Thoughts from the Isle of Purbeck, Dorset

12 06 2005

11-12 June 2005


The focus of this weekend has been one of the designated National Trails, the South West Coast Path. This has the reputation of being the longest of its genre, a massive and challenging prospect of 630 miles from Poole to Minehead. It goes without saying that I have done only a small part of this trail. In fact, I have done only 2% of it!

Starting from Poole I crossed Studland Beach, the Old Harry Rocks, the town of Swanage, Durlston Head, St Aldhelm’s Head and finally leaving the path at Chapman’s Pool. This took me north along the Purbeck Way towards Corfe Castle which was a fitting end to a beautiful weekend. Before tasting the joys of walking the National Trail I took a couple of hours to make a circuit of Brownsea Island.

Brownsea Island

Brownsea Island, off the city of Poole and nestled comfortably in the placid waters of Poole Harbour, is a designated nature reserve that is now under the care of the National Trust. Three things are most easily noticeable here – the Scots pines, the peacocks and the rhododendrons. The red squirrels are less easily spotted. Of these three, the last of them deserves a special mention. Flowering shrubs foreign to Britain (and indeed Europe), they are seen to be flourishing here far away from their native lands. Here they have found the ideal conditions to thrive. Perhaps it is in their intrinsic nature to be adaptable that gives them the edge over the rest. In fact, the National Trust is having to spend considerable effort in clearing them at places in order to give the Scots pines a chance to regenerate. Who can say what the future holds for foreign immigrants to Britain?

To Live in Society

While travelling to and from Brownsea Island by ferry, it occurred to me that in another age from an unrecorded past if I had set out to do this I would have had to build my own boat and row by own strength across the harbour. How wonderful it is to be able to live in society! Men and women help one another. A cooperative spirit underlines all human progress. How much more wonderful to be able to quantify each service and product by a common accepted measure! I paid £6.50 for the return ticket to the island. No questions were asked. All parties were happy.

This leads me to the next point that is more prominent here than in India, the DIY culture. Take the example of my landlord who spends considerable time and effort trying to improve things in the house. A few weeks ago he laid new wallpaper in the living room. The finishing on the edges is poor. He laid new parquet flooring. The boards are now rippling out under stress and creaking at every step. If a person can’t do something right leave it to the professionals. This is why society exists. Every individual provides a specialised service in which he or she excels. It is pointless to do something in a shoddy manner just to save a few pounds. Now, if it is a hobby pursued with interest, it is another matter. In this case, it doesn’t matter what one ends up with so long as the activity has been enjoyable. I suppose English women who attempt Indian cuisine do it for this reason. They may not make good samosas but their attempts are laudable.

I believe the real reason why people get into DIY culture is not to save a few pounds but to save a fortune. Services of any nature in this country are expensive. Anything that involves skilled labour is expensive. For a common middle-class family, in the long run, it may happen that this country is not affordable.

Natural History

The Isle of Purbeck is not really an island. However, the name does point to an age many million years ago when it would have been an island. Likewise, the Old Harry Rocks near Studland would have formed a continuous stretch of land to the Needles at the Isle of Wight. The hill upon which Corfe Castle is situated was carved from the adjacent hills by a river that once flowed there. “Corfe” is a Saxon word for gap.

The dynamism of nature is never asleep. Human lives are too short to take note of the slow changes. Human intelligence on the other hand is vast and swift enough to traverse past, present and perhaps future. This enables us to put the pieces together towards an inference of either a buried past or a predictable future.

The Naturists

Part of the stretch of Studland Beach is declared an area for naturists although those outside this exclusive group are not excluded from using it. It would have been quite a culture shock to me had I had not been forewarned of their presence by a National Trust signboard some 900 meters in advance and had I not known the meaning of the word “naturist”. So, here I was dressed in blue jeans, T-shirt, sweater, cap, glasses, walking boots, a rucksack on my back, a walking stick in one hand and an Ordnance Survey map in the other, ambling along in complete incongruity with the naturists who had nothing more on the skin than the sun, the sand and pubic hair.

To most Indians this would have been a shock. From this they would construe the moral depravity of a culture with little propriety and value. However, one has to look deeper and put more thought into understanding the underlying philosophy of this minority. To be as close as possible to nature and not unlike the rest of the animal kingdom is the essence of the naturists. It is known in primitive societies that nakedness is a norm. It is also known or widely accepted that such an exposure from childhood shapes the individual’s view of sex and sexuality in a healthy way without the taboos, the sexual obsession and moral perversion that characterise modern societies. If others think that naturists are immoral it is because they themselves are so. In fact, I was too conscious of their presence and had to make a determined effort not to look. My eyes were restless with furtive glances. My mind was too busy.

This is not to claim that naturists are without faults. Any minority will always be influenced by the majority unless it is completely isolated. In a world were these two interact constantly it is impossible for the minority to reach the highest forms of its philosophical ideals. It is not possible that naturists behave in “their” way on this part of the beach and otherwise elsewhere. Man is not a memoryless state machine.

Coastal Views

The view of the cliffs to the east of Winspit is an impressive display of the energy of nature. The most beautiful view of the walk has been that of Swanage from Ballard Cliff. The beach at Swanage is more pleasing than the one at Studland. The beach curves gracefully towards the settlement on the hills creating both balance and eye-pleasing perspective. Nature and man are seen together in harmony. There is more beauty in this curve than in the line of an airport runway; like the curvature of the earth, the arch of the horizon, the curve of a woman’s breast, the arc of a rainbow or ripples on a lake. Nothing in nature is straight. Perfection is in the dot and in the circle.

On this coastal walk, we do not find the manicured gardens filled with azaleas, wisterias or roses. Even the wild daffodils of spring are missing. The most beautiful flower at this time of the year is the purple thistle.


It is a pleasure to see sea-gulls soar high above the dashing waves and the rising cliffs. Their flight is seemingly effortless. A minute or two can pass by and not a single flap of the wings is seen. Their outspread wings catch the wind. Their flight is weightless. Their buoyancy is controlled. Their bodies are light. Millions of years of evolution have perfected their bodies for such a flight. Every movement and turn of the wind is felt by them. They have understood and mastered the essentials of nature that are important to their journeys. They care not what beasts live in the forests or what stars twinkle at night; they care not for the secrets of the deep oceans or the melted core of the earth; but when it comes to the way of the wind or the idleness of still air their knowledge is supreme. What is puzzling is the fact that they can glide against the wind with very few flaps of their wide-spanning wings.

The Chapel of St Aldhelm

The chapel of St Aldhelm on St Aldhelm’s Head is a plain one and least impressive from the outside when seen on a hot summer day. Once within the cooling shades under the stone vaulted roof, the feeling changes dramatically. Four stone walls divided into four equal sections by a central stone pillar is unique. The axes of the vaulting are aligned to the points of the compass, again a unique feature. Furthermore, the plan is a square. Only one single window with a narrow embrasure lets in light. The light that on the outside was glaring is seen to be enlightening from within. The altar has nothing but a simple cross. Although the roof is 12th century and other elements (such as the embrasure) have close resemblance to Corfe Castle, the use of this site for a religious purpose is much older. Findings of medieval graves and circular earthwork lead to this conclusion. The chapel is not used much these days. Yet the divine presence is felt without ceremony. It reinforces my own belief that any spiritual journey is a personal one. Ancient buildings may create the moods in our sojourns. More importantly, individuals need to respond.

The Skylark

I have read of the skylark and its speciality. It sings while in the air. Today I have been able to spend many minutes watching this display of song and aerial dance, both coordinated beautifully. From within a world hidden in waving grass, heath and wild flowers the skylark rises up into the air. With each flap of its wings it rises a little higher and voices out shrill chirpy notes. It rises vertically or lets the wind bear it along. Then it hovers for a while at its highest point and maintains its song. Then it descends much more quickly and its song quietens as it disappears into the grass. Will nature be as exciting if all birds were the same, if all flowers were the same, if all trees were the same? If this diversity didn’t exist, perhaps nothing would.

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle is quite a contrast to Bodiam Castle. In architecture is appears closer to Windsor Castle. Parts of the castle are surviving elements from the 11th century. Despite two sieges during the Civil War it was never forcefully taken and this does credit to its location and defences. A planned destruction by the Parliamentarians has left still enough of it for our admiration. What a strange turn of events! These days a stockpile of weapons function as deterrent to war. They bring peace. In those days, it is the destruction of castles as Corfe that kept peace. So in one case a strong defence keeps peace; in the other case it was just the opposite.

Here are castle ruins at their best. I joined a free 1-hour guided tour of the castle. I was the only one on this tour! While at Bodiam the ruins have been tidied up, here they are in the form of crumbling walls, collapsed sections, dried-up wells and loosely scattered stones. The village buildings that include many stone cottages have made generous use of the stones that once were part of the castle. Every decline gives way to a new rise.




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