You can’t see Verwood for the trees
Stephen’s Castle is a nature reserve on the edge of Verwood. Although only a few steps from the main road, it is virtually unknown except to local residents. Tony Burton-Page visited it and discovered a haven of tranquillity.
Published in October ’16
Driving through Verwood in the 21st century, you might be surprised to learn that the town’s name means ‘beautiful wood’. ‘Verwood’ is the Dorset dialect pronunciation of ‘fair wood’ and the village (which did not become a town officially until 1987) was known as ‘Fairwood’ until well into the 19th century – the antiquarian, Thomas Wake Smart, gives both names in his 1841 Chronicle of Cranborne. But the urbanisation and development since the 1960s (Verwood’s population increased by 300% between 1971 and 2001) has meant that there is little woodland on view to the casual passer-through.
However, a few hundred yards north of the very road on which the 21st-century driver passes through, there is genuine wilderness. The nearby Ringwood Forest may nowadays be essentially an area of commercial forestry plantation, but it is still a forest. As in its larger cousin to the east, which William the Conqueror designated ‘Nova Foresta’, or ‘New Forest’, there are open areas of heath as well as woods, something which surprises many an unwary visitor who, misled by the word ‘forest’, expects uninterrupted tracts of dense woodland.
There is one such area of heath on the north-eastern edge of Verwood: Stephen’s Castle, a nature reserve named after the tumulus at its highest point. It has been known by this name for so long that there is now no clue as to who this particular Stephen might be. The popular legend is that he was a local tribal chief of great strength: the evidence for this is that a monolith half a mile away, in the north of Ringwood Forest, is known as Stephen’s Stone because (or so the legend claims) he threw it there. Since the stone has been estimated to weigh more than three tons, there is a whiff of something stronger than improbability here.
It is in any case unwise to rely on the nomenclature hereabouts for historical evidence: near to Stephen’s Castle can be found Wild Church Bottom and Mount Ararat, and the religious folk who named these also decided to purify the previously heathen Stephen’s Lane by adding the prefix ‘St’. As Wake Smart put it: ‘We cannot believe that a Christian Sanctuary ever reared its head on this lonely spot.’ What is rather less fanciful is that thanks to an excavation in 1828 which uncovered a burial urn and some human remains, the tumulus can be dated back to the Iron Age. The urn had been made of clay and coarse sand but it disintegrated when exposed to the atmosphere, as it had not been fired.
But even in Wake Smart’s day in the first half of the 19th century, there was evidence of more recent human activity. He refers to ‘a quarry of sandstone’, meaning by this the area immediately to the south of the tumulus. It has been known as ‘The Sandpits’ for many years, as it is an outcrop of pure sandstone of such high quality that it was sought not only by the local brickmaking and pottery businesses but also by glass manufacturers and brickmakers further afield – for example, in South Wales – and was carried by train from Verwood.
The sandpits were part of Boveridge Heath, which belonged to the Somerley Estate of Lord Normanton until the huge sale of July 1919 – a sale similar to the Pitt-Rivers Estate sale of lands in Dorset in the same year, and probably for the same reason: immensely high taxes imposed by the government to cover the expenses of World War 1. This part of Boveridge Heath (672 acres out of the astonishing total acreage of 7650 on sale) included ‘A Bed of Clean Sharp Sand’ and was bought by Sidney Palmer, the youngest son of William Palmer, the owner of Ebblake Brickyard. He was responsible in 1920 for bringing piped water to Verwood from a reservoir near Stephen’s Castle; in 1944, half the town’s properties still had no running water. The sand had to be loaded by hand onto a horse-drawn cart and then taken to a site near where the present Verwood Concert Brass Band Hall stands, where it was transferred to steam lorries, which were not able to travel up the bumpy and narrow lane to the quarry. Sand ceased to be extracted from the quarry in the early 1960s.
From 1958 to 1968, at the height of the Cold War, Stephen’s Castle itself was used as a Royal Observer Corps monitoring post to detect hostile aircraft and possible nuclear attacks. It is a splendid vantage point, being 261 feet (about 80 metres) above sea level. But after that the area became a waste land used only by the occasional band of gypsies until the late 1970s, when it was taken over by the local authorities. It is now managed by the Christchurch and East Dorset Countryside Team, and they have created a haven for wildlife and for humans in equal measure.
The Stephen’s Castle Local Nature Reserve, to give it its official title, covers an area of 20 hectares (about 50 acres) of heathland and has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), as have most of Dorset’s heathlands in an effort to halt their decline: the 50,000 hectares (125,000 acres) immortalised by Thomas Hardy as ‘Egdon Heath’ had become 7000 hectares (18,000 acres) by the 1980s. Such protection is necessary because if heathland is not managed it will quickly revert to woodland and much valuable wildlife would be lost. For example, the native British reptiles can only be found on heathland, and all six live in Stephen’s Castle: the adder, the smooth snake, the
grass snake, the slow worm (which is actually a lizard with no legs), the sand lizard and the viviparous lizard.
The reserve is also rich in bird life. In addition to the usual suspects (thrush, robin, blackbird) there have been sightings of stonechats (named because of their distinctive clicking call), Dartford warblers (named after the place where they were first found in the UK), nightjars (also known as goatsuckers, from the ancient folk tradition that they suck milk from nanny goats) and dunnocks (whose name is derived from ‘dunaskos’, the Anglo-Saxon for ‘little brown one’, which is comforting to those who, not being expert ornithologists, resort to ‘little brown bird’ to describe what they saw).
Smaller winged creatures from the insect world also thrive here. Several species of dragonflies and damselflies can be found, and amongst the butterflies which have been recorded are the small heath (which is not particular to that part of Birmingham any more than the Dartford warbler is particular to that part of Kent), the grayling (which, rather confusingly, is also the name of a fish) and the rare silver-studded blue. Stephen’s Castle is also one of only five places in the UK where the pondweed leafhopper has been found. This small blue bug (only 5mm long – less than ¼ inch) lives on the widespread broad-leaved pondweed, but is itself very rare.
The two ponds at Stephen’s Castle are a by-product of the quarrying days. As the sand and gravel were removed from the site, deep holes were made below the water table, creating ponds. The ponds were also used to wash the extracted gravel. Nowadays they teem with all sorts of flora and fauna. One of the more unusual residents is the bladderwort, a carnivorous plant which captures its prey (for example, water fleas, mosquito larvae, young tadpoles) with a network of underwater bladders. The bladder traps are recognized as one of the most sophisticated plant structures in the animal kingdom: closing in about 0.002 seconds, they perform one of the quickest-known movements of any plant family. Bladderwort is now a protected species and can be seen flowering here in July.
Over the last decade, domestic livestock has been introduced to several heathland sites in Dorset, including Stephen’s Castle. The grazing by these animals helps prevent scrub and trees taking over and reduces dominant grasses, giving rarer plants a chance to grow.
Heathland fires are a perennial problem, and in April 2015, 28 firefighters from all over Dorset were called to Stephen’s Castle to tackle a fire which eventually destroyed five acres of the reserve. But Countryside Officer Jade North says that the site is recovering well: ‘Young heathers have grown up through the summer, which is encouraging. And by breaking up or removing large stands of gorse, we’re helping to reduce the impact that any future fires may have.’
Stephen’s Castle is an unusual combination of high sandy ground with some steep slopes and boggy lower ground, but there is a good accessible path around the reserve, and there are plenty of opportunities to wander off the main path and explore this little-known Dorset gem.