Secrets and Spies

HOW thrilling that Ethel and Harry sat here in 1960 – two middle-aged civil servants in a sleepy Dorset pub, hatching their plot to sell our naval secrets to the Russians.

A framed account of the Portland Spy Ring, penned by fabled Weymouth journalist Harry Walton, hangs on the walls of the Elm Tree Inn.

This pub is no stranger to espionage or contraband. According to Anne-Marie Edwards, author of our well-thumbed guide book Pub Strolls In Dorset: “As in most villages close to the Dorset coast, the inhabitants of Langton Herring took an active part in the lucrative trade in smuggled goods from France during the 18th and early 19th centuries and a bricked-up hole in the Elm Tree Inn cellar is possibly an escape tunnel or a hiding place for their illicit brandy and tea, tobacco, laces and silks.”

Alas, the barman tells me there’s no cellar these days, let alone a hole, although village folklore tells how a secret tunnel linked the pub to St Peter’s Church round the corner.

Next to the pub, village blacksmith Robert Fielding is hammering away at an ornamental plant pot holder as his entry for the blacksmith classes at the Dorset County Show.

Just before we get to the church, we find a gingery-marmalade coloured cat sat on a first floor window sill. It eyes us very suspiciously.

The flag flies at half-mast from St Peter’s. A handwritten note informs us this is in memory of a villager who has died at the age of 83.

We trudge up a high ridge with stunning views of Dorset downs. Then we catch our first glimpse of Chesil Beach and the Fleet Lagoon.

Butterflies and dragonflies flit over stubbled wheatfields. Next to a wood, we see a deer, poised, watchful. It eyes us for perhaps a minute. Time stands still. Magic hangs in the air. I hold my breath. It turns, and delicately picks its way out of view.

Indigo orbs of sloe berries stud the hedgerows. Blackberries are still stubbornly green, thanks to the harsh winter and late spring.

In the distance sits ‘Donkey Island’, named after the Weymouth Beach donkeys wintering there. A helicopter whirrs up, up, up – could it be whisking away VIPs who’ve been living it up at Moonfleet Manor for the weekend?

Our path leads down beyond a row of coastguard cottages to a tiny beach, Langton Hive Point. The eight-mile long lagoon laps at our feet, and we meet a man from Wimborne hunting for fishermen – apparently the grey mullet are plentiful here. Delapidated rowing boats are piled up on parched eel grass – flat-bottomed, so they can skim over the shallow waters of the Fleet.

The Fleet is still and serene, and reminds me of a Scottish loch (minus the mountains). All I can hear is the warm summer breeze rustling the wheat ears. At the far end we see herons, stalking and pecking about.

We follow the banks of the Fleet for a while before taking a track up the hill to Langton Herring. As I look back, the horizon is studded with haystacks. Glorious.

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