In which Joan and I visit the RSPB’s nature reserve at Arne in Dorset
A farm, a few cottages, an ancient church set on a wooded hill looking out over cornfield and pasture, hills and copses to Poole Harbour—such is Arne.Joan Begbie, Walking in Dorset, published 1936
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am, usually, following in the bootsteps of Joan Begbie and her two dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr Bundy, a diminutive griffon) in the beautiful New Forest National Park in the south of England. Joan wrote about her walks here in her 1934 book Walking in the New Forest. She also published, two years later in 1936, Walking in Dorset. In its pages, Bill and Mr Bundy still trot along at her heels (Mr Bundy) or rove into the distance (Bill). Having got myself a copy of Walking in Dorset, I thought I’d insert the occasional Dorset walk into this blog.
This time, therefore, I’ve left the New Forest and I’m four miles east of Wareham on the western edge of Poole Harbour, at Arne. I’m there with two good friends and, of course, Joan, Bill and Mr Bundy.
A little history of Arne
Fans of Springwatch will be familiar with the RSPB’s nature reserve at Arne, one of the programme’s locations, even if they’ve never visited in person. Until very recently, I was among those who’d never set foot on its heaths and woodland paths. Some good friends suggested a visit, so off we went on one of these hot, steamy days we’ve been having. I’d checked Joan’s Walking in Dorset the night before, and was delighted to discover that she, Bill and Mr Bundy had not only visited Arne, but also loved it.
In Walking in Dorset she describes approaching Arne from the south, from Middlebere and Coombe Heath.
Across the still waters rose Arne’s high, wooded promontory, and far beyond the creek’s mouth and heathy Round Island were the golden cliffs and dark pines of Brownsea…Joan Begbie, Walking in Dorset, published 1936 [Round Island and its more famous sibling, Brownsea Island, home to Red Squirrels, are two of the islands of Poole Harbour]
We arrived from a little further north, driving through Wareham and arriving at the main visitor centre for the reserve, just south of Arne village itself. There would, of course, have been no visitor centre (with its shop and café) or RSPB reserve when Joan and the dogs first came here in the 1930s. Between then and 1965, when the area now covered by the reserve was first put under the protection of the RSPB, Arne had a rather troubled twentieth century history related to the two World Wars. There’s a really interesting article about this period published in March 2009 in Dorset Life, written by Jeremy Archer – find it here.
In brief, during the First World War, a factory producing cordite used for the propellant in shells – the Royal Navy Cordite Factory – was established on Holton Heath, a few miles northwest of Arne. It was still producing cordite through the 1920s and 1930s. This much Joan would have known when she wrote about visiting Arne. The factory continued to be very important for the war effort in the Second World War. It was now, however, much more vulnerable to bombing by German planes. So, decoy sites were set up, one of which was close to Arne village. As Jeremy Archer explains in his 2009 article for Dorset Life: “A network of tar barrels and pipes carrying paraffin could be set alight to make it appear from the air as if bombs were exploding and buildings were on fire, thus encouraging Luftwaffe pilots to release their bombs over open countryside rather than on a strategic target.” On one night in early June 1942, the strategy worked very well, but with catastrophic results for the small village of Arne, which was almost completely destroyed by Luftwaffe bombs. Fires burned for six weeks, and the village had to be permanently evacuated.
Joan, who lived in Ringwood during the Second World War, must have been very sad indeed to hear of the destruction of the village she had so loved to visit. However, by the time of the site being taken on by the RSPB in 1965, she was living in Worth Matravers, just nine miles further south. I wonder if she sat at her kitchen table, newspaper spread before her, and read with pleasure of the work being undertaken to restore Arne village and the surrounding countryside. I like to think so.
After its restoration, the village now has the same feel as Joan describes it in 1936. It’s still small, and with a lovely old church.
The humble thirteenth-century church…is built of the heath’s brown stone, is roofed and buttressed with the sterner Purbeck stuff, and is simple as the life of the hamlet itself.Joan Begbie, Walking in Dorset, published 1936
We pottered round the church and its yews, and looked inside. It’s very peaceful.
Arne RSPB Nature Reserve
I’m going backwards through our visit, as we visited the church after first taking a walk round the reserve. There are several trails mapped out and, although there were lots of cars in the car park when we arrived, it never felt too busy, despite the sunshine and holiday season. Here’s a link to the trail guide: we took the ‘red trail’, walking anti-clockwise.
The path begins in woodland, and then crosses heathland, and then into woods again, and then down to the shore, and then heath, and so on. Much as in the New Forest, the lowland heathland is a hugely important habitat, and nationally it’s a threatened one. The oak woodlands are also lovely – ancient trees twisting or fallen, or standing tall, spreading their branches to the sky.
There wasn’t much in the way of birdsong or woodland birds. This is the time of year when they start to moult their summer plumage, preparing even now for the autumn and winter ahead, so they tuck themselves away. Closer to the bay there were more birds out on the shore and among the reeds and grasses, though we needed binoculars to see them properly. We were keen to see Spoonbills, one of the reserve’s most well-known species, but weren’t in luck: for a while we convinced ourselves that a group of white birds in the distance were Spoonbills, but they were Little Egrets. Neither did we spot Dartford Warblers, which the Arne website calls its “real star bird”. It didn’t matter. We sat in a hide for a while, and watched a Curlew picking its way along the marshy shore, and that was wonderful enough.
Of course, Arne may be an RSPB reserve, but it isn’t all about the birds. Arne is home to all six of the UK’s native reptiles – Slowworm, Adder, Common Lizard, Sand Lizard, Grass Snake and Smooth Snake. We didn’t see any, but it’s good to know they are there. There are deer, dragonflies and damselflies, moths and butterflies. Another walker pointed out a Wasp Spider to us, sitting perched quietly in her web.
In the woods, we found Wood Ants climbing a fallen Oak, and spent ages watching one pair collaborating to move a stick (a heavy log to the two ants) in a kind of push me–pull you arrangement.
By the shore, where we had views of Brownsea and the other islands, there was Sea Lavender; Fleabane spilled over the sides of the pathway; a Chicken of the Woods startled us with its yellow and orange; Dodder wound like tangled cables over Gorse; and Rowan berries were gleaming red.
I think that Joan would have been happy to see what Arne has become. It may no longer be the completely off-the-beaten-track place she loved – it’s too well-known for that – but wildlife and nature are doing well there.