One of the best things about living in Brighton is how easy it is to get out to the countryside. Often I drive out to the Downs, or Ashdown Forest or somewhere, but this walk starts at my front door and within ten minutes I’ve left the city and the green fields are all around me.
Just the other side of the Downs from Brighton is a path that winds up the steep, northerly slopes called Burnhouse Bostall. For thousands of years shepherds lead their flocks up and down from the Weald to the Downs and back, carving these deep paths into the chalk as they went. Now the sheep are no longer driven up these paths, it is left to the rain and the boots of walkers to carry the job on.
Quite by chance and on a whim, I thought I’d go and have a wander around Pagham Harbour. I had only seen it on a map and thought it looked worth investigation. Normal people, I believe, are all in the pub of a Friday night, but not I. As I stood and watched the sun go down, I could hear nothing but the wind in the reeds and the high, lonely calls of the birds, while the clouds like rippled sand spread out above me, taking a little colour for a time from the sun’s dying rays.
The Pevensey Levels are a large area of reclaimed land in Sussex. Over centuries a shallow tidal inlet was progressively drained and turned into farmland. Still today there is an atmosphere of otherworldliness and impermanence about the landscape, which is criss-crossed by large dykes or ditches that drain the soil. There are very few houses beyond a few scattered farms, unusually for Sussex. The main population is made up of cattle and sheep.
Snuck in a couple of Belle Tout Lighthouse on the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters on the way back to Brighton, innit.
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?
There is no German word for “saveloy”.
Look everyone! It’s John of Austria!
Now, what’s most extraordinary about this particular beauty, apart from his sartorial choices, is the fact he was an illegitimate son of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The Habsburgs, of course, being the most famous royal practitioners of inbreeding that Europe has ever known. Charles V, it is fair to say, was not a looker. It just goes to show that having children with someone from outside the family for a change can make all the difference. Here’s Charles V and his Habsburg Chin in all its glory.
Back to John, though and I think we need to talk about his choice of clothing, don’t we? From the waist up, every inch the soldier, but from the waist down, I think it’s fair to say, things take a different turn. For a start, that enormous pink poofy thing he’s got on appears to hide an alarming discrepancy between his hips and his legs. How do they actually connect? I mean, I’m not saying he’s got bad legs, far from it, it’s just that they also appear to be impossible. And aside from that, I’m not sure I’d recommend riding into battle in that get up. Or even sitting on a horse, to be honest. Your top half might be nicely protected against bows and arrows and all that business, but think of the children, for gawd’s sake.
Also, stop banging that cat on the head with that stick, it’s beginning to look cross.
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 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.