Cuckfield, West Sussex, May 2019
With some hours of Bank Holiday Monday to spare, we drove to Cuckfield in West Sussex. Pronounced ‘Cook-field’, it gets its name from the cuckoo.
The chuchyard in Cuckfield is vast. A country walk in Sussex is never complete without a visit to at least one church (which, if it’s old enough, usually has an ancient yew tree next to the building). Entering it from village streets dominated by a cedar of Lebanon, it spreads over the gentle crest of a hill, the South Downs rolling along in the distance. On that evening, they were so green and clear they seemed within arm’s length.
Entering into a church I am always struck by the smell, like an antique shop. There is cool and a sudden stillness. The small churches of English villages hold the scars of our history often with lists of names of people killed in the First World War, or sometimes with gruesome histories stitched into tapestries. Most of them are not actually English but Norman (1066). The yew trees in their grounds often date to pre-Saxon times (500AD), even before Christianity was dominant in Britain.
In the church a tapestry of a tree held symbols of the village. Perched on a branch was a cuckoo with its sharp bill and grey head.
No cuckoos sang in the churchyard and no yew tree had lived long enough to recall Pagan Britain, but a castle of a giant sequoia grew amongst the graves.
We walked for four miles into the woods and fields that edged the village. Great veteran oaks sat on field margins, quintessential Wealden scenes of sprawling boughs and hefty trunks with woodland on one side and an open field on the other.
I spend a lot of time traveling by car between the Weald and the South Downs. From the corner of my eye I can tell when the Downs are done and the Weald has returned. It’s a case of oaks sitting in hedgerows of neatly set fields. Looking at a map of the Weald, these fields are glades carved out of the ancient woodland that once cloaked the entire area between the North and South Downs. No, it probably was not wall-to-wall woodland (as people say), but its openness was more rugged and less formal. Less civilised. It’s not all oaks in fields, however. Here a Scots pine stood in a private field, framed by the woodland footpath we were taking and the rounds of hay rolled up against the fenceline.
As is the way in the Weald, the most spectacular trees are the oaks like this one here. At the edge of a field this oak has lived without woodland close by for probably over 500 years.
As with so many oaks like this one, as they age they begin to tell a tale of all they have survived. The boles, knobbles and scars, the direction of the boughs and their sprawl.
In the plentiful chunks of remnant ancient woodland, the oaks are smaller and white with algae. The latter is a measure of better air quality, of less chemical pollution from farming. They are smaller because they have to put up with competition from other trees. In May their toes are decorated with spreads of red campion, stitchwort and yellow archangel.
To see these flowers in this state is one of the moments of the year. It takes the breath away. It is a measure of what we have lost in Britain (mainly between 1960-1990) to our brutal, thoughtless treatment of the landscape.
Bluebells were at their crispy peak. I love them in the evening, all that frames them: the light coming through the new green leaves of trees at the field’s edge, a silhouetted oak trunk and the faintest of light reaching those curling petals.
Not all of the trees in the woods make sense. Walking down a lane as we looped back to Cuckfield I noticed this ogre of a beech tree sat on a wood bank. Was it an old hedgerow tree? The trees around it were young, bluebells spread around its buttresses. Perhaps it was in a more open landscape that had now become closed. It showed signs of severe cutting, that is what had given it the look of an octopus.
Passing through Cuckfield Park on the return to the village, the bright yellow and orange of chicken of the woods broke the lowering evening light. Growing from the felled trunk of an old oak at the edge of wood and field, it spread through barbed wire and even goosegrass, a sign of how quickly it was growing. This is a sign of spring turning towards summer and even, like the fox’s bark in January, the first sign of autumn. Seasons are not set things, their threads reach out far beyond the timescales in which we define them.
A quick up and over through gill woodland, so typical of the High Weald with its alders and snaking stream, we found the churchspire peeking out from a horse chestnut in flower. Here a queen bumblebee took the last of her nectar for the evening on flowers that appear almost as orchids up close.