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.

Droke

That morning I awoke with a feeling of complete uselessness. Nothing I had or could do seemed to have any meaning and the temptation to remain in bed, with the blinds closed and the only light provided by a laptop screen was strong upon me. “Ah.” I thought. “Another day of pointless existence, I see. I suppose I’d better get on with it.”

I forced myself to go to a place called Droke. I’d first found it years before while exploring West Sussex by car. It sits in a long dry valley of the Downs which runs parallel to where the steep northern edge of the long line of hills descends to the Low Weald. The name intrigued me, redolent as it is of some elemental Jansson-esque monster of the woods. In fact, the name turns out simply to mean “steep-sided valley”. This is a timeless, lost place high in a landscape that has never been able to support large amounts of human life. What villages and farms exist are few, small, scattered and achingly beautiful. Charlton Forest is just to the north and one of the largest areas of woodland in Sussex – leading up to the top of the north scarp of the Downs – and I’d wanted to explore it for years. I was in an ambivalent mood as I drove there. That feeling in the pit of my stomach of not really knowing what I was doing or why.

The feeling persisted as I walked through mile after mile of beech plantation, almost as mono-cultural as a stand of pine with just a muddle of bramble at the field layer, a few dark yews dotted about and the odd hazel at the edges. All of that changed at a medieval wood bank near the summit, after which I was suddenly in oak/ash woodland with a significant coppiced hazel under-storey, a fair amount of hawthorn and wild cherry filling it out and moss everywhere.


The top was muddy as all hell, but some fine views fading into the soft winter haze over towards Harting Down and the Surrey Hills made up for it. I was just beginning to really tire of slogging through the mud when all of a sudden the woodland ended and one of the most beautiful dry valleys in the Downs opened up at my feet. The sun came out and I stood and watched a buzzard wheeling against the sky above me. Through a parting in the trees I caught a sudden glimpse of Chanctonbury Ring away in the distance, almost back at Brighton and as I took it all in I thought to myself: “Ah yes. This is the point.”

 

The hill down to Upwaltham was steep and after spending 20 minutes or so poking around in the beautiful old church of nearly 900 years, I abandoned my original plan of walking over Upwaltham Hill and Selhurstpark Hill to get back to Droke and took the quicker route along the road, as the sun was now nearing the western horizon. The sound of gunfire filled the air as I walked along Droke Lane, the guns lined up with their dogs in the fields like so many waiting statues.

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.

Ash

IMG_2259

Another of Britain’s biggest trees, similar in stature to the Oak, is the Ash. Its limbs are straighter, its shoots burst from the parent branch in strangely geometric opposite pairs and its frond-like leaves seem almost alien in this land of broadleaves – almost as though some survivor of a more ancient age still stands among us. Like the Oak it is a large, heavy-limbed tree with deeply fissured bark. In many cultures it is seen as protective and nowhere more so then in Norse mythology where the World Tree Ygdrassil is an Ash tree found on an island in a lake containing the World Serpent. Ygdrassil was so mighty it reached from the depths of the lake to the very heavens, its limbs reaching out over the world it protected and its trunk providing a means of transport between the Nine Worlds with messages borne by a squirrel from the serpent at its base to the eagle high in its crown. The rivers of the world flowed from the antlers of a deer which ate Ygdrassil’s leaves. The Anglo Saxons knew the Vikings as the “Aescling” or Men of Ash.

In British folklore the tree retains its protective qualities. It is often seen as protecting the purity of wells and a spoonful of ash sap would be given to newborn babies to ensure good health. If a child became ill, a cleft would be made in an ash tree and the naked child would be passed through, the cleaving being bound after the event, so as the child healed, the tree healed with it and the two became linked for life.

Ash was one of the most-worked trees in the woodlands of old. Preferring the less acidic soils it grows with enormous vigour, growing quickly and in great proliferation. Indeed it is often seen as something of a pest. Its wood is strong and flexible, giving it a vast range of uses for the woodsman and carpenter alike. Shepherds used it to make their hurdles to contain their sheep, joiners used it to make frames (it was said a joint of ash wood would bear more weight than any other) and its elastic nature made it the first choice for many tool handles, especially for axes; the natural give in the wood absorbing the shock of repeated blows as a tree was cut down or logs split. Wheelwrights prized Ash for use as the fellowes, or rim of the wheel, its forgiving properties allowing it to ride over rough terrain without splitting. Axles were also made from Ash because of this.

The Latin name for Ash is Fraxinus, which means “firelight”, but unlike Oak which was associated with cataclysmic fire from the skies, the fire of the Ash was often a far more domestic affair, it being known to be the best firewood, even to this day. It will burn green or seasoned and burns well for a long time.

In times of war spears and arrow shafts and sometimes even bows were made from Ash. Indeed a poetic Anglo Saxon name for a spear was “aesc”. Both Odin and Thor had spears made of Ash.

Ash was often coppiced and this can continue a tree’s life almost indefinitely, the stools growing to considerable widths. If not coppiced the trees would be left to grow to full maturity before being cut for use in the many ways described above and more. Our ancestors must have been in awe of this most useful of trees and it is possible to imagine how such a tree could become seen as a great protector as in very real ways that’s just what it was.

In 2012 a fungus called Chalara and also known as Ash Dieback was found in the UK for the first time. It had been widely known across Europe since 1992. The fungus causes lesions in the bark, the death of leaves and the reduction of the crown of the tree. Once a tree is infected it is usually fatal, either the tree loses so much of its leaves it is no longer able to photosynthesise, or it is so weakened it can be killed by other pathogens. Already over 90% of Ash trees in Scandinavia have been killed and similar numbers are expected to die in the UK. However, ash grows so rapidly and so freely there are high hopes that even after such a strong attack, tree numbers will eventually recover from naturally resistant stock. Let us hope so. After all, how will the Gods move between the Nine Worlds if Ygdrassil is dead?

Darwell Wood and Reservoir

The path fell steeply away at my feet as I entered Darwell Wood and I was quickly deep in the quiet, dreaming woodland. I could see on the map that I wasn’t far from the reservoir, but I couldn’t see it. My heart sank a little and I wondered if it would be the same as Weir Wood Reservoir, where only the barest glimpses of the water can be caught from the path and a high fence prevents getting any nearer. The path brought me to the long, gently winding incongruous sight of a covered conveyor belt, running through the trees: there are gypsum mines in these woods and the conveyor stretches for just under 5km between them. Turning away, the footpath drops once again and suddenly, to my delight, I could see the water through the trees. Fighting my way through dense willows, I emerged on the shore. What a beautiful place. I didn’t want to leave, but leave I did and looped back round through the woods to the car.

Oak

IMG_2129-3

Like a mouldering but still proud old man, Britain’s most famous tree species stands head and shoulders above all others in the national consciousness. The Oak is revered for its strength, its stature and its grizzled, gnarled permanence. From the earliest times, the Oak has been associated with the most powerful gods – with Zeus and Odin – its height – often bringing it in range of lightning strikes – brought it a strong connection with fire, as though its branches, reaching to the skies, were in communion with the very gods themselves. We can only wonder today at how the sight of a mighty Oak erupting in flame as a tempest raged about it must have impressed itself upon the imagination of the people who witnessed it – a people still utterly bound to the natural world, their lives inescapably entwined with the elements. When life and death were so easily at the mercy of these extraordinary forces, we can quite see how these great, powerful trees that stretched into the heavens can have taken on a godlike aura of their own.

Oaks are often known in folklore as the King of the Woods and its myths and personae seem unquestionably male, but in many ways the Oak can also be seen as a mother – a giver of life. No other tree of the British Isles supports such an array of living organisms as the Oak, from mosses and lichens, to insects and other invertebrates to the birds and small mammals that feed on them and ultimately to the higher predators that live on them in turn. Every tree is an ecosystem – a whole world in itself – and that can be no truer of any tree than the vast Oak.

In the 1st Century AD the great Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote of a Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe that he reported was happening in Britain. Mistletoe was revered by the Celtic people who inhabited the islands and their druids; and none more so than that which grew on the Oak tree. With great ceremony the druids would climb the tree, cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle, throw it from the branches and catch it in a white cloak. Two white bulls would be sacrificed and an elixir made from the plant, which was believed to cure infertility and to counter the effects of poison. In ancient times, mistletoe was seen as magical because it remains green throughout the winter and its mere appearance – an alien lurking in the branches of its host – must have given it an air of great mystery and power.

As a mighty Oak ages, it often enters a “stag-headed” phase, where the highest branches die off and the crown of the tree moves down, the transportation within its vascular network thus becoming easier. As this happens, the circumference of the tree increases and its great girth begins to cause problems for the tree as a whole. The bark can no longer contain its bulk and it eventually splits, exposing the wood within to the elements. Soon, water finds its way in and the tree starts to rot. As the interior breaks down, the outer, living part of the tree then grows roots into itself and consumes the decomposing wood within. The heartwood having long-since died, the tree can sacrifice the strength it gives for its continued life. In the end this process leads to the outer part of the tree splitting into a ring of smaller trees but all still growing from the same old roots. In this way an Oak can live for many hundreds of years.

No other tree has been so extensively used in medieval building and in naval construction. The strength for which it was revered became inextricably linked with a vision of a powerful nation protected under its spreading boughs and still today, while protected from over-felling, it is a highly sought-after wood for many purposes, from framing houses, to building furniture and even to warming us as an excellent firewood. In the wheelwright’s workshop, it was used to make the spokes of a wheel, such was its straight, strong grain and its resilience under compression. From common people who were married under the boughs of Oak trees, to the the royals like Elizabeth who received news that she was Queen beneath one and Charles II who hid in one to evade capture as he escaped the country after Worcester, there is no tree that can rival its complete entanglement in the national imagination. This great living godlike plant is a portal both to the heavens and the vastness of the universe and to the tiny worlds of the minute creatures that inhabit its darker recesses. We would do well to retain the reverence our forebears had for this glorious tree.