“Adders … Keep to the path.”
Now there’s a sign to grab attention on a carefree saunter in the Dorset countryside. I study the winding pine needle-strewn trail and mossy rocks at my feet hoping to eyeball a lethargic serpent in need of a little heat to perk up the cool late summer. Nothing doing – adders are shy. And anyway, a windy grey day is unlikely to lure reptiles or many other creatures into the open.
It’s a shame because this heathy part of Dorset, east of Dorchester, is home to other sun-lovers, too – butterflies, such as silver-studded blues and graylings, but none come out to play. But then a vision of orange, white and black jags ahead of us between gorse bushes: a painted lady surely? It alights and reveals itself as the jersey tiger moth, which looks different when perched – all black and cream chevrons, its orange underwings hidden as it folds itself into place.
This lovely corner of the county is part of the recently opened 93-hectare (230-acre) Silverlake estate, where with my wife and one of my sons, I’m enjoying the weekend exploring the regreened grounds, lake swimming, cycling and walking. It’s extraordinary to keep in mind that just a few years ago this wildlife-rich landscape was a wasteland of deserted quarries.
On our first walk to the far reaches of the estate, birdlife seems as reticent as the butterflies – that is until we descend a conifer-shrouded ridge to a magical grove of gnarled and lichen-covered birches to find a spot alive with flitting warblers, a spotted flycatcher, three treecreepers and a pair of nuthatches. It’s an extraordinary minute of birding.
Views open up across bullrush-fringed lakes back to Silverlake’s houses: these face another body of water on which a man is paddleboarding. The stylish modern houses, variously of glass, stone, wood and brick, are part of the latest development from family-run Habitat Escapes (which is also behind Lower Mill in Cotswold Water Park). The aim is to marry regreening with slick contemporary eco accommodation. To the south I glimpse the Purbeck hills, green and gold in the late afternoon, behind which lie Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door.
We’d arrived the previous day. Passing through famous villages such as Tolpuddle and Affpuddle, with their thatched longhouses and venerable hedgerows, and wandering lanes, we’d been reacquainted with old Dorset. But at super-modern Silverlake, with its slick spa, open-air heated pool, sauna, gym and gentle water sports, we had arrived in another Dorset. This one looks superficially more like Finland, what with the combo of modern waterside design, pine trees and lake. We might have been in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex but I can’t imagine Tess or Jude reaching languorously for their smartphones to book spa and swimming sessions.
Until four years ago the site was made up of sand and gravel quarries. Warmwell Quarries left a “moonscape” bereft of vegetation, says Habitat Escape’s resident ecologist, Phoebe Carter, who has been at the forefront of the project from the start.
The results have seen local dormice extend their range, nightjars nest in the heather in summer and creatures such as great-crested newts enjoying life amid the new ditches, native wildflower-strewn embankments, hedges and ponds. Pollinator numbers are up, with 62 species of bee and wasp now on the roster and rare native plants such as heath lobelia reintroduced. Add in the benefits for Dorset’s established rarities, such as smooth snakes, adders and sand lizards, and there’s little room for scepticism about the development from an eco standpoint.
“No one in the UK is doing what we’re doing on this scale in terms of bringing nature and building together,” says Phoebe. She’s keen to point out that the enterprise is more about regreening than rewilding: managing the landscape for nature’s benefit rather than standing back and allowing it to “go wild”. So nesting boxes for bats and swifts and bee bricks are much in evidence alongside the native flower-strewn embankments and tree saplings.
In the second world war the site was home to RAF Warmwell, a base during the Battle of Britain. Occasional reminders loom up on our walk, a pillbox amid the pines, as out of context in the here and now as a stone circle or ancient tomb. An old aircraft hangar by the spa is covered in a mural of local creatures and is used as a vehicle store.
There are three “holiday villages” (Beaumont, Wakeling and Overton – named after pilots who flew from Warmwell). Each has about 30 houses sleeping from four to 12 people, with more under construction in a vast site to the north (outline planning permission has been obtained for 1,000). Overall, 31 are currently available as holiday lets. We’re in No 14 Beaumont Village, which sleeps 10 in three double bedrooms (two of them en suite) and a bunkroom.
In Beaumont the houses are highly energy-efficient, using air source heat pumps and heat-recovery systems with insulated panels. But what grabs me is the furnished roof terrace accessed through a huge electronically operated glass window. From this viewpoint above Beaumont Lake you appreciate how the environment has been restored and shaped.
As we flop on the sofa and investigate the welcome basket of local goodies I feel we’ll never be able to leave the house to enjoy the activities on tap. But my son is soon off to the gym and sauna at the Hurricane Spa, while my wife checks in for a Vine detox facial using grape-based lotions.
I settle for the pool, which was empty when we arrived but is full of boisterous teenagers by the time I enter. No problem: after a bit of bobbing about, I forget about the iron-disciplined 30 lengths I’d planned and nip around the corner to a sandy beach to swim a couple of hundred metres in Beaumont Lake, which has a handy platform at the far end to aim for. I’m not a regular open-water swimmer but the water is delicious – fresh but not remotely debilitating.
Paddleboards, kayaks, bicycles and canoes are available from an Activity Hub by the old hanger, with supervised groups and solo lessons available to book.
With beautiful open kitchen areas, the homes are perfect for self-catering, although on-site dining options include pizzas served on Friday and Saturday nights next to the Hurricane Spa from a wood-fired oven operated by Angelo from a nearby Italian restaurant. The spa serves paninis and salads with beers and cocktails in the afternoons and early evening.
As Silverlake grows, you wonder how its eco credentials might be compromised as numbers of cars increase. But there are plenty of charging points for electric vehicles and, in any case, with Moreton mainline railway station just a couple of miles up the road – and a shuttle service planned – many may choose to leave the car at home altogether.
It’s almost time to leave. After another walk across heath and woods to the “eco pool” via Goldcrest Glade – a woodland pond with zipwire, tipi and log swings on hand – we depart. The auburn promise of late summer sunshine fades as clouds roll in. We agree that the place is perfect for long weekends and as a base for exploration of that other, old, Dorset, especially for families. There’s no doubt it’s fairly weather- and season-proof, my son observes. And I’m sure the local heathland reptiles basking in the Indian summer would agree.