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Daniel Shailer
Written by Daniel Shailer
Published on 20th March 2022
11 min read

When Daniel Shailer kayaked the Arne Peninsula in Dorset, he expected wildness. Instead, he encountered a landscape scarred with human activity.

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Elizabeth Jane-Burnet wrote that upturning earth is a way of listening to the ground speak. If that’s true, then for almost a century Arne Peninsula, on the south coast of Dorset, has been screaming. It’s been bombed, dug for clay and pumped for oil. It was even pimped out as a wartime, landscape-scale decoy. Many of Britain’s landscapes are evidence of neglect. Arne can speak to outright abuse.

But after centuries of extraction, bombs and flame, Arne has emerged as one of the UK’s most biodiverse areas. Every one of Britain’s native reptiles, rare spiders, wasps and heath call Arne home. It contains more mammal species than any other ten-kilometre square in the country. It has emerged, an unbowed example of nature’s gentle, indomitable power.

'Many of Britain’s landscapes are evidence of neglect. Arne can speak to outright abuse.'

It wasn’t until a friend, Toby, and I explored from a different perspective that I realised just what kind of ‘nature’ is emerging in Arne: how artificial, cultural and distinctly precious it might be.

The plan: down the River Frome, out of town; into the harbour, out to sea. Hopefully we’d find a dry spot to pitch for the night. We had consulted Google maps, borrowed a pair of kayaks and ordered some dry bags the day before – crossing our toes one would be big enough to fit a tent in. 

We’d both just finished university exams after a more closeted term of revision than ever. By the time summer arrived, being outside – emerging into long, warm nights – felt like indulging. “Out of town” figured in my mind like a binge.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Shailer

We launch a few hundred metres from the church my parents married in, below a bridge at the end of Wareham’s High Street: a road which has, in the last few years, seen sustainable butchers and zero-plastic refill stores popping up next to the old pubs and the local Conservative Club, with its blue swinging doors. Our little open-top Scooters have never been such beasts of burden. Toby’s, with the Trangia and tins, is fine. Mine, with the tent, sags, drags and (once I remember to wedge its bung in) performs a passable imitation of floating.

It doesn’t matter, because for the first hour we simply float downstream, slaloming between swimming dogs, rented kayaks, catamarans and dinghies from Ridge sailing club and, eventually, just lines of swans trailing between reed banks. Soon, the River Piddle joins from the left, its widening energy forcing each bevy of swans into increasingly muscular rallies to make it from bank to bank. 

There are redshanks, snipe, and a seal playing between buoys marking submerged mudbanks. We emerge into the harbour and, at last, there isn’t another person in sight. The sun is shining over thin wisps of cloud. Sun-cream weather. The contrast with revision notes under desk light couldn’t be greater.

Poole Harbour is the second largest natural harbour in the world, and Arne Peninsula sticks into it from the southwest corner like a great crab claw, clutched around an east-facing bay. Arne farm, its church and the old school house cluster in the middle, and different coloured trails scribble through a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve which terminates in the reserve’s modest, muddy cash cow: Shipstal Beach.

'Our little open-top Scooters have never been such beasts of burden. Toby’s, with the Trangia and tins, is fine. Mine, with the tent, sags, drags and (once I remember to wedge its bung in) performs a passable imitation of floating.'

It's late morning when we pull in and prop our paddles behind a gorse bush. We walk inland, stepping between dragonflies and tiny gorse shieldbugs, over funnelled spider webs still draped in dew. 

A hundred metres from the shore we find warm, humid shade. There’s a birch so old its bark resembles granite more than silver – as if wizened to the tune of geological time. It’s next to a clutch of ancient oaks so wide that Toby and I couldn’t join hands round even the smallest if there were four of us. Back home, I’ll learn that this is Froxen Copse, a name first recorded in 1778, from the Old English frogga: a place where frogs are found. We don’t see any frogs, but follow a light peeking through the other side of the copse.

Herons, oystercatchers, curlews. More and more varied ground-nesting birds than I have names for. We’ve found a lake at the edge of the peninsula. The copse runs up to its lip and flanks both sides. A thin river snakes to the left and back into the harbour – both in- and out-flow. Squat in the middle of this oasis there’s a pontoon, like a small, square question mark. Squinting, we can see little impertinent sprouts of green samphire.

Photos courtesy of Daniel Shailer

The edge of the lake is bright orange, and littered with shards of brick: the detritus of an old ball clay pit. Clay was first pawed up from the area for pipes in the 1500s, but digging took an industrial edge in 1760, after the first contract was signed for 1,400 tons of clay, to be sent to the fledgling Wedgwood Company in Staffordshire. For more than a century after that, clay from the harbour was taken in barges to feed pottery manufacturing towns across the Midlands and North of England. This reserve of especially valuable ball clay, at the very end of the peninsula, remained hidden in the ancient copse longer than most.

Now, looking properly, we can see the parallel truck tracks leading to the edge of the lake in two places, and Toby notices another track leading round the edge of the lake back in the direction of our kayaks. Our intrepid trek through ancient woodland was, in fact, one decent hedgerow away from the ruts of industrial extraction.

Our hidden discovery feels like a small, silent deceit – existing only as an afterthought, flooded three years after Imerys, the multi-billion, multinational mining company, had bought the plot, dug it out and left. Even a decade later the water is fuggy with suspended clay. Only the twice-daily tidal water, flowing through a channel carved by conservationists, staves off eutrophication and stagnation. We hadn’t found an oasis, but a failing organ on life support.

It was time for lunch.

'Our intrepid trek through ancient woodland was, in fact, one decent hedgerow away from the ruts of industrial extraction.'

We paddle on round to Shipstal Beach, where I’d first spotted a harbour seal in lockdown, a year earlier. You can’t really swim at Shipstal; it welcomes you with an inviting combination of knee-deep mudflats and razor-sharp shells from an old oyster-fishing base. Nonetheless, my family and I have been coming here since before I was forming memories. We’re not religious, but each of my brothers and I were christened at the church in Arne, and carried the hour or so down to the beach.

In that time I never saw a seal in the water until 2020. That’s not because Arne is a tourist hotspot, even at its busiest. But Poole Harbour can be. The same year a report found Arne was the most biodiverse ten-kilometre square in the UK, in terms of mammals, Millionaire's Row in Sandbanks (across the water) was declared the most expensive stretch of coastal real estate in the entire world. 

When lockdown arrived, the yachts, paddle boards and jet skis stopped arriving from Poole. For a brief moment, the harbour emerged into a state of naturalness so unexpected that it registered like something unnatural. It wasn’t penguins waddling through Cape Town, but watching a seal play off the beach felt like a small miracle.

Today is different. We’ve been on the beach long enough to unpeel the clingfilm from slightly squashed sandwiches when a canoe of boy scouts pulls ashore. They are also headed to Brownsea Island, and will be joined, we learn, by  many more boy scouts. If we want to catch a corner of the campsite before the flotilla arrives, it is time to move on.

As we’re getting kit back on Toby realises he’s forgotten his hat. We turn around and see three of the scouts are playing rock paper scissors for it. Toby doesn’t play, but he gets his hat back. We paddle away quietly.

'The same year a report found Arne was the most biodiverse ten-kilometre square in the UK, in terms of mammals, Millionaire's Row in Sandbanks (across the water) was declared the most expensive stretch of coastal real estate in the entire world.'

We spend the best part of the afternoon working over to the island, shaded under wide-brimmed dad hats. On the sandy, southwestern corner, we stash our kayaks behind a collapsed pine trunk and clamber along the coast, only to find we’re too late. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Brownsea is the home of the Scouts, where Robert Baden-Powell first pitched camp in 1907 and taught 20 boys the dubious learnings of colonial warfare. Set out before us is the most comfortable campsite I’ve ever seen: bonfires, cooking marquees and hammocks. There is a separate circus tent for storing sailboats. 

Starting to tire, we push on towards the mouth of the harbour and find a quiet stretch of sand just before its southern lip. We pitch, dry off and set up our Trangia far from the scrub. Dinner is pasta with a tin of tomatoes and, inevitably, a modest crunch of sand. But it doesn’t matter, because we’ve finally found somewhere quiet and, at last, wild. 

Until the sun begins to set, and three families and their equivalent weight in dogs arrive with deck chairs to watch the view. How had they reached this inconspicuous corner of the harbour? We were camped a hundred metres from a road.

The clay pit lake - photo courtesy of Daniel Shailer

The next morning, at 7am, we leave the harbour and Arne behind, paddling east. The wind has picked up overnight and we settle into a rhythm, listening to the waves slapping against our hulls. Studland Beach begins to curl out before us, blissfully deserted.

We are paddling past an old WWII pillbox when I notice another, much larger fort on the cliff above the beach. I’ve not seen it before swimming out into the water, but from kayaks it is unmistakable. In the final, quietest moment of our trip, the screeching violence of history has landed square in front of us, cast in concrete and slowly sliding down the cliffs into the sea. As it turns out, we were unwittingly kayaking through the old firing-line of a devastating strategy.

The full story would only emerge when we got home later that day. Local history blogs, I discovered, are proud to report that the same fort once kept Churchill, Roosevelt and George VI out of the wind as they observed mock landings in preparation for D-Day. The same strategists presumably noticed that Studland might make a tempting spot for a Nazi landing, so it received the attention of the Petroleum Warfare Department.

Inspired by the “awe-inspiring sight” of an oil tanker aflame at sea after the invasion of France, Lord Geoffrey-Lloyd, a wartime cabinet aid, devised a plan to “burn the invader back into the sea.” Churchill was reportedly onboard, so pipelines were installed along likely beaches, ready to pump oil directly into the sea and set it alight. The fire starters were primed, but an invasion never arrived. 

Arne was not so lucky. In 1942, 500 tons of Luftwaffe explosives hit the empty heath. Across the harbour, a cordite factory remained silent, unharmed and blacked out. When the first planes were spotted, a small group of soldiers stationed in Arne rushed to set the whole Peninsula ablaze. The first bomber presumed the factory had already been hit, and every pilot followed suit. Locals woke up to raging fires and 200 craters pocked across the heath.

Even in the 1940s, before Studland was considered for the programme, ecologists were aware of the importance of rare sand-dune habitat by the beach - habitat which has since been recognised as a hotspot for spiny and short-snouted seahorses and carbon-sucking seagrass. 

When my family walked down to the beach each christening, we would walk past bomb craters filled with newts, frogs and dragonflies without even noticing. Now, knowing why they are there – just knowing that they are there – rankles. When I’m feeling particularly earnest, the craters feel like a wholesale betrayal of the land itself.

'Arne was not so lucky. In 1942, 500 tons of Luftwaffe explosives hit the empty heath. Across the harbour, a cordite factory remained silent, unharmed and blacked out. When the first planes were spotted, a small group of soldiers stationed in Arne rushed to set the whole Peninsula ablaze.'

After breakfast, we continue down the coast as far as we can, battling past Old Harry and along a daunting façade of white cliffs. We arrive, panting, in Swanage. Two lifeguards walk over, take one look at our bedraggled Scooters and tell us in no uncertain terms what they think of us forging on to the next headland. They use the word ‘fatal’ more than twice. We were defeated; it was time to go home.

What emerged from our adventure was not the nature we felt like we needed, but the one we deserved. I had expected Arne to emerge in all its wilderness, but the more we explored the more we found artifice, violence and human intervention.

In a landscape which has experienced, and will continue to experience, so much change, my vision of a stable, emergent naturalness was an impossible fantasy. Even the heath – the Peninsula’s prized ecological feature – only took over after Bronze Age settlers deforested its original wildwood.

Since our small adventure, Arne has continued to emerge in new ways: both physically and in my head. New animals are being permanently released on the Peninsula, like mangalitsa pigs and free-grazing cattle. Recently I visited a new beaver enclosure upstream on the Frome, where dams slow the water and filter out the excess nitrates and phosphates of agricultural run-off. 

More than anything, Arne has emerged for me as a perfect example of why environmentalist Bill McKibben’s famous one-liner – “nature is dead” – can be both true and profoundly false. In 1989, at the height of oil extraction from Arne and the rest of south Dorset, McKibben was writing from North America that we’d made “every spot on the earth man-made and artificial.” Between bomb craters, claypits and boy scouts, it was hard to see where he’s wrong.

But amongst the flaming pits and hellish seascapes, natural processes (if not a fully natural landscape of wolves and woolly mammoths) have returned. If emergence is figured as a kind of coming into light, then Arne’s most dogged natural survivors practise a reverse emergence: ferreting into the upturned soil of human destruction. Rare sand lizards rely on scrapes to burrow away their eggs, as do ultra-rare purbeck mason wasps. The ferociously speedy heath tiger beetle shoots itself between underground holes, and where craters or pits have filled with water, birds, bugs and frogs run riot.

'If emergence is figured as a kind of coming into light, then Arne’s most dogged natural survivors practise a reverse emergence: ferreting into the upturned soil of human destruction.'

On our adventure so much seemed inauthentic, but Arne hasn’t experienced an ‘authentic’ natural equilibrium, free from human influence, in at least four millennia. It probably never existed in the first place. From this ostensibly bleak realisation, an incredibly freeing future emerges for Arne, and for how we engage with landscapes across the UK. 

Lines have been drawn in the sand by farming unions and rewilding advocates for what Britain ‘ought’ to look like. To some, an agrarian, pastoral image of rolling hills and manicured farms is most naturally ‘British’. Others will picture radically wilder landscapes, like forested glens or mosaics of scrub and grassland. Even within the latter party, there is disagreement about what Britain’s ecological ‘climax’ state would be if its landscapes were left to their own devices. Some argue Britain deserves more temperate rainforest, others that we risk fetishising romantic visions of dappled forests across the country which never existed.

Arne shows us that any recourse to historic or cultural naturalness isn’t meaningful in landscapes which are irrecoverably changed.

'Arne shows us that any recourse to historic or cultural naturalness isn’t meaningful in landscapes which are irrecoverably changed.'

In Arne, where natural processes emerge triumphant over any essential notion of ‘nature’ itself, nothing as elusive as ‘authentic’ nature is needed. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make stewardship of our culturally constructed, unnatural nature any easier. In places like Arne, it means that communities need to decide what their human and environmental priorities are and how to enact them, without the safety wheels of a retrievable historical standard. 

Fortunately, the trophic connections between species in Arne still exist. If we let them, pigs and cows can churn up earth for lizards, wasps and beetles. These animals remember how to hold a conversation with the earth – without screaming bombs and flame. It’s not a natural landscape, but it is a way of letting the landscape conduct itself naturally and, hopefully, dictate how it emerges into the future.