Ornithomorphic Dorset: taking off for the Beach in the Sky?

July 20, 2014

The perception or recognition of animal forms as geographical features is a well-attested phenomenon. To the Tikigaq people of Point Hope, Alaska, Point Hope itself, jutting into the strait, had once been a whale who was lured to its death by the song of a primal shamanic harpooner in mythic time, living on as the peninsula (Lowenstein 1993, cited in Whittle 2000: 251). Even the non-traditional, ‘disenchanted’ context of modern cartography has afforded the practice of a kind of cartomancy or divinatory geography, exemplified most obviously in the imagined (but no less real) arrangement of the landscape giants of the Glastonbury Zodiac, as first outlined by K.E. Maltwood in 1935 and further elaborated by researchers following in her wake.

Why Not?

Why Not?

For years I’ve entertained the thought that the Isle of Portland and the long stretch of Chesil Beach which runs up to it, together form the head and neck of a large aquatic bird. After all, Portland Bill, at the tip of the bird’s beak, is a toponymic suggestion of this. (In respect to the last post on a portable stone ‘bird-head’ found in my garden, Portland and Chesil can be seen as a gigantic version of the same). Similarly suggestive, at the other end of the Fleet (the lagoon enclosed by Chesil Beach and the Dorset mainland) which forms the bird’s long neck, is Abbotsbury Swannery, the only managed colony of nesting mute swans in the world. Formerly managed by the monks of the Benedictine monastery of St Peter’s, prior to its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1539, a swannery has been recorded here as early as 1393, and is likely much older (see here).  With such unique associations it wasn’t hard to imagine a swan sculpted in rock and shingle, its wings spreading inland.

Portland Crane

This stretch of Dorset coastline was the setting for J. Meade Faulkner’s book, Moonfleet (1898), which I enjoyed reading at school. Further ornithomorphic associations can be drawn from this.  In 1757, Meade Faulkner’s Moonfleet (based on a real place, East Fleet) is a small village which gets its name from a formerly prominent local family, the Mohunes, whose coat of arms includes a symbol shaped like a capital ‘Y’. The local inn, called the Mohune Arms, is nicknamed the Why Not? because of its sign with the Mohune ‘Y’. It is this little detail from a work of fiction which offers a schematic depiction of a long-necked bird with swept-back wings in mid-flight.


Juvenile crane in flight (from here).

Looking at the morphology of the Isle of Portland, I wonder whether the closest match for a bird species is the crane. Whatever the species – goose, swan, crane or cormorant – the angle of the head of Portland to the neck of Chesil suggests a range of postures: that the bird is about to take off, has just landed, is standing upright, or has tilted its head before taking a plunge.


Satellite image of Chesil Beach and Portland (From here)

This is ‘landscape art’ on a vast scale, however, and is much larger than the image rippling in the contours of the hills surrounding Glastonbury, suggested by Kathy Jones as the figure of a crone riding a swan. Flying west, the outstretched neck and head of the swan is formed by Wearyall Hill, the head and pointed nose of the crone is Windmill Hill, her breast is Chalice Hill and the Tor is her womb (Jones 1996, 1990).


Aphrodite Riding a Goose (British Museum Cat. No. London D2 Beazley Archive)

Assuming a body in proportion to the Portland head, if the wings are upraised or outstretched in the act of descending or ascending, then most of Dorset could form the bird’s body, conceivably! In which case, the upraised wing-tip reaches Swanage (appropriately enough) and the feet and tail extend to Lyme Regis and Marshwood Vale.

Dorset 1888

To Christopher Tilley’s essay, ‘The Beach in the Sky’, a chapter of his book, Metaphor and Material Culture (1999), I owe part of the title of this post. Of the early settlement of Portland, he writes of a Mesolithic occupation at Culver Well around 6100-5700 BC. I find some affirmation for the imagined ornithomorphic landscape of the area in the name of this spring: culver, the traditional name of the cliff-dwelling bird which has made itself at home among the artificial cliffs of towns and cities as the pigeon. As a word, culver is derived from the Latin word for the dove and pigeon: columba. This etymology allows a digression into a realm of speculation around the illuminated text, The Book of Kells (from here):

St. Columba was from the Druid tradition, that’s why he is called a Crane Cleric. The crane being Cygnus, and connected to Manannan and his Crane Bag in which he kept his treasures. The treasures being the Ogham tract, including the vowels, consonants and diphthongs, plus the rolled up strip of the Whale’s back. The beginning of Columba’s name is Col. Coll is the Hazel, the Hazels of Wisdom.

As to the actual existence of the great Dorset swan/crane/goose/cormorant… well, why not?


Keizaburo Tejima, woodcut from Swan Sky, 1983


Anonymous (Katharine Emma Maltwood). 1935. A Guide to Glastonbury’s Temple of the Stars. London: John M. Watkins.

Kathy Jones. 1990. The Goddess in Glastonbury. Glastonbury: Ariadne Publications (updated 1996 edition).

Christopher Tilley. 1999. Metaphor and Material Culture. Oxford: Blackwell.

Alasdair Whittle. 2000. ‘Very Like a Whale’: Menhirs, Motifs and Myths in the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition of Northwest Europe. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10:2. 243-59.

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