A Winter’s Tale

PUBLISHED: 14:52 09 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:42 20 February 2013

A Winter's Tale

A Winter's Tale

Seeing the snow had arrived, photographer Colin Varndell grabbed his chance and set off to Lewesdon Hill with his camera to get some good winter shots

Seeing the snow had arrived, photographer Colin Varndell grabbed his chance and set off to Lewesdon Hill with his camera to get some good winter shots. Here, he shares with us the rare sight of a winter wonderland in Dorset

Harsh winters seem to be very much a thing of the past these days in Dorset, but living as I do within walking distance of one of the county's highest hills I do experience the occasional brief taste of real winter.

Lewesdon Hill sits next to its sister, Pilsdon Pen, and there has always been much debate in the West Dorset countryside about which of these two hills is the highest. In the past, it was usually Pilsdon which came out top, but according to the most recent Ordnance Survey maps Pilsdon is marked at 277 metres and Lewesdon at 279, which gives the latter a two-metre advantage in height.

The top slopes of Lewesdon are clothed with broadleaved woodland comprising mainly of beech with ash, oak and Scots pine. There are also a few native rowan trees and some silver birch. The woodland covers more than 27 acres and is thought to be a site of ancient, primeval forest.

My story begins on one cold January morning when I awoke to see a dusting of snow on our lawn and decorating the trees and shrubs in the garden. With the realisation that this may be an opportunity to photograph real snow I leapt into thermal underwear and warm clothing, grabbed my camera and set off for Lewesdon Hill. I drove for quickness, as I knew that such a light dusting of snow would not last for long.

The view of the hill from the Broadwindsor road was quite magnificent, with the snow-laden beech trees appearing like a regiment of soldiers, marching down the steep slope. Here the snow was much thicker on account of the altitude. There is a concrete road up to the woodland, but this is private and the public have no rights to use it; therefore I parked on the side of the Bridport to Broadwindsor road. The climb to the summit of Lewesdon is an arduous one, made even more strenuous by the weight of photographic equipment and the urgent need to get there before this winter wonderland dissolved. Luckily, there was a blanket of cloud, but this was soon to change.

As I made my way steadily higher along the slippery path, the snow became noticeably thicker on the ground. Instead of just a dusting of white power, now it was smothering the ground like a stifling blanket. The atmosphere under the snow-laden trees felt claustrophobic and muffled, as the snow seemed to have silenced all life.

At the first levelling out of the hill, I stopped to catch my breath and assess the situation. I decided to work at this level because here there were some interesting woodland views and lines of old beech trees, which would be photogenic in the snow. At this level the snow really was thick, almost ankle-deep. Looking south towards Bridport I could see the fields were green, they had probably not experienced anything more than just sleet there.

After half an hour or so, the sun began to break through the cloud and I knew that the landscape would quickly change once the sun's rays penetrated the wood. The view across the hills around Beaminster was superb, with the whitened shapes and contours of the landscape sparkling in the sunlight. I climbed the last 30 metres or so to the very summit of Lewesdon where the snow lay significantly deeper. Now it was well above my ankles and I thought of the disparity of the dusting of snow on my lawn back down in Netherbury. Here there were sprigs of bracken poking up through the thick layer of snow, which was fresh and unbroken. As I looked behind I felt a slight pang of guilt at having disturbed this virgin blanket of ice crystals, with my crunched boot prints trailing away behind me.

Since snow is such a rare occurrence, I took every opportunity I could to take pictures, working quickly to beat the impending thaw. The sun rose higher and I became aware of dripping from the branches. Then came a sliding sound as the snow on the trees released its grip and I knew I was done for.

I packed away my camera and walked from the wood, thinking about other seasons in this magical place. Lewesdon is always an impressive hill to visit at any time of year, but when it snows up here it is that bit more special. Other seasons that yield exquisite curiosities are spring, with the fresh green beech leaves and carpets of lush bluebells, and later in autumn, with the golden foliage and extraordinary variety of fungi. The beechwood supports a healthy array of woodland wildlife, ranging from impressive insects such as hornets and bumblebees to large mammals, which include roe deer and badgers. Great spotted woodpeckers can be seen and heard drumming against the dead beech branches, and buzzards and ravens are present throughout the year.

Coming back down the hill, satisfied that I had taken every possible opportunity offered by this now rare weather condition, I could sense the gathering pace of the thaw. Large droplets of water were dripping from every tree, branch and bush. It was almost like one of those summer downpours but much colder. In the distance the fields were now totally green again. This wonderful early-morning experience had reminded me of how growing up in West Dorset had left me with memories of wintry snow, which seemed to occur far more frequently then than it does today.

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