Black Hill and Turnerspuddle: take me back to the black hill

Black Hill is a ridge to the west of Bere Regis with a fairly steep climb to get to the top of it. It is predominantly gorse and heather sandwiched between agricultural land, mostly rough pasture. You can see for miles across Dorset from the top. You can approach Black Hill via a footpath from the centre of Bere Regis and from a footpath to the south of Bere Regis at the junction of the road to Briantspuddle although parking is difficult here. My preferred access is from Turnerspuddle where there is limited parking by the church but this is not a busy spot so I have never had a problem during the week. From Turnerspuddle there are various routes up to Black Hill that provide alternative habitat types and make for a more interesting walk. The main path on the ridge itself is well made but in winter suffers from puddling and becomes very muddy thanks to four wheel drive vehicles, mountain bikes and horse riding! That said, it is not a busy place at all, popular mainly with locals for walking.

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Bindon Hill: the chalkhill blues

Bindon Hill marks the western end of the mainly chalk Purbeck Ridge which extends eastward through Corfe castle and on to Ballard Down near Swanage. Bindon Hill towers over Lulworth Cove and once you get to the top of the hill you get wonderful views of the fantastic Purbeck coastline as well as the famous Cove itself. No matter what time of year, Bindon Hill is worth the climb although you can be pretty exposed to winter winds!From a nature perspective Bindon is notable for its butterflies. It is home to number of scarce species and many of these can be seen in late summer. It is best known for the Lulworth skipper, its very own butterfly, although so far I have not managed to find one here! In addition the stunning and nationally scarce Adonis blue is common here along with the nationally declining beautiful chalkhill blue which still present here. Add in the wall (brown) which has also declined nationally in recent years, grayling and brown argus and you have a cocktail for an excellent days butterfly watching if you visit at the end of August or early September. Bindon Hill has its fair share of other naturalist’s delights too but it is the butterflies and the views that make it special.

Bestwall Marsh and Swineham: river, marsh and lake

Lying to the north of the River Frome as it heads out from Wareham along its channel in to Poole Harbour, Bestwall Marsh, Swineham Point and the gravel pit are popular with local birders in winter as the range of habitat can produce an interesting array of wildfowl and wetland birds. The marsh is damp, drained grassland that floods readily after heavy rain and to the left of the path there is a large finished gravel extraction and many ducks and geese gather there. At the end of the path you find a large reed bed at Swineham Point which is home to several Cetti’s warblers as well as reed and sedge warblers in summer. This is a good spot for marsh harriers in winter and also osprey in the autumn. The influence of the marsh and river means there is a varied flora and the cleanness of the air enables lichens to thrive and the shrubs alongside the path are festooned with them; it is worth the walk just to see them! In winter the path can become very muddy in places so make sure you have the right footwear. The fitter naturalist may want to turn this in to a circular walk and take in the north bank of the river Frome from near the Priory Hotel and then on to Swineham Point and around the end of the gravel pit and back across the River Piddle water meadows to the Wareham Walls and in to Bestwall Road.

Bere Wood: the sea of blue

In spring you can see bluebells almost anywhere in Dorset, along roadside verges, on cliff tops, even on the heaths but to see them at their best one needs to go to one of the county’s well established woodlands. Visiting woodland to see bluebells seems to be a very popular pass time and there is some debate as to where the best place for them is. Is it Pamphill in the east or Hooke Park in the west or perhaps Duncliffe Wood in the north? I am not sure exactly how one rates them but for me on sheer density of flowers over an expansive area it has to be the little known Bere Wood! The best way to access Bere Wood is to park by the church in Bloxworth and walk west, cross the field and in to the wood. The eastern end of the wood that you enter from this direction is the best from a natural perspective being mainly broadleaf trees. As you progress further in you encounter conifer plantation and extensive rhododendron and so there is very little to see. As you progress further still you come to the paint-ball battle ground and the path, not signposted, veers left up the hill but there really is little of interest up that way. The paths can be quite muddy too so take care. There are not only bluebells to be seen but many other woodland species too and spring is undoubtedly the best time to visit. The eastern end of Bere Woods is an absolute joy.

Ballard Down: off to see old Harry

Lots of people visit Ballard Down each year. It forms the eastern end of the Purbeck Ridge and is well known because Old Harry Rock stand in the sea off the very end of the down. A challenging climb from some directions but the reward is stunning views away to the Isle of Wight in the east and over Poole harbour and on to the north Dorset hills to the west. To the south you can see over Swanage Bay and Durlston Point and way out to sea. Although the top of the down provides the best views, the south facing escarpment slope provides the best natural interest with an abundance of flowers and it is a prime site for butterflies. Indeed, two of the rarest British butterflies, the adonis blue and the Lulworth skipper can be found here in good numbers along with many other species including the declining wall brown. Amongst the flowers look for autumn ladies tresses in late August/early September. If you want exercise and good views then head for the top of the down from the Studland side, if you want wildlife then head for the slopes from Ulwell on the Swanage side.

Badbury Rings: ring-a-ring-a-orchids

Dorset is blessed with a good number of iron age hill forts where the ground has been undisturbed for centuries. Those on the chalk can often be prime sites for orchids and so it is with Badbury, you have to search for them but they are there. The earth walls of the fort are the best places to look. There is lots to see other than orchids, of course, including a couple of species of notable butterflies. Badbury is always somewhere we mean to go and then do not seem to get round to it. Part of the reason is that it is a very popular spot and can get quite busy in summer. That said, away from the car park and picnic area it can hardly be described as crowded! During the week is fine, best avoided at weekends perhaps and school holidays can see it become something of a children’s playground which does not suit everyone. Built on high ground the fortified area at the top affords lovely views across central Dorset and, on a nice day, are almost worth the visit on their own. If you do visit, take the time to explore the woodland behind the fort, it is especially lovely in spring.

Avon Heath Country Park: discovering heathland

Much of the surviving heathland around Poole is close to human habitation and is subject to damage and disturbance from the locals; dog walking, cycling, rubbish tipping and, worst of all, fires (not all of them accidental). To try and counteract this there are various schemes in place and one of them is an imaginative project run by Dorset County Council at Avon Heath Country Park, the Heathland Discovery Centre. Schools from across the county send their pupils there to learn about the nature of heathlands and so to appreciate and value them. It is early days but the indications are that it may be working. There are still a lot of problems but quite often this is with older people rather than children it seems! In addition to school parties the site sets out to attract families so the parents can be reached too. As a result there is plentiful car parking, an adventure playground and a reasonable cafe on top of the Discovery Centre itself. The centre organises a wide range of events for families during the year and also provides nature trails and other on-site activities. With all this educational activity going on it is easy to forget that it is a large area of natural heath with associated reptiles, birds, insects and flowers and is well worth a visit. Once you get away from the central area of educational activities you rarely see a soul. May the Avon Heath centre continue to be successful in everything it does.