Wandering

I once wrote a song in which I complain that “I sit in my basement flat with never sight of a tree/and as the rain runs down my window I wonder if I’ll ere be free”, and I find myself in a similar position this rainy Easter Monday, as the traditional Bank Holiday weather makes itself felt. In the interests of full disclosure, I must point out that if I actually opened the blinds I would be able to see the two spindly, ivy-encumbered apple trees that dwell in what passes for my back garden and, indeed, the enormous eucalyptus that stands like an alien giant and surveys us all a few gardens up. The song, of course, has more than a streak of self-pity in it and in my defence I wrote it in the living room where you can’t see any trees. Or anything else much other than two wheelie bins, for that matter. What it’s about, of course, is what happens to my brain when I’ve not had access to the countryside for too long. I live in a great, fun city that I love, but if I don’t get to wander free under the sky as often as possible, I start to suffer and city streets are no compensation for country tracks and muddy fields.

There is a primality to walking that is difficult to fully put into words. Something about an act as simple as putting one foot in front of the other that can propel one over mountains. It is an act that humans were built for and that simple act connects us all the way back to the first hominids who stood up to get a better view of their surroundings, their enemies and the way ahead. In many ways, of course, we are separated by eons of history, technology and development, but in many other ways we are still those primal, wary beings, seeking to explore and understand our world. Our post-industrial separation from the land does us as individuals, and our species as a whole, much harm.

Now it is very easy for me to sit here in my centrally-heated flat with its electric lights and its internet connection and its waiting car outside that can whisk me unnaturally to places I choose to walk. There are, of course, many wonders that our industrial world brings us that I would struggle to wish to do without, but that’s not quite the point. We can all make connections with the land that lies beneath our city streets and the landscapes that surround them. Every tree and park. Every garden is a portal into the wild and even though England stands as one of the most managed landscapes in the world, it still keeps those hidden gateways to another, non-human world. A world we choose to ignore at our peril.

Throughout my adult life I have suffered from poor mental health and, particularly, anxiety. There is nothing that calms me more than knowing that I remain a natural being under the sky. That simple act that connects me to those distant ancestors is one that has always helped soothe and replenish what, for want of a better word, I will call my soul. To place my feet in their footprints and follow them is a solace for which I know no comparison, but beyond paying homage to those who went before: it is also a connection to what is real and happening now.

Not all of what can be seen around us in the countryside is cheerful. There is a biodiversity crisis in the fields of Old England. Songbird populations are plummeting. The ash trees are dying; the elm already gone. Hedgerows have disappeared and vast fields spread in sterile, serried grids to horizons shorn of the trees that used to cover them. Yet there is still enough there remaining, scattered and fragmentary though it may be, to allow one, if one pays attention, to look through those windows into the wild and to see that other world and to imagine oneself an earlier human watching the rooks high in the branches of the trees that were once believed to be Gods or entities that connected us to the heavens. We can still stand on the hillsides and look out over the valleys below us and try to discern the way ahead. There is much that is upsetting and difficult, but with that primal vision still somewhere within us, there is always hope.

So I will always look to get out from behind these rain-smeared windows in this basement flat and take myself wandering under the wide open skies of this battered, abused and still intensely beguiling planet of ours. I will continue to place my feet in the footprints of those ancestors that first cleared the paths through the trees and I will remind myself that, even in this world of bright screens and all-pervasive internet coverage, that I am human and I am of the Earth.

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.

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.

Harrow Hill

On their hundred-mile march from Winchester, the South Downs finally meet the sea at Brighton. Further east and the great, white ramparts of the Seven Sisters rear up and terminate in the tallest cliffs in the South East at Beachy Head. Further west, though, and the hills slowly pull away from the coast until even the dip-slope no longer reaches the shore. As they go, this gentler side of the Downs gains more space before finding itself cut off by the sea and the landscape becomes more complex as hills start to emerge, slowly carved out of the chalk by unimaginable amounts of water washing down from the melting glaciers. It is almost possible to stand on the top of the Downs and look over them, seeing the hills as islands in a great sea of meltwater.

From Chantry Post above Storrington you can see four of these hills. Furthest away to the east is Cissbury Ring, an enormous hill fort, then come Church Hill and Blackpatch Hill and finally Harrow Hill. The last of these is reputed to have been the last place in England occupied by fairies, but sadly it’s impossible to get close enough to check as there are no rights of way over it and one must be satisfied with merely walking around it.

There is much evidence of prehistoric life in these hills, with enclosures, cross dykes, strip-lynchets and hundreds of barrows all visible in the Downland turf. Before the Second World War, even more would have been visible, but the production of food in those desperate years became a need more pressing than the preservation of tumuli and much of the dip-slope was ploughed up for the first time, destroying an unknown amount of archaeology forever.

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

Coldwaltham

IMG_4274-2The River Arun in West Sussex is crossed by several ancient bridges, including Greatham Bridge near Coldwaltham, which was originally built in the 13th Century, rebuilt in the 18th, adapted with a new span in the 19th and restored in the 21st.

In the 17th Century it was the scene of a minor battle during the English Civil War: the Parliamentarians seeking to wrest control of the strategic river crossing from the local Royalists. The graves of the dead from this skirmish can be found in the local churchyard.

The river itself was navigable in the 11th Century and by the 19th it connected to the Wey & Arun Canal, providing a link to London. As with all the inland waterways; demand fell away with the coming of the railways and maintenance of the navigation ceased in the 1890s.

The common along the western shore of the river is known as Waltham Brooks and is owned by Sussex Wildlife Trust. The line of the old navigation which here straightened a bend in the river can still be seen and still contains water. The remains of Coldwaltham Lock with its attendant keeper’s cottage are also present.

Stane Street

If you turn at the beautiful old farm at Bignor and drive up the narrow road onto the Downs, you will find a lane so steep and winding that you will be forced to change down into first gear to get the car up there. I have made this climb many times, both by car and on foot, but what I didn’t realise until yesterday was that as you make the second steep turn, you join Stane Street, the Roman Road from London Bridge to the East Gate of Chichester.

Not only that, but the “agger” of the old road itself can be clearly seen at the top of the hill, where the tarmac gives out, but the ancient route continues.

Now, I’ve been up to Bignor Hill dozens of times and I’d noticed this long, linear earthwork and, in my ignorance, had assumed that it must be some kind of medieval boundary marker. It was only a bit of idle map-perusal that led me to realise that this bank of earth was, in fact, built by Roman engineers nearly 2000 years ago!

So, of course, armed with this new knowledge I set off for a proper look. Eschewing my usual route along the edge of the scarp (which is beautiful), the old Road was easy to follow and, as it emerged from some trees it stretched so obviously ahead of me, towards Chichester I could scarcely believe it. As I walked back along the bank I’d seen before I couldn’t get over how clearly this was a road, now I’d seen it in the right way.

What a wonderful thing that a place one knows so well can turn out to have something so completely unexpected and exciting as this!