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.

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

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.

Upper Medway

If you stand and look out from the higher points of Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, you are looking over successively younger landscapes the further your gaze falls from where you are standing. In an increasing, concentric horseshoe, the oldest rocks at the surface are the sandstones that form the hills of Ashdown Forest itself and the wider High Weald, followed by alternating areas of heavy Wealden clay, greensand ridges, so called because, it is claimed, this sandstone looks green when first exposed to the air, blueish gault clay that is almost as hard as rock and, finally, the chalk of the North and South Downs.

These old sandstones at the heart of the Weald give rise to several of Sussex’s rivers, including the greatest of them all, although its considerable claims to history are mostly based in the neighbouring county of Kent. It is possible that the Celts called the river “Medu”, which means “mead” and is assumed to refer to the sweetness of its waters. To the Romans the river was “Fluminus Meduwaeias”, while the Saxons called it the “Medwaeg”. At 70 miles, it is the longest river that rises in Sussex and the second longest in the South East of England, after the Thames.

The Medway is the only major river in Sussex that doesn’t flow towards the South Coast. (Apart from the Mole, but who cares about the Mole?) All the others eventually cut through the South Downs and empty into the English Channel, or flow into Rye Bay. The Medway, however, flows mostly eastwards through Sussex, before turning north and punching through the North Downs to finally enter the Thames Estuary. It is here that its best-known moments in history occur, being, as it was, the setting for the Royal Docks at Chatham. The Dutch Raid on the Medway of 1667 in particular is remembered as one of England’s most entertaining naval failures.

However, let us not get distracted by such frippery. Today my attention is turned to the upper catchment of the Medway, not far below its source at Turners Hill and all the while overlooking the great, modern reservoir known as Weir Wood, created by damming the river itself.

This is a landscape of steep, rushing streams and thickly wooded hills. The land being either sandy and poor or Wealden clay that is almost impermeable to water, agriculture is impractical here and the High Weald still retains the densest covering of woodland in the country. There are numerous outcroppings of the underlying sandstones here, such as at Stone Hill Rocks and Standen Rocks, among others. The bones of the earth being so on display seems almost out of keeping with the image of the South East of England as a “green and pleasant land”, but Sussex has always taken its own path and perhaps this almost secret world of steep narrow valleys and deep, dark woods has placed its influence on the peoples of this part of the world.

Gravetye Estate

What a find! The estate of the Elizabethan former manor house of 1598, the whole lot was left to the Forestry Commission on the death of former owner William Robinson, who also created renowned gardens around the house, which are now open under restrictions. The house became a hotel and Michelin starred restaurant.

Because the estate is managed by the Forestry Commission, the whole lot is designated as Access Land and the public have the right to roam across all of it. Unlike most Forestry Commission properties it is far from being uniform pine plantation, but is in fact a wonderful extensive patchwork of woods, fields, lakes and streams laid over rolling hills and with the old manor house still set at its heart.