Walking in wellies at Winterborne Stickland

BREAKING in Barbours involves stamping through piles of satisfying squelchy mud, sheep dung, mouldy hazelnuts, rotting leaves and icy puddles.

The point to point at Milborne St Andrew’s been cancelled ’cause the ground’s too hard for the horses. We’ve got brand new wellies that must be muddied up, so we’ve come to Winterborne Stickland, a remote but pleasingly pretty village in North Dorset. It’s quiet but for birdsong and whinnies, and close to freezing. A horserider trots past, the animal’s hot breath steaming the air. Bags of manure are on sale for 50p.

The low skies are grey as we tramp through thin patches of snow, past villagers’ back gardens, over a hill and down a windy lane. Aha! Here’s our first glimpse of the Winterborne, Dorset’s elusive chalk stream, swollen by winter rain.

There’s a coal tit in the hedge, calling out merry little ditties. Across the bridge we trot down more lanes, past more gardens, across more fields until suddenly, we stumble on the Jubilee Trail.

Not far above a coppice, a buzzard circles, lazily. It doesn’t know we’re standing beneath the trees and we watch, spellbound, as it draws a long, low loop around us. We stop for a picnic in some more woodland, naked and shivering knee-deep in mouldering beech leaves (the tree trunks, not us!)

We perch on a log and munch on random items harvested from the fridge: bread, chicken, egg, pickled onions. Some dog walkers shuffle past. One man’s got the same guidebook as us: Pub Strolls in Dorset, by Anne-Marie Edwards.

Soon it’s too chilly to stay still, so we pack up and wander on through the woods. We find some ancient old trees throwing up a tunnel of branches above us. I can see gnarled faces furrowed and sunk into the knotty trunks.

Huge puddles are frozen over like skating rinks. We push at them with the toes of our wellies. The ice creaks, and water bubbles up. The ground’s rock hard. We stumble up snowy pathways.

Then we’re trotting down a very steep slope. After pausing to watch two more buzzards soaring on updrafts, we see a solitary white alpaca in a field next to a dairy farm. The smell of silage is heavy in the air. The cows are hungry, and move towards us expectantly.

Some poor moorhens huddle gamely on a frozen pond. Up another hill, and a warm amber suffuses the damp earth underfoot as the sun rapidly sinks, golden, behind us. Melting snow is making its own winterbornes down the slope.

We come out at Winterborne Houghton, where the River Winterborne (or North Winterborne) rises. We follow the chalk stream on its way towards several villages before flowing into the River Stour at Sturminster Marshall. Sometimes it’s chuckling away, with watercress choking its edges. Sometimes it’s not much more than a mucky pool. Sometimes, it disappears altogether.

Now you see it...

...now you don't!

A little egret is pecking in the shallows. We’re thrilled when a yellow wagtail flashes his dazzling jacket. So vivid, at first I think he’s a kingfisher. We pass a fish farm. Trout spawn in the river in winter time, apparently.

We’ve arrived back in Winterborne Stickland. Smoke drifts out of chimneys, and we drift into the pub. We pore over the Blackmore Vale Magazine and the excellent Valley News (covering the various Winterborne villages of Whitechurch, Whatcombe, Clenston, Stickland, Houghton, Turnworth and Milton Abbas). From the pages of this, we learn that some ferrets and a hutch was stolen from a home in Bryanston. Life’s not fair. And then you get your boots dirty.

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