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.

Newtimber Hill

If you drive down the A23 to Brighton, you cannot help but notice the huge, dark bulk of Newtimber Hill suddenly rising ahead of you after you pass under the bridge at the Albourne junction. It’s a sight that has cheered many a weary heart after a long drive home, because when you see it, you know you’re nearly back to Brighton and before you even get there you’ve got the option of sampling the delights of the M&S at Pyecombe Services. The hill is an unusual one on the Downs because it’s wooded and most of this part of the ridge is fairly bare of trees. Indeed only a hundred years ago there was hardly a single tree to be seen on the hills, most of them having been cut down thousands of years ago; intensive grazing ever after keeping any new trees from growing. It was only after the Great War that it became cheaper to import lamb from New Zealand than to rear our own and grazing started to stop on the Downs, leading to new growth. In general it is better to keep the grassland, rather than let scrub grow up as this grassland is rare and supports many endangered flowering herbs that would be unable to grow in shady woodland. The woodland on Newtimber Hill, though, is different.

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The remains of an old beech tree in Newtimber Holt ancient woodland

Much of the woodland on the northern flanks of the hill are ancient woodland. Some of it is regenerated woodland that regrew after the aforementioned cessation of grazing. In fact you can almost tell when looking at the hill from a distance. The newer woodland shows us an almost smooth, green covering. All the trees are about the same age and they are mostly ash, so they’re all the same height. In the older areas, there are many different species, including ash, beech and even some small-leaved lime leftover from the original forests that grew on these slopes. Because the climate is generally cooler now than when those forests first grew after the last ice age, small-leaved lime doesn’t germinate as well as it did then, so some of these trees can be very old indeed. In fact there’s one small-leaved lime tree on Newtimber Hill that may be as much as four thousand years old. It has been coppiced many times (cut down and allowed to regrow into useful poles) and now looks like a ring of large trees, the trunks all growing from the same roots – making the whole thing one single tree.

Besides this incredible tree, the woods are also home to another remarkable natural wonder, this time a beech. In 2015 a beech tree near the bottom of the hill was declared Britain’s tallest native tree at 144ft.

Newtimber Hill will always have a special place in my heart. It is owned by the National Trust and administered from Saddlescombe Farm, just the other side of the hill. I have spent many hours as a volunteer on the Devil’s Dyke Estate, of which Newtimber Hill is a part and it was here that I truly learnt the simple joy that conservation volunteering can bring. When you have spent as much of your life as I have believing yourself to be entirely useless, the effect of doing good work with good people that has palpable results at the end of the day is immeasurable. As I wander the many winding paths in the woods today I still remember places where I cleared a path, or cut some scrub, or that time I delivered crucial biscuits to the wardens working up on the top of the hill. I remember when we made a bonfire so big we could throw whole trees on it (we weren’t cutting the ancient bits down, don’t worry) and when we discovered that great crested newts had returned to a restored dew pond right on the top of the hill – miles from the nearest water. How did they get there? We can only guess.

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Dew pond near the summit of Newtimber Hill

At the foot of the hill is a narrow road called Beggar’s Lane that winds through the trees, from which steps lead up into the woods. Concrete at first, they soon give way to simple mud steps held back by wooden risers. Even after all these years I am never quite sure after the first couple of hundred yards which of the myriad paths I am on, but they are all beautiful. Sometimes winding along the contours, sometimes suddenly snaking up dozens of steps before meeting three other paths all leading off to new, secret places. In the spring there are carpets of anemones and bluebells and many other woodland flowers and you are surrounded by ash, beech, lime, hawthorn and hazel that has been coppiced and worked for thousands of years.

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Steps in Newtimber Holt ancient woodland

Eventually, inexorably, the paths always seem to lead upwards. Higher and higher through the trees until suddenly they emerge onto the bald, grassy top of the hill and when you look to the west, there in front of you is one of the best views in the South East of England. Dyke Hill, Chanctonbury Ring, Cissbury Ring, Bignor Hill and Glatting Beacon are laid out as your eye follows the Downs and then away on the horizon to the north west stands the dark, whale-backed mass of Black Down – the highest point in Sussex. On a clear day to the north you can just see the North Downs, almost beyond the horizon and even the Hog’s Back, a hill in Oxfordshire, some 60 miles away.

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Dyke Hill, wooded on the left. Truleigh Hill with the radio masts on its summit and Chanctonbury Ring visible to its right

On the western part of the hill, the steeper slopes are mostly bare of trees and here you can find some of the best chalk downland in Britain. Studded with tell-tale anthills that prove this land has never been ploughed up, the grassland is home to an incredible variety of flowering herbs and the rare butterflies and other insects that live on them. Near the bottom of this slope is a grove of another rarity: juniper bushes. Needing to drop their seeds on bare ground and then experience two harsh winters before germinating, these fussy shrubs grow in sudden profusion here in one of their few sites in the area.

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An anthill of the yellow meadow ant

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Juniper bushes on Newtimber Hill

And finally, to the south, nestled in its hollow and looking almost as naturally placed as something that has grown there lies ancient, wonderful Saddlescombe Farm, which perhaps I shall write about in greater detail in the future.

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Saddlescombe Farm

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Chalk pit on Saddlescombe Farm. Used into the 20th century as a corral for gathering sheep to be sheared

All over the hill there is evidence of man’s long relationship with it. From the ancient coppiced trees, to man-made dew ponds and chalk pits. There are strip lynchets, evidence of early arable farming around the North Laine (laine means field) and there have been hundreds of findings of worked flints, in one case a pile of knappings that showed the clear outline of a pair of legs belonging to someone who had sat on this same hill that we walk today and worked here thousands of years ago. What did that person look out and see? Perhaps they were making the axes that first cleared the forests and created this uniquely beautiful landscape.

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.

Hot Men from History presents: The Top Five Hottest European Monarchs!

You’d be surprised how often in life I get asked the question I am here going to set out to answer. “Dan” people ask. “Who were the hottest European Monarchs of history?”. Well, they can wonder no more, because the results are in. The votes have been cast. The panel has debated. The ballots have been totted up and I can finally reveal the answer we’ve all been waiting for. I mean, technically there was only one voter and only one panel member and both of those people were me, but whatever.

It should be noted that I am entirely reliant in this quest upon  painted portraits and that before the Renaissance, portraiture was more representative than it was accurate. The earliest vaguely accurate picture of a European monarch we have is of Richard II of England and he was never hot. Various members of the Plantagenet dynasty were described as handsome, but bear in mind that the Plantagenets were a spiky lot and liable to cut the heads off those that offended them. Without accurate portraits, we can only wonder how true these descriptions are.

All that aside, let’s get on with it!

5. Henry IV of France

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Also a contender for Best King of Anywhere Ever, the man who promised to rule with “A sword in the hand and [his] arse in the saddle”, It’s Henry IV of France and III of Navarre, shown here having a vanquish over the Lernaean Hydra. I’m not usually one for the greying daddy type, but He’s so marvellously camp as tits in this picture, I can’t help but love him. Henry was the first Bourbon king and sadly his looks and charm were somewhat lacking in his descendants. Got done in by a knife-wielding assassin in a traffic jam for not being catholic enough. Such is the way of things.

4. Alfonso XII of Spain

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Ruling only from 1874 – 1885 before dying of dysentery and tuberculosis at the age of 27, I’ve mainly included Alfonso for having probably the most outrageous facial topiary of any European monarch. He doesn’t seem to have been a bad man, as kings go, but died too soon to really know. His son, unborn at his death, was an out and out git of the highest order, though.

3. Frederick III of Germany

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OK, I take it back. Maybe Frederick’s whiskers were more prodigious than Alfonso’s. Another one who contrived to die only a few months after ascending the throne (of cancer this time) *and* to sire a complete arse in the form of his son Wilhelm II, Frederick was a liberal, who looked set to clash with his highly conservative chancellor; Bismarck. In the end he died before making much of an impression, Wilhelm dismissed Bismarck and all hell was let loose. Just goes to show. Quite what I’m not sure. In the above portrait, I am fairly convinced that Frederick is on his way to apply for a job producing coffee art in an ironic Berlin cafe.

2. William the Silent, Prince of Orange

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Also known as William the Taciturn or William of Orange (not to be confused with the other William of Orange, who was his great-grandson), William was not, in fact, entirely silent, which would have made his rule considerably less interesting, I suspect. An adversary of certified hottie John of Austria (who  gets no mention in this list purely by dint of never actually being a monarch of anywhere, much to his chagrin) and his masters Charles V (of amusing jaw fame) and Philip II (of marrying Bloody Mary and Armada fame), he founded the house of Orange-Nassau, brought independence to parts of the Netherlands and was the progenitor of that country’s entire royal family, before being assassinated.

1. Nicholas II of Russia

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Becoming Tsar at the age of 26 without the faintest idea of how to do it, Nicky is our hottest of the hot. He seems to have been a nice enough man, if a bit of a twit. He refused to allow greater freedom and a constitutional monarchy in Russia on the grounds that he had taken an oath to be an autocrat at his coronation and, therefore, an autocrat he would be. Unfortunately, being an autocrat was never really in his nature, so he was never very good at it. His father declined to teach him anything of statecraft before he was thirty, which is all well and good, but he died when Nicholas was still only 26. Seemingly impressed by the machinery of democracy, he nevertheless stuck fast to the idea that Russia could only ever be an autocracy, before famously succumbing to the guns of the Russian revolutionaries in 1917. Probably not such a bad man, if he hadn’t been such an idiot. Pretty, though. Let’s have another pic to celebrate.

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Honourable Mentions

I simply cannot leave this without mentioning a couple of other contenders: William II of Orange. Bit of a weak face, this one. He looks like a china doll, but look at his lovely hair. Henry III of France. Bit pasty, perhaps, and a dreadful king. His brother Charles IX was kind of hot as well. And last but not least. Or maybe least, actually, James V of Scotland. I can never quite make my mind up about James. Hot or not? Perhaps we will never know.

Hot Men From History

Look everyone! It’s John of Austria!

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Don Juan de 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.

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Everyone in Europe had that hairdo at the time

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.

Inadvertently Amusing Medieval Art

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A real treat for you today. Probably my favourite inadvertently amusing medieval image of all time. The Book of Kells is one of the oldest and most richly-decorated examples of the Insular Art of the British Isles left to us. From the period popularly known as the Dark Ages (unless you are a historian, in which case that name is most definitely Not Popular), it is a remarkable survival of the Viking raids that were fashionable at the time. It is also hilarious.

Look how bored Mary is! “Oh gawd, I’ve been sat ‘ere ‘olding this oddly wizened old Baby Jesus for bleedin’ hours”, she seems to think. “Can we get this painting over with? I’ve got a dreadful cramp”. Then there’s the angels. The two up the top look particularly worried about something, especially the one top left who looks a bit like Joan Sims. Perhaps they are concerned about the fact their youthful Lord and Saviour bears more than a passing resemblance to Albert Steptoe. The lower angels are great as well, peering round her skirts and rolling their eyes and what the heckitty is the one on the right holding? Some kind of carpet beater?

The red-headed fellas with the enormous noses in the little panel are on the most boring day out ever somewhere, but at least they’re doing better than the alarming-looking knot of limbs and faces in the two semi-circular panels. But all that aside, I just keep returning to the look on Mary’s face, poor old girl. She’s completely zoned out now. Someone wake her up and make her a nice cup of tea.

Things I Have Learnt

“In 1848, at Nuneham House, a piece of Louis’ mummified heart, taken from his tomb and kept in a silver locket by Lord Harcourt, Archbishop of York, was shown to the Dean of Westminster, William Buckland, who ate it” – Source

I must confess that, when first I set forth upon the literary adventure afforded by this sentence, I was not expecting quite such a conclusion.

William Buckland, it turns out, was a palaeontologist given to lecturing from horseback in full academic gown. He coined the word “coprolite” for fossilised faeces and enjoyed the challenge of trying to eat as many different members of the animal kingdom as he could. He claimed that he least enjoyed eating moles and bluebottles. When presented with the heart of Louis XIV, he said he had never eaten anything so strange as the heart of a king, so he scoffed it.

In other news, my investigations into the life and career of Louis XIV have brought to my attention that one of his principle generals in the War of the Grand Alliance, Marshal de Luxembourg, looked an awful lot like Charles Hawtrey.

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Oh, hello!