College Bostall

There was something about it that had been niggling at me for days. Ever since the heatwave had broken there was, in me, a need to somehow experience the realness of the world. Those weeks of heat and dust and uniform light had seemed like another world and then, when the storms finally came, they had washed the parched earth clean and made it new again. But for one reason and another I hadn’t been able to be out in it and it seemed necessary, somehow, that I should feel the wind and the rain against my face. That this glorious reminder of our living world should refresh and reawaken me from my months-long torpor. The heat had stupefied me, dulled my senses and made me unwilling to get out and walk and if there’s one thing that defines me it is that I am a walker. I feel and experience the landscape by being in it. By facing the winds that blow over the hilltops, by slipping into the cool darkness of the underwoods and by following the ancient paths kept open by nothing but aeons of labouring feet that have walked before me.

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Walking in adverse weather, of course, is an experience that brings those past days back in a deeper way than any other. In those times the countryside was a place of toilers who had little choice but to be outside in all weathers, and no hot bath to get home to. Or of travellers whose weary destinations lay not at the end of a drive in a heated car with music playing on the stereo, but only after many miles had been traversed, one step at a time. These long scars in the fields where the grass grows short, or not at all, that still lead the way are the result of all those feet. Those dragged boots of all those workers and walkers. To walk now for leisure can give us only the merest glimpse of what those fields and paths must have meant to those who travelled upon them in centuries past; but their paths are still here and my boots do follow where they once trod – and the ageless weather throws itself upon us now just as it did then.

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However foolish it may seem, there is a connection with those workers and journeyers as one stands on the knife-sharp edge of a bostall as the rain sweeps in over the Weald. These sunken tracks are ancient, worn by centuries of feet, both human and ovine and deepened by the rain and the frost. Their existence stands testament to an earlier age of sheep and corn, those endless days where the sheep were walked up onto the wide open Downland pastures as the sun rose and led back down into the fields of corn at night, their manure, more plentiful in the hours of darkness, to fertilise the crops. And here, now, I stand too, looking out over the ancient network of fields and hedges, of woodlands and lanes. I look out and I see the old spires of the churches rising up from the thickly wooded landscape. Those old, crumbling buildings that have been tended and loved by countless carers over countless years. I stand and wonder how many have stood in this spot as I stand now and looked out over those fields and woods and steeples and villages. The rain lashes my face so I have to close one eye as it once lashed the faces of an innumerable line of human shapes that stretch into the grey, misty distance behind me. I do not work as they did. I can go home to a warm, dry home that many of them would not have had. But I can stand in their footsteps and remember them.

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With all this in my heart, I went to a place that always calls to me in times of rough weather. I went to College Bostall, above Plumpton College, where I studied Countryside Management some years ago. The bostall crosses the larger Plumpton Bostall, deep in its trench and covered with concrete since the Second World War, and strikes out across the open side of the Downs, with the college itself at the feet of the hills. Near the top there stands a solitary sycamore, rushing and roaring today in the wind and the rain. As I stood on the top, the rain came down so hard I wondered if it were, in fact, hailstones. My boots filled up from the top down, so that every step sent small squirts of water back out over the brims. I knew, of course, that the car was nearby at the bottom of the hill and that I was quite safe, no matter how wet I got. I wondered what those old shepherds would have thought of me, standing like a fool and wondering at the curtains of rain that had come and veiled the view of far-away Firle Beacon that had been bathed in sunlight just a few moments before, like a bright island floating above a sea of grey.

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In the end, though, of course, I returned to my car and my warm flat and those ghosts are just memories, or ghosts of memories – washed away in the rain.

Winter Light

Since developing an interest in photography a curious thing is happening to me. I find myself looking forward to winter. For all my life I have longed for spring during the cold, dark, rainy winter months and that season still provokes an excitement in me like no other. Indeed this new anticipation for winter is not a rejection of the other seasons, which all have their own glories, but a wonderful new reason to live and experience each season on its own merits and, in the particular case of winter, to appreciate the light.

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The hills where the River Uck rises, High Weald

Summer remains, of course, a wonderful time of long evenings and pub gardens and oh how I longed to not be knee deep in mud and water-logged meadows as I slogged about the countryside just a few months ago! It’s true that the actual act of walking is easier at the moment. No slipping down steep banks, or unexpectedly finding oneself with a wet foot after disappearing into a puddle you couldn’t even see under the fallen leaves. I remember well doggedly following the official footpath (rather than circumnavigating) across a sodden ploughed field in the Rother Valley, the mud clinging to my boots and dragging more and more heavily with every step. I almost wondered if I would make it to the other side. In the end I staggered back to the car exhausted… but elated.

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Mud in the Rother Valley

The countryside is a different place in the winter. The great crowds of the summer are gone, even on the South Downs Way – the footpath equivalent of a motorway – and one can wander the paths and tracks almost alone. Whole days I have spent not seeing another soul. Even the farmers can’t do much and absent themselves from their rain-lashed fields. Fair weather walkers may think me mad to deliberately go out, staggering and slipping as I go, but there are rewards and the greatest of them is the light.

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Rye Harbour

Summer light is flat and bleaching. Detail gets lost. Subtlety disperses in a landscape of high contrast. Of light areas and dark, with sharply defined edges. There’s no challenge to taking an ostensibly “beautiful” photograph when the sun is shining and the great cumulus puffs float against a deep blue sky – and there’s very little interest in it either. Anyone can go out in the summer, see a beautiful view and point a camera at it. Not everyone is prepared to trudge through several miles of mud on the off-chance that the sun might peek through the clouds for long enough to make a scene worth photographing. But for those who are prepared; those moments are among the best. To round a corner and suddenly find a shaft of sunlight is lighting up a stubbled field, the oak tree skeletons silhouetted against the sky. To stand on the shoulders of a deep valley and watch as the sun finds its way through heavy clouds, throwing dramatic crepuscular rays across the landscape. To emerge from a wood into a deep, still silence, frost carpeting the ground, while a stag grazes quietly. These are the moments that have, for the first time, made winter worth enjoying.

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High Weald near Penhurst
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Rays over Seaford

Now, of course, all of these things were happening before I got my camera, but its acquisition was the push that I needed to get me out there and experiencing it all. And a big part of the thrill is seeing things that many others do not. There is a great glory in being that lone figure – my coat wrapped around me and the collar turned up against the cold – standing and watching the rain sweep across the hills, the light chasing and being chased about the valleys by the clouds and those dark smears of precipitation. Only a summer storm beats those moments of exhilaration and yes, of course, this is England. I may be sitting in the middle of a heatwave this year, but rain in summer is not an uncommon thing: but even then, the light is not the same. With the sun high in the sky, the same effects are not felt as when it barely peers over the horizon –  even at midday – and its light seems to spread over – almost through – the landscape, rather than shine interrogatively down at it. I haven’t even touched on the fact that it is easier and more satisfying to wrap oneself up and stride determinedly ahead in an effort to warm oneself up than it is to sweat beneath a glaring sun.

So here I sit on a, supposedly, beautiful day, writing words about winter with the blinds drawn… and I have to admit that I am beginning to realise that, perhaps, I am not a fair weather walker. Perhaps… perhaps I am becoming a foul weather walker?

Bedham

Bedham
©Crown copyright 2018 Ordnance Survey. Media 076/18. Landranger: Sheet 197
Bedham wider
©Crown copyright 2018 Ordnance Survey. Media 076/18

Somewhere to the north of Fittleworth in the Greensand Hills of West Sussex there lies, lost in the woods, a tiny, tiny little place that goes by the name of Bedham. The place is so small that it didn’t have its own church or school until late in the 19th century and when they were built, they were both in the same, small building – built out of brick and the local, golden sandstone. The little school/church didn’t last very long and now stands as a maintained ruin, lacking its roof and the lean-to side buildings that once stood. The walls have been prevented from falling into further decay with repointing and steel girders to hold up the precarious bell-cot.

I have tried to find out if there is a single name for these woods, but the internet is, thus far, silent on the matter. They stretch north from Bedham including areas with names like Hammonds Wood, Hoghurst Copse and The Mens. There are huge, ancient trees here including some glorious, vast, coppiced beech whose great boughs have grown over the thousand-year ghosts of the people that first cut these trees and harvested their wood.

There are paths and tracks through the trees – some easier to follow than others – but to make a circular walk out of it I struck away from the path and followed, as best I could, the streams to get back to the car. The day above the canopy was bright and warm, but I walked and scrambled in the cool, eons-long gloom of the trees. The gloom of the woods that becomes a portal to an older world. A gloom that has persisted in smaller and smaller pockets since the ice retreated 9000 years ago and the great primeval forests that once covered this land first grew. These are the woods that humans found when they first came back to Britain and where they made their homes. This is where they cut the trees and made their clearings and knew that the woods that surrounded them held both essential assets and hidden dangers. Boar and wolves and bears once lived in these woods and to leave the clearing was a dangerous, but necessary pursuit. European folk tales are filled with stories of woodland as a transitional, transformative landscape: somewhere the young girl or boy can go and be changed. They may not come to a good end, or they may triumph over whatever lurks behind the the trunks of the mighty beeches and in the thickets of holly: but whatever their fate you can guarantee that they will not be the same when they emerge once more into the human world of light and order.

As I walked I followed tracks made, not by humans, but by other path-finders of the forest – mostly deer, of which I saw several – always bounding gracefully out of sight before I could bring my camera to bear on them. The old human paths are, mostly, gone. Even some of the ones marked on the map have faded as the trees take back their gloom; but there are other clues here that speak of labouring men and women in years gone by. There are medieval wood banks here, built to mark the edges of properties, and coppiced beech with some hazel stools stand testament to lives at which we can only guess.

And deep in the woods there were surprises. A shelter built far from the nearest path. A clearing containing a shepherds’ hut. A bridge over one of the deeper ghylls – broken and twisted by the floods of winter, but still crossable with care.

There is always such a powerful feeling of walking among the fallen and disappearing past when you walk in these old woods. Some of these trees have long memories, but not so long that the old ghosts of past millennia won’t, in the end, pass fully away and be forgotten even by the ancient beeches – once kept alive by coppicing, they now grow old and fall in a ruinous, rotting confusion of limbs. An ancient way of life is passing from us. The spirits these trees once held have flown, only to be remembered by the few who care to know what our ancestral explorers, clearers and farmers once worshipped.

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Dungeness

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©Crown copyright 2018 Ordnance Survey. Media 076/18
Dungeness
©Crown copyright 2018 Ordnance Survey. Media 076/18. Landranger: Sheet 189

The day had been beautiful and I had missed most of it for one reason or another and, so, I set out in the car with no real plan as to where I was going. After an amount of driving aimlessly around in the High Weald (which is no bad way to spend an afternoon in any case) I found myself dropping down to the great expanse of Romney Marsh. Realising I was in Kent I, of course, first locked all of my doors before deciding to head for the coast. It was a good few years since I’d last been to Dungeness and as there really is nowhere quite like it, I thought it was about time for a revisit. There is, in England, nowhere quite as atmospheric and downright strange to walk as Dungeness. So much so that I am even prepared to travel to Kent to see it.

There is, to me anyway, something wonderfully romantic and beguiling about the relationship between Dungeness, Romney Marsh and the High Weald. The headland of Dungeness itself, of course, didn’t even exist when the Romans first came to our shores, but gradually, over the centuries, a shingle spit built up. This spit both protected the waters behind it and caused the silt washed down the rivers to build up on the seabed, thus creating what later became the Walland and Romney Marshes. The shingle spit itself grew so large that towns were built on it. Lydd is still much where it was first built, but the once-bustling port of Winchelsea was eventually washed away and re-founded on the hill where it sits to this day by Edward I.

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Dungeness in the 13th Century

There is something that really captures my imagination about the idea of all these soils being washed down the rivers and creating more land when they reach the coast. Of course, the land was artificially drained to create the large, flat fields we see today, but without the action of the Rother and the Brede, the Tillingham and Pannel and all those beautiful little rivers that rush between the hills in the High Weald, like the Dudwell and the Tidebrook, neither the marshes nor Rye Bay would exist. Without the protected waters known as La Chambre (Camber), the towns of Romney, Rye and Winchelsea would never have grown up to become the important medieval ports they became.

But just as the silts from the rivers were essential, so was this mysterious shingle spit that stopped the silt from being washed away by the sea. Why it grew where it did, no-one can precisely say, but it seems to be that this is a point where two processes of longshore drift meet. One washing from west to east along the English Channel and the other coming down along the North Sea coast and through the Straits of Dover. The meeting of the currents washes the two great masses of shingle together until they are enough to rise above the waves, where the first hardy plants manage to find a foothold among the unforgiving stones. Gradually, as they die, their decaying leaves help to make soil among the pebbles, and their water-questing roots help hold it in place. Over many long years this may one day become “normal” land, but for now the life of Dungeness is measured in hundreds of years, not the thousands needed, and it remains a bleak, mostly treeless place.

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Having said that, though, the area teems with life. There is often a huge amount of variety in an area’s flora if no big plants, like trees or even taller grasses, can grow up and shade the other plants out and Dungeness is home to around 600 different plant varieties. Many of the insects, moths, beetles and spiders that live among them are extremely rare. Some of them are only found here and nowhere else in Britain. With the insects to feed on and the large lagoons of both brackish and fresh water, this is a hugely important place for migrating birds and the RSPB has a large reserve here.

But, of course, it is not just the geology or the ecology that make Dungeness what it is. Humans, too, have made an enormous impact. The nuclear power station cannot be avoided and it sits in its supreme, vast, jarring ugliness on the edge of the shingle and even in the fog of the day I visited its presence is always felt – looming darkly in the mists and sending an eerie hum out into the air, to mingle with the electronic tones sent out by the foghorn in the latest of the five lighthouses that have been built here over the years.

And just to add to the incongruity, around the power station, along the straggling road, are sheds and huts. Homes built of wood and plastic and old, upturned boats. The whole place has a feeling of impermanence: that the plants could be blown away by a strong enough wind or the shingle itself reclaimed by the sea at any moment, and these rambling, wooden buildings can only contribute to that feeling. This is a place between places. A place between the land and the sea. A place that is so surreal, it could almost not be real at all.

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Yes, the day had been – and remained – beautiful inland, but as I approached the coast I began to see what looked like a line of clouds on the horizon. By the time I drove down the tiny road towards the power station, I was enveloped in fog. I almost considered not walking, but I pushed myself out of the car and was more than glad that I did. The power station could not be seen from where I parked near the new lighthouse, but after a short walk along the beach, it began to reveal itself to me, albeit never fully. I walked beside the great, murmuring beast and then took off inland across the shingle and through thickets of scrub – the trees are slowly coming here. One day this would all be forest if left to its own devices.

As I walked, the sun gradually began to make itself felt through the thinning cloud, at first just lighting up small patches of shingle here and there. Despite the low light, this secret, lost world around me was full of colour. Blood-red poppies and startling blue viper’s bugloss surrounded me and when the sun made it through the drifting mists, the June grasses glowed golden in great strips along the ridges of shingle, formed hundreds of years ago by the waves when these ridges were at the very water’s edge.

Further and further I walked, each step on the shingle an effort and eventually I could see a long line of bright light along the horizon, growing wider and wider the nearer I came. I could see a domed building that the map said was a reservoir and beside it a tower. Something to do with nearby Lydd Airport? By the time I had reached them I was walking in full sunlight and the world seemed normal. I walked between large lagoons and watched the swans and ducks that swam on them and as I headed back towards the car, the mist closed once more above my head as the golden sun set behind me.

Lamb Hanger

Look! A map! Exciting! Also, definitely hover over the pictures and click on them to get my hilarious and informative captions.

Lamb Hanger 6.6.18
©Crown copyright 2018 Ordnance Survey. Media 076/18. Landranger: Sheet 197
Lamb Hanger Wider 6.6.18
©Crown copyright 2018 Ordnance Survey. Media 076/18

If there’s one place on all of the beautiful South Downs that I keep returning to, it’s the area around Bignor Hill in West Sussex. The jury’s still out on whether it’s the “best part of Sussex” (There’s at least six or seven “best parts of Sussex”. Maybe I’ll do a list), but it’s certainly one of the most gloriously rural parts of the long stretch of the Downs, allowing one to walk for miles without being disturbed by the sound of a car. A lot of the East Sussex Downs are, of course, very beautiful, but almost always there is a fairly major road at the bottom of the hill, or not too far away so there’s always that reminder going on in the background that the real world (Hmm. Maybe that world is unreal and the world of hills and woods is the real one?) is hurrying on and making sure you know about it. Newtimber Hill is achingly beautiful, but the constant roar of the A23 puts a definite dampener on it.

None of this is a problem at Bignor and, aside from the occasional car that makes it up to the National Trust car park at the top (following the old Roman Stane Street for part of the way), you are left to the natural sounds of Sussex: the birds, the wind in the trees, the people shouting at dogs… I mean, you can’t have everything. This is Sussex after all. It’s never going to be wilderness.

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Barlavington Down

I’ve usually, in the past, done much the same walk every time I’ve been up the Hill; which is to loop around via Glatting Beacon and Barlavington Down and back across the Weald to the car, which I’ve tended to leave in Bignor village itself, or (as I did today) at the bottom of the hill on the road up to the car park. Today, though, I thought I’d explore around a bit more, so I parked at the bottom of the hill where there’s space to leave the car while still leaving enough room for others to use the passing space and, at first, took my familiar route to the top. As you walk up the road you enter a wonderfully deep bostall and just after that section, before the road bends sharply to the right, there is a track leading off to the right. It’s not an official path, but this is all access land and part of the National Trust’s Slindon Estate, so we have the right to roam on it. This beautiful track leads through the trees to an actual public footpath (where there is a wonderful view over the fields, peeping out from under the eaves of the wood). Turning left the footpath leads fairly steeply up the hill, rejoining the road a hundred yards or so from the top. You could walk up the road itself if you wanted, but this way is nicer.

Having gained the car park, there’s then almost immediately a track off to the right going back down again, which I followed back down to and then along the edge of the woods. At the far end of the access land there is, according to the map, a track that goes back up to Glatting Beacon. Let me tell you something. This track does not exist. Neither is it possible to tell where the access land ends and private woodland begins. Nevertheless I headed up the hill, following what may have been an overgrown trackway, or bostall, or cross dyke or something. Despite the steep gradient I made fairly easy progress, there not being too much undergrowth and found the main track again at Glatting Beacon. This I followed back to the car park and then back the way I’d come to the car.

One thing that sets the more westerly Downs apart, aside from their generally more rural nature, is that they are much more wooded than their eastern counterparts. While much of the Downs was cleared of trees thousands of years ago to make way for the grazing of sheep, large areas were planted with useful trees to grow – as a supply for the local shepherds and farmers and as a cash crop. There are large areas of hazel and a great deal of ash (suffering, sadly, quite badly here from the dieback fungus), but in particular mighty, beautiful beech trees were grown, coppiced roughly every 250 years, in woodlands on the steeper slopes known as “hangers”. The woodland I was mostly in today is known as Lamb Hanger, thus neatly encapsulating the two primary purposes of the Downs in one name. Beech woodland has to be one of the most beautiful forms of woodland on earth. The tall, elegant, smooth-grey trunks of these enormous, yet most graceful trees. The fresh, bright green of the canopy in spring and summer, replaced by the most wonderful coppery gold in the autumn and winter, the old leaves eventually falling to carpet the ground with gentle gold as the next season’s growth unfolds above them.

Traditional management of beech hangers has, in many cases, ceased and these wonderful trees are left to die. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Beech naturally starts to fall apart as it gets older (it gets every disease under the sun too) and eventually the trees come to the end of their lives leaving a large amount of both lying and standing dead wood. Both are wonderful for different insects, known as decomposers, which will slowly consume the old, rotting timber. Standing dead wood also provides potential places for woodpeckers to make their nests. Beech also reseeds itself quite freely, so there seems little danger of it becoming a thing of the past on the Downs. It seems a shame, though, for all that beautiful wood to go to waste. Beech is perfect for making furniture from, but such is economics, I suppose.

Cres

To the east of Croatia’s Istrian peninsula there lies, amid the deep blue of the Adriatic, an island called Cres (pronounced “Tres”), which my travelling companion has on good authority is “amazing”. And it is thus that we find ourselves stepping down from the Pula – Zagreb coach onto the roadside in tiny Zagore, the sun beating down as we shoulder our packs, slather ourselves in cheap Lidl suncream and start the walk to Brestova to catch the ferry. Of course there’s no public transport to the ferry terminal, so the only option is to walk and we are carrying all of our camping equipment and a fair amount of food and water on our backs. The plan is to catch the ferry to Porozina and walk over the island to Beli where there is a campsite. We’re not sure if we’ll have time to make the whole walk before dark and the suggestion of wild-camping on the way is in the air.

The afternoon sun is hot as we walk down the steeply winding road to Brestova. Occasional cars – German and Italian mostly – sweep past us as we plod on and a coral blue/green snake slithers its way up a nearly sheer cliff-face beside the road as I walk past, small shards of rock tinkling to the ground as it goes. After 45 minutes we make it to the ferry terminal in time for a cooling radler (a kind of shandy made with cloudy lemonade and other flavours like grapefruit. We should do more of this kind of thing in the UK) at the terminal buffet while we wait for the boat. When the boat arrives we troop on, the only backpackers, with a few other foot passengers and go up into the main interior seating area where a lounging steward looks at us in surprise. “Hello” he says, a little gruffly. “Hello” I respond. He looks in askance, an expansive gesture asking the question “What are you doing here?”. “We just got on” I venture. “Ay, ay, ay…” comes the response. We leave and go up to the deck to sit on the rows of seats in the sun for the twenty minute journey to Porozina. Soon the seats fill up, once the cars have come on board and disgorged their passengers and the boat makes its way across the strait to Cres.

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Porozina is a small village set a little above the ferry terminal, with its little shops and cafes, that almost hides from the hordes of tourists that come over on the boat amidst the forest. The main road to Cres Town turns away to the south, but our walking route to Beli takes us up a side road, through the village and then steeply up through the woods, following a rocky track. The way is tough, especially with our packs, but the trees shade us from the worst of the sun and the way, at least to start with, is easy to follow, little red and white target-like way markers are painted on the trees and rocks to keep us on the right path. Soon we have climbed enough for spectacular views to show themselves when we come to occasional clearings in the forest and we sit for a moment to rest and admire them. Wildlife is abundant all around us, especially many beautifully iridescent beetles. We see deer among the trees and hear more than see a number of grunting, snuffling wild boar.

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Eventually we make it to the top of the ridge of low mountains that make up the island and start to make our descent. Checking the time, we realise that we have a chance of making it to Beli before nightfall and now that the going is easier we make a little more haste… and promptly get lost. The waymarks that had been so easy to follow are suddenly faded and indistinct and soon we lose them entirely. The map comes out and the compass with it while heads are scratched and various tracks pondered. Eventually we find our way back to the path and, followed by a gang of oddly sinister and persistent sheep, the rocky path between drystone walls gets steeper as we descend towards Beli. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m going to make it by now as I pick my way down the rocky tracks, ever conscious of the possibility of spraining an ankle (something I am annoyingly prone to) when suddenly through a gap in the trees I see the town clustered on its hill against the backdrop of deep blue sea ahead of us, its old stone walls and terracotta roofs glowing honey and gold in the evening sun. Spurred on, we walk to the edge of town and, following a sign, take the long, steep, sweeping road that spirals round the steep hill down to the small harbour at its foot.

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The reception for the campsite is closed. As we stand pondering this a German teenager sitting outside tells us that the campsite itself is closed “But.. you can camp. Just, no water. But there are toilets”. So the camping will be free, which is nice, but there’s no drinking water, which is less nice. We stumble about the campsite in the gathering gloom, failing to find a good spot to pitch our tents. After a while the German girl reappears and tells us that if we go up the hill and into the trees a little there are many places to camp and we soon find a good spot under a pair of olive trees that becomes our home for the next few nights.

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There are two beach bars open at the harbour along with a diving centre, scuba diving being a popular pastime here, and we wonder at the campsite being closed, because it is packed and surely there is money to be made from all these campers. Exhausted, we repair to the bar staffed by a taciturn Herzegovinan gentleman who serves us, his only customers, some beers and goes back to watching a Swedish disaster movie on the enormous TV in the corner. The plot of the movie seems to revolve around a cliff-face that is in imminent danger of collapse into the Baltic which will produce a tsunami and flood a town. As the film reaches its climax and the waves crash into the lines of escaping Volvos, the heavens above Beli itself suddenly open with a crash of thunder and torrents of rain hurl themselves at the canvas roof of the bar. “Tsunami!” Says the barman looking up. How we laughed.

The next day the sun is out and we explore around a little. My friend goes further than me and busies himself clearing up plastic on a beach in a nearby cove while I snooze in my tent. That evening we climb the road back to the town and indulge in the most amazing fish platter for two at one of the local restaurants, followed by the traditional offering of home-made flavoured schnapps as we pay the bill and chat with our friendly host.

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The day after we spend mostly splashing in the sea. Or I do at least. My friend is back to his eco-warrior beach clearing. The clear waters are teeming with fish and above us circle one of the things this island is famous for. There is a colony of griffon vultures just along the coast here and we see several over the course of the afternoon. Once common over much of Europe, changing sheep farming practices have seen their numbers severely reduced and they are now protected. Sadly the tourist boats throw rocks at the birds nesting on the cliffs to get them to fly, which leads to many juveniles falling into the water and drowning. Up by our restaurant there is a rescue centre occupying a former school built during the island’s period of Austro-Hungarian rule.

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It is difficult, now, to make a living on the island and many of the houses are empty of permanent residents, holiday-makers now dwell in them in the warmer months. There are no longer children enough in Beli to keep the school open and those that are left are taken by bus to Cres Town for their education. The school bus is the only public transport on the island and it leaves Beli at 7.15am, so we find ourselves slogging back up the hill to catch it far earlier than we would have liked to rise, for we must get to the city of Rijeka on the mainland to catch the coach back to Ljubljana and our flight home. It’s good that there aren’t more tourists wanting to make the journey, because there are only two spare seats on the minibus, which makes its way along extraordinary precipitous, winding lanes to the island’s beautiful capital.

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In Cres Town we have only an hour or so to explore the warren of narrow alleys between tall, crumbling houses before our passage, in the form of a catamaran, to Rijeka arrives and whisks us back to the real world of cities and buses and airports. As we leave, we both say that we will come back one day to see more and, if we’re really lucky, taste that wonderful seafood platter beneath the grapevines on the terrace overlooking beautiful Beli – which will live in my memory – once again.

Newtimber Hill

If you drive down the A23 to Brighton, you cannot help but notice the huge, dark bulk of Newtimber Hill suddenly rising ahead of you after you pass under the bridge at the Albourne junction. It’s a sight that has cheered many a weary heart after a long drive home, because when you see it, you know you’re nearly back to Brighton and before you even get there you’ve got the option of sampling the delights of the M&S at Pyecombe Services. The hill is an unusual one on the Downs because it’s wooded and most of this part of the ridge is fairly bare of trees. Indeed only a hundred years ago there was hardly a single tree to be seen on the hills, most of them having been cut down thousands of years ago; intensive grazing ever after keeping any new trees from growing. It was only after the Great War that it became cheaper to import lamb from New Zealand than to rear our own and grazing started to stop on the Downs, leading to new growth. In general it is better to keep the grassland, rather than let scrub grow up as this grassland is rare and supports many endangered flowering herbs that would be unable to grow in shady woodland. The woodland on Newtimber Hill, though, is different.

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The remains of an old beech tree in Newtimber Holt ancient woodland

Much of the woodland on the northern flanks of the hill are ancient woodland. Some of it is regenerated woodland that regrew after the aforementioned cessation of grazing. In fact you can almost tell when looking at the hill from a distance. The newer woodland shows us an almost smooth, green covering. All the trees are about the same age and they are mostly ash, so they’re all the same height. In the older areas, there are many different species, including ash, beech and even some small-leaved lime leftover from the original forests that grew on these slopes. Because the climate is generally cooler now than when those forests first grew after the last ice age, small-leaved lime doesn’t germinate as well as it did then, so some of these trees can be very old indeed. In fact there’s one small-leaved lime tree on Newtimber Hill that may be as much as four thousand years old. It has been coppiced many times (cut down and allowed to regrow into useful poles) and now looks like a ring of large trees, the trunks all growing from the same roots – making the whole thing one single tree.

Besides this incredible tree, the woods are also home to another remarkable natural wonder, this time a beech. In 2015 a beech tree near the bottom of the hill was declared Britain’s tallest native tree at 144ft.

Newtimber Hill will always have a special place in my heart. It is owned by the National Trust and administered from Saddlescombe Farm, just the other side of the hill. I have spent many hours as a volunteer on the Devil’s Dyke Estate, of which Newtimber Hill is a part and it was here that I truly learnt the simple joy that conservation volunteering can bring. When you have spent as much of your life as I have believing yourself to be entirely useless, the effect of doing good work with good people that has palpable results at the end of the day is immeasurable. As I wander the many winding paths in the woods today I still remember places where I cleared a path, or cut some scrub, or that time I delivered crucial biscuits to the wardens working up on the top of the hill. I remember when we made a bonfire so big we could throw whole trees on it (we weren’t cutting the ancient bits down, don’t worry) and when we discovered that great crested newts had returned to a restored dew pond right on the top of the hill – miles from the nearest water. How did they get there? We can only guess.

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Dew pond near the summit of Newtimber Hill

At the foot of the hill is a narrow road called Beggar’s Lane that winds through the trees, from which steps lead up into the woods. Concrete at first, they soon give way to simple mud steps held back by wooden risers. Even after all these years I am never quite sure after the first couple of hundred yards which of the myriad paths I am on, but they are all beautiful. Sometimes winding along the contours, sometimes suddenly snaking up dozens of steps before meeting three other paths all leading off to new, secret places. In the spring there are carpets of anemones and bluebells and many other woodland flowers and you are surrounded by ash, beech, lime, hawthorn and hazel that has been coppiced and worked for thousands of years.

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Steps in Newtimber Holt ancient woodland

Eventually, inexorably, the paths always seem to lead upwards. Higher and higher through the trees until suddenly they emerge onto the bald, grassy top of the hill and when you look to the west, there in front of you is one of the best views in the South East of England. Dyke Hill, Chanctonbury Ring, Cissbury Ring, Bignor Hill and Glatting Beacon are laid out as your eye follows the Downs and then away on the horizon to the north west stands the dark, whale-backed mass of Black Down – the highest point in Sussex. On a clear day to the north you can just see the North Downs, almost beyond the horizon and even the Hog’s Back, a hill in Oxfordshire, some 60 miles away.

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Dyke Hill, wooded on the left. Truleigh Hill with the radio masts on its summit and Chanctonbury Ring visible to its right

On the western part of the hill, the steeper slopes are mostly bare of trees and here you can find some of the best chalk downland in Britain. Studded with tell-tale anthills that prove this land has never been ploughed up, the grassland is home to an incredible variety of flowering herbs and the rare butterflies and other insects that live on them. Near the bottom of this slope is a grove of another rarity: juniper bushes. Needing to drop their seeds on bare ground and then experience two harsh winters before germinating, these fussy shrubs grow in sudden profusion here in one of their few sites in the area.

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An anthill of the yellow meadow ant
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Juniper bushes on Newtimber Hill

And finally, to the south, nestled in its hollow and looking almost as naturally placed as something that has grown there lies ancient, wonderful Saddlescombe Farm, which perhaps I shall write about in greater detail in the future.

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Saddlescombe Farm
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Chalk pit on Saddlescombe Farm. Used into the 20th century as a corral for gathering sheep to be sheared

All over the hill there is evidence of man’s long relationship with it. From the ancient coppiced trees, to man-made dew ponds and chalk pits. There are strip lynchets, evidence of early arable farming around the North Laine (laine means field) and there have been hundreds of findings of worked flints, in one case a pile of knappings that showed the clear outline of a pair of legs belonging to someone who had sat on this same hill that we walk today and worked here thousands of years ago. What did that person look out and see? Perhaps they were making the axes that first cleared the forests and created this uniquely beautiful landscape.

Wandering

I once wrote a song in which I complain that “I sit in my basement flat with never sight of a tree/and as the rain runs down my window I wonder if I’ll ere be free”, and I find myself in a similar position this rainy Easter Monday, as the traditional Bank Holiday weather makes itself felt. In the interests of full disclosure, I must point out that if I actually opened the blinds I would be able to see the two spindly, ivy-encumbered apple trees that dwell in what passes for my back garden and, indeed, the enormous eucalyptus that stands like an alien giant and surveys us all a few gardens up. The song, of course, has more than a streak of self-pity in it and in my defence I wrote it in the living room where you can’t see any trees. Or anything else much other than two wheelie bins, for that matter. What it’s about, of course, is what happens to my brain when I’ve not had access to the countryside for too long. I live in a great, fun city that I love, but if I don’t get to wander free under the sky as often as possible, I start to suffer and city streets are no compensation for country tracks and muddy fields.

There is a primality to walking that is difficult to fully put into words. Something about an act as simple as putting one foot in front of the other that can propel one over mountains. It is an act that humans were built for and that simple act connects us all the way back to the first hominids who stood up to get a better view of their surroundings, their enemies and the way ahead. In many ways, of course, we are separated by eons of history, technology and development, but in many other ways we are still those primal, wary beings, seeking to explore and understand our world. Our post-industrial separation from the land does us as individuals, and our species as a whole, much harm.

Now it is very easy for me to sit here in my centrally-heated flat with its electric lights and its internet connection and its waiting car outside that can whisk me unnaturally to places I choose to walk. There are, of course, many wonders that our industrial world brings us that I would struggle to wish to do without, but that’s not quite the point. We can all make connections with the land that lies beneath our city streets and the landscapes that surround them. Every tree and park. Every garden is a portal into the wild and even though England stands as one of the most managed landscapes in the world, it still keeps those hidden gateways to another, non-human world. A world we choose to ignore at our peril.

Throughout my adult life I have suffered from poor mental health and, particularly, anxiety. There is nothing that calms me more than knowing that I remain a natural being under the sky. That simple act that connects me to those distant ancestors is one that has always helped soothe and replenish what, for want of a better word, I will call my soul. To place my feet in their footprints and follow them is a solace for which I know no comparison, but beyond paying homage to those who went before: it is also a connection to what is real and happening now.

Not all of what can be seen around us in the countryside is cheerful. There is a biodiversity crisis in the fields of Old England. Songbird populations are plummeting. The ash trees are dying; the elm already gone. Hedgerows have disappeared and vast fields spread in sterile, serried grids to horizons shorn of the trees that used to cover them. Yet there is still enough there remaining, scattered and fragmentary though it may be, to allow one, if one pays attention, to look through those windows into the wild and to see that other world and to imagine oneself an earlier human watching the rooks high in the branches of the trees that were once believed to be Gods or entities that connected us to the heavens. We can still stand on the hillsides and look out over the valleys below us and try to discern the way ahead. There is much that is upsetting and difficult, but with that primal vision still somewhere within us, there is always hope.

So I will always look to get out from behind these rain-smeared windows in this basement flat and take myself wandering under the wide open skies of this battered, abused and still intensely beguiling planet of ours. I will continue to place my feet in the footprints of those ancestors that first cleared the paths through the trees and I will remind myself that, even in this world of bright screens and all-pervasive internet coverage, that I am human and I am of the Earth.

Rye Harbour

Well, the time has come. I’m afraid we’re going to have to have a difficult conversation. Oh, I hoped I’d never have to have this talk with you, but I can no longer deny what’s staring us in the face. It’s time to take the bull by the horns and deal with it straight on.

I’m going to have to talk to you about Kent.

Much though we’d like to ignore the Evil County and pretend it just doesn’t exist, there are times when its presence simply has to be acknowledged and in the area around Rye, there’s nothing for it but to accept that it is there and that there is simply nothing to  be done about it. One curious thing about it is that parts of it are even acceptable to upright, proper folk, and those are the parts that were, essentially, made by Sussex.

The River Rother rises near Rotherfield in the High Weald and flows east. At one time it flowed into a large estuary, which also received the waters of several other High Wealden rivers, like the Brede and the Tillingham. At this time the great shingle headland of Dungeness didn’t exist and the whole coastline was quite different to how it is today. Something about the shape of the seabed, however, made a long shingle spit begin to form, starting with a small island out to sea, not far from where Old Romney is today. Eventually the spit joined the island to the shore, creating a lagoon behind it that the rivers continued to empty into. Some people also built a town on the spit and called it Winchelsea. That later turned out to have been a bad idea.

Over time the rivers filled the lagoon with their waters and also their silt. After a while the water became too much and it punched its way through the shingle bank and found its way to the sea once again. As the waters drained out, the silt left behind became salt marshes that, over hundreds of years, were gradually drained and converted to farmland in a process called Inning. Thus, Romney and Walland Marshes and the Rother Levels were created from the mud of the Sussex High Weald and the coastline around Rye Bay was changed forever. So if you’ve ever wondered why Romney Marsh feels less sinister than the rest of Kent, here’s your answer. It is made from the soils and rocks of the Good County to its west.

Eventually the shingle spit was washed away and resurfaced as Dungeness; the old town of Winchelsea departing with it. Edward I founded the present town on its hill nearby. The rivers were forced into new shapes, all of them joining the Rother near Rye and flowing to the sea at Rye Harbour. For a time, before all of the spit had been destroyed, the lagoon survived and was deep enough to shelter several ships in an area behind the old town of Winchelsea known as “La Chambre”, or “The Camber”. Camber Sands and its adjoining town keep this name to this day.

I seem to have gone on rather a bit. Sorry about that. The main point of all this waffle is that there is now a rather beautiful, bleak nature reserve, absolutely teeming with bird life, on the shingle at Rye Harbour and the other day I went for a stroll around it in the wonderfully atmospheric early spring mists and here are some photographs to prove it. I hope you enjoy them.

Sussex

There are six landscape zones stretching across the South East of England, arranged in a series of concentric horseshoes, one inside the other. At the centre of it all lie the oldest rocks in this part of the country: the sandstones of the High Weald. As one passes further out from these hills, the rocks under your feet get progressively younger until, youngest of all, one reaches the chalk of the South and North Downs.

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View across the Weald from Blackcap on the South Downs

The High Weald is a land of rolling, thickly-wooded sandstone hills, reaching from between Hastings and Rye on the coast and inland to Horsham and Tunbridge Wells. Overlaying the sandstones is a layer of impermeable Wealden clay, the combination of the hard, acid rock and the badly-draining clay makes this a very difficult landscape to farm and, as a result, it retains the densest covering of ancient woodland in England. It is from these woodlands, which once covered the whole area between the Downs, that the Weald gets its name, from the Old English Wald, meaning “wood”. Many of the field boundaries and villages are still laid out as they were in medieval times, as the new methods of farming that came with tractors and combine harvesters never came to these parts, where arable crops aren’t keen to grow. As a result, the woods and hedgerows were never cleared to make bigger fields as they were in much of the rest of the country. For many years, the main industry in this area was the production of iron, as both the sandstones and clays are rich in its ores.

Between the hills there run many small, steep and rushing streams that, particularly in the east, coalesce into rivers that have carved long, broad valleys, with villages perched on the ridges between them. Many of the major roads of this region also follow the ridges, affording wonderful views. These rivers run into what were once large, complex estuaries which have, over many hundreds of years, been reclaimed. The Ashbourne into Pevensey Levels and the Rother, Brede and Tillingham into Rye Bay and Romney Marsh, the complicated and fascinating history of which I will discuss at another time. These levels and marshes form the second of our landscape types. All of Sussex’s major rivers, with the exception of the Adur, rise in the High Weald.

Around the outside of the High Weald lies the Low Weald; a broad, clay plain. Again, the heavy clays do not drain easily and while there is more arable farming than in the High Weald, there is still much less than in most of the south of England. As well there are large areas of ancient woodland, but the rivers are broader, slower and more winding than in the High Weald and the landscape more gentle. There are many villages and small towns and the area is more thickly populated than the remoter High Weald.

Next comes the Greensand: a kind of sandstone that supposedly appears green when first exposed to the air. There is a thin ring of it around the outside of the Low Weald, often with little villages and farms perched on top and up in the north west of the county there is a larger area of a slightly different kind of greensand, known as the Greensand Hills. These contain Sussex’s highest point at Black Down. In character they are much like the High Weald, with small, remote-feeling villages, steep valleys, rushing streams and much woodland.

Beyond a very thin ring of gault clay, as hard as rock, we reach the most famous landscape in Sussex, the South Downs. Made of unimaginable billions of coccolithophores – the calcium shells made by single-celled organisms called coccoliths – these chalk hills run for 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne. Once thickly wooded, as everywhere else in England, they were cleared between four and six thousand years ago and grazed with sheep, creating a unique grassland that is the most biodiverse habitat in Europe. As there is no natural water on the Downs, they have never been highly populated, but nevertheless they are rich with archaeology, from hill forts like those at Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings to thousands of tumuli dotted along the ridge. The chalk of the Downs acts like a giant sponge, soaking up rainwater and releasing it in a line of springs along the bottom of the steep northern slope, giving rise to a long line of old villages, built around the access to fresh water and the soil that, mixed with chalk that naturally washes down from the hills and with lime made from baked chalk dug out of pits, is some of the easiest soil to work between the Downs, making this a rare area of many wheat and barley fields.

And finally, beyond the Downs in the south west of Sussex lies an alluvial plain of deep rich silts around Chichester. This is the best arable land in the county and in times past there were many market gardens here, but over time it has become the most densely populated part of this corner of the world and the large towns have brought most of that way of life to an end. Pagham and Chichester Harbours, though, remain among the most beautiful places in Sussex, despite that.

The story of how this land came to be shaped as it is I will leave for another day, but I hope I have been able to give a glimpse at just what a wonderfully varied land this is. One of the greatest joys of Sussex and the wider South East is how quickly the landscapes and the flora and fauna they support change as you drive about, from the tiny winding lanes of the High Weald to the wide open skies of the Levels and from the precipitous, secret valleys of the Greensand Hills to the great glory of the high Downs, where on a clear day one can see for sixty miles across this fascinating patchwork of green.

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The hills where the River Uck rises, High Weald