Occasionally you can think about your life in geological terms, which is why I will say that when we came to Dorset, we came to the chalk. Our village is in the heart of the chalk downlands in the centre of the county, a lovely landscape of gentle rolling hills and gin-clear rivers. The chalk itself is pure calcium carbonate, the remains of the shells of trillions of tiny marine animals which fell to the seabed 100 million years ago, and it stretches down across England in a 300-mile-long white belt from the Yorkshire Wolds, though parts of East Anglia, then the Chilterns, and then the Berkshire and Hampshire and Wiltshire downs, with Dorset as its final destination.
A notable feature of the chalk landscape is its wildlife-richness. The downland in particular, the grassland which has never been ploughed, bears a wonderful flora of everything from cowslips to orchids, which in turn supports an insect fauna which is magnificent, the butterflies especially; and since coming to the county I have delighted in all of that, as well as taking great pleasure in the rivers, the chalk streams as they are known, which I wrote about here recently.
I also admire another distinct piece of Dorset geology, which consists of the lowland heaths. These are found on a very different bedrock, the sands and gravels of the Poole basin, which takes over from the chalk just east of Dorchester. On the acid soil of the heathland, there is a quite separate biodiversity: heather and silver birch replace the grasslands and ash woods of the downs, woodlarks and nightjars replace the skylarks and ravens, and the silver-studded blue butterfly takes over from the Adonis blue and the chalkhill blue; it is another ecosystem entirely, with its own haunting beauty.
But I am slowly becoming aware that there is a third Dorset geological landscape which is maybe the most special of all (and I don’t mean the Jurassic Coast, World Heritage Site though that may be.) It has taken me time to appreciate it, perhaps because it doesn’t have a special name; but your gaze can encompass it clearly enough, if you stand on the top of Eggardon Hill and look westwards. Eggardon is not only a splendid natural monument, it is also where England’s chalk belt comes to an end: it stretches for 300 miles behind you, but here it finishes abruptly. In front of you is a new and more complex geology, where the first rock you encounter is the greensand, and this supports a remarkable world of tight, hidden valleys, pudding-basin-shaped hills, tiny lanes almost too narrow to drive down, and the ancient deep sunken paths known as holloways. Looking out from Eggardon, this landscape is framed in the distance by Lewesdon and Pilsdon Pen, Dorset’s only hills over 900ft, although it doesn’t itself reach that far—the heart of it is the countryside around Powerstock and West Milton, stretching perhaps as far as Netherbury.
It has a different feel from the placid chalk landscape to the east, which speaks of peace; with its rushing small rivers, the Mangerton, the Brit, the Asker and their tributary streams, it has a definite element of wildness, and it remains, even today, wholly unspoiled. It seems to me to be the very loveliest part of the county, although as I said, it does not have a name of its own, other than ‘West Dorset.’ However, it has at least been celebrated for what it is by two distinguished writers.
The first was Kenneth Alsop, the celebrity TV journalist-turned-naturalist of the 1960s and 70s, who wrote about his life at West Milton Mill and is buried in Powerstock churchyard; and the second is Brian Jackman, who wrote thrillingly about wildlife, especially in Africa, for The Sunday Times. Approaching his tenth decade but still an active writer, Jackman has now turned his attention to West Dorset and has just produced a charming account of it entitled Wild About Dorset—The Nature Diary of a West Country Parish. With illustrations by Carry Akroyd and Liz Somerville, this is a jewel of a book, and if you dip into it, you will quickly see why the area it describes is special.
The most special of all, for me. So to restate my life in geological terms: I think the chalk will always be home; but the places I will dream about, and where my longings and imagination will slip away to, are those hidden valleys of the greensand, west of Eggardon.
Recently relocated to Dorset, Michael McCarthy is the former Environment Editor of The Independent. His books include Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo and The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy