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.

Woodingdean – Lewes Approx 10.5 km (6.5 miles), about 3.5 hours

Castle Hill NNR
Castle Hill NNR

Now, try not to get too excited, but we’re back at that exceptional beauty spot The Downs Hotel in Woodingdean (served, excitingly, by both the No. 22 and the No. 2). I know it’s tempting, but try to resist its obvious charms. There’s a Tesco Express at the petrol station as well as a Co-op just over the junction, but if you can tear yourself away, turn left at the Downs Hotel and walk up the hill on Falmer Road. Just past the end of the buildings on the right is a small car park with a couple of tracks leading from it. The left-hand track is Drove Avenue, which becomes Jugg’s Road and is a popular and straightforward route to Lewes, but not a patch on my route (obviously), which goes through Castle Hill National Nature Reserve and has some of the best dip-slope/dry valley scenery on the South Downs.

Take the Left Hand Fork
Take the Left Hand Fork

Follow the right-hand track, which I am sure you’ll be thrilled to know is called Norton Drive. Ahead of you, you will see a radio mast (you will also see, away to its left, another radio mast on the top of Newmarket Hill. So long as you’re heading initially towards the right hand of the two, you are going the right way. Well done!). Just before the radio mast, take the left-hand fork, with the fence on your right. This path, I have decided, is one of the most beautiful on the South Downs and I shall brook no argument on the matter. To your left is Newmarket Bottom and Bullock Hill rises on your right.

Follow the path all the way down and round to the right, round the end of Standean Bottom and back along the other side of the dry valley.

Have we talked about dry valleys? Let’s talk about dry valleys. The most famous dry valley on the South Downs is Devil’s Dyke and I’ll do a Devil’s Dyke walk at some point I’m sure, but the important thing is that they were all created in the same way, some 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Glacial Maximum (or ice age, if you’re not being a ponce about these things, although technically, as there’s ice at the poles, we’re still in an ice age, but whatever). The Downs were not covered by glaciers (they only came as far south as North Finchley Tube Station), but they were frozen solid (There’s more on this guff in my post giving an exciting geological history of the Downs). As the tundra melted, the melt-water formed rivers in the dips and depressions on the Downs and eventually wore valleys into the surface of the chalk. Once the ground had all thawed, the water ran out and the rivers disappeared, leaving dry valleys behind. So now you know all about dry valleys. You’re welcome.

Barns
Barns

Anyhoo, you will now be walking along a track shaded by a slightly incongruous row of enormous London Plane trees. Be careful on this path, there are badger setts, some of the entrances to which are right in the middle of the path and perfect for unwary walkers to fall down. At the end of this path under a few big Ash trees, you will come to a junction of tracks, where you turn left, heading towards a collection of red-brick barns lacking somewhat in the roof department. Try as I might I have never been able to take a decent picture of them, but there’s always a certain glorious melancholy about ruined buildings, isn’t there? One day I will be there under the perfect conditions to take a picture that will capture that brooding melancholy of the abandoned… but I digress. Again. Sorry.

Just past the barns, turn right, go through a gate with a fence on your right, turn right at the end of the fence and then you should see a path leading off to your left along the length of this cultivated field. Through a gate at the other end of the field, across another fairly small field and through another gate into a much bigger field. Follow the path straight on and round to the right. This field may well be full of moo cows, but don’t worry, they’re friendly moo cows and used to walkers. Do keep dogs on a short lead, though. You are now in Balsdean Bottom, which is a great name for a bottom, I’m sure you’ll agree.

At the other end of this field you are presented with an exciting choice of gates, a new wooden one and and old, metal one. I like to go through the metal one, because I’m sentimental like that, but I shan’t be cross if you choose the wooden one, although I will silently judge you.

View from Swanborough Hill
View from Swanborough Hill

Follow the wide track straight ahead, which will start to go uphill. On your right is another valley that glories in the name of Stump Bottom, but pay it no mind. It does no good to encourage that sort of behaviour. At the top of the hill, cross a cattle grid and go straight on. You are now at the top of a shoulder of Swanborough Hill and all of East Sussex is laid out at your feet. The village of Kingston Near Lewes is at the foot of the hill. Dead ahead are the Lewes Downs, with the round, bald head of Mount Caburn at the southern extreme. The white cliffs are, imaginatively, called Cliffe, and the town to the left is Lewes, with its castle visible on its hill. I usually stop here for a roll up and a Double Decker and often find it hard to drag myself away from this view, which I regard as the finest in Sussex, even if you can see Kent in the distance. Try to ignore that misfortune.

Breach Road
Breach Road

Leading down in front of you are two paths. One leads to the left and, very steeply, drops down to Kingston. You can go that way if you like. There’s a pub and everything. But it’s cheating, so I’m not going to describe it, so there. Take the right-hand fork, leading down and round a spur of the hills. This is Breach Road and leads, eventually, down to Swanborough, becoming metalled as it emerges from a small patch of trees. At the bottom of the road on your left is Swanborough Manor and the main Lewes – Newhaven road. Cross this carefully – it’s busy and fast here – and through a gate into wheat fields, the flat Ouse Valley suddenly around you. Take a moment as you cross this plain to look back at the hills you’ve just crossed.

Lewes Downs and the Ouse Valley
Lewes Downs and the Ouse Valley

You will quickly come to a t-junction of paths in the middle of the field. Turn left and follow the path across the fields. There is a small airstrip to your right. At the end of the field, the path goes through a gate and down some steps to a tarmac lane. It may well be completely surrounded by tall nettles, but you can get through. Turn right onto the lane and almost immediately left, just before the gates to a sewage works up along and almost within a hedgerow.

Within a Hedgerow
Within a Hedgerow

At the end of this path you will come back out into a wide open crop field with the path obvious ahead of you. Cross the field and the next until you almost reach the road, then turn right with a large drainage dyke on your left, lined with tall trees and sports fields beyond. Follow the dyke (there’ll probably be swans and all that sort of caper) and at its end, turn left through a gate, across the end of a mown stretch of grass and through another gate onto a tarmac road. Turn right here and then left through a bridge under the A27. Follow the road round to the right, then turn left at the first junction. Follow this road under a low railway bridge and up to Southover High Street.

To get to Lewes railway station, turn right and left at the second mini-roundabout, but take my advice and explore Lewes and its many pubs, if you have time.

10 Things What I Know About The South Downs

1. Bostalls

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Bostalls near Blackcap

In the steep hillsides above Fulking there lie deep scars, criss-crossing the landscape. The V-shaped depressions known as bostalls are a familiar sight all along the Downs and on Fulking Escarpment in West Sussex there is a particularly spectacular collection of them, which between them tell a story of the long history of the Downs. When people first came back to what would eventually become Sussex after the end of the last Ice Age, they started clearing the forests on the top of the Downs and using them to graze sheep. Starting around 6 thousand years ago, the Downs were almost totally cleared by around 2000 BC and sheep have been grazed there ever since – reaching a peak in the 17th Century. Alongside this grazing, arable farming also grew up in Sussex. The clays of the Weald are too heavy and waterlogged to be easily cultivated, even with iron ploughs and the soils on top of the Downs were too thin and alkaline to be of any use to those early farmers. But along the bottom of the Downs, where the chalk and the clay meets and mingles, the soil is lighter and it is possible to plant crops there. To help fertilise the fields, the sheep grazing on the Downs during the day would be lead down to the arable land to spend the night, where their droppings would improve the soil. The soil of the Downs being very thin, it quickly wears away under the feet of thousands of sheep allowing rain water to run across the surface of the chalk beneath, which soon erodes to form the deep tracks we see and still walk today – some of them a thousand years old.

2. Lynchets

More evidence of early farming activity on the Downs can be seen in the form of lynchets (sometimes known as strip lynchets), particularly around some of the dry valleys of the dip slope (the more gentle southerly slope of the Downs running down towards the sea). These long linear features were formed when old ploughs turned the soil, which then crept slowly down the hill, forming shelf-like platforms. Opinion is divided as to whether this was simply a side-effect of old-style ploughs – which turned soil only one way – or a deliberate act intended to better retain water on the hillsides and to provide flat terraces to be more easily worked.

3. Terracettes

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Terracettes above Kingston near Lewes

In some ways like a smaller cousin of the lynchets, terracettes, despite sounding like a 60s backing group (In fact, I’m thinking of starting a band called Strip Lynchet and the Terracettes, but that’s for another article), are in fact long step-like formations on the steeper parts of the scarps of the Downs, created as a result of soil-creep and the action of grazing animals walking across the face of the hillsides. The poor, crumbly soil of the Downs (called a rendzina soil) easily washes down the hill, but collects around the base of the grass, which in turn provide a foothold for the wandering cattle and sheep. As they tend to walk along the face of the Downs, rather than directly up and down the steep slopes, they soon walk the soil into the form of terracettes.

4. Chalk Pits

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A chalk pit near Lewes

While wildlife across most of the Downs is adapted to surviving in extremely exposed situations, the numerous chalk pits provide some shelter and a range of ecological niches that would otherwise not be seen. Chalk was dug out of these pits before being baked in kilns to produce lime. The lime would then be taken into the fields below and ploughed in – both to address creeping acidification of the soil and in an attempt to make the heavier clays light enough to plough. Once a chalk pit had been abandoned, it often became a haven for wildlife, giving shelter for more delicate species and allowing scrub woodland to grow up (an unfamiliar sight on the Downs before the latter half of the 20th century), providing yet more habitats to be filled with life.

5. Dew Ponds

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Dew Pond above Keymer

Since at least Saxon times and possibly much earlier, people have got round the lack of natural water on the Downs by constructing dew ponds. The chalk being highly porous, rain water quickly soaks away, leaving nothing for sheep to drink. In order to catch and retain rainwater, these perfectly circular, saucer-shaped ponds were dug, lined with chalk and puddled clay and left to collect their essential bounty. Like the chalk pits, these man-made features provide habitats that would otherwise not be available on the Downs. Some of the better-maintained ponds even have great-crested newts in them, despite being some distance from the next nearest stretch of water.

6. Hangers

Less common in the eastern part of the Downs, steep, wooded hillsides known as hangers proliferate as you go further west towards the Hampshire Downs. Studded with enormous, beautiful beech trees, these woodlands also contain a great deal of ash, which grows like a weed on the Downs and some of the oldest, coppiced trees of the area – small-leaved lime trees, remnants of the original forests that once covered the hills, before the coming of people and their sheep. In other parts, shepherds planted areas of coppiced hazel to provide wood for making their hurdles to control and pen the sheep during shearing.

7. Coombes

Some of the steepest slopes on the Downs are found at the top of these deep, bowl-headed dry valleys. The terracette-lined slopes were carved out by melting water at the end of the last ice-age and now provide some of the best-preserved stretches of calcareous grassland in the area, as it was impossible to plough up and “improve” them – in comparison to the flatter areas on the dip slope that were lost forever under arable fields in the 1940s, when the pressures of war required a great effort to produce more food from the landscape – made possible by modern ploughs and fertilisers. These unimproved tracts of grass, therefore, provide habitats for some of the rarest plants in the UK.

8. Bottoms

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Stump Bottom. Hehehehehe.

Where the coombes widen out, the soil washed down from the steeper hills collects, to form deep, easily-worked and fertile soils and it was here that some of the earliest farming communities formed when humans came back to Sussex after the ice receded and the tundra which covered the Downs thawed. The Beaker People lived here before the coming of the Iron Age and the Celts, but ultimately the lack of natural water in the bottoms forced people down into the Weald, where drinkable water emerges from under the Downs and flows into the rivers.

9. Archaeology

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Chanctonbury Ring

The Downs have always enjoyed a strategic importance in the wider landscape giving, as they do, commanding views over the Weald. It was a powerful person who could claim control of the Downs and in prehistory they built hill forts, with gleaming-white chalk embankments that could be seen from miles away, proving that power. Long ditches known as Cross Dykes were dug to delineate borders between properties and the dead were venerated with tumuli (burial mounds) that stud the hilltops to this day.

10. Downs

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The Weald from College Bostall above Plumpton College

Named from the Saxon word “dûn”, which also gives us the modern word “dune”, the whale-backed rolling hills of the Downs are one of the last bastions of calcareous grassland in the UK and, indeed, in Europe. The long history of grazing on the Downs and folding the sheep on the fields below at night stripped nutrients from the poor soils, while the constant nibbling of the sheep prevented larger plants from growing. This created a unique habitat that is one of the most biodiverse in Europe. An astonishing variety of flowering herbs and rare grasses supports populations of insects from ants, whose hills cover the slopes of some Downs in great profusion to beautiful blue butterflies on the sunnier elevations and the green woodpeckers and skylarks that live on the insects. With the coming of cheap lamb from New Zealand, grazing has declined on the Downs and this unique landscape is under threat from increasing scrub woodland, destroying the herb-rich grassland. Now that the South Downs have been declared a national park, this degradation can, hopefully, be arrested, but we will never see again the Downs as they were before the coming of the plough and the ash, hawthorn and sycamore scrub that has killed some of the rarer plants forever.