Thursday, 14 January 2010


The tarmac path ends abruptly, as does all sign of the four lane commuter route. Here a narrow wooded walk leads through mainly Oak and Beech interspersed with some fine Holly trees. To your left a low steep bank leads down to the shore-now dominated by reed beds which stretch to the small island in this part of the bay-whilst to the right are fields. Or, from a more feathered viewpoint, seabirds to the left and Buzzards and Kestrels to the right. Growing so close to the sea the Oaks are very gnarled and stunted, their lower branches sweeping the ground. As their trunks are growing out at the top of the bank and with their branches heading down to the shoreline, they create a screen in their leafy season which increases the effect of walking into a green haven. The road noise subsides, at the end of this path lies Upton Country Park.
This is a spread of over 100 acres of public gardens, parkland and woodland surrounding a late Georgian manor house, built in 1816 upon the profits of cod from the New Found Land-though the estate has a history dating back many centuries before this time. It is also home to a scandal which was big news in the Victorian era: The Case of the Tichborne Claimant. These legal battles started in 1871 and lasted for a total of 288 days, with evidence presented to the court so complex that the final summing up by the judge took 18 days. They were instigated by the disappearance of one Sir Roger Tichborne in the early 1850s and his subsequent reappearance in 1866 to claim his, not inconsiderable, inheritance. The court cases centered around a simple case of identity: was he Sir Roger, as he professed himself to be, or was he an Australian butcher's assistant by the name of Arthur Orton as some of the Tichborne family alleged. It was a case that divided the Tichborne family as well as public opinion and each side of the debate still has its protagonists even to this day. It is a tale which has been used as the subject for many books, plus a couple of films, and they all document how Arthur Orton failed in his fraudulent claim. The cad was sent to prison for 14 years hard labour-a verdict which caused a small scale riot on the streets of London-but this did not stop him, upon his death in 1898, from being buried with the name 'Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne' inscribed upon his coffin. What is pertinent to this whole affair, and is not even touched upon in books or films, is why Sir Roger done a bunk in the first place: He had fallen in love with his cousin, Katherine Doughty, but the families of both feared a scandal were they to marry and prevented the liaison. So off he went and so ensued many years later a court case which (in today's figures) cost ten million quid, which is a totally disproportionate expense in preventing two young people from playing 'Hide the Sausage'.

So much for Sir Roger: it was a fair cop but society was very much to blame. Now jump forward a hundred years to hear a local legend-some of the loot from The Great Train Robbery was buried in the grounds of Upton House. More than this, it was never recovered and is still there. Ladies and gentlemen of the Jury, I ask you to consider the facts of the case;
At the time of the robbery Upton House was the residence of the exiled Prince Carol of Romania and Hohenzollern, which all sounds very grand but he had only got the tenancy because Poole Council, who had granted him the lease, were under the delusion that he had a lot of money. In fact he had none to speak of though, fair play to him, he was doing his best to support his family and maintain a fully staffed mansion (including gardeners for the estate) by setting himself up as a carpet salesman. I should point out, before you all throw up your jobs to become carpet salesmen and women, this line of work did not appear to be a total success and Prince Carol was running up a lot of debts.
Quite why the Boys in Blue suddenly took an interest in him in 1965 has never been fully explained, but they certainly felt it necessary to raid two properties that he owned-one in Nice and the other in Surrey-after they were given a tip off that the Prince was aiding Ronnie Biggs, at that time on the run following his escape from Wandsworth nick. They did not find any sign of their quarry, but that did not stop the locals around Upton House from making a few, extremely tenuous , connections between their poverty stricken neighbour and the train robbers.
Perhaps they were a little envious of nearby Bournemouth which had a train robbers legend of its own, namely the belief that, after dividing up the swag, the robbers went on a celebratory binge in that seaside town (though this, if true, would have been a fairly stupid thing to do: at that time Bournemouth was clinging on to its image as a 'Bathchair Resort'. Any strangers arriving in the town who were under the age of 120 would have stood out like a sore thumb). But there must be some thread of truth in that town's connection because one of the gang was arrested there. So, the Great Train Robbers were known to have possibly been in the vicinity, the Bluebottles had been sniffing around the Prince and, finally, the most damning piece of evidence pulled all of these threads together. At least two locals remembered seeing, shortly after the robbery had taken place, a strange car driving down a road not far away from Upton House! Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury what further proof could you possibly need? I put it to you that, when we simple Mudhoppers are enjoying our walks around the grounds of Upton House, we are unknowingly walking over the spot where bags of ten shilling notes still lie concealed. Such is the local legend.

Oblivious to these unimaginable riches we head towards the bird hide, a good place to rest our foots and to look out over the part of the bay which attracts many nesting seabirds. Amongst the more obvious species, such as the Shelduck, there are lots of others which we do not have a clue what they are. Actually, this is not strictly true: there is a big information board in the hide which tells us bad birdwatchers exactly what we are looking at out there, which is more than a clue. A bit of a dead giveaway in fact, certainly enough to cause us to feel jolly clever when we manage to identify one of the little buggers correctly. There are a few places around the shores of Poole Harbour where bird hides are to be found, but this one at Upton House is by far the most easily accessible. Couple this with the part of Holes Bay which it looks out upon being rich in the variety of birds which can be seen at any given time, it is always a relaxing place to rest awhile. Being able to name each and every species is not essential, enjoying what is there is enough.

Above is the view from the bird hide looking out towards Pergins Island, another place of local legend which will be the subject of Holes Bay, Part 3-coming soon.

Friday, 8 January 2010


More or less wherever you live in this country it is possible to escape the urban areas and get out into the open spaces. We Mudhoppers are fortunate in our location as the choice of escape is wide-we have within very close proximity the sea, countryside, hill ranges, woods, the New Forest, heaths, in fact whatever takes our fancy at any given time is there within a very short distance. But this is the first in a series of posts about a place which is, literally, right outside our front door; Holes Bay, a more or less neglected backwater in Poole Harbour. For many years it has been used as the dumping ground for old boats and the evidence of this is in the wrecks which are rotting or rusting away in parts of the shoreline. Also in places around this shoreline are the reed beds which collect all manner of flotsam, jetsam and old supermarket trolleys-all of which is never cleared away and create a constant eyesore. When the tide goes out this bay virtually empties (apart from a main boat channel through its centre) exposing vast areas of mud which, on a hot day, proclaims by its odour the amount of pollution that was at one time discharged into it mingling with the usual acrid smell of backwater mud. In short: look beyond the waste and it is a beautiful place, largely undeveloped, a haven for wildlife plus it is possible to walk around practically the whole of it-a walk which takes a couple of hours or so, starting and ending in the town, but which will take you through ever changing scenery along the way.

The walk proper starts where the Old Town ends, level with an area which used to be the only landward entrance to Poole. Now overdeveloped with the type of buildings which conceal the borough's 'Historic Town' claim, there is suddenly a great sense of space as you look out over the bay which dominates your vision. Close to are the lumps of Purbeck stone jumbled down to the waters edge (evidence of where you are stood being reclaimed land) with sporadically spaced concrete blocks. These latter house the pipes which drain water into the harbour and, though not pretty in form or structure, they are very popular with the seabirds. It is not unusual to see a pair of Swans leading their Signets here to feed and they are also attracting the ever increasing numbers of Little Egrets-until recently a rare sight in the harbour. Like the Swan, the Little Egret stands out as magnificent looking creature. There is something about pure white birds in the natural environment, contrasting vividly with Mother Nature's grubby reality, which is breathtaking. The Little Egret, of course, is a close relative of the Heron-a bird whose numbers in the harbour have been decreasing over recent years. Why this is so is uncertain, but we would not mind betting that the rise in Little Egret numbers has something to do with it-they are showing the Heron up for what it truly is: a joke bird which Mother Nature plonked onto the planet for our amusement. Y'see, the Heron is the epitome of gracefulness, whether in flight or stood at the water's edge feeding. Until, that is, it opens its beak at which point all gracefulness flies out of the window. Its cry can only be likened to the sound that Rod Stewart might make if he was to be suddenly garroted whilst in the throes of expelling a particularly reluctant turd from his body.

Where were we? oh yes, Holes Bay. This first part of the walk is like treading between two worlds: on your right are four lanes of main commuter route with houses and factories laying beyond. To your left the wide open space of the bay where everything moves at a slow peaceful pace and which causes you to forget whatever else is around you. When the tide is up the V shaped ripples of the larger fish disturb the water close to the shore whilst the sand eels-their prey-panic in the shallows creating the illusion of the water boiling as they thrash about. The Gulls are overhead to take advantage of the ease with which they can pick off this small fry, screaming at and squabbling with each other constantly as they do so. It is a place which never sleeps; we walk along this part of the bay day or night when we need a good leg-stretch and there is always something happening on the water. A mile further down the path it climbs over the Waterloo-Weymouth railway line and shortly after that it veers around the top of the bay taking us away from the busy road and into another world, one with a Victorian scandal and a Local Legend.

More to come in Part Two.

Friday, 1 January 2010


It is New Year's Eve and we are at Avebury-to Mudhop, certainly: but we also have an underlying reason to be here on this day.

Our first stop though is West Kennet Long Barrow for a good stretch of the legs after the drive up here. It is a day that can be described as 'crisp', though not so crisp as to involve frost. Mind you, it's not far off this level of crispiness-we are both throwing fashion sense to the wind (not that we seem to have any of this commodity in the first place) and displaying ourselves to the world in all of our winter wrappings-essential against the freezing wind which is cutting across the Marlborough Downs. So; crisp in the sense that without our thermals parts of our bodies would be shrivelling up!

The walk up the hill to the long barrow sufficiently jump-starts our circulatory systems to ignore the aforementioned wind and, as ever, the stones give us a warm welcome. The short time we spend here this afternoon charges our batteries ready to fill the rest of the daylight hours with trudging through muddy fields, up and down hills, surrounding ourselves with this most enigmatic of landscapes and building up an appetite.

And due to a rather devious bit of forward planning we have ensured that the apex of this appetite building will coincide with our arrival at 'The Red Lion'. Here, for a small fee (actually about twenty quid), our Mudhopping metamorphoses into New Year's Eve relaxing, warming up and stuffing our faces full of food. All in preparation for our underlying reason to be here today......

...... Which is the Moon. For not only is it New Year's Eve, it is also a full moon and not only is it a full moon, it is a blue moon. As we both seem to possess a somewhat slightly off the elliptical approach to life, we had decided a few days ago that we wanted to view this moon whilst we stood on top of West Kennet Long Barrow. With this in mind we had been keeping an eye on the weather forecast every day of the preceding week, noting its predictions waver between snow, sleet, rain, dry, clouds and clear skies with each changing hour. By the the time we had left the house that morning only one thing was for certain; it might or might not be too cloudy to see the moon that night. So our campaign slogan for the day was 'Sod It, We Are Going Anyway'!

When we finally wrenched our well fed bodies out of the Red Lion to head towards our Sod It the moon was well up and playing peek-a-boo with us from behind broken clouds, clouds which were thickening fast. So much so that by the time we make our second walk up the hill to the Long Barrow the moon was completely hidden and we could tell that there was little chance of us seeing it that night. Boo! But there was other magic in the air for us; stood on that mound, with the great stones which screen the entrance to the tomb below us, we looked up at the patch of sky which was illuminated by the moon. Even from behind this thick cover she made her presence known as the light caught the edges of the huge black cloud giving it the sheen of burnished steel. Further away, where the cloud was patchier, this same light was giving the appearance of a foam flecked sea washing across the sky. Back on Earth we were surrounded by the darkness, a stillness and great calm as the wind, though still cold, dropped to a breeze. It was a very primitive atmosphere, a rare moment to stand and enjoy-and if some barrow wights had crawled out of the tomb to join us we would not have been at all surprised. But the best bit was saved for when we tried to leave.

We were sixty miles from home and the temperature was dropping, not wishing to run the risk of icy country roads it came time when we knew we must leave. But when we started to make our way back down the side of the barrow our legs suddenly made it clear that they were reluctant to do this-there was something more for us here tonight. Not knowing what this something was, and needing to get our bodies moving again, we decided to take a walk along the top of the barrow to its far end. Once there we turned to walk back (there being little else we could do) and then it happened. Rather like the cheesy ending straight out of Hollywood, at that moment a great split appeared in the thick cloud and the Moon was fully exposed in all of her glory. For a few minutes she did her 'doth shine as bright as day' bit, casting her full light upon us and creating long shadows over the countryside. This is why we came and, unexpectedly, we were not to leave without seeing it-giving rise to two loonies on a hill on a cold dark night, grinning for the fun in it all.

Happy New Year Folks!