Poole Harbour wasn't far away. I decided to go and see.
This map shows how Poole Harbour relates to Bournemouth, Poole and the Isle of Purbeck (as ever, click on these maps to see the detail clearly):
The land mass between Wareham and Swanage is the Isle of Purbeck, a rather strange place if you venture off the main A351 road. Much of it is lonely heathland, more especially the land north of the A351. But all of the Isle of Purbeck has an other-worldly feel, apart from the tourist oasis of Corfe Castle, the attractive Victorian resort of Swanage, and the long sandy beach at Studland.
The heathland on the south fringe of Poole Harbour is particularly quiet and remote, and it's not easy to get to: mostly it's a matter of parking followed by a long walk. There's plenty to see if you are into nature - birds, deer or trees - or wish to take a peek at the small oil wells scattered about.
There's also an industrial past to explore. The clay quarries inland (mostly long gone now, except at Furzebrook) used narrow-gauge tramways, a system quite independent of the ordinary railway line (which is still there, and marked on the map), to transport the clay in wagons to quays at Ridge, Middlebere and Goathorn on Poole Harbour, first to be loaded into barges, and then transferred to ships waiting at Poole.
There were nearly twenty miles of these tramways at the peak of clay quarrying activity. A book I have describes how in the early 1950s 'holiday motorists on the Wareham-Swanage road were delighted to give way to a train - or in the evening to a jury car freewheeling with a load of workmen for Ridge - on the level crossing.' I would have loved to witness the freewheeling jury car! I'm imagining twenty-odd rough workmen with clothes clay-splattered after a long day in the quarry, relaxing as the heathland slips by in the setting sun, all looking forward to a bath, tea, and a hot meal ready for them, at their cottage homes at Ridge. But nearly all the tramway system had closed by the late 1950s.
Here are some old large-scale Ordnance Survey maps. First, the set-up at Furzebrook in 1925:
You can see how the single-track tramway passed underneath the main railway line, then headed north, crossing the Wareham-Swanage road on the level. I'm pretty certain that when I drove that way in 1973 or 1974 (on one of my first solo trips from home in Southampton, having passed my driving test in August 1973) the disused metal tracks were still embedded in the tarmac, and made a distinct bump in the road that could be felt. I've an idea that even in the late 1970s, visiting the Isle of Purbeck with friends, those tracks were in place. And surely they persisted for years after that. But when they eventually resurfaced the A351, the tracks were torn up and another bit of history binned.
This was Ridge quay (or wharf) in 1950:
It must have been very slow and labour-intensive to shovel the clay into those barges floating next to the quay on the River Frome, only to shovel it again into ships at Poole. (Hard, dirty work for the bargemen and wharf workers) I like to think that the buildings in the bottom left corner were the quarry workmen's homes, where their wives would have been busy heating up water for a bath, and making the evening meal while the children played.
Ridge must have been the last surviving quay to be served by a tramway. Middlebere and Goathorn quays were disconnected from the system rather earlier - probably by 1920 in the case of Middlebere, and in 1936 for Goathorn. Middlebere is on the bottom edge of this 1902 map, in a very lonely spot, up a muddy creek south of Arne (the prime subject of this post, which we will get to soon, I promise):
Goathorn was on the end of a long finger of land, thrust out into Poole Harbour. The map dates from 1925.
So much for vanished tramways, except to say that the trackbeds can still be traced, and walked on. I should think that for many years the quays were perfectly usable by ordinary boats and yachts, but no doubt they did slowly decay and may nowadays be in a sad state indeed. Still, it's one of my ambitions to follow one or more of these old tramway routes and see for myself what lies at the end. Something for next summer, I would say.
Let's now talk about Arne and what I saw there on the evening of 1st October, with sunset approaching. The Arne peninsula is in the care of the RSPB, who manage the heathland and farmland, and have a good range of designated paths for visitors to take.
You can really make a day of it here. There are discreet car parks, and a proper visitor centre with refreshments. The centre was closed, of course, by the time I arrived. But my aim was to get my walking boots on and head straight for the beach at Shipstal Point. I'd never done that before, despite many previous visits to the Isle of Purbeck over the years. Nor had I ever seen the south shore of Poole Harbour close up. I wondered what the islands in the harbour would look like.
I must have looked purposeful, as if I were a woman who knew the place well, because as I was putting my boots on a girl arrived in her car and then immediately came over to me, asking if I could tell her which were the best paths. It was her last evening in the area before going home next day, and she meant to make the most of the remaining daylight. She was friendly, with a Northern accent, and her car had a registration which suggested that she might live in Cheshire. I had to admit that this was my own first visit, and that I couldn't advise on which were the best paths. I think she looked at the RSPB map above and then set off on the red route eastwards to the beach - whereas I was going to take the green route.
Here are two modern location maps of Arne, which show where I was heading:
We couldn't have been the only people wandering about, but I saw nobody else, and it was a solitary business walking the mile to Shipstal Point. I didn't personally mind being alone one bit. It wasn't creepy or anything. But I never think it's a good idea for a woman to be walking on her own in lonely countryside too late in the day, and I had a stick with me.
The shadows were getting long, and it might be dusk before I got back to Fiona.
The route was easy to follow. The light was golden and the passing heathland very nice to look at.
The stick wasn't only for self-defence. I'd hurt a ligament in my left knee not long before - walking downhill between Lynton and Lynmouth in North Devon - and although not limping I could certainly feel an ache. (It persists to the present time, and might take months to ease off) I thought I might be glad of a little support from a stick before this jaunt was over.
Ah, Shipstal Point was close. And then I spied the beach.
Plenty of footmarks on the soft sand, but no sign of anybody. Just me, a light breeze, the gently-lapping water of Poole Harbour, some offshore islands lit up by the sun, and a white yacht floating serenely. The peacefulness of it all was intoxicating. Peace, and a sense of wonderful freedom. It felt so remote from the everyday world. And yet there was Poole, just across the Harbour, with its big-town skyline. But the sight had no reality. It might as well have been an illusion. I walked along the shoreline. The water was crystal clear. I ran the tip of my stick through it.
The light was extraordinary, and it all just got better and better.
The white yacht and the islands immediately beyond it - Long Island and Round Island - grew more distinct and ever more intriguing. Did anybody live there? In the summer, at least?
By now I had an almost overwhelming sensation of well-being and inner peace, and I didn't want to leave. It really shows in this shot:
The shoreline curved round, and the land to the south came into view.
Somewhere in the distance was Middlebere quay, or whatever was left of it. If you click on the picture above, to magnify it, and peer at its right-hand end, you can see a figure watching something, with her reflection in the water. That was the girl I'd met in the car park. She disappeared from view soon after. I assumed she'd gone back to her car. Well, sunset was nearly upon us. Best not to linger too long. To my right was a low cliff. Could I scramble up? My knee made it slightly painful, but I managed it.
The extra height brought me up into the sunshine again. It was even more golden now, making colours seem very intense. And the view of the yacht and the islands even more stunning.
There were animals grazing on that orange spit of land - deer, I thought. I was very close to the official lookout point on Shipstal Hill, so I walked over to it and compared a board showing what to see with the actual view.
The light then subtly changed. It was not so golden. Time to head back to the car park. I'd nearly reached Arne (which was really only a farm, a church, and a couple of houses) when I saw a figure coming towards me in the shadowy light. It was the girl with the Northern accent. We greeted each other, and discussed the distant animals we'd both seen off to the south. We agreed they had been deer.
'Well, I'm going back to my car now,' I said.
'Oh, I'm going round again,' she replied.
'What? The light's fading. You're very confident!'
'I do want to see as much as I can!'
'Well, take care. I get a bit nervous in the dusk. Hence the stick, in case I need to prod any man with ideas in the goolies. Or at least threaten to!'
I do admire her pluck. I expect she wanted to watch the stars appear, back at that serene beach, and never mind being alone in the dark. A last memory of magical Dorset before humdrum reality kicked in next day.