Early this morning two figures in chemical protection suits, tanks on their backs, spray lances in hand, were giving the white horse its final grooming before the Olympics.
Perhaps one of the greatest mysteries ever considered on the Dorset coast is about to be solved – will anyone turn up?
Of course there will be the sailors themselves, support staff, family and friends but will anyone else bother? The organising committee has hijacked Weymouth council tax payers’ property to charge extortionate prices to those who want to watch the least entertaining spectator sport ever devised. Far more interesting and possibly better attended wil be the arrival of the Olympic torch, two weeks in advance of the actual games.
While the question of how many will come remains to be resolved, what is certain is that the Olympics are a disaster for Weymouth. Two years of traffic chaos, gross mismanagement by both Dorset County Council and Weymouth and Portland Borough Council have achieved what exactly? Businesses throughout the town have been destroyed. Parking facilities have been virtually eliminated or consigned to out of town wastelands which drivers refuse to use. Unless you are a banker or a corrupt local government employee then you have no chance of affording town centre prices but why would you want to go there anyway?
Weymouth’s attractions as a seaside holiday resort have been destroyed – all for the ego trips and self-aggrandisement of local politicians. That is the only reason that this Olympic delusion has been pursued. Watch out for Richard Drax, local MP. Never seen him before? Believe me, he’ll be everywhere once the TV cameras arrive, gladhanding and ingratiating himself wherever he can gain kudos, always with that seat in the Lords in mind. How much longer will our very own aristocrat of ancient origin have to put up with the tedious public service of the Commons?
The other notable achievement has been the elimination of the progressive, intelligent form of traffic control known as the roundabout and its replacement with dysfunctional, expensive, so-called “intelligent” traffic lights. The only thing that is certain is that traffic lights are far more intelligent than the planners and policticians that decided on them. The pinnacle of their achievement has been the creation of the deathtrap road junction between Asda, the fire station and the marina. Truly this is an achievement of note. Originally conceived by a psychopathic, violence-addicted, computer game designer for “Death Race 2012 – the Olympic edition”, a mix up in the local highways computer department printed out the wrong plans. The mistake was noticed but it was decided to let it go as the inevitable reconstruction work will mean more jobs for the boys very soon.
Before I drown in a Weymouth bay full of cynicism, fair dues, great credit must go to the National Sailing Academy and its management which has achieved a remarkable coup in bringing this event to the town. It is the only institution that emerges from this episode with its integrity intact and deserving of congratulations. I hope for its sake and the competitors that we do not see the frequent July /August occurrence here of dense fog and no wind. That would be most unfortunate.
Whatever happens, in this summer of the worst weather in living memory, the true beauty of Dorset remains. Out on the water, along the Jurassic coast or in the hills behind and particularly in our most precious valley, we are gold medal winners every day.
Soon it will all be over but the valley never will be. There is inspiration, blood, sweat and tears, triumph and disaster here every day. Here it really isn’t the winning but the taking part that matters. Paradise Valley is its own winners podium and the national anthem plays every morning in the hearts of those who start and finish here.
Two weeks of midsummer in March has brought forth a profusion of blossom. I have never seen a finer display in the valley. Now we are warned of a return to frost and freezing conditions but the forecast could change tomorrow.. The valley takes each day as it comes and never fails to be at its best.
This morning a mist is holding back the sun, cloying a damp chill all around. Every now and then the light brightens and distinct warmth seeps through. The sun is strengthening as spring gathers pace and I predict that the valley will avoid any return to winter – which should be good reason to keep your hat and gloves at hand given my record.
We mixed it up this morning, I surprised the dogs at every turn. Through the sheep, and it is more trouble to stop Carla eating the pooh than chasing them, then up over the shoulder of the hill and along the ride beneath the white horse. This is a haven for wildflife. Very few people come this way. Rabbits scuttle across and then a darker, sleek shape as one of the deep russet foxes flashes from right to left. Carla wants to chase but I stop her. She has the confidence of Mohammed Ali but I fear in a confrontation with a truly wild animal she would be knocked out in the first round.
A challenging scramble up the hill at the end gets my heart pumping. The effects of last night’s heavy red wine are cast off and I crest the hill onto the path at the east end of the valley. Looking back, Portland is almost obscured. The valley is deserted. No other dog walkers fancied it this morning.
The steepest part of the hill remains and we reach the top with my head fully cleared. Again I surprise the dogs and instead of turning left for home, we swerve half right, through the gate and towards the Half Moon copse as the Dorset plain looms through the mist.
To my left I see two tiny heads bobbing away, running through the cornfield to escape us, then, inevitably, comes the clatter and whir of partridge wings and they are up gliding, whirring again and then gone.
The long path back to the valley runs alongside a field of rape which is just beginning to flower. There are fewer of the vivid yellow fields this year though those warm days in March has brought them on early.
As we arrive at the junction with the coast path, a great bellow from one of the Aberdeen Angus cattle welcomes us. They have changed the landscape quite considerably here since they moved in during the winter. A herd of cows can trample a well worn path out of existence in no time but change is the only constant thing in the countryside and if we humans could accept that as the animals do then it would save us a great deal of angst and trouble.
It’s been a long walk. We trundle down the hill, through the sheep again, nothing but breakfast on our minds.
In the last days of January I was confidently proclaiming to my fellow dog walkers “That’s it, winter is over!”
How wrong was I?
It is raw, freezing and bleak. The intrepid three, Carla, Capone and me, ventured out of the valley this week and scaled the White Nothe, highest point on the Jurassic coast and bleak goes nowhere near far enough. The sea was like a mill pond. Even the swell was sluggish as the water neared the point of ice. Thank God there was no wind, otherwise we would have perished in the bitter cold on that high and lonely bluff.
A day or so later and we were climbing the main path immediately behind Sutton Poyntz. What was an even green sward has turned into a sticky quagmire, trampled by the cattle meandering up and down and churned by the heavy tractor towing the water bowser to the top. When not frozen solid the mud is a foot deep in places and it clings and drags and makes walking much more difficult. It is as if the gradient has steepened and the top seems further away with every step.
Half way up and then ahead looms a slow stampede. Three abreast, the black Aberdeen Angus are coming down the hill. We need to get out of the way!
I clamber up the 45 degree slope to my right, calling the dogs to sit with me and we wait for the cattle to pass. They stop and look at us. We look back. It is a Mexican stand off in deepest Dorset. No one is going anywhere.
Only one thing for it. We climb upwards, clambering through the gorse, almost mountaineering, reaching upwards to pull on a gorse brush or a handful of coarse grass. At last, me puffing hard, the dogs not in the least bothered we reach the top and pause for me to regain my breath. The cattle pass by below. I’m not in the least cold anymore!
This morning we wake to the coldest day of the year. Two pairs of trousers, two shirts, fleece top, body warmer and three pairs of socks, hat, gloves and I’m ready to go. The dogs don’t even seem to notice it.
In the valley, the sun blazes though the distance is obscured by mist. In three or four points bright sunlight startles back off the new galvanised water troughs, like bonfires burning on a dark night.
Through the water meadow. Very heavy going as the water lies three inches deep with the top inch frozen. Every step is an effort as you break through the ice then sink in the wet ground. The sound is crisp through the frozen grass, crunch through the ice and squelch in the mud.
Up the hill at the eastern end of the valley. I’m warm now but as each breath rasps into my lungs I can feel its iciness sapping my strength. The ground is rock hard. Where the cattle have churned it up every step becomes a potential ankle breaker.
We gain the top and I need to rest again for few moments. Capone is content to snuffle and grunt and scent where other dogs have been. Carla gambols like some new born lamb on a warm spring day then throws herself on her back and wriggles vigorously to scratch her back on the rough ground.
So we turn for home, to the western end of the valley and down the hill by the path where we avoided the stampede a couple of days ago. As we near the bottom, we encounter the bull. He stands proud and majestic on the shoulder of the hill, the sun breaking through the mist and flaring out behind him.
We pass in peace in Paradise Valley.
For me the second half of 2011 disappeared in a blur of motorways and anonymous hotel rooms. Rising each morning, sometimes Paradise Valley was many hundreds of miles away but my constant companions, Carla and Capone, still needed their exercise. We had to find our own local paradise wherever we were. Fortunately, tap a postcode into Google Maps and satellite view soon shows the way. Even when surrounded by flyovers and underpasses we always managed to find somewhere to escape for an hour or so.
Returning home to real paradise is always rewarding. Cutting back through Whitcombe from the A35, as you climb to the crest of Plaisters Lane, the valley opens up before you. That warm feeling of reunion is not to be missed and the following morning the dogs and I would tackle the hill with new enthusiasm.
The conversion of the western end of the valley from arable to organic livestock is almost complete. The infrastructure has been overhauled with new fences, gates and water troughs. Black Aberdeen Angus cattle have already cropped the main field with its first short back and sides and spread a good layer of organic fertiliser. They seem more docile than the Friesians that have often chased us at the other end of the valley but a lot more vocal. They’re not shy of making one hell of a noise if disturbed.
Winter hasn’t hit properly yet. I haven’t seen any frost while I’ve been at home. What I have noticed is that it’s been an excellent season for fungi. One morning I found a couple in the field behind the waterworks filling carrier bags with mushrooms. All over the valley in all shapes, sizes and colours, I have been astonished at the variety. In what I think of as the wild flower field, right in the heart of the valley, I found a puffball one day but last week I found a crop of enormous, portabella-like mushrooms, each at least 12 inches across.
At least, I think they were mushrooms. I’m afraid that’s one experiment I don’t have the courage for. Even those little pointy ones that are supposed to act like a magic carpet for hopes and dreams, they’ve never passed my lips. Well before we had some socialist- inspired nanny state that dictates what you can or cannot put into your own body, I decided against that particular form of psychedelia.
Once out in the valley, the dreadful atmosphere of financial chaos and depression that seems to rule our world is just irrelevant. Provided you start with a full belly, and cheap porridge oats are just if not more effective than the finest back bacon, then the real world is your oyster. Saunter through the water meadow, alongside the stream, I have memories of it gushing with a torrent three foot deep and then of the wild lilies in the spring. A new gateway provides access back into the main field and there is no better route than directly to the base of the hill and up the long path that crosses its face, beneath the white horse and rising towards the eastern end of the valley. Then it is only a few short paces before the Dorset plain spreads 30 or 40 miles in front of you while behind is the dramatic Jurassic coast, the ocean and Portland.
Grab this while you can. Before age and infirmity prevents you, before the impending disaster in the harbour takes hold and swamps our small town with invaders. While government, both local and national, destroys our country, at least for a few years yet we can stride to the top of the hill, breathe in the free air and believe in beauty and liberty and paradise!
So as far as I know there hasn’t been a single window broken in Sutton Poyntz, nor even a solitary cocktail stirrer looted from the Springhead inn. Nevertheless, we should be careful to think ourselves separate from these terrible events or safe from their consequences.
There may have been a few packets of sweets, biscuits or a slab of cheese pilfered from the Spar shop but with one of the greatest crimefighters of our generation behind the till, there is little chance of an orgy of looting on the Preston Road. Woe betide any cutpurse or vagabond who crosses Michael’s path.
In Weymouth there is a significant underclass and plenty of disaffected youth. We are only ever a few angry words away from a confrontation in the town which half a dozen local coppers would have no chance of preventing.
There is no excuse at all for the appalling criminal behaviour across our country but there is an explanation and we have as much responsibility to put it right as anyone else.
So, order must be restored and justice must be done. I wish that we had seen such a sense of urgency from the courts concerning dishonest MPs and bankers. I wish that corrupt, venal, self-serving newspaper editors and policemen had their doors broken in at 6.00am rather than being allowed to attend police stations by appointment. This unfairness and injustice is at the root of these problems.
I am not soft on the rioters. I would advocate the boot camp solution. Yes, the short, sharp shock for say, six months, seems a good idea to me. Then, before they get too comfortable in the routine, I would put them into properly enforced community service that means real work. There are miles of drainage ditches in the valley that would break a few backs and spirits before they misbehaved again. A six or eight acre field, dug and tilled by hand and planted with potatoes, would calm a few cocky scumbags for a week or two.
But what of the feral elite, the members of the cabinet and shadow cabinet, MPs, bankers, media executives and the oligarchy that actually controls our country? They are the ones truly responsible for this fracture in our society. They are entirely detached from reality and concerned only for their own selfish ends.
I am a tory (small “t”) and I am ashamed that I had a “Vote Drax” poster on my fence last year. If the Tory party is out of touch (and Labour and the LibDems) then Drax is on another planet. He and all our local councillors are indolent, complacent, self-serving and utterly useless. Drax is literally nowhere to be seen. Mark my words, the only time he will ever be prominent in local life is next year when the Olympics will bring him to the fore, grasping for every indulgence and media appearance, ingratiating himself with every celebrity and sports hero that he can be photographed alongside.
I was moved to tears by the scenes around Clapham Junction because a few years ago that entrance to Debenhams was even closer to my home than the Spar shop is now. That made it very, very real to me. What we need now, right across our country, in the villages of Dorset, just as in our cities, is the spirit of community and mutual respect that the dustpan and brush-wielding residents of Clapham brought forth after the riots.
After all the trepidation and concern about camping in the valley, we should celebrate the peaceful holidays that were enjoyed here and seek to be inclusive, in unity, friendly and welcoming to our fellow man. The solution starts right here, at home.
If you’re a dog owner then the subject of poo is never far away. It can’t be. It’s a responsibility and much like the parent of a baby, it’s a constant concern. If you don’t know what’s going on, then you’re not really taking care!
I can well understand that if you’re not a dog owner or lover then it’s just a disgusting and unwanted intrusion. Personally, I don’t think dogs should be allowed in city centres. Their needs and lifestyle are just not compatible with large numbers of humans living in close proximity with limited open space.
That’s why I live in the country and why I take my dogs out into the countryside to poo. Certainly I carry those small plastic bags with me in case I need them but I am increasingly disturbed by their misuse, by a section of dog owners with some faux idea of hygiene or appropriateness, which is completely wrong and actually, rather dirty.
I know I am not alone in my experience of finding small plastic bags of poo abandoned in fields and hedges, often near the gate to the road or wherever the car was parked. What is the point? Walk the dog 20 or 30 yards further on and kick the poo into the hedge. Far better that than to leave it in a grotty little bag, where it will fester for possibly years and years. Have you no common sense?
Even worse, and there are plenty guilty of this in the valley, carry a pack of wet wipes or paper towels with you and wipe your hands after picking up after your dog and then drop it. In fact, do that all the way up the hill, and leave a trail of paper towels after you. You know who you are. Why do you do it?
Poo is biodegradable. It gets eaten by rooks and other animals. Plastic bags are pollution. Just walk those extra few yards to where your dog can poo in peace.
So as July dawned so did the dreadful day of doom when the valley was invaded by campers. Has it been as bad as so many feared? Have we been disturbed by loud amplified music, wild parties, huge mountains of litter and dozens of feral, obnoxious kids? Not that I’ve noticed.
Has the entire character of the valley changed? Has our precious peace and quiet been broken? Have our glorious views been sullied by the sight of undesirables pitching their Millets tents in our own private backyard? None of this seems to have happened.
What about next year though? There could be many more campers. Perhaps we should ramp up our protest and fight for our right to be selfish, whining NIMBYs all over again?
Or perhaps we should be grateful that we live in this most beautiful place and be ready to share it with a few visitors for a short period just once a year? Perhaps that would be the wiser, kinder way?
Meanwhile, high above, work has started again on the white horse. This morning a work party from Thomas Hardye school arrived armed with spades and shovels. That old nag could tell a thousand stories about comings and goings in the valley – and it’s still paradise.
The valley is drenched in yellow buttercups, purple clover and white daisies. I can hear Richard Burton reciting Wordsworth in my head and a Vaughan Williams hymn is rising in my heart.
The fields are knee deep in a billowing, fluid growth of every colour imaginable. The breeze is stirring, shimmering and refreshing the pasture. Our early summer has brought forth a profusion of blossom, more than I can ever remember. Nothing is more exhilarating, yet gentle and relaxing too. The dogs scamper around me and explore everywhere. Constantly in the background is the bleating of the lambs and the comforting of the ewes.
This morning, almost home, half way down the hill, I had stopped to chat with a wild flower hunter. Above us, as so often, rose a great raptor with huge and glorious brown wings – yet even to my naive eye, this one was different.
“Red Kite!”, called out my companion. No common or garden or Paradise Valley buzzard this one. A distinctive forked tail, an extra kink towards the tip of each wing and yes, a burnished, reddish plumage. A fine sight!
The weather has been kind to us and through the hot, dry spring we have caught some good, generous rain, always just in time. The new pasture fields have finally taken off. They’ve been topped for the first time and now the grass will start to grow deep and strong.
You might guess that one again I am entranced by the valley’s beauty as it moves into its most glorious season. Every year it seduces me again as if I have never fallen for such charms before.
There are bright yellow, wild lilies along the stream in the water meadow. A remarkable amount of rape has seeded itself from last year’s crop in the new pasture and sent a yellow shock through it that’s just a little too bright and dense to be buttercups. The new born lambs have benefitted from their warm start and the early ones are almost as big as their mothers.
I suppose it’s all in dramatic contrast to that other reality of life – the news, the economy, business, bills, the dark side. Thank God that we live in a world where even in our towns and cities, the natural world imposes its timeless and calming antidote on our woes. One early morning, an urban fox across a Fulham backstreet and then, just three hours later, a return to the wilder environment of the valley. Britain is beautiful when the weather is good.
I returned to the green, green grass of home just last weekend across the Severn bridge but to come back to my adopted home in the valley is just as warming and more familiar now. Home is where the heart is, where the keyboard and screen is always waiting but where just outside are the fields and the hills and the flowers and paradise.