathland areas today is due to their their lack of economic potential. What can you do with a heathland? Without careful human intervention and management the heathland returns to woodland, in particular silver birch and bracken take over, the soil enriches once more and commercial interest comes flooding back. And here's the interesting point - woodland also has far greater biodiversity than heathland, so should we allow nature to take its course and stop managing these areas? In this case, I would say "most certainly not!"
Take Arne Peninsula as an example. This large area of heathland on the shores of Poole Harbour combines both wet and dry heathland in a relatively confined area. While these ecosystems support a smaller biodiversity than, say, a woodland, they support species that either struggle to thrive or simply cannot be found anywhere else: raft spiders, smooth snakes, sand lizards, spoonbills, adders, Dartford Warblers. Indeed Arne is one of the very few places where all six native reptile species can be spotted, and Ospreys are regular visitors too, enjoying the excellent fishing on offer in the harbour. If we take an aerial view of Britain's biodiversity then it is clear we cannot afford to lose these heathland areas, contributing their unique set of species to the wider collection. In this little-known corner of Dorset, both wet and dry heathland areas are expertly managed by the RSPB, and through their astute and careful husbandry, including the use of grazing, you will find Arne to be not only an area of outstanding beauty but one of our ancient heathland's where both flora and fauna are thriving. A conservation triumph.
Having walked across Coombe Heath I found the prospect I had been looking for; scruffy heathland in the foreground, some Scots Pines - I seem to be drawn to them by some strange magnetic connection - and Corfe Castle in the distance, sitting atop its natural mound, behind Middlebere Lake where Poole Harbour finally seeps into the heathland. It was so beautiful and I felt as though I was rather cheapening the moment by reaching for my camera. Needs must, and shots taken I stood there for what must have been fifteen minutes or so. Observing, thinking, relaxing. 'Doing' is not always a requirement. The sun was starting to slip away, the last of the light catching the edge of the castle and daubing amber strokes down the exposed trunks of the pines. A Dartford Warbler settled momentarily on a fence post. Why would you ever want to leave?
It was a gentle half-mile back to the car park. The air was cooling and as I scuffed along the narrow sandy paths, through the beds of heather that were yet to bloom, I was accompanied by the the hum of every insect imaginable going about their end-of-day routines. Putting the kids to bed, tidying the kitchen, brushing their teeth.....that kind of thing. A nightjar darted in front of me, hoovering up the moths that had taken to the evening air with scant regard for caution. I will return to Arne again and again. It is peaceful, beautiful and restorative.
Thinking about this time on Arne it brought me to matters of the day: Covid-19. This outbreak is sad and serious, and as we tuck ourselves away for a while to hopefully minimise it's impact we will of course need to be aware of each other, and stay well. Anxiety and worry can take a strong grip, but may I offer a scrap of advice? Don't forget the countryside, the landscape, and what it can offer you. You're surrounded by it, so take the opportunity to get outdoors, explore, walk, and look around you. It doesn't solve every problem but the benefits are immeasurable if you can open yourself up to the idea of just being there, concentrating on what is around you. Take a book, take a packed lunch, take a sketch pad, a neighbour, the dog, or simply take yourself. It might just help to calm things down a little.
Take care, and be well.