First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A gorgeous afternoon of sun and blue sky over the Dorset coast – exactly the sort of day to be walking the sandy paths of Arne National Nature Reserve, a rare and precious example of conservation triumphant.
Almost all of Dorset’s lowland heaths, the landscapes that Thomas Hardy immortalised, have been lost to farming and housing encroachment since his day. If the RSBP hadn’t got hold of Arne’s 1,000-odd acres of lowland heath on the western shore of Poole Harbour, the chances are it would all have been ploughed up or built over. That would have been the end of the Dartford warblers, the nightjars, the marsh harriers and raft spiders, lizards and slow worms that inhabit this highly specialised marsh and seashore – not to mention the spoonbills and ospreys that have recently set up home here.
We followed the Red Trail through quiet woods of oak and beech between hay meadows streaked yellow with buttercups. Soon the pastoral scene had given way to gorsy heath of tall pine trees. As we crossed a clearing a small burst of bird of prey, dark and intent, went scurrying across the sky – a hobby, uttering a burst of sharp yelps like a woodpecker as it disappeared.
The hobby’s prey, red dragonflies and electric blue darters, were zipping about in mating pairs over a string of weedy ponds. Stout southern marsh orchids grew in a rank beside the path, now dull red with fallen pine needles, that led to a sandy little beach at Shipstal Point where olive green wavelets fell on the shore.
From the viewpoint hillock behind the beach we got a fine prospect over Poole Harbour, the thick wooded hump of Brownsea Island prominent among a flotilla of little islets. Common terns and oystercatchers overflew the tidal waters. The millionaires’ paradise of Sandbanks lay hidden by the bulk of Brownsea, out of sight and a whole world away.
Back at the car park we set out on the second half of the walk, the Coombe Heath trail across a windy, sombre-coloured heather upland. Hidden in the scrub were Dartford warblers, rare little songsters with blood-red eyes. Camouflaged in sandy hollows lay ash-coloured nightjars, and I recalled a midsummer evening at Arne when they came out at dusk to perform their churring mating calls and wing-clapping flight.
Down in the inaccessible marshland beyond the tip of the heath, a tall pole held a sturdy platform. A large white bird of prey sat there, and looking through binoculars we realised with a thrill it was an osprey. As though intuiting it had been spotted, it slowly rose and flapped away. A memorable sight, this beautiful rare fish eagle, in a most remarkable place.
How hard is it? 4½ miles; easy; woodland and heathland paths
Start: Arne RSPB car park, Arne, Wareham BH20 5BJ (OS ref SY 971877)
Walk (OS Explorer OL15; downloadable trail map at rspb.org.uk/arne): From Visitor Centre follow ‘Shipstal Trails’. Red Trail for 1½ miles to 4-finger post (982884). Left to Shipstal Point beach. Returning, left up steps to viewpoint. Right down steps to 4-finger post. Left (‘Car Park’) back to car park. Through gate at far end; follow ‘Coombe Heath Trail’ (white arrows) anticlockwise via viewpoint (975868) back to car park.
Getting there: Arne RSPB is signed off B3075 at Stoborough, just south of Wareham.
Summer shuttle bus service, June-August (2RN) from Wareham bus/train station.
Lunch: Arne RSPB café (closes 4 pm)
Accommodation: The Bear, 14 South Street, Wareham BH20 4LT (01929-288150, thebearwareham.co.uk)
Info: rspb.org.uk/arne; 01929-553360