There’s no place like home. The swallows do it best, sweeping across the globe, then returning to this wet and windy British isle, just as the tulips show their heads, and in Dorset, the bright yellow of the rapeseed field begins to dominate the rolling landscape of this oft passed county of Thomas Hardy.
Dorset often feels like the neglected cousin of the West Country (the south west), driven through to holiday in the softer sandier landscape of south Devon, or to surf and explore the rugged, wild coast of Cornwall. Somerset to the north similarly seems to represent the west country heartland, evoking images of westcountry yokels, drinking flat scrumpy cider and singing rousing renditions of Wurzel songs. These are images often equally attached to Dorset. Yet it is a place often known in relation to its neighbours, as ‘that place next to Devon’. This is therefore something of a homage to those summers in Dorset, from the budding of spring, and the first dipping of the toes in the cold sea, to the cool evenings of that September, Indian summer.
In April, warmth returns, and you step outside to the singing of the birds, and take that first tentative swim in the sea. It is freezing, but clear and blue for the first time. Where the curve of Weymouth bay turns from sand to stone, from Greenhill to Bowleaze, a few brave people test the waters. It’s the coldest time of year. Every part of your body tells you it’s a horrible idea, and as you dunk your head you feel short of breath, take a few quick strokes and look over to the beautiful, rolling coastline, stretching along to the Purbecks. Leaving the sea, you feel the excitement of summer, on its way at last, with the sea only warming up from here on out.
May often claims the sun back, and leads into June. Summer. It means cycling, swimming, barbeques on the beach, and evenings sat around fires, looking up at a star filled skies. Walking is the best way to explore Hardy’s Wessex. Driving out to Durdle Door, windows down and music playing, there is nowhere I’d rather be. A UNESCO heritage site, Durdle door emerges over the edge of the cliff as you scramble down the path, which at this time of year once again starts to busy with tourists. Despite knowing it as I do, I can’t help but be awed every time. On the other side of Durdle, the crystal clear waters of Man of War bay glisten in the sun. Walking to the Door from Ringstead Bay to the east, the full beauty of the coast stretches before you, and as you continue along, the coast path dips down into Lulworth, a perfect natural cove, where a man sits painting shells, and boats anchor for the night. On the other side of that, through the firing range, is Mupe bay, most likely deserted, with that sense of being untouched, and unchanged, as if someone 250 years ago might have stood on that same patch of sand, flashing a light to guide in smugglers.
Further in land and to the west of Lulworth, is my favourite place. Corfe Castle stands, in its ruined, eerie beauty, atop a hill that guards a gap on the Purbeck hills between Wareham and Swanage. It is a shadow of a far gone world. Once gleaming white stone, some 900 years ago it would have dominated the landscape, a beacon of power in a feudal world. In 1645, near the end of the English Civil War it remained one of the few royalist strongholds, it’s now ruined state the unhealed scars of the parliamentarian cannon. Fallen, it is only a ghost of what it once was, yet its presence atop the hill appears perhaps even more striking when seen against the violent history which eventually tore this mighty structure down
Coming home from days out walking, tired and windswept, and possibly a little sunburnt, to home cooked pizzas and barbeques, is beaten, perhaps, only by warm sunny evenings spent out on the water, sailing out in Weymouth bay, coming into moor as the sun sets and the sea turns to glass. And from the sailing club, cycling home in shorts and t-shirts, along a cycle path that still has the platforms and sign posts to point to its past life as a railway line, and over which the trees now curve into a tunnel, broken only by the last beams of the day’s light.
September brings steady change. The sun gets lower, and the carrots are all pulled from the vegetable patch, and the sunflowers droop their heads one by one. The chillies are all picked from the greenhouse, in bold reds, oranges and greens, and stored in batches for the winter. We collect apples where they fall in the lane, and gather blackberries from the meadows to make crumbles, and travel over to orchards near Burton Bradstock to pick more apples and pears for cider making. Every bike ride down to the the beach, every swim in the sea, begins to feel like it might be the last, and suddenly I notice even more the cool feel of the salt water as I dive beneath the surface, and the sound of the pebbles gently rolling over each other on the sea bed. There’s that saddening sense of the county shutting down until next spring, as the boats are lifted out of the water to shelter on dry land for another winter.
Now, in October, we look towards that wet month of November, where a day without rain seems weirdly out of character, the swallows are long gone, and the Canadian geese have set off over Weymouth bay, over Ringstead, and away to warmer climes. Dorset is no longer the rolling hills of sunburnt brown, and the familiar smell of rapeseed. The fields are stripped, and it becomes a mix of green and greys, across sky, sea and land. It is the end of another year, and another summer that seems to reawaken, for me, the Dorset of Hardy’s novels. But still, as I stand by the shore, watching the winter roll in and the sun roll out, there’s still no place like home.