Tilly Ware explains why she’s still in love with the landscape of her childhood – and you should be, too
My husband, three sons and I march single file along the grassy ridge, spotlit by the last of the low winter sun, the holly and hazel trees below already beginning to blacken. High up and alone on Eggardon hillfort in West Dorset, we have left the half-dozen other visitors steaming up their windscreens at the roadside viewpoint and slalomed up and down four sets of ramparts until we stand right on the outermost rim.
There’s a good chance of spotting attacking Romans: my sons have their stick-daggers poised. But I’m not paying attention. The 20-mile view keeps dragging my eyes upwards and outwards. Eggardon was dug around 3,000 years ago with antler bones, flints and bare hands. It is one of a constellation of Iron Age hillforts — Lewesdon, Pilsdon, Abbotsbury — that surround Bridport. Each has a flat top, and each are visible from the summit of the others. And in between, the land ripples and wriggles, cluttered with small fields, fat hedges and farms that spill into narrow lanes.
To the south, west and east, rumpled greenery rises and falls until it bumps into the bow curve of Chesil Beach, and the sea. Facing the waves are the cliff faces. I mentally tick them off: the bald patch on Golden Cap, West Bay’s grey shale, Burton’s beer-coloured sandstone. Finally, the Knoll, with a quiff of pine trees. Tucked into the leeward slope, with its back to the sea is the village of Puncknowle. My eyes lock on to a pair of beech trees, now only just visible in the gloaming. Under these is the house in which I was born and grew up. I raise my hands high. I hear the wind rubbing itself on the grass at my feet. ‘My Kingdom!’ I want to shout. ‘My Kingdom!’
Three years ago, when my husband built us a house on the coast of east Suffolk, I told myself sternly that I must learn to love the place. I took myself on long marches down Orford Ness, thinking the crunch of shingle would ease my homesickness. I tried looking upwards, at broad skies decorated with streamers of birds. It didn’t work. Every estuary, each giant ploughed field was an affront and a reminder: I am not where I belong. On particularly mean and easterly days, I huddled with OS Map 113 and traced the contours of West Dorset. East Anglian wichs and burghs were banished as I wallowed in coombes and winterbournes and knolls.
Fortunately, my sons are still small enough not to question that all holidays are spent in West Dorset. The moment school is out, they are flung into the car, while I, like a demented salmon, head for home. Not until the lights of Dorchester, rising out of water meadows, are visible, do my hands grip the wheel less tightly. From here to Bridport, I gulp down the view. By the time the car has sunk into the deep gorges of Loscombe, I am drunk-driving, my body swaying and anticipating the lane’s twists and curves.
At any time of year, West Dorset is generous. It invites you in. Wherever you are, there are a dozen pathways leading you into a new, secret cleavage of hills, or along the banks of a stream, fast-flowing and thickly overhung with hart’s tongue and lady ferns. Unlike the epic canvases of the Highlands or Pembrokeshire or the Lakes, it is not an overpowering landscape. There is plenty of height for staggering views, but on a scale that comforts and protects. The hedgerows — brimming with primroses, wild garlic, campion, cow parsley — are plumper than anywhere I’ve seen. Every plant looks delighted to be there. In summer, mare’s tails will sway above head-height, nettles brush your cheeks. We spend most of our holidays tunnelling into ancient green lanes, or diving down a track we’ve never noticed before. We creep, burrow, scuttle and sniff. We hear velociraptors scuffle in the undergrowth. There’s a sweet stink of silage and cows’ breath and trodden-on nettles. It smells rampant and wild.
My diehard East Anglian friends denounce Dorset as pretty, too clotted-cream-tea. Wrong. West Dorset is scruffy. Or ‘a bit crap’, as my husband put it, which is a compliment. ‘A bit crap’ means stones, not sand. No jetskis or Jack Wills outlets. Show West Dorset a beach cricket set, and it would shrug and flick its thumb towards Cornwall. At no point on this oddball bit of coast is there any place for organised games: too bumpy, too stony, too many rockfalls. The beach we love most is the Hive at Burton Bradstock. My brother in law calls it the Gravel Pit. As we face the sea, on our right are 30ft cliffs. On our left, a low ooze of mudslide. We head right, walking between seagulls and soft black cows. The coast path then plunges down into Freshwater Bay where, gripping barbed wire fence and using tussocks as footholds, we tumble into the Inlet. The River Bride here performs a last hurrah: a shimmy-shammy hairpin bend, one moment shallow and wide, then narrow and deep before finally disappearing into the pebbles just short of the breaking waves. Steep sides of shingle on the far bank have intermittent avalanches, and the storms keep the whole place on its toes, never the same twice. Bladderwrack, cuttlefish and crab claws lie in undulating patterns. My sons pocket bubble-wrap bundles of fish eggs. While the boys rearrange and repair the dam that we built on our last visit, I lie back and riffle my fingers in the stones. I am eight, lying in the surf before doing my homework, dripping salt on to my composition book. I am 11, getting a faceful of the winter seaspray that flies across West Bay Pier. I am 13, with bronze eyeshadow and white jeans on a walk to West Bexington.
On our final afternoon, I steal an hour on my own. I walk up the bridleway that opens out on to a ridge between Mapperton and the church at North Poorton, where I was married. I listen to young buzzards calling as they circle across the valley, catching thermals. I stare hard at the pattern of light on the old strip lynchets. I try to box this landscape up, fit it neatly into myself as a parcel to be taken back to Suffolk. But it can’t be done. Too slippery, too fluid. I will have to wait until our return.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 28, 2012