My partner and I made a couple of visits to Nyman’s in West Sussex recently to drown our sorrows after the death of our lovely rescue cat. We drowned those sorrows in flowers. Nymans is one of the jewels in the Sussex Weald, with amazing views across woodlands towards the South Downs.
I usually photograph less formal landscapes than National Trust gardens, but perhaps I am too particular sometimes. The stark colours against the grey backdrop of the day (literally) make for really pleasing images. All the pics here are ‘straight out the camera’ and I haven’t edited them. Olympus cameras produce beautiful jpeg files which my experience with Nikon equipment has never matched.
Here are some landscape images from a March visit to Mayo which I’ve been posting a bit of recently. This landscape fascinates me in many ways: the cultural history (of which my family has links), the ecology and geology. My family’s cottage is located near a mountain range that would probably be classified as hills… Continue reading The homefires burn in the mountains of Mayo 🇮🇪→
On a recent trip to Ireland, my Mum and I spent some time at a garden centre trying to find hedging plants. Having been poisoned by cherry laurel once, and having professionally removed a lot of it, that was not on the agenda. Instead, I was looking along the lines of a good old conservation… Continue reading Pulling up roots and planting “whitethorn” 🇮🇪→
In early May I was fortunate enough to visit a chalk grassland site near Brighton with two people who knew the landscape extremely well. I had been invited to visit this area to help find early spider orchids 3 years ago but the pandemic got in the way of travelling there.… Continue reading Early spider orchids 🕷️→
One of the most beautiful sights in English nature is a Low Weald bluebell woodland. The shimmer of blue in the evening sun pocked by the white stars of wood anemones.… Continue reading The bluebell trespass→
Back in London and a chance to see what my Mum and Dad’s garden had to show for itself on the first day of May. This is when we really start to get into the pollinator season, which peaks in July. The weather was perfect for macro with no harsh light. The forget-me-nots were still… Continue reading Tooth of the lion 🦁→
One of the most beautiful sights in English nature is a Low Weald bluebell woodland. The shimmer of blue in the evening sun pocked by the white stars of wood anemones. These are my favourite evenings of the year, the promise of spring but still delivering on all you had hoped to see in the darker months. Summer just can’t match this.
This square of woodland in the Sussex Low Weald was not officially open access, but we kept to the paths and no bluebells were harmed in the making of these images. There is a lot of conversation about access to the countryside at the moment in England, and how power and privilege resonates in the landscape. These are important conversations and the issues are complex.
It was my first visit to this woodland, much like another picturesque bluebell wood a little further north that has now been completely closed to public visitors. A look at the maps shows how a larger landscape of natural woodland had been chomped up by farmers to become fields, leaving this section completely isolated. That will have occurred over the past few hundred years.
However, it had all the key indicators of ancient woodland, as seen here: English bluebell, wood anemones, greater stitchwort, dog’s mercury, wood spurge, and all under a shrub layer of hazel and high canopy of oak.
This kind of habitat is very much human-made, with centuries of coppicing hazel and felling of oak standards. That doesn’t stop it from being good for wildlife, coppice woodland is one of the richer landscapes in the UK.
A series of photos from a sunny late winter/early spring afternoon in Petworth Park. Though it’s located in the South Downs National Park, it’s a Wealden landscape of huge ancient oak and sweet chestnut trees. The views of the South Downs from Petworth are heavenly.
The oaks and chestnuts seen here are very old. The wider landscape contains some of the oldest oaks in Britain.
Photos taken with an Olympus E-M5 MIII + 12-45mm f4 lens, lightly enhanced in Adobe Lightroom.
When you talk about the highest point in south-east England, I wonder what people living far away must think. We’re not talking great peaks here, but instead a stone tower on a modest 313m-high hill. And this tower of course sells tea.
I’m referring here to Leith Hill, a hilltop managed by the National Trust. Leith Hill has stood out to me over the past two years, most tantalisingly during lockdowns when I could see it from the furthest I could legally walk from my house in the most extreme lockdown times.
The tower is built from sandstone that was probably quarried nearby. This stone, if it is said material, is often a sign locally of wealth and status, when local materials indicated as much. This part of the world is geologically rich, with the landscape having so many stories to tell about the Earth and deep time.
“This tower together with 5 acres of land was presented to The National Trust for places of historic interest or natural beauty by W.T(?) MacAndrew Esq. of Reigate on 5th October 1923 to be held for the public”
Leith Hill sits on the Greensand, distinct from the Weald Clay to the south and the chalk of the North Downs seen here in the distance looking north towards London.
Throughout the lockdowns I would see this distant hill from where I lived in Sussex. Though I hadn’t seen them for several months, I knew that my family were locked down on the other side in London. It was a strange comfort. My dad would sometimes send a photo of the North Downs that he could see far in the distance on clear days. Even when kept apart the landscape seemed to connect us.
The chalk was eroded over millions of years and exposed the Weald Clay, which soon was covered by wildwood. That woodland lingers today in more formal oak, hornbeam and hazel woods that are now managed as coppices or nature reserves. Beyond the picnicking couple (above) you can see Leith Hill Place, originally built in 1600.
There is a unique pine tree up on the hill, a survivor from some of the first trees to arrive in this landscape after the last glacial period some 14,000 years ago. Though there was probably a more Anglicised pine species, the Scots pine is the only UK variety remaining. It thrives in this heathy landscape of the Greensand Hills.
The other morning I was heading downstairs to do the annual Big Garden Birdwatch. This annual event is one I’ve been partaking in since 2011 when my interest in birdwatching got real.
I opened the curtains as I do each day (obviously?) and saw a lovely sunny winter’s morning out there. The street was filled with sunshine and, down by the tyre of a parked car, I noticed a small grey bird basking in the sun.
Sparrow, I thought.
As the seconds passed I thought of how usually there are more of them together, usually they make noise. Their markings are different, too.
A dunnock, then, I thought.
But then it flew up onto a wall and I picked up my binoculars. It was neither of those birds.
The other day I had been visiting a churchyard in the Sussex Weald when I noticed another sparrow-like bird perched in an unusual place – on the corner of one of the lower roofs. When travelling in France, Germany, Spain and Czechia, I had become used to seeing a little bird in this spot. It was then that I realised what the bird in the churchyard and, subsequently, the street was.
This is bird very close to a robin in appearance but they are rare in Britain. In winter they spend time here if pushed across to Plague/Brexit Island by extreme cold weather. On the continent, robins are more scarce, a role-reversal of sorts and they spend more of their time in woodlands, rather than gardens or parks in towns. This is thought to be because robins established themselves in Britain before black redstarts could get a foothold after the end of the last glacial period some 14,000 years ago. I can’t back that theory up here unfortunately.
In Czechia the name for black redstart is a beautiful one: rehek domácí. They are known as ‘little chimney men’, as my friend translated it, because they appear covered in soot and they spend their time on chimneys. I don’t think we have bird names in the English language that can match that.
The ‘start’ refers to the tail of the bird, an old English word in the way that ‘shank’ means leg (rather than its more grisly modern meaning). Its tail is indeed red.
I spent a frosty olde morning at the foot of the South Downs where the Sussex Weald dissolves into the wetlands of the Arun Valley. I’m no early riser, so these experiences of frosty landscapes are to be treasured.
Everything was iced over.
Last year’s daisy heads were encrusted with ice, lit by the sun as it broke over the tree line.
Wiggonholt Common resides next to Pulborough Brooks the RSPB reserve. It’s a heathland nature reserve home to nightjar, woodlark and other uncommon birds. The views you can get of the heathland and its smattering of pines give it a look of real vulnerability. That’s about right though, as heathland in England is a rare habitat now.
The sun just began to break through the trees and light the trunks of these five pines.
Over on the other side of the common, the sun hadn’t arrived yet. The muddy paths were frozen still and the hoar frost decorated the birch trees growing at the heathland edge.
In the reserve proper, a single oak can be seen at the edge of the farmland where the Arun’s wetlands begin.
Pulborough is a good place to see communities of lichens like cladonia where they splash out across the green timber fencing. No chemicals are in the timber which means the lichens and other fungi proliferate.
The upturned chandeliers of hogweed flowerheads.
Spider silk hung from the twigs of the trees like silly string.
Yellow brain or witches butter, a fungus, looked like a proper tree-bogey.
The spiders webs that remained were laced with frost, as this L-shaped twig displayed so well.
Bracken looking somewhat birdlike, like the back of a golden eagle as it surveys the landscape. Or just some bracken.
The lagoons were glassily calm, marked by the winter calls of waders like redshank. I’m not very good with wading birds, I’m better in the woods. In the distance you will see the South Downs on a clearer day. The mist still sat there to hide them from lowland eyes, with temperatures as low as at least -3.
On my way in a couple had stood for minutes staring through binoculars at a song thrush on the path. I was waiting for them to look away so I could nip by, but it went on for so long I started to wonder if they were statues paid for by Swarovski. Their song thrush was enjoying a moment in the sun as I made my way back up to the exit. A worthy perch for this mighty songster.
This post is a bit misleading (hello, Prime Minister) as it’s about a house at the edge of St. Mary’s Churchyard in Horsham, West Sussex. Apologies if you’ve navigated here expecting something more numinous. Here a beautiful old house resides. The problem is it’s name is not exactly blogpost title worthy, and I can’t think of anything snappy. It’s at the end of the famous Causeway, a road that’s renowned for its colourful timber-framed and weather-boarded buildings.
The house is simply called 24-26. It’s dated to 1615 and has since been broken into three properties and extended along the churchyard’s edge. The trees to the right hand side are lime trees that form an avenue along the Causeway, illustrated below at a younger stage:
I first noticed the mist as I walked down the road where the landscape slopes gently towards the river. The hill in the distance was softened by a white veil of mist.
Turning off into the first field, the sight was astounding. The sun flooding through the grassland, illuminating the dewdrops in the desiccated seedheads and stems of last summer’s growth.
I hadn’t intended to walk through there but it was impossible not to. We forget this can still be a time of spiders.
As the sun moved up in the sky the light shifted up the hill and so I followed it. Ragwort is bright yellow in summer but its dark winter stems had been silvered by the dewy spiders webs.
At this point a dog ran up to me while I knelt down to take photos of the webs.
“Daniel!” It was a man shouting in my direction. “Daniel!”
The dog turned away from me and ran towards the man.
“Is your dog called Daniel?” I asked.
“Oh, yes!” He said.
“Well, that’s my name, so that’s very confusing.”
Looking back away from the sun, the oak trees were aglow as they turned their final shade of the season: orange and brown.
The mist was being chased uphill and into spaces behind the higher and larger hedges. I followed it.
The distant woods and tree-lined hedges were silhouetted as the mist burned away in the sun.
In one cold corner the vapour hung around like smoke against the scrub that had kept the land in shade.
In one final field, edged by the yellow of field maple leaves, the mist remained. There was a dog that barked at me until called by its owner: “it’s because he’s afraid of you more than anything else,” she said.
Mid-August: the woods sit between seasons. Leaves are not yet turning, the soil is dry and the leaf litter brittle. Even so, mushrooms are pushing through. I turn off the hard track to cross over the ghyll that cuts through the woodland, one of many dammed further down for the ancient iron industries that hammered this landscape several centuries ago.
Today no such industry exists but the streams still flow. In fact, from this area of the High Weald, some of Sussex’s great rivers rise and head off on their respective journeys: the Arun, the Adur and the Ouse.
Sitting on the bank, I notice fungi on fallen wood but also in the soil. They are terracotta hedgehogs, mushrooms with spikes where the gills or pores are found on other species. They’re a delicious edible mushroom.
When the iron industries were at full pelt here some 400-500 years ago, there was immigration of skilled workers from France. They brought knowledge unavailable to iron workers here in Sussex, with some tensions developing with the local workforce. On 21st January 1556, ‘Peter’ a French collier was ‘cruelly murdered’ (Weir-Wilson, 2021: p.45).
I wonder if those French men and women picked hedgehogs here, a species that’s treated as a delicacy in France. The Belgian father of a friend of mine messaged me on social media when I posted a photo of these mushrooms:
‘Pied de mouton,’ he said. ‘Clean then blanch them for 2min. Drain and keep. Fry 2 shallots and 1 garlic in butter (or oil). Butter tastes better.’
Deeper into the woodland there are the first signs of heather beginning to flower. The birdsong has dwindled but the edges of the rides burst with flowers that are covered in insects. A broken and battered fritillary butterfly nectars on hemp agrimony flowers as if for the first time. I watch to see if a butterfly with so many pecks taken from its wings can even fly, but it does, high into the overcast sky.
Further along the ride hogweed has built a great white canopy. The droneflies – a honeybee mimic – drink nectar in their tens, fizzing as they switch from one umbel to another. That’s when I notice the long, drooping antennae of a longhorn beetle, doing the very same thing. I can’t take my eyes from it, as it clambers over the small inflorescences.
After walking along the endless forestry road, I slip back into the woodland to an area of birchy bog and broken beeches. It’s quiet and still in here. Unlike the final bursts of summer flowers on the open forest rides, autumn can be found among the birch trees.
First there is a bolete with its pores and cap that has begun to turn upwards, growing from a stump. There’s a Leccinum or birch bolete of some sort standing tall (for its kind) in the soil. There are Russulas yellow, red, green and purple. These hard to identify fungi are a mental bridge between summer and autumn. They are also a welcome meal for squirrels and whatever can get there first.
It’s a reminder that the seasons are not concrete. There is give and take, building blocks can come tumbling down. Seasonal signs come with species appearing, some that pass like ships in the night.
I was lucky enough to have a couple of hours to spend in Ashdown Forest last week. The light was beautiful and the views expansive across this famous part of the Sussex Weald. For those who don’t know, Ashdown Forest was the inspiration for A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. I very nearly titled this blog ‘Winnie the shroom bear’.
The mushroom situation at the moment in Sussex is one of a twilight late summer boom, with not really enough rain recently to feed the fungi and maintain the fruiting window. However, where there is shade there is moisture and therefore there is hope.
I followed a path into the woodland, away from Ashdown Forest’s famous heathlands. The ground did look quite dry, so I wasn’t expecting to find too much growing from the soil.
My first sighting was, in fact, in the soil. In the shade at the edge of the path I found a group of common puffballs.
This is an edible species, and though two looked in fairly good condition, I wasn’t looking to forage for food.
On the opposite side of the path a piece of wood was covered in feather moss. The moss was home to a gathering of glistening inkcap mushrooms. They were in wonderful condition, with varying stages of growth in the bright green bed of bryophytes.
Under a beech tree I noticed some large fallen wood sitting in heavy shade. This is always a good place to find fungi because there will be high levels of moisture and damp throughout the year. Especially under beech which casts heavy shade through its leafing phase.
My guess for this species would be stump puffball which grows in large numbers on decaying wood. From a distance they looked like fairy inkcap, but were of course much larger when looking properly. As I knelt down to take these photos, the sunlight broke through on occasion and then faded away. It was a fateful fungi photo.
Off of the path, as I considered whether there was enough time to take things a bit deeper into the woodland, I found an incredible beech tree. This looked like an old beech pollard (regularly cut high) or perhaps a coppice (regularly cut to the stump for regrowth). It had lost a huge limb which lay in front of it, providing a home for a Ganoderma bracket fungus, as so many beech trees both standing and fallen do.
I don’t know Ashdown Forest at all well. It feels to me quite an elusive place. This short walk allowed me to experience more of its quiet allure. I hadn’t expected to see so many unusual beech trees, which would probably qualify as veteran with the discerning experts out there.
This is another wonderful beech tree which has experienced damage to its trunk. The image above shows the tree’s own ‘aerial’ roots feeding of its own decaying wood. No doubt fungi has its role here in helping the tree roots to feed on itself by softening up the wood with its own decay processes.
My hour was up and I had to head back to the car park. On the return leg I noticed some very small yellow mushrooms on the bank built up along the footpath. It clicked that they were probably chantarelles. I looked at the gills of one that had fallen loose and could confirm they were. There is a beech leaf in the left of the image above which provides scale – they really were tiny.
On the way out I noticed the heather was flowering, one of the final acts of summer. It’s always good when there are shrooms on show to support this darkening shift in seasons. The days are getting shorter, the leaves will soon be on the turn and the mushrooms will be arriving.