It had been sunny and crisp all morning - one of those rare February days when everybody should have been outdoors. No exceptions. Hoping to see the last of the afternoon sun catching the white chalk of Old Harry Rocks, turning them varying degrees of amber, we took the popular and very gentle walk along the headland to Handfast Point. It had started to get cold, only supermarket-refrigerator-aisle-cold, but just enough to encourage a brisker stride as the strengthening breeze from the channel tugged teasingly at my cap.
You will find the village of Studland tucked away comfortably, sheltering on the northern side of the Purbecks, a ridge of hills that runs uninterrupted (other than a slight glitch at Corfe Castle) from Worbarrow Bay in the west to Handfast Point in the east where it meets the English Channel. The village itself is unassuming, but is home to three wonderful sandy beaches in Studland Bay: Knoll Beach to the north and Middle Beach, both separated from South Beach by Redend Point. Managed by the National Trust, the beaches are kept as natural as possible in spite of the hordes of summer visitors (sometimes 20,000 per day.) The Knoll Beach is backed by sand dunes and heathland, forming a managed nature reserve, while the Middle and South beaches run into the headland backed by low cliffs of sandstone and Broadstone clay member. Inevitably, a tension exists between the demands of holiday-makers and the important biodiversity of the delicate local ecosystem. The National Trust acts as referee.
We wanted to extract as much as we could from our afternoon. The light was beautiful now as the sun slipped lower; the air seemed to have a crystal-like clarity and the contrast between increasingly orange highlights and the mauve, lengthening shadows had become more pronounced. We took the path that runs through a short wooded valley and down to the South Beach, and I recalled being here many years back as a child; it was dusk and I had spotted my first glow worm, casting a curious yellow luminosity from the side of the path. Mesmerising and memorable. There were few signs of life this time though, just a walker trying to coax her recalcitrant terrier back to the village, and managing a muffled, slightly exasperated "Afternoon" as we passed. There was no one else there when we reached the shore. I was pleased; a winter beach should be empty. I walked along the shore between the tramlines of seaweed, small bits of driftwood and other beach detritus, turning back when I reached Redend point. The view, looking South towards the headland we had walked along earlier, was superb. There was a lovely thin shard of sunlight where the start of the footpath dissected the shaded beach huts, like a golden spring bubbling up and flowing across the beach, and out to sea. The South Beach is beautiful and more rugged than its Knoll and Middle siblings. The towering, stately Scots Pines are an unmistakable feature of this landscape; imposing, magnificent, scruffy parasols ready to lend their shade to the summer's visitors.
It was impossible not to reflect on the tension between the natural and the man-made. The beach huts are an inescapable element of this landscape and they sit comfortably and passive at the foot of the wooded cliffs on their retaining wall of gabion baskets. They provide a pleasing contrast for the artist between the organic and its derivative. The scene would not be the same without them, yet they will not be there ad infinitum, and at some point in the future the sea will have its say. The Middle Beach is already involved in a tug-of-war between the land's naturally-minded trustees and those with more commercial considerations. Both sides have a strong pitch. We must conserve our areas of environmental importance without destroying the biosphere, but we also have a need to find places for relaxation and leisure, not to mention the importance of earning an income. It's not an easy one to call, and certainly not for me to adjudicate.
The South Beach won't look like this forever, but such is the labile nature of the landscape. It is subject to similar issues confronted by the Middle Beach, but as long as we don't see our landscapes as museum pieces that should never change then we are better placed to make sensible decisions that will hopefully please both café owner and environmental trustee. As for pleasing the artist.......leave those gorgeous Scots Pines alone!