My first trip out to the SDR since starting my PhD a couple of weeks ago was not a complete success, John (my supervisor) took me out to start showing me the area, however we were somewhat thwarted by the weather. Neither of us is particularly wimpish when it comes to getting wet and cold however I didn’t expect it to be as unhelpful as it was.
We left Bournemouth in drizzle to first visit the AONB team in Dorchester and then we planned to head onto the Ridgeway, which we still did, but without leaving the car. John was interested and mildly concerned by the height of the water in the Winterbourne in the valley. As we followed the road, rising onto the Ridgeway we actually left the rain behind, climbing instead into the cloud. This was so dense that we couldn’t see beyond the edges of the road, let alone the monuments and view that are such an important aspect of the landscape.
I do (sort of) wish that we had gone for an explore, it would have been a very different experience, but perhaps another time, when slightly more familiar with the footpaths and prepared with a compass.
My second visit was this weekend, an equally extreme weather weekend, however we tried to pick our timings carefully. This time I was accompanied by Dr P, (my other half, also an archaeologist). We left a bit later in the day than planned, mostly due to a scrummy smoked salmon and scrambled eggs breakfast, but the sun was still shinning by the time we reached the Hardy monument. We parked up on the verge, just over the top of the hill (car park was shut), donned boots and set out. Sandwiches in bag, map in hand. After a quick swap round of hats, in order to avoid frost bitten ears we headed for the Hell Stone, a dramatically named Neolithic chambered long barrow. I’m not going to discuss here the history behind the monument; I need to leave something to write about in future. It is enough to say that the current stone arrangement is actually a 19th century reconstruction and that nothing is known about any remains that were originally contained within.
Of course we did not manage to pick the most direct route to the Hell Stone, although we had the intention of visiting the Hell Stone we were also quite happy just to wander. Photos for this walk are almost non-existent I’m afraid; fear of falling in the mud prevented me from getting the camera out. Guided by the carved stone signs, stiles and the cattle fencing we found our way along the edge of the field, following a stone wall in a state of poor repair. Crossing this we headed up to the brow of the hill and for our first view of the Hell Stone.
And what did we think? Well. We couldn’t go inside as it was full of water; the modern dew pond was over flowing. We tried to take some photos of the stones and the Hardy monument in the background but didn’t get many. The wind was so strong that it was not pleasant to spend too long standing still, not having gloves on for photographing was actually quite painful. We wanted to keep moving and remembering that there are another couple of monuments located nearby we tried to find those too. We spotted a round barrow but the strength of the wind prevented us from getting the map out to try to find the others.
Following the signpost directing us back down the way that we had come we mused about where to visit next. The sensible plan of action appeared to be to go back to the woods and shelter where we could check the map. Before we’d got very far I glanced behind and a looming, ominous cloud had appeared, a testament to the strength of the wind. It had crept up incredibly fast, a few minutes before we had been on the top of the hill and hadn’t noticed its approach. We picked up speed and headed straight back for the car. We didn’t make it. The hail and the wind were not pleasant and I’m only glad that we were walking away from the wind and that the car was parked in the lee of the hill.
My first experiences of the SDR can be summed up as being dominated by the weather. How landscapes are experienced depends upon so many factors, the weather, your mood (although this can be affected by the landscape), other people etc. All of these can be controlled to some extent but they must have affected perceptions of the SDR over the centuries. Perhaps the controlling of them contributes to the experience? This is something that I will be reflecting on whilst I try, not only to understand the prehistoric but also the modern landscape of the South Dorset Ridgeway.