St Catherine`s Hill was once submerged beneath the sea, and consists of layers of sand and gravel. The acidic soil once grew acres of heather but in the mid twentieth century, the hill was planted with Scots Pine and Corsican Pine, as well as the silver birches that grow so well on heathland. There is currently a programme of tree felling, to use the timber from mature conifers and to clear the land so that sandy heathland habitat can return, encouraging rare species such as Dartford Warblers, Sand Lizards and Smooth Snakes. Heathland is a rare and important habitat, but people living nearby are not happy to see well loved woodland disappear.
The view from the southern trig point, across the Avon Valley and down across flat land towards the sea. On a clear day, the hills of the Isle of Wight show clearly from this spot.
All along the hill slopes, the stumps of familiar trees left a stark landscape behind.
A faint haze of spring green topped the trees down in the valley, beside the small holdings. A ribbon of river twisted its way through grass watermeadows, between the belts of trees.
Across the heathland of Town Common, the faint shape of the Priory Church tower rises through mist over Christchurch.
We took a narrow path at the edge of the hill, where tree roots jutted over the edge and a steep slope ran down beside us, into the valley.
On the hill top, stands of pines dropped small brown cones in bramble clearings.
Piles of pine trunks, from forestry clearance, waited in the valley bottom amongst the heather.
Old Corsican Pines make fine natural sculptures........
Bare, felled slopes where heather will one day grow......
....and pines with shiny, knotted roots beside the path.
Sand was once quarried at the top of the hill and a small lake remains. Sands of strange yellows and reds are exposed among the trees.
In areas of cleared heathland , heather and gorse have grown undisturbed for several years. Unlike New Forest heath, which is grazed by ponies and cattle, this heather is able to grow uninterrupted, interspersed with dwarf gorse and lichen. These are the places where Sand Lizards can sometimes be seen on hot summer days, basking in the sun.
We crunched our way back across the pine wood floor, finding cones from Corsican Pines that had been feasted upon by squirrels.....
...and an ironwork trace of long-ago human industry, when the sand was extracted and men trudged up the hill to days of hard manual labour in the quarry.
This hill is a special, peaceful place amidst the traffic and bustle of the built-up coast. The cool mist of Saturday kept other walkers away so we met few people as we climbed down the steep homeward path through quiet, pine scented woods, towards the edge of town.