Many of us would like to have a corner of the earth with which we have a special connection. But I suspect I am not alone in finding myself pulled in two directions: there is the place where I was brought up, on the fringes of the New Forest and the edge of the large estuary of Southampton Water – a shoreline but not a seashore, with industrial relics, and intrusive modern gravel banks, a boundary zone for which the word liminal is far too airy fairy….
And then there are ‘the other places’ – places I have never been able to live in, but have visited and often think about. Magical places, where other people, much more lucky than myself live. One of my brothers lives on the northern slopes of the Mendips, just over the hills from the Cheddar Gorge, his house overlooks a long lake, with steep green slopes beyond on which sheep graze. There are tiny woods, and small green hills where Puck, or his Somerset equivalent must surely still live, and even a stone circle. What a blessing to live in such a land. Then there are the hills of West Yorkshire, around Hebden Bridge, the deep wooded valleys, the amber streams – Ted Hughes country. However, it is easy to overlook the magic of one’s home patch. So on this occasion I set myself the task of finding and recording a few hints of its particular genus loci.
My home spot is called Dibden Bay. It is on the South West shores of Southampton Water. The New Forest Shore. The Forest proper begins about two miles inland, where the rich alluvial pastures fringing the estuary give way to sandy heath. However, now that the Forest is a National Park, the boundary of the Park comes almost to the shore. Almost, but not quite. For here the sense of lost eden’s begins. Dibden Bay is a bay no longer. Some fifty years ago, just after myself and my family arrived here when I was still a toddler, a long, thin gravel bank was created around the entire bay. Over the next twenty years, the Docks Board proceeded to fill the entire bay, within the ring of gravel banks, with mud. Rich, syrupy, dark mud from the bottom of the Estuary. This was dredged up by a clanking, groaning rusty steam punk machine that everyone called simply ‘the dredger’, and then pumped in a great black spume or fountain of mud, which we could sometimes see from our upstairs windows. There was plenty to see when I was growing up. Sometimes people were sucked into the mud and never returned. My poor mother lived in fear that myself and my brothers would have exactly that fate. Anyway, the point is that the bay became a new parcel of land, of several hundred acres, with rough grass and many brambles, stretching off to the heavily wooded pastures that were once the green shores of Southampton Water. It is a scruffy, littoral, erzatz kind of place. And it has a time limit, for the Harbour authorities still have the original idea in mind of turning the entire bay into an extension of the already mighty docks on the opposite shore. So my childhood paradise is threatened. It is to be cherished and recorded while it still exists.
The way in which the docks, with their gleaming white cruise liners, appear on the fringe of the pasture can be quite surreal. This wild place, albeit newly created, is very close to a major hub of industry and commerce.
However, interesting though the polder with its prairie like pasture is, the real paradise, so far as I am concerned, is the much older belt of woods and fields, that lies between the old shore line and the start of the Forest proper. Here is where I explored as a child with a band of lads from the housing estate where we lived. Here is where owls and bats and herons can been seen. Each small pasture is surrounded by hedges so thick and unkempt that they have become spinneys. And in many fields corners there are ancient oaks being used to prop up rusty fence posts, or by horses to scratch their hides. You could see this old pasture land from the upstairs windows of our house, so I could look out on a spring morning and plan the day’s adventures. I still dream about it this place. Sometimes I see it as I never knew it – as a long curve of rich green pastures sweeping down to a line of white single and enclosing a beautiful bay. With adult eyes I can see that a landscape of small pastures, which have never seen any ‘improvement’ in the form of fertiliser, and which contain many boggy corners with small ponds, or scraps of willow and alder carr is an ecological paradise, rare and disappearing from these islands.
From the high gravel bank of the polder you can look down on this lost land of tiny woods and soggy pastures, and smell the richness of the earth. The horses which are the only small farming enterprise here, crop the short turf and amble around the many ponds and marshy spots. On the autumn day when I visited recently to herons arose from one of the more distant Ponds and creaked around the pastures before settling again. It was clearly their domain their spot of the Earth. So this is a place where agribusiness has not reached. Beyond the pastures an old single track railway line runs. Being well over a century old, it is bedded into the landscape, and its wooded embankments are home to owls and bats. Here our gang of outlaws, would venture when feeling especially brave, and listen for the goods trains of LPG tankers to start the line humming… The line is now rusty and unused…