An extract from An Armful of Animals
I went to Bournemouth Grammar School back in the sixties and when in the sixth form, ran a club called RAM – standing for Reptiles Amphibians and Mammals. I’d organise day trips along the coast from Swanage in the Purbecks. That Dorset coastline with its limestone strata upended in a ragged toothcomb of grey cliffs, riddled with the skeletal workings of disused quarries, has given me a treasure chest of memories.
A typical day out for a small group of us boys – usually five at the most – would involve a bus trip one Saturday in early spring. With the dawn a mere slit of red, we’d rattle out of Bournemouth. Once across the ferry at the entrance to Poole harbour, the green bus gear-crashed up the chalk slopes of Ballard Down and rumbled in twisting descent to Swanage. Bleary-eyed and yawning, we braced ourselves for the hike up the steep hill to Durlston Head and the Globe. Hewn from Purbeck stone, the Globe stands in the grounds of Durlston Head Castle. Here, once steaming cups of coffee from the thermos flasks in our knapsacks had revived us, the day started in earnest.
A flurry of notepads would appear.
‘Sorry, sir …’ faltered Pink Jim. He always looked flustered and blushed easily. Hence his nickname. He’d mislaid his notebook yet again.
We jotted down date, place, time of arrival, leaving the rest of the page blank in anticipation of the day’s sightings.
From the Globe, the path winds along the precipitous cliff edge, safety ensured by a solid limestone wall.
I would stretch over that wall, feeling its warmth on my belly, the breeze funnelling up to brine-kiss my cheeks. Kittiwakes and fulmars sailed past me at eye-level, stiff-winged in the eddies of air channelling up the cliff face. Below them, dinner-jacketed guillemots and razorbills hurled themselves out to skim the surface of the sea and land in bubbles of white.
On good days, another jewel could flash into view. The comical puffin. Resplendent with its black and white plumage, white cheeks and orange-red bill, it always took pride of place at the top of our notebooks.
Skirting the old quarries of Tilly Whim caves, their entrances round, black, like the orbs of a skull, we’d slip-slide down a steep valley, haul ourselves up past the white-washed lighthouse and set out along the coastal path to Dancing Ledge, our destination for lunch.
There are many distractions along the way.
Grassy slopes fold back onto farmland half a mile inland. Those slopes are criss-crossed with dry-stone walls. Some have toppled over, their limestone slabs fanning out down the hill like scattered packs of cards. There are pockets of hidden blackthorn and secretive muddy pools. As we scrambled into view, young heifers would snort with alarm and plough away through the brambles, leaving us the acrid smell of cowpats, the rasping drone of horseflies.
One such spot we’d visit each spring. Here was a haven for adders just out of hibernation. Often we’d come across half-a-dozen snakes in the space of a few yards. Mostly the dull browns of the females, occasionally the handsome zig-zags of a black and white male.
‘Look, there … see?’ I once whispered, motionless for fear of disturbing a basking snake only inches from my boot.
‘Where sir?’ Pink Jim exclaimed, rattling across the limestone slabs. I shrugged in exasperation as the adder swiftly glided back into the brambles.
Suddenly it was a ‘Come on lads, we’d better hurry.’
A route march ensued.
We scrambled over stiles. We pounded the short turf, home of the rare spider orchid. We zig-zagged through clouds of marble white butterflies that drifted over the grass. Our strides got longer. Our faces redder. Our welly-booted feet more squelchy.
‘Made it,’ I gasped as we finally clambered down the rocks onto Dancing Ledge. We were one short. Pink Jim. Still a crimson blob on the skyline.
Dancing Ledge is a dimpled, wave-worn promenade of rock that juts into the sea: its centre carved out as a man-made swimming pool the local school used to use. We were grateful to paddle and cool off. Sheer bliss. Until one lad spotted a dark green shore crab scuttle into the depths.
‘Sir, it was the size of a dinner plate,’ he cried. All feet got rapidly withdrawn.
But it was still fascinating to stare down into a world of darting prawns, pink shrimps, lumbering hermit crabs and tentacle-waving cream, orange and blue sea anemones.
Then overcome with hunger, we raided our rucksacks. Out came the plastic boxes, levered open to reveal piles of squashed sandwiches.
Discussions followed as to what each had as filler.
‘Ham and tomato.’
‘Cheese and pickle in mine.’
‘I’ve got peanut butter. Scrummy.’
Pink Jim would look on in silence having eaten most of his along the way.
On the return hike, we scaled the higher slopes. There was always something new to discover. Something new to delight. Butter-splashed pockets of primroses. Banks of snow-blossomed blackthorn, its scent vinegar-sharp. Yellow spikes of gorse, drone-heavy with bees.
And the birds. The speckled-brown of a spotted flycatcher. The snap of its beak, an insect caught mid-wing. The burble of a willow warbler, newly arrived from Africa. The scythe-flight of grey cutting across the fields. Puzzlement for a moment. Recognition when the familiar cu-coo rang out.
There was always that extra slab of limestone to look under. Another adder maybe. Snails banded in black and white. Red slugs. Ants in a swarming frenzy of egg carrying once disturbed. And many, many slow-worms.
We drank the remaining dregs of our coffee suspended between the azure of a sky-larked heaven and the glint of a diamond-speckled sea. Bewitched, we’d drowse in the pollen-clouded grass, lulled by the murmur of the distant waves. Only a glance at my watch would break the magic.
‘Crikey, we’ll miss the bus.’
A headlong flight would hastily ensue. Across the grassy slopes. Down, down, down the long hill to Swanage. The green bus rumbling in readiness.
And on the journey home, time for notes to be compared. Who spotted what and where.
Pink Jim’s stoat that nobody else saw.
‘Honest, it dashed under a wall.’
‘Oh yes?’ we’d chorus, flicking our notebooks firmly shut.
Another outing over.
Another storehouse of memories made. Bringing sunshine into our minds. Filling our hearts with joy.
Retired vet and author. My Weekly vet for 15 years and has written many features for magazines such as She, The Lady, The People’s Friend, Cat World, Yours, and newspapers such as The Sunday Times and the Daily Mail. Author of a pet series of novels, the first of which, Pets in a Pickle, reached number two on Kindle’s bestseller list. It was a Nook book Friday Freebie and had 650,000 hits in two days and garnered over 400 reviews. Third novel, Pets Aplenty, was a finalist for The People’s Book Prize 2015. A series of 30 pet tales started in the People’s Friend last September following the success of a similar series of weekly stories the previous year. An international speaker on cruise ships and a regular BBC Radio Somerset panellist. Weekly ‘vet’ slot on local Ridgeway community radio for Dorchester. Monthly pets interview on BBC’s Talk Radio Europe.