Final January I began a brand new part-time job on a panorama scheme within the medieval searching forest of Cranborne Chase, a chosen space of excellent pure magnificence (AONB) that straddles the borders of Wiltshire, Dorset, Hampshire and a sliver of Somerset.
By day it was all chalk, sheep and beech bushes, large skies and remoted villages; at evening the brilliant ribbon of the Milky Approach arched above, smooth moonlight bathing the fields, incomes the AONB a Darkish Sky Reserve designation. I’d stand within the backyard in midsummer blackness, watching the dusty dart of the unromantically named C/2020 F3 Comet (AKA Neowise) whereas it was seen within the northern hemisphere, and unlocking an outdated obsession with constellations, our photo voltaic system and the Apollo missions.
Cranborne Chase is someplace I assumed I knew properly: my first lengthy teenage bike explorations had been right here – skinny thighs wobbling and burning up the steep hills – and in recent times I’ve generally cycled the identical lanes, encountering the bittersweet afterglow of rediscovery. However winter afternoons spent poring over Ordnance Survey maps with my new colleagues, clutching sizzling drinks and outlining initiatives, revealed many gaps in my data.
Cranborne Chase map 2
Near the yr’s midpoint I took an hour’s sizzling bike experience via the lanes of the Chalke valley to Martin Down nationwide nature reserve, the place Dorset fringes into Hampshire. If this was work, I preferred it. Within the automobile park of the character reserve, Roland, the group’s ranger, took out his bike from a automobile full of the practicalities of his life: strimmers, rope, a hefty toolbox.

We set off alongside a large path into the chalky panorama. We had not seen one another since March, and I used to be too chatty – most likely rambling about moon missions. If Roland was bored, he was too well mannered to say so.
Martin Down is the second-largest space of chalk downland in Britain, and an vital wildlife habitat. However that is no pristine wilderness, neither is it conventionally fairly or emblematic of the English countryside, though I assumed maybe it needs to be.
Naturalist WH Hudson wrote in his 1910 e book A Shepherd’s Life that Martin Down was “a large empty land, with nothing on it to take a look at however a furze”. The down had been certainly one of my data gaps however as I got here to understand it via the seasons, from sharp winter traces to summer season’s smooth fuzz, I questioned if Hudson had been trying correctly.

Endangered burnt-tip orchids, discovered on Martin Down. {Photograph}: Alamy
Furze there was, blazing yellow, however there was rather more apart from.
Considered from its greater factors, the down is a bowl of grassland, crisscrossed with paths, slippery underneath the bike tyre when rain whitened the chalk. Perhaps it’s greatest to think about the type of countryside favoured by interval dramas set within the early nineteenth century, the place stagecoaches rumble and bounce over rutted tracks, conveying an anxious heroine to some grand home.
A lot of southern England would as soon as have resembled this scrubby panorama. However a more in-depth look, particularly within the firm of extra knowledgable colleagues, revealed burnt-tip orchids, knapweed and small skipper butterflies, the grassland palpably alive.
Right here, too, had been hares, larks burbling and whistling and, in a single magical second, the not-too-distant churr of a turtle dove.
Over millennia people left their mark on this land. The Dorset Cursus, now all however misplaced underneath fields to the south of the down, is the most important neolithic earthwork in Britain, stretching for 10km in a bow-legged span south-west in the direction of Thickthorn Down, though its objective stays obscure.

The chalk downland of Martin Down nationwide nature reserve. {Photograph}: Gillian Pullinger/Alamy
In her e book Sightlines, Scottish poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie gently ribbed archaeologists for his or her free use of “saggy” phrases like “ceremonial” and “ritual”, however with out a extra apparent objective, what else are we left with when confronted with such an enormous however vanished construction?
The decrease, older part of the Cursus aligned with the sundown at midwinter, and the encompassing barrows had been organized suggestively, so we assume some objective past the mundane.
Even round right here the Cursus is little recognized; its haunting absence, largely grainy soil marks seen in aerial images, is compelling. Its northern part terminated near Bokerley Ditch, additionally newly unbelievable to me.
If the Cursus was shy, Bokerley was a brute, a large iron age defensive ditch and financial institution refortified by the Romans. In locations it loomed menacingly, presumably intentionally, marching up Blagdon Hill and marking the sting of the character reserve.

A skipper butterfly is among the many species bringing Martin Down alive. {Photograph}: Oliver Good/Alamy
Warfare and its menace appeared shut on Martin Down. Not removed from Bokerley Ditch was an enormous financial institution – a rifle vary made for coaching first world battle Tommies and later pressed into service once more for the battle in opposition to Hitler. It’s now nibbled by sheep which, I presume, often spit out a bullet.
Roland and I made our method south, the ghostlines of the Cursus sunk within the land to our proper, and on to a slender path by a protracted, skinny patch of woodland to our left, its low boughs often making us duck and weave. It was nonetheless sizzling, however rain was threatening. Biking the light slope we got here to a parting within the bushes and stopped to seek the advice of maps.

The rustle of the leaves in a excessive summer season bathe, the heart beat of warmth, the shimmer of the crop, all left an imprint on me

All of the sudden, and with some pressure, it started raining, the cracking sky emptying weeks of rain in minutes. We folded our maps, pulled out waterproofs, munched squashed sandwiches and retreated just a little extra underneath the tree cowl, the place solely occasional drips discovered the house between necks and clothes.
Roland identified that current forestry work had eliminated the conifers, leaving native bushes and revealing some modest lumps and bumps which could have been barrows or a part of the traditional Grim’s Ditch complicated, elsewhere rubbed out by the plough.
However I used to be nonetheless speaking concerning the Apollo missions, particularly the pictures taken on the moon. These had been among the most recognisable photographs of the twentieth century: from the prints left by astronauts’ ft on the lunar floor to the large, stunning desolation of the touchdown zone and, in fact, “Earthrise” – the second of the delicate Earth’s milky elevation above the dust-scape, a turning level in the way in which human beings see ourselves, possibly.

Because the rain slackened we pushed our bikes alongside the muddy path that led via the slender stand of bushes, rising into gentle. Opening earlier than us was a big area of a pale-green crop – which we later recognized as unripe oats – minimize via with a neat, straight path resulting in extra woodland; bushes additionally fringed the sphere to our north. To the south the land rose to the horizon, assembly a greasy serviette sky.
Some locations have one thing. In 2006 the CPRE (previously generally known as the Marketing campaign to Defend Rural England) commissioned a Tranquillity Survey, making an attempt to pin down websites that had a way of peace, calm or isolation, and map England’s quiet spots, county by county. When out and about, our little group had been searching for locations that had that particular high quality, as a spotlight for future initiatives.
Arriving at this insignificant spot on the sting of a area a small distance from the wonders of Martin Down and identifiable solely by an OS grid reference, Roland and I recognised it instantly. However its essence remained unquantifiable and, for me no less than, indescribable.
Others summon with ease the spirit of mountains or Paris, deserts or Trieste, however I couldn’t conjure the surprising depth of this unusual area margin. Later I searched books for some significance to this spot however might discover nothing.

The straight path throughout the writer’s particular oatfield. {Photograph}: Jon Woolcott
We swung our legs over crossbars and started the gradual grind up the trail via the sphere. My entrance wheel wobbled, the again wheel span on smooth earth made softer by rain and the chain slipped off. A pedal made sharp contact with my shin. The crop supplied a smooth touchdown and the autumn provoked solely a stunned chortle from me.

Roland, additional forward and extra competent within the saddle, didn’t discover. For just a few seconds, whereas mendacity on the bent stalks, I let myself think about the spirits of the Grim’s Ditch diggers watching me, or the Barrows’ useless up and about, or the ghost warrior of native legend galloping over my tangled limbs and slowly turning wheels.
These ideas had been simply banished as there was one thing extra profound right here: my very own tranquillity base, just some miles from dwelling, the hang-out of nobody.
The rustle of the leaves above in a excessive summer season bathe, the heart beat of warmth, the moist shimmer of the crop, all left an imprint on me lengthy after the bruise had pale from my leg – one thing discovered and at all times mine.
This was one thing of a revelation. I’m often cautious of nature remedy blandishments. The pure world isn’t right here to supply us with solace, however generally it does so anyway.
It was anonymity that lent the place private marvel, these seconds as treasured because the turtle dove’s name or the lark’s tumbling cascade of track. I’ve not returned to the spot since, however nonetheless I really feel the unusual, quiet, pull of a small copse and a area close to nowhere – a modest nonetheless level and turning level, consolation and retreat.
• This text first appeared on the Caught By The River web site. Jon Woolcott lives in north Dorset and is writing a e book about southern England; observe him on Instagram. Additional info on Cranborne Chase AONB