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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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.

Lickfold

I admit I mainly wanted to walk in the Lickfold area because it’s got a funny name, but it also turns out to be in a really beautiful, rural part of Sussex.

Sitting in that bit of the county between Midhurst and Haslemere, it is comfortably within the boundary of the South Downs National Park, but this is not Downland. The bones of the earth, where they break through around here, are not white chalk, but sandstones that are far older than that. The great dark lump of Black Down looms in the distance, itself an outlier of the sandstone Surrey Hills, despite being the highest point in Sussex. The ground is spongy, sweet chestnut abounds in the woods and there are vast areas of commercial pine forest, while bracken fringes the edges of the woods and lanes. In fact this area, with its acid soils and rolling, thickly wooded hills, has much more in common with the High Weald than it does with the South Downs.

The villages are few and scattered and the houses often built out of the local stone, glowing honey-coloured in the weak December sun. This is one of the less-visited parts of the National Park and this is a big part of its glory. The paths are a little harder to follow in places, but still not difficult and there were some real moments of delicious solitude, while the surroundings alternated between deep, dark, secret woodland and wide open pastures.

There may be something in this business of choosing walks based on funny names after all. As a bonus the area also glories in the names “Dirty Bridge Barn” and “Dirty Bridge Field” (which is a wood, oddly). There didn’t seem to be an actual “Dirty Bridge”, though. Perhaps it’s too ashamed to bring attention to itself.

 

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A wood bank on the edge of Bexleyhill Common, with coppiced beech on the corner. Wood banks are ancient boundaries between properties and often have coppiced, stumped and pollarded trees on them to make them more obvious.

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Although this might look like a stand of dead trees, in fact it’s a plantation of larch – the only deciduous conifer – in its winter plumage.

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Definite signs of man-made channels in this meadow, silted up and barely discernible now, but the shallow, linear depressions in the deep grass show that this was once a water meadow and deliberately flooded to encourage lush growth. Just needs a lovely old red poll cow called Ermintrude to stand in the middle of it all and chew on a buttercup. A red poll? In Sussex? Sorry, that’s the Suffolk in me coming out.

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If you see a row of big old trees in a field like this, it’s very likely a sign that there used to be a hedgerow here. The rest of it’s been grubbed up for one reason or an other and only the big old oaks, too expensive and valuable to remove, remain to show us what once was.

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Although it looked quite scary in the gathering gloom and it was a bit slippery in the ice, this bridge doesn’t even make the top five Scariest Sussex Footbridges

Ash

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Another of Britain’s biggest trees, similar in stature to the Oak, is the Ash. Its limbs are straighter, its shoots burst from the parent branch in strangely geometric opposite pairs and its frond-like leaves seem almost alien in this land of broadleaves – almost as though some survivor of a more ancient age still stands among us. Like the Oak it is a large, heavy-limbed tree with deeply fissured bark. In many cultures it is seen as protective and nowhere more so then in Norse mythology where the World Tree Ygdrassil is an Ash tree found on an island in a lake containing the World Serpent. Ygdrassil was so mighty it reached from the depths of the lake to the very heavens, its limbs reaching out over the world it protected and its trunk providing a means of transport between the Nine Worlds with messages borne by a squirrel from the serpent at its base to the eagle high in its crown. The rivers of the world flowed from the antlers of a deer which ate Ygdrassil’s leaves. The Anglo Saxons knew the Vikings as the “Aescling” or Men of Ash.

In British folklore the tree retains its protective qualities. It is often seen as protecting the purity of wells and a spoonful of ash sap would be given to newborn babies to ensure good health. If a child became ill, a cleft would be made in an ash tree and the naked child would be passed through, the cleaving being bound after the event, so as the child healed, the tree healed with it and the two became linked for life.

Ash was one of the most-worked trees in the woodlands of old. Preferring the less acidic soils it grows with enormous vigour, growing quickly and in great proliferation. Indeed it is often seen as something of a pest. Its wood is strong and flexible, giving it a vast range of uses for the woodsman and carpenter alike. Shepherds used it to make their hurdles to contain their sheep, joiners used it to make frames (it was said a joint of ash wood would bear more weight than any other) and its elastic nature made it the first choice for many tool handles, especially for axes; the natural give in the wood absorbing the shock of repeated blows as a tree was cut down or logs split. Wheelwrights prized Ash for use as the fellowes, or rim of the wheel, its forgiving properties allowing it to ride over rough terrain without splitting. Axles were also made from Ash because of this.

The Latin name for Ash is Fraxinus, which means “firelight”, but unlike Oak which was associated with cataclysmic fire from the skies, the fire of the Ash was often a far more domestic affair, it being known to be the best firewood, even to this day. It will burn green or seasoned and burns well for a long time.

In times of war spears and arrow shafts and sometimes even bows were made from Ash. Indeed a poetic Anglo Saxon name for a spear was “aesc”. Both Odin and Thor had spears made of Ash.

Ash was often coppiced and this can continue a tree’s life almost indefinitely, the stools growing to considerable widths. If not coppiced the trees would be left to grow to full maturity before being cut for use in the many ways described above and more. Our ancestors must have been in awe of this most useful of trees and it is possible to imagine how such a tree could become seen as a great protector as in very real ways that’s just what it was.

In 2012 a fungus called Chalara and also known as Ash Dieback was found in the UK for the first time. It had been widely known across Europe since 1992. The fungus causes lesions in the bark, the death of leaves and the reduction of the crown of the tree. Once a tree is infected it is usually fatal, either the tree loses so much of its leaves it is no longer able to photosynthesise, or it is so weakened it can be killed by other pathogens. Already over 90% of Ash trees in Scandinavia have been killed and similar numbers are expected to die in the UK. However, ash grows so rapidly and so freely there are high hopes that even after such a strong attack, tree numbers will eventually recover from naturally resistant stock. Let us hope so. After all, how will the Gods move between the Nine Worlds if Ygdrassil is dead?

Darwell Wood and Reservoir

The path fell steeply away at my feet as I entered Darwell Wood and I was quickly deep in the quiet, dreaming woodland. I could see on the map that I wasn’t far from the reservoir, but I couldn’t see it. My heart sank a little and I wondered if it would be the same as Weir Wood Reservoir, where only the barest glimpses of the water can be caught from the path and a high fence prevents getting any nearer. The path brought me to the long, gently winding incongruous sight of a covered conveyor belt, running through the trees: there are gypsum mines in these woods and the conveyor stretches for just under 5km between them. Turning away, the footpath drops once again and suddenly, to my delight, I could see the water through the trees. Fighting my way through dense willows, I emerged on the shore. What a beautiful place. I didn’t want to leave, but leave I did and looped back round through the woods to the car.

Ashdown Forest

Ashdown Forest is a former hunting preserve in East Sussex and is now one of the largest areas of open access land in the South East of England. More open heath, riven with winding streams than dense woodland, the “forest” part of its name refers to its status as a hunting ground, from the original Norman French meaning of the word. Having said that, it does have woodland and that’s where I mostly was today.

Oak

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Like a mouldering but still proud old man, Britain’s most famous tree species stands head and shoulders above all others in the national consciousness. The Oak is revered for its strength, its stature and its grizzled, gnarled permanence. From the earliest times, the Oak has been associated with the most powerful gods – with Zeus and Odin – its height – often bringing it in range of lightning strikes – brought it a strong connection with fire, as though its branches, reaching to the skies, were in communion with the very gods themselves. We can only wonder today at how the sight of a mighty Oak erupting in flame as a tempest raged about it must have impressed itself upon the imagination of the people who witnessed it – a people still utterly bound to the natural world, their lives inescapably entwined with the elements. When life and death were so easily at the mercy of these extraordinary forces, we can quite see how these great, powerful trees that stretched into the heavens can have taken on a godlike aura of their own.

Oaks are often known in folklore as the King of the Woods and its myths and personae seem unquestionably male, but in many ways the Oak can also be seen as a mother – a giver of life. No other tree of the British Isles supports such an array of living organisms as the Oak, from mosses and lichens, to insects and other invertebrates to the birds and small mammals that feed on them and ultimately to the higher predators that live on them in turn. Every tree is an ecosystem – a whole world in itself – and that can be no truer of any tree than the vast Oak.

In the 1st Century AD the great Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote of a Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe that he reported was happening in Britain. Mistletoe was revered by the Celtic people who inhabited the islands and their druids; and none more so than that which grew on the Oak tree. With great ceremony the druids would climb the tree, cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle, throw it from the branches and catch it in a white cloak. Two white bulls would be sacrificed and an elixir made from the plant, which was believed to cure infertility and to counter the effects of poison. In ancient times, mistletoe was seen as magical because it remains green throughout the winter and its mere appearance – an alien lurking in the branches of its host – must have given it an air of great mystery and power.

As a mighty Oak ages, it often enters a “stag-headed” phase, where the highest branches die off and the crown of the tree moves down, the transportation within its vascular network thus becoming easier. As this happens, the circumference of the tree increases and its great girth begins to cause problems for the tree as a whole. The bark can no longer contain its bulk and it eventually splits, exposing the wood within to the elements. Soon, water finds its way in and the tree starts to rot. As the interior breaks down, the outer, living part of the tree then grows roots into itself and consumes the decomposing wood within. The heartwood having long-since died, the tree can sacrifice the strength it gives for its continued life. In the end this process leads to the outer part of the tree splitting into a ring of smaller trees but all still growing from the same old roots. In this way an Oak can live for many hundreds of years.

No other tree has been so extensively used in medieval building and in naval construction. The strength for which it was revered became inextricably linked with a vision of a powerful nation protected under its spreading boughs and still today, while protected from over-felling, it is a highly sought-after wood for many purposes, from framing houses, to building furniture and even to warming us as an excellent firewood. In the wheelwright’s workshop, it was used to make the spokes of a wheel, such was its straight, strong grain and its resilience under compression. From common people who were married under the boughs of Oak trees, to the the royals like Elizabeth who received news that she was Queen beneath one and Charles II who hid in one to evade capture as he escaped the country after Worcester, there is no tree that can rival its complete entanglement in the national imagination. This great living godlike plant is a portal both to the heavens and the vastness of the universe and to the tiny worlds of the minute creatures that inhabit its darker recesses. We would do well to retain the reverence our forebears had for this glorious tree.