Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

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Introduction

For seven years I volunteered and worked for London Wildlife Trust at Sydenham Hill Wood and Dulwich Wood in south-east London. These woods are the largest remaining remnant of what is known as the Great North Wood. During that time I soaked up a lot of information, conducting my own research into the cultural and natural history of the area. I led guided walks and gave public talks on as many areas as possible related to the natural and cultural history of the area. I have condensed much of that information into this blog post. An earlier version of this post was handed out to attendees to walks and talks on behalf of London Wildlife Trust. My knowledge of the entire Great North Wood, which Sydenham Hill and Dulwich woods are the largest remnant of, is not strong enough to ‘write a book on’, but I have posted about the history of One Tree Hill, another remnant, before. This is my whirlwind around these precious woods from the time of glaciers to present day.

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Wildwood: 12,000 BC

The Dulwich woods are a collection of remnant ancient woodlands in south-east London, made up of Sydenham Hill Wood (a nature reserve managed by London Wildlife Trust), Dulwich Wood, Low Cross Wood, Hitherwood and Dulwich Upper Wood. The woods are generally known as Dulwich Woods or Sydenham Woods by local people, sometimes influenced by whether they are from the Sydenham side of the ridge in Lewisham or the Dulwich side in Southwark.

Parts of the Sydenham Hill and Dulwich woods are thought to have been covered by woodland since the first trees returned to Britain at the end last glacial period, some 14,000 years ago. The end of the UK glaciers came when climate change led to a period of warming. This warming melted the great ice sheets that had spread across the Northern Hemisphere and sat north of London. As the ice melted, the ensuing water created lakes, rivers and wetlands and the rocky debris carried by the retreating ice carved open valleys and new landscapes. While what is now the British Isles remained connected to continental Europe, the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine in Germany. Today, off Sydenham Hill runs the Ambrook stream, a tributary of the Effra, a ‘lost river’ which still enters the Thames at Vauxhall.

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Doggerland (via Wikipedia)

Trees spread by seed on the wind or with the assistance of jays (‘scatter-hoarding’), red squirrels and small mammals. This ‘wildwood’ provided habitat for returning wolf, bear, lynx, elk, beaver, otter and deer, along with birds, mushrooms, insects and wildflowers. Hunter gatherers followed their prey into this more hospitable landscape and made settlements in the woods by clearing trees and creating more open areas to live in.

By 6,500 BC the ice had melted to such an extent across Europe that sea levels rose and flooded the low-lying plain between Britain and Europe, creating the British Isles as islands physically separate from Europe. By the Neolithic period (4,000 BC) the wildwood had been much reduced and people exploited nature’s resources like never before. The growth of farming, developed in the Middle East and spreading through Europe, meant that populations were increasing and the hunter gatherer’s way of life was disappearing.

Peckarmans Wood

The coppices known as Peckarmans Wood in the 1800s, what is now Dulwich Wood

The Great North Wood: 500-1500 AD

The Dulwich woods are the largest remaining part of the Great North Wood, the early name given to what was left of the wildwood in south London by the Anglo-Saxon period (AD 410-1066). These remnant ancient woods straddled the clay ridge running from Honor Oak to Beulah Hill. The Romans had come and gone (AD 43-410), forging new roads and making use of the Great North Wood’s resources of oak, hornbeam and hazel, mining its clay for brick and pottery. It was the ‘north’ wood because it was north of Croydon, a thriving medieval market town. The Anglo-Saxons also wanted to differentiate between the Great North Wood and the Weald, another extensive woodland landscape that sits between the North and South Downs, running as far as Hampshire in the west and Kent in the east.

It was only later that placenames related to the woods began to appear: Selhurst and Brockley being two good examples. The use of ‘hurst’ at the end of a name indicates a wooded hill, possibly a place where timber was removed or used to some specific purpose, whilst ‘ley’ means a clearing or settlement in woodland. ‘Brock’ is the old English word for badger, an animal which still clings on today in secrecy. Names like Forest Hill are deemed artificial, though it likely refers to the wooded ridge of Sydenham Hill. The Great North Wood was no forest at all, unlike the New Forest, Ashdown Forest or Epping Forest, it was not created for the purpose of a royal hunting ground. ‘Norwood’ is arguably the single truest reflection of this ancient landscape. Penge is London’s only Celtic placename, meaning ‘the end of the woods’.

Tree-felling

Woodland workers removing the buttresses of an oak before felling. Coppice poles can be seen in the background

Woodland industry

The Dulwich woods have been patrolled or cared for by a warden since as early as the 1200s. One of the key industries was tanning, where the oak bark was peeled off and taken to the tanneries and soaked in with hides to make leather. From the 1600s to the mid-1800s it was the second largest industry in England. The tannery at Bermondsey was the destination for much of the woodland produce. Oak trees were harvested after some 80-150 years to build ships, therefore allowing the British military to ‘rule the waves’ and put the ‘Great’ in Great Britain, as some people say. Britain’s oaks ships were the upper hand in battles waged at sea against the Spanish, the Dutch and attacks against the Chinese mainland.

Britain’s isolation as an island protected it from land invasion after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the end of Anglo-Saxon rule. The harsh strictures of Forest Law and later royal protections for woodland meant that up until the Napoleonic Wars, the oak resources in England enjoyed some stability. To make one oak ship today would likely require the entire felling of Sydenham Hill Wood and Dulwich Wood combined, some 25 hectares of woodland. Needless to say there is no appetite for such. We should also remember that the Dulwich woods were never ‘forest’ in the Norman term, despite what the word means today.

Colliers were charcoal burners who lived in the woods, an industry of huge importance to London and local villages. Trees like hornbeam were coppiced or cut down to their stump to form multi-stemmed trees that could be harvested for wood indefinitely. The wood was stacked into a kiln, in this case made from clay, and burned to create charcoal. Other woodland products included poles, posts, bavins (bundles of twigs for firewood known also as faggots), birch twigs for brushes and withies (long, thin hazel shoots).

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Margaret Finch in Norwood

The Norwood Gypsies and other local characters

One of the more interesting local placenames is Gypsy Hill, in reference to a camp of ‘gypsies’ who were famed for their presence there. Margaret Finch was known as ‘queen of the gypsies’ and was visited by the Victorian middle classes to have their fortune told. It is said she was so ‘decrepit’ she could only ever crouch. Other notable dwellers within the woods included Samuel Matthews, the hermit who lived in a cave dug near where the Cox’s Walk footbridge is. He was murdered in 1802 for his wealth collected as a jobbing gardener in nearby properties. He was said to be a popular local figure but his murderer was never convicted.

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Samuel Matthews (Steve Grindlay)

Local literary figures include William Blake, whose vision of angels took place on Peckham Common, possibly after a visit to the Dulwich woods in the 1760s (and maybe the ingestion of some magic mushrooms?). At the bottom of Cox’s Walk the poet Lord Byron studied at Dr. Glennie’s above what was then the Grove Tavern pub in 1799. John Ruskin walked in the woods during the time of the Crystal Palace, lamenting the place of the building on the wooded ridge.

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An elm tree enclosed inside the Crystal Palace in 1851

Enclosure: 1720-1830s

In the 1700s Acts of Parliament were put in place to remove common lands from public ownership and allow their sale and enclosure. Locally affected commons included Westwood or Sydenham Common which covered much of what is now Forest Hill, Dulwich Common which is best represented by the Dulwich and Sydenham Hill golf course, Dulwich College playing fields and Dulwich Park, and Penge Common which was enclosed as Penge Place and is now Crystal Palace Park. Sydenham Hill Wood did not exist at this time but was a series of coppices spread across the Dulwich woods in the form of Peckarmans Coppice, Ambrook Hill Wood, Lapsewood, Kingswood and Vicars Oak Coppice.

This seismic political shift has created the townscape and suburbs we see today in London. It is only through hard-fought planning battles, philanthropic foresight and good fortune that any of London’s commons still exist. The enclosures put in place the eventual development of the coppices known today as Sydenham Hill Wood. By the 1730s Cox’s Walk had been cut through an area known as Fifty Acre Wood from Sydenham Hill in order to attract visitors from the Sydenham Wells to the Green Man Tavern at the junction of Lordship Lane and Dulwich Common, site of the Dulwich Wells where natural springs rose. By the early 1800s Fifty Acre Wood had been grubbed out for farming, now forming part of the Dulwich and Sydenham Hill golf course and the Marlborough Cricket Club fields.

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The Hoo on Sydenham Hill, now returned to woodland in Sydenham Hill Wood

The Victorians: 1800-1900

Immense change came to Sydenham Hill and Dulwich with the construction of the Crystal Palace in 1854. In 1865 the Crystal Palace High Level railway was cut through the Sydenham Hill coppices. It took millions of people to the Crystal Palace’s Great Exhibition until its eventual closure in 1954, after the Palace had burned down in 1936. The Cox’s Walk footbridge was constructed over the railway line to allow the continued use of the pathway. The Crescent Wood tunnel, which plugs the southern end of Sydenham Hill Wood, was closed to the public in the 1990s due to Health & Safety concerns and later it was designated as a registered bat hibernation roost due to the presence of brown long-eared and pipistrelle bats using the crevices in the old brickwork.

In the early 1860s the construction of large villas along the Great North Wood ridge running from Forest Hill to Beulah Hill began. The coppices of Sydenham Hill Wood were separated into smaller plots of land and sold on 99-year leases by the Dulwich Estate. The residents of these houses were wealthy, with some houses accommodating more than 20 people, in this case servants for the families. Lapsewood House was home to Charles Barry Junior, the designer of newer Dulwich College, North Dulwich Station and St. Peter’s Church next to Cox’s Walk. Another house, Beechgrove, was lived in by Lionel Logue in the 1930s and ‘40s, the speech therapist characterised in The King’s Speech. A garden folly was constructed with Pulhamite, a material patented by James Pulham, in the grounds of Fairwood. The cedar of Lebanon which still remains was in the grounds of the Sydenham Hoo and can be seen as a sapling in Victorian illustrations of the garden.

Wood anemone

Wood anemone is an indicator of ancient woodland in the Dulwich woods

The returning wild: 1950-present day

The advent of the First and Second World wars brought irreversible change. Traditional woodland management was extinct and the Victorian boom was over. Many of the houses were nearing the close of their leases in the 1950s and by 1980 all of them had been demolished. Local people had been entering the grounds of the old houses and the disused railway line since the 1950s. The landscape was returning to woodland as trees began to retake the gardens and railway cutting with no intervention taking place from either the Dulwich Estate or Southwark Council. In 1981 London Wildlife Trust were formed and by 1982 Sydenham Hill Wood had been designated as a nature reserve. This was after fraught and long lasting battles involving Southwark Council, the Dulwich Estate and local people spear-headed by London Wildlife Trust, the Dulwich and Sydenham Societies and the Horniman. London Wildlife Trust are now lease holder of Sydenham Hill Wood and each of the former mansion grounds running along Sydenham Hill. Today the Trust, Southwark Council and the Dulwich Estate are working in harmony to protect the natural heritage of the Sydenham Hill and Dulwich woods with the support of volunteers.

The woods are experiencing historically high numbers of visitors, with data suggesting that over 100,000 people step through each year. It is a critical time for people to access and understand our green spaces due to the dislocation many feel from nature and the impending threats of climate change and species loss. Sydenham Hill Wood is one of the most important green spaces in London for the story it can tell about human impacts on the land, challenging our concepts of what is natural and normal. Its 10ha has seen it all, surviving through all that our species has thrown at it in over 10,000 years of human history. It bears those scars but its wildness remains. Who knows what it will see in the next 100 years.

Further viewing:

The Dulwich Society archives

Mapping the Great North Wood – video

 

 

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Storrington, The South Downs, April 2019

A recent walk along the the South Downs on a hazy day with hawthorns. They tough it out in some of the most intensively managed landscapes the UK has to offer.

A hawthorn stands alone, overlooking the folding Downs as they run deeper into West Sussex.

This hawthorn faces out over the Arun Valley towards Pulborough. The Low Weald is hidden by mist in the north.

Along the South Downs Way the trees show signs of pathway lopping, or an extreme politeness to the thousands of users of the National Trail.

A hawthorn obscuring a village built along spring-lines. The Arun snakes away in the background.

 

A tanker sits in an open field. I think that’s a hawthorn splodged against the South Downs Way towards Amberley.

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A monoculture of wheat (I think) with a single oak on the horizon. Wheat has been grown in the South Downs for thousands of years. It has only become mechanised and intensified in the past 100 years. We may idealise the days of horse and plough in the South Downs but it was a harsh and unforgiving existence. Few people could cope with it today. There were also fewer people to feed.

There was a single break of light over the Downs. The hazy nature of the day makes the photo look like a painting. My friend said it was good that the simple things matter to me, which apparently wasn’t an insult. I agree.

 

 

 

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The Sussex Weald, March 2019

My time in the woods has thinned. Just like the seasoned photographers in magazines tell you, planning your time is key to getting the photos you most enjoy. It also becomes dependent on weather forecasts. A few years ago a friend of mine was leading me around his favourite sites in the Czech Republic and he made a point I haven’t forgotten. Nothing matters more with photography than light. You could have the most amazing scene in front of you, but light is everything. It adds contrast, shadow and colour. It makes you feel good.

Bearing that in mind, I had a few hours in the afternoon before the sun went down to visit an ancient coppice woodland in the Sussex Weald. The Weald is a chunk of southern England that runs from the Hampshire border of West Sussex all the way to Kent in the east. It was once an ‘impenetrable forest’ but now is a large mosaic of oak-dominant woodland with a Conservation Board to protect it. Coppicing is the practice of cutting trees low to the ground to harvest the materials for wood products. It’s effectively farming the woods. Our ancestors have been doing it for thousands of years. Even beavers do it.

It produced the multi-stemmed trees see above and allows light to enter in, often resulting in a profusion of flowers indicative of a woodland that has remained there for over 400 years. March-May is the time when these flowers arrive, benefiting from the fact the canopy is still open. Wood anemones are the first of this swathe.

Like many people before (and after) me, I fell for this small white flower when I learned of its charming lifestyle. The petals close when the sun is gone and they are punished for this delicateness. It takes about 100 years to spread 2 metres across the ground. In the past it has been my job to try and protect wood anemones from trampling. I agonised over it.

Wood anemone is a member of the buttercup family. The similarity to buttercups is in the number of petals, the leaves and the reproductive parts of the flowers (the stamens and anthers) that protrude from the centre. At this time of year in continental Europe purple anemones push through crusts of snow that we don’t really have in the UK. Our friends in Europe have wood anemones, also.

Bluebells and anemones can create beautiful spreads of flowers in woods. But they don’t always make the photos you want. Anemones look wonderful with a bit of early morning or evening light passing through their petals. I went with that thought in mind to see the Sussex anemones.

This is a special time – perhaps the best in the year? – when winter has been overcome and the promise of longer days, of warmth and green is on the cusp. It could also be a genetic memory we have from our ancestors who found winter to be more uniformly cruel than we experience today.

It’s really important for me that photographing any wildlife does not add to disturbance. With woodland flowers it means taking photos from the path or sparse areas. I’ve already said how long it takes them to travel. The photo above may reinforce that: a vulnerable, delicate flower isolated in a darkening wood.

You sometimes find a single flower left over from a trampled population, like a single cottage left from an abandoned village.

Everywhere in wild corners of the UK ther are signs of a micro-shift in a season. The wood anemones hold the floor today, but the first bluebells are unfurling. In this old coppiced wood the bluebells will run rampant and the wood anemones will be squeezed. It’s just the natural order of things.

For now the windflowers, as they were once known, break out from beds of dead bracken in still leafless woods.

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Peoples Vote march - 23-3-2019 djg-21

On Saturday 23rd March 2019 I attended the People’s Vote march in central London. The march was attended by over 1,000,000 people, the biggest ever pro-European Union march in history.

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The march came at a time of growing public disillusionment with the government’s handling of negotiations with the EU.

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A petition calling for Article 50, the mechanism that counts down to Britain leaving the EU, to be revoked had been signed by 5,000,000 people at the time of the march. The theme of ‘revoke’ rippled across placards throughout the walk.

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There were a lot of young people at the march, people of all ages were represented. The result of the referendum in 2016 has been a catalyst for people who were under-18 at the time to make their voices heard. The placard above gives the sense of how some young people feel about their lack of a say in the process.

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The catastrophic process of Britain negotiating to leave the EU has galvanised a lot of people to campaign for change but they feel that government is not listening. Despite Theresa May’s references to issues other than the referendum in that fateful TV interview, toxic party politics and the usual haze of anti-European politicians has settled over the airwaves once more. Politicians are failing young people and it will come back to haunt them in the decades to come.

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There is a strong sense of anger about the lies of the anti-European campaigns and also the shambolic failure of those leading the Remain campaign. People do not understand why more is not being said about illegal activity undertaken in the referendum campaign in 2016.

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The convergence of political and cultural messages was seen in many of the signs, like the one above which references the musical Hamilton: ‘Immigrants – we get the job done’. Politicians have failed to highlight the fundamental role that immigration has in UK society. Britain is a nation of immigrants, from the Windrush generation to the Anglo-Saxons, Romans and the first people to set foot on our wild island before it became physically separate from Europe, 10,000 years ago. Recent political events, combined with inadequate social media policing and xenophobic newspaper reporting have allowed racist, far-right voices to be heard once more.

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Alongside the anger was the ‘good old British wit’, with plenty of references to tea and mild disquiet: ‘I’m quite cross!’

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There was colour and character to the march. It was a chance for people to express their love for the European Union creatively.

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This man’s hat drew a lot of attention. It is a surreal union of Theresa May and Donald Trump, with bare plastic bums at the back.

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This man on stilts was interacting with the crowd around him, much like many others who participated in costume.

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In terms of creativity, few creations drew more attention and phone pics than this group.

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What I felt most encouraged by was the sheer diversity and age range of people. This whole issue has affected everyone. What is encouraging is that young people, even children as small as those seen here, are aware of the issues and wanted to take part. The fact they could do so in comfort gives a sense of a movement that is open and good, the anger measured and directed in peaceable and often witty terms.

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In 2016 my main motivation for our continued EU membership was the role it has played in protecting our wildlife, especially in banning bee-killing pesticides. This was done against the wishes of our own government initially, but who have now accepted the need to do so. During the march this bee rested on my friends hand to get some warmth. When the time was right, off she went out over the heads of the many thousands around us who had gathered to make their voices heard.

 

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Ebernoe - 22-3-2019 djg-23

March is an odd month in British woods. There is the tantalising sense of spring arriving but winter’s dankness holds fast. Though we learn to see seasons a bit like buses coming and going, I see them as more incremental. There are pointers to change every single day. It’s something I picked up through wildlife surveys, seeing the return of migrant birds, the first bees and leafing oaks. In January it’s the barking fox as mating begins, in February (or sometimes earlier) bluebells and elders leafing, in March it feels like something has to give.

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I go to the woods to take photos now more than to simply look for wildlife or listen, so there has to be some reason for taking out a heavy bag full of equipment. When I know there is a good amount of time to take photos I bring two cameras, almost always a macro and a wide angle lens, with a standard 50mm lens stowed away. If I’m feeling super strong I bring a telephoto lens (not a massive one) in case of some lucky encounter with a raptor perhaps.

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On dull days the light feels glowering and like nothing is responding. I usually turn to trees at this time to slow my impatience. Here I went looking for mushrooms with the hope of some spring glut. It wasn’t there. Pathetically, the disappointment is real. The first queen bumblebees are symptomatic of the need to survive, winter is not over for them until they have found a spot to start their nest.

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There is a lot to be said for taking the time to look at details. Turkey tail is a fungus that lingers all year and can be found in hypnotic shades and patterns on pieces of dead wood. It’s renowned for its medicinal benefits but I’ve never tried it. I’ll stick to camomile and honey.

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In the UK (and perhaps the Northern Hemisphere?) a mushroom called glistening inkcap bursts from the moss and soil after a change in the weather. It usually makes an appearance when a spell of rain has finished and the temperature is a little higher than it has been.

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Moss is one of the few colours found in a winter wood and its ability to hold dampness can sometimes boost the growth of a mushroom, as seen in the inkcap photo. Up close these primitive plants are like miniature palm trees.

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In the South Downs National Park, 10.5% of the landscape is covered by ancient woodland according to the Woodland Trust. That figure astonishes me. Much of this woodland is in the Low Weald, a stretch of ancient oak woodland that pitter patters between the South and North Downs. from near the Sussex-Hampshire border all the Way to Kent. Ebernoe Common is a National Nature Reserve managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust, home to almost every species of British bat and an amazing array of other species.

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Ebernoe also hosts populations of wild daffodil, much smaller than the shop-bought beasts that burst from lawns and roadsides. This is a spring woodland flower that indicates ancientness. It is a privilege to see them in flower, especially considering that they have declined greatly in the past century. In the still wintry Weald, spring is trumpeting silent and yellow.

Ebernoe Common, West Sussex, March 2019

See my Wealden archive

 

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SHW 23-25-1-18 djg-20

Unlike most annual reviews, this post shouldn’t include any reference to seismic political events which we are all likely sick and tired of. Instead, it’s a run through of some of the interesting mushrooms I’ve papped in the past 12 months. It also ends up being a seasonal review more than anything, because fungi is found mostly in the gentler bits of spring and the October-November phase before the cold weather snaps down. Expect references to camera equipment and a smattering of photography jargon that even I don’t understand.

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January, February and March 2018

There have been two things that have changed the nature of my fungi photos in the past year, one of them being the purchase of a compact camera. At the end of 2017 I bought a Canon Powershot G7X MII, a little camera that has allowed me to take photos of mushrooms in ways I couldn’t before.

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This is because of the camera’s small size and the screen that flips round so I don’t need to lie down on the ground. Most of the time it’s actually impossible because some of the smaller mushrooms (usually the most interesting and unique) are down in amongst other debris and you need a small camera in there.

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Another bonus is how light the thing is, though it has a bit of weight about it, it can be taken anywhere and charged off a USB. This means you can bring out a powerbank to charge it in the field or when trekking and you don’t need to spend £60 on batteries.

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Above are some of the early pics I managed to get with the Powershot in and around Sydenham Hill Wood in south-east London. I took the photos in raw format and refined them (just colours, exposure, sharpness and a bit of cropping in Adobe Lightroom) to bring them closer to natural life.

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Whatever you think of the photos, you’ve got to say they’re really sharp and as good as most Digital SLRs. I would say that if you don’t have a ‘decent’ camera and you want something light, portable and uncomplicated, it’s a great option.

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However, one problem is the camera is so light it fell out of my pocket and I didn’t have it insured! I hope the person who found it is very happy with it. Anyway, back to the mushrooms.

July

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Early summer months are a time of bracket fungi on trees and sudden eruptions of inkcaps after rain and milder temperatures. Hot dry weather is not good ‘shroom time.

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It is, however, a time to appreciate the rock solid brackets that climb up the trunks of veteran trees.

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This hollow beech tree at Slindon on the South Downs is a fine example of a veteran tree, characterful and fungus-clad. I have to admit to not having a passion for bracket fungi of this kind, but I do know that these species enter through a wound in the tree and establish their mycelium (network of fungal fibres) and produce a fruiting body, in this case the bracket you can see above, and pump their spores into the air.

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One of the true highlights for people who forage wild food is the summer glut of chicken of the woods. This fungus is hard to miss and simple to identify when in good condition. It is mostly found on oak, though I found my first specimens on yew in 2018. Chicken of the woods on yew should never be eaten because of the poisonous nature of the tree. I’ve never eaten this fungus but a friend said that she got too excited about finding it ate too much of it last summer. A case of being bloated rather than sick. May-June is the prime time for this beast.

August

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August can be a very wet month in the UK. In 2017 it was rainy and cool and in the mushroom world autumn happened in August, with a much weaker season over the typical October-November period. I visited Epping Forest in August 2018 to see if there was any repeat of 2017, but there was a very modest fungal showing. This was due to the extreme heat between June and July with very little rainfall in southern England. It’s an example of how climate change will effect our ecosystems and the species within them.

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This is not the moon landing, it’s a giant puffball! These monsters grow in grasslands and were once used as footballs. Though I don’t eat wild mushrooms I know it can be used to make puffball burgers. It’s one of those mushrooms that makes you think, what is the point of it? I suppose it has been kicked and thrown around for so many millions of years that its spores have spread widely and it’s become an evolutionary success.

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One fungus that does well in August and people struggle to cope with is oak bracket (though this specimen was on a veteran beech tree). This was an evening trip after passing it in the pouring rain on a group walk in late July. It’s one of the most photogenic shrooms and is full of macro possibilities! The above pic is taken with a wide angle lens.

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Using the macro here brings out the beads of water as the fungus exhudes the excess water from its pores. Can you see the figure reflected in the droplets? I’ll be back to visit the beech tree this fungus grows on next year.

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The closer the connection you develop with wildlife through observation, the more important the seasons become. Man-made climate change is messing with that but I still see the arrival of Russulas (brittlegills) as a key indicator of summer’s end and the first specks of autumn.

September

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Walking 5 miles on the South Downs Way in early September I was delighted to find a patch of boletes growing under an old yew tree on chalk. I had my now deceased compact camera to hand and snatched this photo. This elfish mushroom is probably Scarletina bolete. It has orangey-red gills and absolutely stinks. One upturned specimen was beginning to smell like a decaying animal.

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I managed to sneak in a visit to the New Forest in September, a place so good for fungi it’s illegal to forage it. I found this bracket mushroom growing on a pine tree on heathland. It looks like a certain political figure, but I mean that as no insult to this amazing natural phenomena (the fungus, not the human).

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August and September is a good time for the members of the Boletus family, home to the much sought after and munched Boletus edulis (otherwise known as cep, penny bun, porcini). The boletes are a diverse group. I think the mushroom above is a suede bolete. It looks like a biscuit sitting atop a rhubarb stalk.

Nymans - September-2018 hi-res-1

A strange find was this parasitic species called powdery piggyback fungus (brilliant name), growing on the gills of blackening brittlegill.

Nymans - September-2018 hi-res-2

I thought these were horn of plenty at first, but they also just look like straight-up dog poo.

Cairngorms - September 2018 djg-3

Cairngorms - September 2018 djg-2Towards the end of September I visited the Cairngorms and Perthshire in the Scottish Highlands. At Balmoral before a group hike I found what I think is Boletus edulis at the shore of Loch Muick. There are two sides to every shroom. The one with the sun, rain and loch behind is one of my fave pics of the year and was found, taken and left alone within the space of about 30 seconds. You can plan for all the amazing pics you want, but when it comes to mushroom portraiture (lol) you have to be ready at all times.

 

Perthshire - September 2018 djg-4

In some Perthshire woodland outside Pitlochry my friend and I found some jelly babies, a first for me.

Perthshire - September 2018 djg-28

Yellow staghorn was cropping up fairly commonly in September. This bunch was on a stump which gave the opportunity for my friend Eddie to help with the composition. Another favourite from 2018!

October

Ebernoe - 7-10-2018 djg-13

One of my new playgrounds in 2018 was Ebernoe Common, a National Nature Reserve managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust. I had two full days over the autumn to explore Ebernoe (responsibly!) with my DSLR and macro lense. The mushroom above was found after about 5 minutes of searching one area that is quite open and heathy. The summer drought meant that mushrooms were not as abundant as perhaps they would have been after a wetter season and the ground here was very dry. This is taken with a macro lens and is lit with a small LED side light, alongside a lovely break of warm autumn sun.

Ebernoe - 7-10-2018 djg-28

I find macro photography to be meditative. Looking at such a fine level of detail on what is usually a stationary object is very calming. One thing I have noticed is that when you look closely at a mushroom you often find other life. In the photo above I was trying to get a pic of what I think is bleeding bonnet and only when checking the photo on my camera spotted the springtail crossing its cap. Springtails are invertebrates that are found in soil and damp, shady parts of woodland. They are key to a woodland ecosystem as detritivores (they recycle stuff), and part of healthy woodland soil. By that I don’t mean soil good for ploughing or food growing but as part of the natural make-up of soil which includes fungi, bacteria and invertebrates.

The Mens - 19-10-2018 djg (2)

Before the clocks went back in October I managed to visit The Mens in West Sussex (another special ancient woodland managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust) while the evening light was still there. For most woodland photography it’s vital to have a camera or lens that can deal with low light. The ISO needs to be able to go beyond 1600 without being too grainy I think. Luckily I have a camera that can do that. I also like to take photos at an aperture like f11 which gives more detail and a better depth of field than something like f2.8. Though wider apertures like f2.8 can give lovely isolated mushroom images. That’s photo jargon I know but it makes a huge difference when in woods.

The Mens - 19-10-2018 djg (9)

One way to get around this is to use artificial lighting. Sometimes a phone torch is good enough. The translucence of many mushrooms means that lighting can create all kinds of possibilities. The bonnet mushrooms above where photographed in very low light with cloud cover above the woodland canopy. I used a little LED light to bring them out against the dark woodland background.

Bonnet spores - Octoberr-2018 djg-1

The detail my camera’s sensor combined with the macro lens can produce is amazing here – to the left of the frame you can see spores being released from the gills of the mushroom. Amazing! On the right-hand side you can see them dropping out of the gills, eventually carried away on the air flow.

The Mens - 19-10-2018 djg (12)

I was really pleased with how this one came out, the moss ‘sporophytes’ add an extra element through their accidental lighting! You wonder where the idea for lampshades came from…

Dartmoor 2018 djg (6)

An October visit to Dartmoor gave the opportunity to explore the oak woods that make the south-west famous among those who care about Celtic rainforest. Dartmoor is known for its moorland but it also has extensive areas of ancient woodland. Some of this woodland is so boulder-strewn that there isn’t actually much in the way of substrate for fungi to spring from in the way it does in the Sussex Weald, for example.

Dartmoor 2018 djg (8)

No mushroom season is complete without a fly agaric. We found some real beauties under some birch trees in a small slither of more typical beech woodland.

November

Ebernoe - November 2018 djg-7

Porcelain fungus is one of the most photogenic species due to the translucence of the gills and the slimey cap that catches the light so sweetly. It also fruits at a time when leaves are still on the trees, helping to produce the bokeh (light circles that blur in the background) where the light does get through. The most beautiful mushroom images are often taken from below in my opinion.

Ebernoe - 7-10-2018 djg-67

Compare the above photo taken on the same tree early in October, compared with the more wintry version above that.

The tree host here is a fallen beech that is my go-to for photos. You can see some of the diversity in this video:

Ebernoe - November 2018 djg-20

A species I was interested to find was split gill fungus. It has a quite hairy exterior and grows like a bracket or polypore on dead wood. This one wasn’t easy to photograph and I’m not over the moon about the pic, but the bokeh in the background is nice. It was on the tree in the video below, another fallen beech:

Another part of the Sussex Weald that I visited is St. Leonards Forest in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s a core part of the ancient wealden landscape in southern England. I walked about 8 miles in search of peak-season shrooms:

St. Leonards - November 2018 djg-37

These oysters had a look of the sun rising over a green hill, much like the emoji! I think they’re olive oysterlings.

St. Leonards - November 2018 djg-14

Yellow staghorn was going strong into the late-autumn. I used a side light to bring this one out in amongst the beech leaf litter.

St. Leonards - November 2018 djg-35

Fallen beech trees are becoming a theme here. This jelly fungus was common, as can be seen in the previous videos as well.

December

midhurst - 6-12-18 djg-3

December is a month of snow-white mushrooms for me. If it’s a cold month and there’s too much frost, the mushrooms will perish. December kept on message with recent years and was fairly mild all the way up until Christmas which meant some shrooms could fruit.

Midhurst - 18-12-18 djg-4

Bramble stems often have oysterlings attached to them. At first they look like little white nothings but when you look at the gills, they’re beautiful.

Weald - December 2018 djg-8

It’s also a good time to look for slime mould. Though not in the Kingdom of Fungi, slime mould is equal parts beautiful and disgusting. This is probably dog’s vomit fungus, Fuligo septica, famous for how it eats everything in its path:

I mentioned earlier those rogue springtails photobombing fungi pics.

OTH - December-2018 djg-2

During the Christmas holidays expectations for shrooms are low but I go for walks regardless obviously. Above is a fungus that is a bit of worry for gardeners, it’s silver-leaf fungus, a species that usually suggests a tree is dead or dying. It was harmless on this already dead tree. A much bulkier springtail was taking interest in it, perhaps.

OTH - December-2018 djg-1

My final fungal pic of 2018 was this lovely little bonnet, umbrella-like as it peeped out from the bark of a veteran oak tree.

Thanks for reading, wishing you many mushrooms in 2019!

p.s. insure your equipment!

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Cowdray - 12-2-2019 djg-14

Leaving work at five o’clock in the dark is never nice but it depends how you look at it. Inspired by the Dark Night Skies initiative, I made a stop off on my way home to see some stars. I have been photographing trees in the dark since about 2008, mainly of trees under street lamps in south London. It was something to do in those long, drawn out winter evenings. Since then I have started photographing trees in the daylight, too. Having had the chance to volunteer and work in woodland conservation has taught me a lot about trees and their ecology. Having moved away from practical woodland conservation in the day-to-day sense, though still leading the odd tree walk, I am reveling in photographing some of the trees that are found throughout Sussex. One of the trees I have had the pleasure of spending some time with is the Queen Elizabeth I sessile oak in the South Downs National Park. This tree is completely hollow and has perhaps been around for 1000 years.

Cowdray - 13-2-2019 djg-3

Photographing the same tree again and again isn’t always interesting for you or other people. A recent interest in the night sky (the fact I can now see it, being away from a city, rather than knowing anything beyond the moon and the plough) gave me the idea to use the early nightfall to try and photograph this amazingly old tree under the stars.

Cowdray - 13-2-2019 djg-4

The photos were taken with a wide angle lens and a tripod. I used my mobile phone torch to light the tree. The bright light above is the moon, something that plays havoc with night photography due to the fact it outshines many of the stars.

Cowdray - 13-2-2019 hi-res-5

The problem with my phone torch is that it goes off after a while so I had to trot back and forth to keep the light on. In this light the tree looks fleshy and bulbous, quite animal-like I think.

Cowdray - 13-2-2019 djg-7

When the mobile phone torch light did go out, this is how it looked. I like how the branches reach out to the stars and the astronomically-illiterate thought that they might get snagged in them.

Cowdray - 13-2-2019 djg-8

There are many ancient trees at Cowdray Park in West Sussex near Midhurst. It is almost a point of pilgrimage for people who love old trees and feel some kind of emotional connection to the eldest we have left. This oak has lost almost all of its heartwood and has sinewy remnants decaying inside the bark. I love the purple hue in this photo and the way the distortion of the 10mm wide angle lens warps the trees in the background. I love the rawness of the tree in itself and the stars touching the outstretched twigs.

Cowdray Park, West Sussex, South Downs National Park, February 2019

 

 

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