Colin Varndell finds beauty and richness in one of Dorset’s less populous areas
Published in August ’10
Cogden looks rather an unassuming piece of ground and coastline when viewed from the coast road between Burton Bradstock and West Bexington. It doesn’t shout at you that this is an interesting place to visit – but it is. Cogden forms part of the Jurassic Coast and is generally unspoiled, but it is exposed to the westerly winds. The area has a certain rugged and unkempt beauty and remoteness about it. The beach is one of the top angling places on the Dorset coast and scores of fishermen are often seen standing like statues with their lines stretching into the sea, as many fishing competitions are held here. Otherwise, Cogden attracts few visitors because it has nothing in the way of human habitation, cafés, public toilets or shops. It is certainly not a bathing beach, so it does not attract the holiday crowds. The most you are likely to encounter are a few dog-walkers and the fishermen.
This stretch of coast and the land immediately behind it are especially rich in wild creatures and plantlife. Small fields with wet flushes slope down towards the beach from the coast road. These meadows are lightly grazed by a few cattle and a couple of horses, producing ideal conditions for wild flowers. Fleabane and wild mint bloom in huge clumps during the summer, attracting a wide range of butterflies. The freshly emerged brimstones and peacocks flit around these flowers, intoxicated by the heady nectar. Common blue, brown argus, clouded yellow and the day flying five-spot burnet moth are also attracted to these floral accumulations.
Burton Mere (also known as Cogden Reedbed) is an inland stretch of reed-surrounded water, trapped between the Chesil and the mainland. This area of water, together with Bexington Mere further east, supports a wide range of birds throughout the year. In summer, the reedbeds around the meres are literally heaving with life. The strange, gurgling, almost mammal-like calls of water rail can be heard, reed buntings sing from the tops of the reeds, and the loud songs of the Cetti’s, reed and sedge warblers persist right through until late July. In winter, the two meres are home to wading birds and wildfowl. The various pools and bogs also support a good range of dragonflies and damselflies. The large red damselfly and broad-bodied chaser dragonfly are the earliest to appear. Later on, in mid-summer, there are healthy populations of skimmers, hawkers and darters.
The marsh frog was introduced into Britain at Romney Marsh in the 1930s. At that time, only twelve individual frogs were brought over from Hungary. However, from that small number their population grew and thrived and has gradually spread thoughout the lowland counties of England. It has been recorded now in good numbers between Cogden and Bexington for the past two years.
Immediately behind the reedbeds, a damp meadow erupts in a drift of green-winged orchids, mingling with cowslips and dandelion clocks in spring. Other orchids which occur along this stretch of coast annually include early purple, southern marsh, greater butterfly, common-spotted, bee, pyramidal and autumn ladies tresses, the latter being the last to bloom, in late summer. In addition, a small colony of marsh helleborine was recorded last year for the first time.
The well-worn track down to the beach from the car park is lined with dense thickets of gorse and blackthorn which support a healthy community of birds. This scrub comes alive with the songs and calls of small birds in spring. Stonechats hurl their abusive ‘chat’ calls at passers-by from prominent perches. Yellowhammers throw their heads back to sing their monotonous tunes from the tops of gorse bushes. Whitethroats are common here and may be seen on bare twigs, hastily uttering their scratchy jumble of notes before diving back into the bushes. The lesser whitethroat on the other hand, although quite numerous here, is seldom seen as it prefers to sing from the safety of cover.
On the beach, from early April through to late summer there is a succession of wild flowers, including some unusual species like yellow horn poppy and sea holly. Sweeping drifts of pink thrift decorate the shingle, and patches of grass amongst the scrub support ground-hugging plants like tormentil and spring cinquefoil. Some of the earliest plants to appear – or rather burst out – include sea campion and sea kale. It is hard to understand how such a large and vigorous plant like the kale could find enough nourishment and moisture not only to survive but to thrive on this desolate wasteland of pebbles. Sea kale overwinters beneath the pebbles, but when the new leaves appear in early spring, they are the most gorgeous deep green with vivid purple leaf-veins.
Cogden is an excellent site for observing reptiles and four species have been recorded here. The adder, one of our most beautiful wild animals, was traditionally poorly understood in the past and as a result was persecuted by humans. Nowadays, with a much more educated public, the adder is respected and is a protected species. Cogden is not such an easy place to observe mammals as it is so open and exposed. However, many species of wild mammal have been recorded here, including the brown hare, red fox, water vole, stoat, rabbit, mole, roe deer and muntjac deer. All but the last are native. The muntjac is indigenous to China and the Far East. It was first introduced into captivity in Britain at Woburn Park at the beginning of the 20th century. From here it escaped, and bred in the wild successfully. It is gradually colonising the whole of southern England and has been recorded between Bexington and Cogden for some years now.
Whether you come to here to see the rich variety of wildlife, or just to enjoy a walk along this stretch of the Jurassic coast, Cogden is well worth experiencing as one of Dorset’s truly wild places.