Wherefore the ‘black’ in Blackmore Vale?

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Delving into Blackmore Vale’s past, Richard Miles reflects on its changing landscapes, from Thomas Hardy’s era to the impact of modern lighting

The view from the ridge above Minterne Park – Thomas Hardy’s chauffeur drove Hardy to this spot so that he could delight in the view of his ‘Vale of the little dairies’
Image: Richard Miles

If you search the origin of the name ‘Blackmore’ or ‘Blackmoor’ in Google, you will be told that it is derived from the Old English (OE) word “bloec” meaning “black, dark”, and “mor”, meaning “hill”. But beware of Google as it often oversimplifies things. The word ‘mor’ in Anglo-Saxon times also referred to a ‘morass’ or ‘swamp’ and could mean an area of raised ground liable to hold water: one that would be difficult to grow arable crops on, for instance. As to the ‘black’ part of the name, this was written as ‘blæc’ or ‘blÆc’ and could mean ‘ink’, the colour black, or dark. A variant of this is the OE feminine noun ‘blæcce’ meaning black matter.
My feeling is that anyone viewing Blackmore Vale from one of the surrounding hills, such as from the Dorset Downs to the south more than a thousand years ago, would have seen predominantly forest, which, during most of the year (apart from high summer), would endow it with a more-or-less dark, shadowed appearance.

The Hardy Way
Some 15 years ago while walking along the elevated ridge above Minterne Park in the direction of Dogbury Hill in search of a picnic place, I noticed that at one particular place you can see clearly both sides of the ridge: to the left (south-west) the upper reaches of the Cerne Valley near Minterne Magna, whereas over to the right a splendid panorama unfolded of the Blackmore Vale. So, drawn by the view, we turned right through the gate and walked a little way down the slope (OS map reference
ST 6684 0456) encountering two ladies who had just finished picnicking at that very place. In conversation, we discovered that one of them was a granddaughter of Thomas Hardy’s chauffeur. She said that during the 1920s he occasionally drove Hardy along the track to that same spot so that he could delight in the wondrous view of his ‘Vale of the little dairies.’
The track above this spot has recently been named the ‘Hardy Way’.
A century has now passed since Hardy surveyed the scene that he wrote about in Tess of the D’Urbevilles. What would Hardy make of the Vale nowadays? I would like to think that its name is still very appropriate, but I fear that nothing remains the same and the little smallholdings have largely disappeared, as has much of the woodland, transformed by larger scale farming methods over the intervening years.
Another change has been the march of technology – and in my role as dark skies adviser to Dorset CPRE, I have seen a widespread increase in lighting across the Vale. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against lighting per se. But we need the right type of lighting, in the right places, pointing the right way and switched on at the right times.
Dorset does have a good deal of ‘full cutoff’ street lighting (designed to direct the light downward and outward, rather than upwards towards the sky), and those bright sodium lights – some of which used to illuminate the dual carriageway between Sherborne and Yeovil – have thankfully now been replaced. But the countryside is also threatened by ever more development, as well as the introduction of more and higher-intensity LED lighting and the like.

Modern car headlights
One little-known fact about modern lighting is the trend towards ‘white’ light. No doubt you will have noticed those particularly dazzling headlights in new cars. The manufacturers claim they provide improvements in safety for the driver and add a stylishness to the look of the vehicle.
However, has anyone considered the problems they create for other road users and wildlife? To make the light appear white requires adding blue light to the spectrum they emit, but unfortunately ‘blue light’ is invariably ‘bad light’! One reason is that scattered light causes glare, and the amount that is scattered is much greater at the blue end of the spectrum. Technically speaking, scattering increases as the fourth power of the frequency, so the bluest light we see scatters about 16 times worse than red light of half the frequency. High-intensity discharge (HID) headlights are the worst offenders as they are both four times brighter than the standard yellow halogen light but they also have this nasty blue tint.
As well as wet weather and wet windscreens enhancing their glare, as we get older our vision also suffers from scattering of light inside the eye – blue light especially. Yellow-tinted driving spectacles work well, I’m told.
Although white headlights were first permitted as early as 1993, I was astounded to discover that in 2019, the EU mandated the use of ONLY white lights in main and dipped-beam headlights in new vehicles – and that these headlights emit a higher proportion of blue light than is present in daylight. One small relief – since Brexit, the UK has not had to adopt this rather draconian change and yellow headlights are still permitted here!
But what about the effect of unnatural levels of blue light on our wildlife and human health? That is a whole new story that has yet to be fully understood. My concern is that the march of technology will lead to the ever-increasing use of HID and LED lighting, to our own detriment, and that with increased light pollution (especially by blue light) across this part of Dorset, we will lose even more of the ‘black’ of Blackmore Vale!

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