College Bostall

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

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

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

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

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

Dungeness

Dungeness wider
©Crown copyright 2018 Ordnance Survey. Media 076/18

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

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

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

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Dungeness in the 13th Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rye Harbour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sussex

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

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View across the Weald from Blackcap on the South Downs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The hills where the River Uck rises, High Weald

Blackcap

One place on the South Downs that will always have a special place in my heart is Blackcap near Lewes. As an undergraduate at Plumpton College I wrote a couple of essays on the hill and it’s a place I return to again and again. The clump of trees on top of the hill can be seen for many miles – even from many parts of the High Weald – but despite looking like a black cap, it is not from these trees that the hill gets its name. Where the hill does get its name, on the other hand, is a matter of some debate.

Between the 13th and 17th Centuries the hill was known as Mount Harry, as this is the hill where Henry III stationed his troops before the battle of Lewes in 1264 – a battle that ended with both Henry and his son, the future Edward I, being taken prisoner by Simon de Montfort.  The hill to its east was known as Lewes Beacon and, indeed, it has a beacon on it. For some reason, though, in the 17th century Mount Harry became Blackcap and Lewes Beacon became Mount Harry. No-one really knows why. There was, in that period, a windmill on the saddle between the two hills known as Blackcap Mill, but whether it was named after the hill or vice versa is not known. One thing is certain, though, and that’s that the trees on the very top of the hill were first planted for the coronation of Victoria some 200 years later (they have died and been replaced twice since), so it’s definitely not named after them.

The top of the hill is managed by the National Trust and has been the successful subject of a scheme to regenerate the herb-rich grassland that makes the Downs famous – much of the hill having previously been ploughed up during the Second World War. The large open expanse of the hill affords wonderful views over to the coastal line of the Downs that stretches from Brighton to Eastbourne and in the summer it has one of the finest displays of wild orchids on these hills.

This is a hill that never fails to cheer me up. A network of bostalls scores its northern face, which allows the wanderer to assault it from various directions, or combine it with a walk in the woods and fields of the Low Weald at its feet.

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On my way up the hill today I spotted these King Alfred’s Cakes growing on a dead ash branch. The fungus gets its name, of course, from looking like burnt cakes, such as those supposedly neglected by King Alfred the Great while his mind was on other vaguely important things, like all those pesky Danes that were suddenly cluttering Wessex up. They only grow on dead ash and though they are extremely hard, they can be removed with a knife. Once they have been sliced off and the interior revealed, it can be seen that they have growth rings, just like the trees they grow on, which gives them their Latin name of Daldinia concentrica.

Long before the days of Alfred and his cakes, this fungus had another use. If a spark from a fire were blown onto the inner rings, it would smoulder quite slowly and happily away, even for days, until a new fire was to be set, at which point the addition of some dry tinder – and a fair amount of highly controlled blowing – would bring it back into a bright blaze. A very useful property in the days before we’d worked out how to make fire for ourselves and had to rely on its delivery from the Gods.

With the ash trees all dying of the Chalara fungus, they look set to have a bumper couple of decades, as there’s going to be plenty of dead ash for them to grow on. But after that, I suppose they’ll die out with their hosts. A sad end to such a wonderful part of our human past.

Dudwell Valley

Few villages in Sussex occupy a more enviable position than Burwash and its neighbour Burwash Weald sitting high up on one of the great east-west ridges of the eastern High Weald. In days past they must have been even more beautiful, before main roads and ranks of parked cars came along with all their ugly convenience. Burwash sits particularly prettily on its ridge and the buildings along the main road remain very handsome to this day. To the north runs the greatest of the three main rivers that run east to Rye Bay – the East Sussex Rother (not to be confused with the West Sussex Rother, itself a tributary of the Arun. Or the Yorkshire Rother, come to that). To the south is, to my mind, one of the most beautiful parts of the High Weald, if not of Sussex in general.

A small river, never much more than a large stream really, the Dudwell has nevertheless carved a deep, steep valley between the ridges occupied by the Burwashes to the north and Dallington and Brightling to the south. The acidity of the underlying sandstone is much in evidence here and many of the paths and tracks are bordered with hedges made of gorse. The impermeable layer of Wealden clay that covers it also makes its presence felt – the fields quickly becoming waterlogged and difficult to negotiate in wet weather.

The whole is covered with a patchwork of pasture and dense woodland, with many rushing, falling streams running among them. Scattered farms and oast houses perch on the hills and ridges between them, commanding wonderful views down the valley towards where the Dudwell finally reaches the Rother at Etchingham.

Penhurst

When first I arrived in Sussex I did what I always do in a new place, which is get in my car and start to explore. Driving out from Brighton along Ditchling Beacon Road, I soon found myself at the highest point in East Sussex, the Beacon itself, and what a view was laid out before me. Coming from Suffolk, which – beautiful though it is – is not known for its extensive vistas, it was amazing to stand on a point in the south east of England and be able to see so much country at my feet. Over time I would learn what I was looking at. I’d know which hills on the far horizon were part of the Greensand Ridge and which, seen only on the clearest days, were the North Downs away on the edges of London. I’d come to learn about the two Wealds – High and Low –  and how they were formed and I’d start a process of exploration, by foot and by car, that would lead to a truly abiding love for this wonderful corner of England.

Now, there are many beautiful places and areas in Sussex, of course, but the crowning glory of the county, to my mind, has to be the High Weald (there’s a whole High Weald article brewing) and probably the best part of that is the area around Penhurst and Brightling. I must have driven countless times along the lanes around there and paused in gateways, gazing out over the hills, the South Downs a faint shadow on the horizon; almost like a line of low cloud on the edge of consciousness.

This area is not like the eastern parts of the High Weald (which is a fascinating and beautiful region in its own right) with its long, wide, open valleys with high ridges between, topped by the villages so characteristic of the area. Those valleys were carved out by the bigger rivers which empty into Rye Bay – the Rother, the Brede and the Tillingham and their stories are long and intriguing ones, but there are other, smaller rivers and streams that have carved a web of deep, steep valleys into the sandstone rocks, creating a wonderfully complex landscape both secret and dramatic by turns.

Penhurst is a tiny, tiny village. A fine manor house, a church of honey-coloured local stone and a few barns and that’s pretty much it – the rest of this most rural of parishes being made up of scattered farms and cottages. It sits high among the headwaters of a small river that is named as the Ash Bourne on the OS map and which I have also seen referred to as the River Ashbourne in other places. This river doesn’t flow to the east, but almost due south until it leaves the steep valleys and rushing streams of its youth and becomes a slow, deep, winding river known as Waller’s Haven that snakes lazily across Pevensey Levels, before finding the sea via sluices at Norman’s Bay.

After all these years of driving through this wonderful little place, I am happy to have finally parked the car, got my boots on and done some of the real exploration that can only be done on foot.