Country diary: echoes of hard labour in Hardy Country

Portland, Dorset: The gentle greens and yellows of our last visit are now bleached and tarnished, tall grasses faded to blond, wood spurge dried to rust

A stone archway, framing sea and sky. The threshold to another world, a world unsuspected by visitors hurrying over the windswept plateau to the Bill, Portland’s beak-like southern tip.

Under the eye of Rufus Castle, we wander down between spindly ivy-sashed trees and warm, lichened walls bright with valerian, to the cove where shuttered beach huts curve round a bank of big, pale stones. The sense of otherness increases. Earlier this year, we were met by the sight of three pebble minarets silhouetted against the waves. If we hadn’t taken photos, we’d have thought we had dreamed them.

A cliff path leads us up into Penn’s Weare, a mad landscape of landslip and rampaging vegetation. The gentle greens and yellows of our last visit are now bleached and tarnished, tall grasses faded to blond, wood spurge dried to rust. Only wild thyme, pyramidal orchids and scabious add dashes of colour. A lizard flicks from sight, bees thrum and a southern pill woodlouse (bigger than the cheeselogs at home) trundles across our path. We pick our way past pits and boulders, at one minute in a holloway of wayfarer’s trees and buddleia, the next on a spiny ridge or in an amphitheatre above the bay. Below, on a rock, two cormorants preen themselves while a third stretches its wings. A boat chugs past.

At the lookout hut, we turn from the sea and make our way up to the long limestone crag on the skyline. No clang of climbers today, only a liquid, throaty sound. Peering down at us from a high ledge are five white doves and a single grey city type, constantly fluttering and changing places like the waves far below.

The track we’re on was once a railway – a hint, like the scattered, half-dressed rocks, that this playground used to be a place of back-breaking labour. In his strange late novel The Well-Beloved, Thomas Hardy conjures up Portland’s quarries, where “eternal saws were going to and fro upon eternal blocks of stone”. Portland becomes the Isle of Slingers and a cottage near the castle the home of his heroine, Avice. Going back through the archway, we pass the cottage, a last vestige of the afternoon’s magic.


Vivien Cripps

The GuardianTramp

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