Designs in Adversity: Architecture and Society in an earlier Age of Pandemics

Endless pages, of course, have been written on the development of Gothic architecture in England, but today I am writing in the midst of the Covid-19 epidemic, which has brought to mind the ways in which societies express themselves through the buildings they erect and so I thought: “Why not?” If you’re not seeing the link between the crisis that currently engulfs us and old churches and castles… hopefully you will soon.

The various stages through which Gothic architecture proceeded in medieval England tell us a huge amount about how society itself was developing during the period. The very term “Gothic” itself starts us off, although no-one in the medieval period ever called it “Gothic”. As with so much to do with how we view the past the name was first applied to “buildings with pointy arches” in the 19th Century and means, simply, “Eastern”. There is some conjecture that the structural benefits of the pointed arch, as opposed to the semi-circular “Romanesque” arch then employed in Europe, may have first come to the attentions of Westerners during the Crusades. Islamic architects certainly understood that pointed arches spread the weight of the wall above more effectively than semi-circles, but whether passing, marauding, Christian hordes took much time to stop and appreciate oriental building techniques has never been proven. Nevertheless, the very fact that this knowledge spread throughout Europe tells us one thing: that people were travelling further and exchanging ideas with a greater variety of people.

Ever since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD476, a great regression in building ability had occurred across Europe. Old Roman buildings were left to fall into decay and in England the invading Anglo Saxons preferred to build their towns and villages away from the old, ghost-filled ruins of Roman Britannia – although they made good use of their roads. Many old buildings were plundered for their stone and, it seems, not a huge amount regarding construction was learnt – at least early on.

In the end, the tricks of the Romans were rediscovered. Greater mobility and larger, richer kingdoms in England led to more interaction with their continental counterparts. Christianity was brought back by St Augustine and churches began to be built. Many of these directly aped Roman designs. Even the earlier Saxon buildings combined elements re-learnt from Roman times: although their smaller windows often had triangular arches over them, the double window of two semi-circular arches next to each other, with a turned pillar between them, was often a feature, especially on higher-status buildings – a feature taken straight from the Classical world.

As time went on, Romanesque buildings grew to achieve great size and splendour, but their reliance on semi-circles for support brought problems. To build a tall structure, the walls had to be very thick, or the weight would bring it crashing down. Any windows or doors had to be small, pillars and columns had to be enormous and there was a definite limit on how wide a room could be before a semi-circular, or “barrel”, vault would collapse under its own weight.

But then, in just the same way that Romanesque ideas had spread to England from abroad, so came newer ideas. The pointed arch had, in fact, been seen quite commonly before in England, but almost always as a purely decorative feature – often where semi-circular arches had been overlaid on top of each other to create designs to ornament walls, as seen here at Ely Cathedral.

© Steven Zucker

But then, in the year 1135, or thereabouts, something seismic happened in the northern English town of Durham. A great, Norman (as the Romanesque is often known in England) cathedral was being built, but when it came to the roof, for the first time, pointed arches were used to throw a stone vault across the wide nave. Rather than purely existing for decoration, these arches were structural – and their influence was enormous.

Durham cathedral is not the first Gothic cathedral in Europe – that distinction belongs to the Basilica St Denis in France. Indeed, Durham cathedral is not really a gothic building at all. It is very much Romanesque. Its walls are thick, its columns massive and its windows small. Decoration consists of zig-zag, and dogtooth designs. The overall effect could be called gloomy, or heavy, although certainly impressive…

The rose window at the east end is a later addition. Note how only the ceiling has pointed arches – all the others are semi-circular © Oliver Bonjoch

This discovery – that pointed arches are stronger arches – soon came to be used much more extensively and a style developed in England that we know, inventively enough, as Early English. In fact, it’s a bit off to try to claim it as a purely English invention – the style had been in use in France for some time before we got in on the act – so a more tactful name for it is “Lancelot”, from the shape of the windows. Designers had realised that, by using pointed arches for strength, openings (windows and doors) could be much larger. Windows became wider, columns and piers narrower, walls loftier and what had once been dark, foreboding church buildings became light and elegant. By far the greatest example of this style in England is to be found at Salisbury – a most unusual cathedral in that the main bulk of it was built within a mere forty years, which gives it a highly unusual overall conformity in design. A truly beautiful building, only the tower, spire and cloisters were added later.

Tall and narrow “Lancelot” windows are grouped together to give the impression of larger windows. © Diliff
The interior effect is simple, light and elegant © Diliff

Not only did these new, lighter, airier churches reflect new building techniques; they also showed a new relationship with religion in this period. In the 13th Century people were moving away from the almost other-worldly mystery of the Romanesque period and were finding a new, exultant expression towards God in their buildings. They soar towards the heavens, their tall pointed windows showing the way up to the skies, where the Lord himself was, surely, looking benevolently down on these new, glorious works completed in His name. The people looked upon their beauty and glory and rejoiced.

That wasn’t all when it came to technical innovation, though. Take another look at the exterior of Salisbury and you will see that the windows are grouped together to give the impression of larger windows. Some of them even have a decorative arch over the top. There are groups of three and even five windows together. You can feel the architect yearning to make even bigger, wider windows.

Well, as it turns out, it wasn’t all that complicated. The masons who built Salisbury were almost there. Someone, it appears, must have reasoned that if they could put an arch over all five windows, then maybe that arch could actually be made structural and would be strong enough to support the wall above it. The thin sections of wall between these Lancelot windows could then be reduced to become mullions. If they weren’t needed to hold up the weight of the wall above, then all they had to hold up was glass, so they could be much thinner and part of the design of the window itself, rather than structurally integral to the building.

And if you were grouping lances together, then that left a diamond-shaped area between their pointed tops and the wall-supporting arch above… perhaps a circular opening could be fitted in there? And then… even the areas left by those could be filled in with glass too?

It took a little while – these things mostly happened by evolution, rather than in sudden leaps – but from these thoughts the Decorated period was born.

Firstly, slightly cautiously, the designs of this new period were based on good, strong shapes. Despite the fact that the pointed arch of the whole window was taking the weight, the masons still couldn’t quite bring themselves to leave strength in the shapes they used behind, so circles were employed between the lances where possible. This, initial stage of the Decorated is known as the “Geometric Decorated” and a wonderful example can be seen in the West Window at Exeter

The Great West Window at Exeter © DeFacto

This new, richly ornamental style produced an explosion in inventiveness and it wasn’t too long before people realised that it didn’t matter what shapes you used under the arch – the arch was strong enough on its own. New, extraordinary designs were produced that celebrated nature. The mullions of windows could be extended upwards, above the lances and then split and cross in an exuberant, joyful display that gloried in the Good Lord’s creation. For a period of about fifty years in the first half of the 14th Century the Gothic reached its poetic zenith in England in the Flowing Decorated period.

The two greatest windows of the style were constructed at York and Carlisle, while extra adornments and fiddly bits were added to ceiling vaults in the form of lierne ribs that served no structural purpose, but were purely for decoration, as in the Lady Chapel at Ely. At Southwell Minster the most incredible carvings of leaves were added to the portal to the chapter house. The overall effect is one of excitement, exultation and joy in all that was good in the world.

Carlisle’s East Window is the largest Flowing Decorated window, with a design based on tulips © Diliff
The Great West Window at York Minster, known as the Heart of Yorkshire © Diliff
Decorative lierne vaulting in the ceiling of Ely’s Lady Chapel © Diliff
Extraordinarily delicate naturalistic carving at Southwell Minster © Kognos

But then. Disaster. In June of the year 1348 the Black Death arrived in England. The beautiful, joyful window at Carlisle was unfinished and remained so until the 19th Century, when some of its interior stonework was finally completed. This great work of joy at God’s great creation was cut short – its masons dead of the plague. The exultant Decorated period was over.

Huge numbers of people died in wave after wave of plague. What had been the societal norm of joy and exultation became fear and trepidation. How could so many have died unless God was angry with his people? Surely they must have been living in very great sin for Him to visit such destruction upon them? The Black Death wrought huge changes on society and this was reflected in the style of their churches. Gone were the flowing, nature-based designs and in came vast, terrifying cages based on straight lines. The Perpendicular was born.

The Choir of Gloucester Cathedral © Diliff

The choir at Gloucester Cathedral is, in fact, in its bones, Norman, not Perpendicular. Look at the arches of the arcade and gallery in the walls. No points here. But the whole has been overlaid with stone tracery produced in the Perpendicular style – with strong emphasis on horizontal lines. And then there’s the East Window itself. There’s no doubt that this is Gothic, with its vast pointed arch over the whole. It is the largest pre-modern window anywhere in the world – the size of a tennis court. It is enormous, but there’s none of the delicate, curvilinear tracery of Carlisle or York. This is a window designed to inspire fear and awe. Your God is powerful and you disobey him at your peril. Society had become all too aware of this, now that so many of their compatriots lay mouldering in their graves.

And just look at the vault! This is the period where ceiling vaults really took over as the main decorative features in cathedrals. Partly this is a result of practical necessity. The Black Death had carried away a great many skilled masons and lierne vaults could be mass-produced in much simpler designs than those required by Decorated Period windows. Enormously elaborate designs were created from standard-sized ribs producing, in this case, a vision of the very starry firmament itself! Look upon your God and fear Him!


But it was also at Gloucester… some time after the great shock of the plague had subsided… that some of the most beautiful works of the final stage of the Gothic period were wrought. Fan vaulting allowed a little exuberance and joy back into architecture, before the Reformation changed everything. And fans of the Harry Potter films will recognise them too…

Fan vaulting in the cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral © Christopher JT Cherrington

And then… along came the Reformation. The new Protestant religion emphasised one’s personal relationship with God. Great men no longer displayed their wealth (or bought favours from the Pope) by building wonderful churches and cathedrals. All they needed was prayer to avoid an eternity in Hell. They turned their attention away from building to the Glory of God and towards the Glory of their Purses. The great English Country House was born and the Gothic faded away behind them as the Tudor Period found new styles more suitable for the houses of the great and good.


©Crown copyright 2018 Ordnance Survey. Media 076/18

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

Life, they tell me, often goes in circles and so it is with this blog. When I first started writing about walking in Sussex I was inspired by the fact that I did not, at the time, have a car. The lack of a car by no means makes it impossible to enjoy the countryside, but it does make it more of a challenge. Especially if, like I do, you enjoy exploring new places. It is all too easy, when reliant on buses and trains, to find yourself walking the same, tired routes over and over and while there’s a lot be said for walking the same routes, especially at different times of the year – it can get a bit wearing nevertheless. So this blog started as a way to document the places I had found that could be reached by public transport, how I got there, where I walked and how I got back again.

Well, once more, I find myself without motorised wheels and, once more, some creativity and effort is required in finding new places to investigate. In many ways the experience becomes quite different when a little planning is needed. My tendency when exploring with a car was to drive around until I found myself somewhere particularly beautiful or unfamiliar, park up, fire up the OS app and see where I could walk. There are many benefits to doing this, but also many drawbacks. Almost every time I went out I’d find myself spending at least £20 on petrol and very often, even with the benefit of a motor, I’d find myself driving in the same places as I’d driven many times before, or I’d somehow never quite find a good place to stop. Sometimes I’d get home again without having walked at all.

On the other hand, of course, the great benefit of a car is that you can get to all sorts of places that public transport either renders entirely inaccessible, or practically not worth the bother. The challenge for the un-motorised walker is to find those places that are within relatively easy reach and yet still provide new and interesting places to enjoy. And while the whole thing may not feel quite as spontaneous as when you could just jump in the car and go (although, as I have discovered, it is entirely possible to run and catch a train on a whim at pretty short notice), there is a certain satisfaction to be gained from planning a trip and achieving one’s goals.

And it was very much in this fashion that I found myself at Pulborough station having decided to see if I could get up into the woods near Bedham by rail and foot. Turns out, not only can you walk to Bedham from Pulborough, but it is one of the most thoroughly beautiful walks in Sussex. This is not a walk full of grand views and wide vistas, although you do get a bit of that towards the end, but rather these paths find their way mostly through woods, or are lined by tall trees and hedgerows. In the golden light of autumn, as the leaves are turning, there can’t be anywhere much lovelier to stroll.

Pulborough itself sits on the hills just to the east of the River Arun, where it makes two great sweeps around the western and southern edges of the town, joined by the waters of the western River Rother at its first bend. From here the river runs south and is soon to punch its way through the Downs between Amberley and Arundel. The train line runs up this valley and through the gap in the chalk, but Pulborough does not sit on hills made of chalk, but ones made of sandstone. This is the Greensand Ridge, so named because, apparently, the stone, when first exposed to the air, has a greenish tint. The sandstones here are older than the chalk, but not as old as those that make up the High Weald. Because this is sandstone, the soils are light and acidic. Plenty of bracken and birch, pine plantations and and large areas of sweet chestnut coppice. Although the traditional woodland management technique of coppicing died out in most woodlands between the wars, sweet chestnut remains one of the few trees still economically worth managing in the old way. Chestnut wood is naturally rot resistant, which makes it much in demand for fencing, among other things and, of course, at this time of year, the trees are thick with chestnuts, ripe for the gathering and roasting.

On the way to the woods the route passes Pallingham Quay –  a reminder that, once, the River Arun was a busy commercial waterway before the railways took that whole way of life away. The tiny settlement of Bedham occupies the centre of the walk, nestled in the trees with its little ruined school and church that once occupied the same, purpose-built building. Climbing over the ridge from Bedham, the views open out as the path gently descends back into the Arun/Rother valley, via the tiny village of Stopham with its 11th Century church, which is worth a quick visit. I always like to pop into the little churches I pass if I can. There is no greater link back to the medieval than these humble little buildings that have stood and been loved and looked after by local people for centuries. Similarly, the path then crosses the river by way of Stopham Bridge, another monument to the skill of the medieval stonemason, this time dating from the 15th Century. The central arch was raised in 1822 to allow the passage of bigger boats.

From there the path runs back to Pulborough along the edge of the Greensand Hills and the view across the Arun valley to the South Downs beyond is both very beautiful and the archetypal Sussex vista.

Brede High Wood

Brede High Wood is one of those places I’ve been driving past for years, always thinking “I should stop and have a look one day” and, eventually, on the 13th of September 2018: that day came. An almost magically beautiful woodland owned by the Woodland Trust a patchwork of ancient areas, old coppice, plantations and the occasional open glade, I was entranced by mysterious fungi, wild hops, portentous arches and mile after mile of beautiful, stately beech. Very glad I finally decided to stop and look around.


Devil’s Dyke

A few years ago, now, I was lucky enough to enrol to study Countryside Management at Plumpton College in the Sussex Downs. As part of the course I was required to find a suitable work placement for the first year and by a stroke of wonderful fortune I was able to get in first at probably the best such placement in Sussex: the National Trust’s Saddlescombe Farm. I have threatened to write about the farm itself on several occasions, because it’s wonderful. That day will come – but today is not that day. Today is, however, a day for writing about somewhere I’ve been intending to include in my blog for years. I suppose there are a few reasons why I’ve taken this long to get round to Devil’s Dyke on the South Downs near Brighton. Not least the fact that it is one of the best-known countryside sites in the South East and, therefore, it has been extensively written about by many authorities greater than I. Despite all that, it remains one of my favourite places and I am honoured to have spent a couple of years doing my small bit to look after it. Over those two years I came to know the Devil’s Dyke Estate – which stretches far beyond the immediate are around the Dyke itself – pretty intimately. Each discrete area deserves its own entry, but for now, here’s my two penn’orth on the mighty ditch itself.

Newtimber Hill from Devil’s Dyke

One thing that one quickly learns about the Dyke is: never walk up the middle of it. It starts out beautifully gently, but once it’s lulled you into a false sense of security, the gradient increases rapidly, becoming an unforgiving slog to get to the top. Better by far are the paths that lead up the south side of the Dyke, or over the Downs on either side. One of my favourite ways to approach the Dyke has been to park in the lay-by on Saddlescombe Road at the top of the short hill that leads up from the farm gates. You start, therefore, on the lower slopes of Newtimber Hill, itself a wonderful place, with some of the best-preserved and most species-rich downland in England. The way down is steep and crosses a stile into what appears to be a hedge, but there is a path. “I helped put that stile in” I think to myself every time I climb over it. The path after the stile is ridiculously steep and I don’t recommend it after wet weather, because it becomes terrifyingly slippery and there’s not a lot to hang onto to stop yourself tumbling down it, or reaching the bottom by sliding down on your bum in an elegant fashion. On a dry day, though, it can be descended with care. The path at the bottom, if followed to the left, leads through the trees to the bottom of the Dyke itself.

Path to the bottom of the Dyke

Haws at the bottom of the Dyke valley

Here, if you notice, the walls of the Dyke fall steeply on either side to reach the flat bottom of the valley and while the walls are covered with thin, poor soils, the earth that fills the bottom of the “V” is deep and rich. Over millennia, the soils of the steep slopes have been washed down into the bottom of the valley, where they have collected in deep, easily-worked deposits. Following the last ice age, it is in places like this that the first Celtic peoples to repopulate Britain made their settlements and grew their crops. The soil was easy to plough with their primitive tools in comparison to the heavy clays of the wooded Weald below them. Very little is known of these people who clung to an existence here. Their settlements were never very big and left little impression behind them. The Downs, being made of porous chalk, do not naturally collect rainwater. Any rain that falls on them seeps quickly away into the chalk, re-emerging as a line of springs all the way along the base of the north scarp of the Downs, where the chalk meets the impervious clay. There was, therefore, always this limitation on these early farmsteads. Any water for the crops, or for people and animals to drink had either to be carried from a lower spring, or collected in the man-made dewponds that were dug and lined with Wealden clay from the earliest times to a peak in the 18th Century, when sheep-farming was at its height on the Downs. One thing these people did leave behind was their drinking vessels, made from clay and decorated with impressions made by combs, the beakers of the Beaker People have survived to show us that, in these ages before written language: art flourished on the South Downs.

If, once one has emerged from the trees into the bottom of the valley, one turns right, there is a path that leads over a stile and steeply up into the woods on Dyke Hill, which separates the Dyke from the Weald. None of the woodland here is very old, being mostly scrub that has regrown since intensive sheep-grazing stopped on the Downs between the Wars, but it is still beautiful as the path winds among the trees and crosses a bostal that leads up from Poynings, made over centuries by the feet of shepherds and their sheep and the rainwater that ran in the grooves they had made. Eventually this path meets another steep path that heads straight up the hill in a long series of steps, before emerging from the trees onto the open hillside, affording wonderful extensive views along Fulking Escarpment towards: Truleigh Hill, with its radio masts, Chanctonbury Ring with its crown of trees and, even further, to Bignor Hill and Glatting Beacon away in the far distance; another superb place to walk.

Steps lead into the woods on Dyke Hill

The path through the woods

Fulking Escarpment, Truleigh Hill and Chanctonbury Ring

Newtimber Hill

The trees that the path emerges from here are mostly coppiced hazel, planted by the shepherds of old. Hazel, when cut close to the ground will respond by sending up new, vigorous shoots that grow into straight, pliable rods, which are useful for all sorts of things. The wattle latticework to which daub was applied makes up the structure of many an old house’s walls and it was also superb for weaving baskets. The shepherds would have used much of it for making hurdles – small gate-like panels for controlling the sheep when they needed to be held in a small area for a time, such as before shearing. These days hurdles are made of light aluminium in factories, but in days gone by, coppicing and hurdle-making were essential skills for a shepherd to possess.

While sheep farming remained the defining activity of the Downs throughout the 19th Century, another, new breed of people began to arrive on the hills: tourists. Nowhere received these new visitors with more enthusiasm than Devil’s Dyke and as our path leads up to the top of the scarp, we can see evidence of those early thrill-seekers. A wide, shallow trench runs from the top to the bottom of the hill, the path crossing it near the top. In the Victorian era there was a funicular railway here that carried passengers down to the Royal Oak Hotel and Tea Gardens in Poynings. The grand Victorian pub is still operating, the humbler little cottage directly behind it being replaced as the original inn when the new hordes of tourists proved too many for its small, low rooms.

The funicular

Looking down the funicular track bed

Poynings and the Weald from near the funicular track bed

At the top of the hill there stands another, modern pub. Few are those who commend it for its architecture, but on a cold and windy day it can still be a welcome sight, if not as attractive a one as the Georgian building that preceded it. Turn away from the pub, though, and look back the way you came and you will see what Constable described as the “grandest view in the world”… I mean, it’s a pretty grand view all right. You can see for sixty miles to the Hogsback hill in Oxfordshire, right across the Weald to the North Downs and the Greensand Ridge in the north west and to Ashdown Forest and the High Weald to the north east. To the south west, like a dark smudge against the silvery horizon lies the Isle of Wight and there are extensive views along the Downs as described before to the west and along to Newtimber and Wolstonbury Hills to the east. The grandest in the world, though? Perhaps Constable needed to get out a bit more – at least of this country.


As you reach the top of the hill you could easily miss that you have crossed into one of the largest prehistoric enclosures in Britain. All around the top of the hill is a roughly rectangular chalk rampart and ditch. Incredible to think that these walls were built by people using only the antlers of deer as pickaxes: antlers being the hardest tools known at the time. The enclosure can’t have been for a settlement due to the lack of water and it’s too large for a hill fort, like the one at Chanctonbury. It is believed that it was probably used as a corral for livestock.

The ramparts are the green lines in the long grass to the right of the path

Besides the pub, there are other scars on this hill that bear testament to the bustling place this was at its touristic 19th Century height, when trains from Brighton brought passengers in their thousands to see the Dyke and to enjoy the fairground that once stood here. A shallow, oval depression in the ground is all that remains of the bicycle railway, that allowed guests to pedal round in circles on bicycles that hung from a wooden rail above their heads and the crumbling remains of two concrete platforms mark the alighting points for the cable car that once powered back and forth high above the valley itself.

What remains of the landing stage for the cable car

And this truly is the moment to appreciate the grandeur of Devil’s Dyke. Take the path that runs across the top of the “V”-shaped valley and look down the length of it to the hills at its end – Saddlescombe Farm nestling peacefully among them. Many suppose that this valley was carved out by some kind of glacial action, but in fact it owes its existence not so much to the glaciers themselves, but to their demise. During the last ice age, the glaciers came no further south than north London (East Finchley Tube Station, in fact). The Downs, at that time, were one enormous dome of chalk, pushed up by the same action that created the Himalayas and the Alps: the moment that the Indian subcontinent crashed into the rest of Eurasia. The chalk being highly porous, most of it was washed away when the glaciers melted, some ten thousand years ago, leaving just the very edges of the dome, now known as the North and South Downs. The Dyke, likewise, was made by a river of meltwater, mostly from the frozen tundra that made up the soils of the Downs in those days. The same action of water washing down continues to erode the dry valleys, of which Devil’s Dyke is the biggest, and the bostals deeper into the chalk.


Devil’s Dyke

Devil’s Dyke and Newtimber Hill

Many are the legends told of this great ditch, as people of times past tried to understand its creation. The Dyke gets its name from a legend that relates how the Devil was digging through the Downs in order to flood the Weald with seawater, but an old woman, seeing what he was up to, lit a candle to fool her cockerel into believing that the sun was rising, which crowed lustily and scared the Devil away from the approaching dawn.

From the top of the Dyke, a path runs down the length of the slope on the southern side branching to the left from the South Downs Way. Take the right hand fork where the path splits as the valley turns to the left and cross a stile into a field. Follow the path straight ahead to where a stile takes you to the edge of Saddlescombe Road, opposite the farm gates. Turn left and walk along the verge to find a path that will lead back to the lower slopes of Newtimber Hill, just below the lay-by where we parked.


This walk can also be started at the Devil’s Dyke pub, where there is a large car park and regular buses from Brighton Pier.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

High Weald near Penhurst

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?