The Sussex Weald: a nightingale sings at the recycling centre

Header image: Frebeck, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Horsham, West Sussex, April 2021

It was a quick lunchtime visit to the household recycling centre, the kind of thing that is exciting enough in a year of lockdowns.

Having been waved in and asked to mask-up, I got out of the car and began searching the options to recycle some fabric. A workman was collecting materials and asked me to make it easier for him and drop it straight into his dumpy bag. It made it easier for me, too.

It was a warm and cloudy afternoon with the sun breaking through. The air held that acrid whiff of landfill, like sickening vinegar.

Returning to the car, I was distracted by something. The one-way system that takes you through the recycling centre was edged by wrought iron fencing. Beyond that an old, overgrown hedge with brambles, hawthorn and perhaps willow, marked by a large oak tree. This area sits on Weald Clay, which I’ve learned was once known geologically as Oak Tree Clay, so common is the species in this landscape.

A bird was singing from somewhere along the hedgeline, mixing in with other bird calls and sounds. Typical late April in southern England, with the new arrivals from Europe and Africa breaking out in song after unthinkably dangerous and long journeys north. After resting, you would sing, too.

The song was being thrown around, I couldn’t pin it down. Then I heard the rapid, reverb-laden drip-drip-drip-drip-drip.

Nightingale.

I had heard this song a few times before in Sussex, with their stronghold at Knepp or else at Woodsmill in Henfield. In 2017 I’d honed my understanding of their incredible song while on a conservation study tour of the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. Hearing this bird in little olde England is something else.

The song was unmistakable. I took out my phone and recorded a short clip. Just 20 seconds.

I had to drive along to the next bay to dispose of some cables and empty tins of emulsion. I wanted to tell the men working on there what they could hear if they listened, and ask if they already knew. They might have known. I asked one worker a question about solvents and he replied with eastern European-accented English. Nightingales are not so rare in that part of the world, perhaps he knew their song from his childhood.

It’s why I love John Keats’s poem so much (below), because he knew how important birdsong was to all people. Not just landowners who know how to welcome nightingales, those who can afford holidays to hear them, or those as privileged as me to live in this beautiful place. By that I mean Sussex, not the tip.

Thou was not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown

This bird had flown all the way from Africa in a time of globalised trauma, when they are disappearing from our island as a species. We are all connected, we just need reminding sometimes.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: the Saxon oak

The West Sussex Weald, February 2021

The final day of February. The seasons are exchanging but only in light. The first blackthorn flowers are breaking buds at the roadside. Two cyclists float past:

‘Do you really want Louis back?’ one of the women says to another.

They swerve away from two horse riders, one dismounted: ‘At least I know when to get off now. There’ no point pushing him if he’s so nervous.’

The light is golden, low. Birds are singing at spring levels, minus the continental recruits like blackcap, chiffchaff and willow warbler.

The ancient pond was frozen last week but now the water shimmers black and blue with broken reflections of the dark branches against the clear sky.

At the old road’s margins bluebells are leafing in patches. Beyond the shrubby edges the field opens out, home to a massive pine tree. Looking at the 19th century map of this landscape, the pine is there. It must be ancient but how old may not be discoverable.

Two jackdaws fly away from its branches, perhaps having found a suitable nest hole.

Winter is still here in the treetops at the field edge, where fieldfares chuckle, moving in small flocks deeper into the open field. Soon they will make their way north to warming breeding grounds. They feel like a treat, I don’t see or hear them that often.

A breeze rustle the oak leaves on the ground, building into a hush in the leaves of redwoods high above.

At the end of the lane stands an ancient oak tree, the Sun Oak. It probably marks an ancient boundary. A couple of weeks ago I was stood here admiring the tree and a man commented in passing:

‘Amazing, isn’t it? The farmer says it’s in the Domesday Book.’

I had always thought it was 800 years old. A refence to it in 1086 would mean it was already of significant size then. Could it really be over 1000 years old?

That puts it in the Saxon Age, a time so long ago it seems inconceivable. But that’s what makes these trees so special. They are living things that have, in their ecological existence, witness and processed so much time.

This tree, the Sun Oak, is of course on the 19th century map, too.

In the surrounding trees and woodland redwings are flocking, feeding and singing. It’s hard to describe the sound – like some distant chattering, a school playground carried on the wind perhaps. Whatever it is, it’s a sign of their need to gather. Along with the fieldfares, they will all soon be on their way and with them another season under the belt of the Sun Oak.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: stars in a different sky

The Low Weald, West Sussex, January 2021

A second wave of Covid has thrown us back into lockdown in England. You can only leave the house for essentials and exercise. It’s much harder now that the night falls early and the window on experiencing daylight has narrowed. But the days are lengthening and spring is building in small ways.

At night the foxes are making their blood-curdling cries and other social calls. They are breeding, probably just outside the back door each night.

On clear nights I sit on the edge of the bed and, with lights out, can see stars. The three lights of Orion’s Belt shine bright, but not more so than Sirius to the south-east. It’s the brightest star in the sky.

Out on my exercise for the day, I stand in a frosty glade of bracken. Silver birches are clustered at the edges, ash branches have collapsed and fallen to the ground. Their twigs reveal leafy lichens, in some places known as oak moss. There are real mosses too, little green pin cushions with their sporophytes poised.

The birds are foraging for life in this time of scarcity. A jay moves between trees and shrubs, flushing white wing-bars as it flies. Nuthatches are dripping from the tree trunks in both number and sound. Further away the hooting of two tawny owls ruffles out of the trees, half-baked. Are these early territorial warning signs? Spring, indeed.

Alarm calls break across the branches and bare blue sky. It is a beautiful day. Knowing these alarm calls mean something is happening, I look up at the patch of sky over the clearing. From the north-west two birds fly close to one another, on passage. To identify them will take a process of elimination:

  • Wings too sharp for sparrowhawk
  • Too small and direct in flight for buzzard
  • Too big for merlin
  • Hobbies are holidaying in Africa
  • Tail too short for kestrel

They’re peregrine falcons, stars in a different sky. Perhaps they are returning to the South Downs and an early morning hunting pigeons in the towns. Maybe they’re a pair getting to know each other and seeking a place to breed. Wherever they’re going, bit by bit, winter is edging away with them.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: a winter springline

West Sussex, December 2020

A storm has passed through overnight and in the morning the Arun is near flooding. All summer the river has been low, stagnant where managed by mini-dams installed to slow the flow through suburbia. On one footbridge where usually dogs jump in, chemicals and all, the river floods sections of the path, submerging the recently exposed roots of bankside alders. Those roots need to be underwater most of the time, and the storm had righted that wrong.

I speak to a man and a woman, armed with optics, on the footbridge. The river’s power is cause for relief. Even in 2020 these reminders of nature’s prowess can still be welcomed, even longed-for. They advise me on ways to avoid flooded footpaths, but I’m heading for higher ground anyway.

On the slopes silver birches stand in their ornamental regiments. They look like a stage set with their white trunks and even size. They bring forward mental images of Russian and other Eurasian art, hunters in the snow, or the main character feeling their way through the woods in an Andrei Tarkovsky movie. Above their white bark it’s blue sky.

Out and across the open parkland, water sits in the grass like mini-marsh. A great spotted woodpecker arrives in the branches of an oak. Quiet, it sits in that semi-diagonal pre-creep. Long-tailed tits pass across the open plain, re-tangling in brambles that shield a private fence and garden.

The trees change from oak to dotted limes, a probably ancient sweet chestnut – where a woman with a dog lingers beside its massive trunk – and the collapsed limbs of a red horse chestnut. In the spring lockdown, when everything stopped, a workman chainsawed the fallen logs for a man who stood close by with his young son. They were all way too close to the saw and without any protective equipment. Above the noise I could hear the father earmarking the limbs and branches for future firewood. The workman carried on, loading logs onto a small trailer attached to his car.

The red horse chestnut might be ancient but it is most certainly veteran. The fallen limbs are a key part of that. It holds dead and decaying wood, plus the many places wildlife can move into. It has a single limb of young growth that will keep it living for as long as time allows.

Around it the fallen wood is covered in silver-leaf fungus, which is pleasing to look at more because of its purple glow. The fallen branches have created niches of long grass where mossbell mushrooms fruit, as well as a pale brown cup fungus (Peziza) that looks like an ear. I think the man marking up his future firewood lived in the converted mansion house a hundred metres away from the tree. I hope he can come back with his son, witness the fungi, and have a change of heart. These logs provide life for species that need them more than we need firewood.

Across the parkland old furrow lines lead to views of the North Downs, so much woodier than their sisters to the south. Here the hill drops down into a bowl, rising back up again, before dropping once more to where the Arun rocks and rolls.

At the foot of the first decline water floods and I look to jump over the deepest stretch without making a complete idiot of myself. But the pause to make a choice is a blessing. The nearby road roars with surprising levels of traffic, seeing as we are subject to severe restrictions on movement due to the Coronavirus. A higher pitch cuts the drone, however. Looking closer at the water, it is not still, it is bubbling up. It’s a springline. This is the first one I’ve ever seen in the ‘wild’ sense. Perhaps the overnight deluge has driven water up through the aquifer to create the rural equivalent of a bubbling sewer. It’s not something I know much about.

A few metres up the hill another spring pushes from below the surface, calming tremors tickle the surface like moving clouds. Further towards the road and the spring bursts up from a large pool that has formed, bubbles resting in its wake. Without pause, the water spits and splatters like a fountain. The sun falls behind the hill and this winter springline turns an oceanic blue.

Thanks for reading.

The Sussex Weald

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The Sussex Weald: the caddisfly on the streambed

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, December 2020

The cold has come to the woods, and with it, the silence of birds. It’s not all quiet. Rain has fallen overnight and there is a gushing to the hill as it wends its way through the woodland. Looking at the water I see the bare sandstone. The water, over a very long time, has cut through the soils and softer substrates. Walking here over several years I have wondered why the sandier heathlands rest high up and the ancient woodlands of oak, beech, hazel and holly grow only really in the clay gulleys. It’s here, the answer.  The stream has cut through the sand and washed the gravel away to reach the sandstone.

I follow the twisting stream up hill, jumping from bank to bank, where vegetation blocks progress. In a slowed stretch something small and black is moving against the flow on the clay streambed. It’s an invertebrate, what I think is a caddisfly with a pack of debris on its back. It looks to be trying to grab at a small stone or piece of material on the streambed. It could be ready to attach itself to the stone and move to its next stage, the pupa, before becoming an adult insect for a month next year.

Ferns spool out from the freshly leaf-laden banks and the trees are drenched in moss. It dawns on me: this is south-east England’s rainforest.

The Sussex Weald

Further reading:

The Sussex Weald: the buzzard’s lunch

The River Arun, Horsham, West Sussex, November 2020

Again we must stay close to home. The oaks are in their orange and gold phase. The bright sun catches in their leaves against blue skies, darkening their grey-black trunks. I stop to look out over the Arun’s water meadows. Two large white Sussex cattle rest on a hillock, doing nothing.

From the mature trees that edge the Arun, a bird swoops down into the rushy grasslands that spread away from the river. I can see from its size and underwing that it’s a buzzard. It returns to a perch in a bare ash tree on the river’s edge. I don’t have binoculars so I can’t see what it has, but it took something. Surely it’s too late for frogs or toads.

A man and a woman approach from behind me to share the view across the river’s wet edgelands. The woman has an orange bin bag and a litter pick.

‘Seen anything good?’ she asks.

I point out the buzzard, that it’s hard to see because it’s so well hidden.

‘No,’ she says. ‘I’ve just seen it because it moved.’

Impressive, but perhaps unsurprising for someone with an eye for litter picking.

I say that I don’t know what it has. She tells me that she only ever sees them soaring but never perched. She and her partner live on the edge of the farm. They see buzzards all the time.

All summer I heard a young buzzard calling from a nest along the river, It was incessant, persistent. Every time I visited I could hear it calling. Then I spotted a huge ash tree and saw it sitting up there, calling still. It was out on a branch, begging to be fed by its parents.

As an exiled Londoner, it feels an intense privilege to be able to walk ten minutes from home and happen upon the breeding ground of this great and prospering hawk. A fellow exile said much the same to me, that he had found buzzards roosting in trees across from his new home in Peterborough.

Our conversation about the buzzard dissolves in that awkward English way, and the couple head off in search of more litter. I stay on, wondering what it is the buzzard is having for its lunch.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: to fall is not to fail

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, October 2020

A jay swoops through the trees in silence, landing on an oak branch, an acorn held in its bill. A friend and I have a running gag. Wherever we see a jay we send a text or voice recording to eachother:

‘Jay.’

It originates from a trip to the White Carpathians mountains in Czechia one September. The bird we saw again and again was the jay. Always travelling around with or for acorns. As is now commonly known now, jays scatter-hoard thousands of acorns every year. They have helped pioneer Europe’s great oak woodlands along with squirrels and other smaller caching mammals.

Here in the Sussex Weald I find a fallen acorn split down its centre. The tannin red catches my eye. The shell is cracked because the acorn is shooting, seeking soil to establish itself in.

I’m tracing an old ditch or woodbank looking for fungi to photograph. There is an almost comical halt to the woodland where the heathland and its diminishing ranks of pine begin and the broadleaf oaks end. Marking that edge is an astonishing beech tree. Let me explain.

Part of the tree’s root plate has lifted. The lignified roots have become hardened like a drystone wall. They have developed into a lattice-work of branches, their function forever entangled by their appearance above ground.

The tree must have fallen about fifty years ago. But it has not died. Where the old trunk hit the other bank of the ditch it has made a sharp turn towards the sky to grow anew. Trees can teach us that to fall is rarely to fail.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: where all the mushrooms are

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, September 2020

I walk my bike along the field edge, woodpigeons grazing the dry stubble of the field. It’s another hot day in Sussex and the land is thirsty and dry. In the distance, a hedge line with a number of small beech trees in it seems to have died. Ahead of me a small dustcloud rises and dissolves into some oak scrub. The shadows of dragonflies cross my own, a hawker coming close to my face, perhaps lured by the neon hi-vis helmet I’m wearing.

I’m heading for St. Leonard’s Forest knowing that some late summer and early autumn mushrooms are appearing. I just want to see what’s there, to maybe see something new. From the sloping footpath down into the woods, three mountain bikers appear, breathless.

‘Great sesh boys,’ one of them says. ‘I feel violated.’

Entering into this old heathy landscape, the whispering pines give a sense of endlessness. They remind me of the mountains of the Scottish Highlands and the Romanian Carpathians. Though this is southern England it feels so much like somewhere remote, wild and unchartered. I think that’s what makes these places so important.

The heather blooms still at the path edge, and up on the banks of crumbling soil where pine roots are exposed. I find small suede-capped bolete mushrooms in the shade and take pictures.

I get back on my bike and follow the old track where a couple of weeks ago deer roamed freely. Not today. I cycle slowly along the old ride that bisects St. Leonard’s Forest. In the ditches mushrooms appear: red russulas, blushers and some larger boletes. The sun shines in high contrast in the dark birch woods, where bracken still holds green. A hornet flies among fleabane flowers.

I follow a track down past bare-chested mountain bikers. Like deer, a group of people are crossing the track from one area of woodland to another. They have plastic bags full of things, reminding me of Czechia at this time of year. I slow down and hear a Slavic language being spoken. In a friendly way I ask them if they’re foraging mushrooms.

‘No,’ a younger man with glasses responds. He, too, is holding a plastic bag heavy with something.

I tell them I was just interested to know. I think they probably thought I was a warden or maybe some xenophobe. Really I just wanted to know where all the mushrooms were!

Further ahead the track thins and the woodland pinches: pine, birch and spruce. I get the feeling of a good place to find fungi. Out of the corner of my eye I catch the shape of large discs on a fallen tree. Bingo!

I dismount and take my bike off the path. There are two large bolete mushrooms growing from a log, another of the suede-capped variety half-chewed before them. I find more. Nearby, two small mammals, perhaps voles or shrews, follow each other underground in a way so direct they seem magnetised or attached like train carriages.

I take back to the track and grey-spotted amanitas appear at the track edge in their hundreds. They stand at the side like a crowd cheering me on towards the finish line.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: deer reclaim the Forest

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St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, August 2020

I stand on the long, straight track that cuts through the heart of St. Leonard’s Forest. I recently looked for it on a map from the 1870s. I thought it might have been a 20th Century addition to ease forestry operations. To my surprise, it was there cutting through what today remains a heavily wooded landscape.

Looking around, it’s probably even more wooded now. In the 1870s, the woodland was likely oak and beech with holly underneath. Where pines now stand abandoned to nature, heathland probably expanded over more open areas.

The name ‘forest’ actually denotes open land where laws once controlled gathering of natural resources and the hunting of animals, with brutal consequences for rule breakers. ”Aforestation’ was the implementation of Forest Law on more land, often at the expense of entire vilages of people.

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At one point in history, a third of England was subject to Forest Law. It was a landscape of oppression, violently enforced by England’s Norman conquerers after 1066. The management and control of deer was a key part of the Norman forest landscape.

The track is endless in this crepuscular light. At the edges ditches are stuffed with bracken which has yellowed in the August heatwave. Sudden explosions of heather interrupt the vertebra-like leaves of the bracken.

Ahead I can see two people or animals. The light is fading, the sun has slipped beyond the pines. As I get closer I can see one is a roe deer. The other figure has gone. The deer are grazing the edges of the ditches, stopping to check on my progress. I’m moving slowly, but hurrying with my hands to change the lens on my little camera to one with more reach. I get closer but it doesn’t fear me. It turns and walks away into the dark woodland.

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Walking further down the old track, a pathway, broad and green appears on my left. Two fallow deer are looking at me. They must have been grazing with the calm roe I have just passed, but they are less accepting. They scarper, one zig-zagging and leaping to distract what is a would-be predator.

Then, from the bushes, a roe deer has been startled and lurches across the path into the undergrowth that the fallow deer has disappeared into. Squashed into that small green lane, that burst of animal limbs felt almost like watching a stampede.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: thoughts turn to acorns

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Horsham, West Sussex, August 2020

It’s the hottest August day since 2003 so I’ve waited to go out until the evening. The sky holds all manner of clouds as the sun slips away. There is a purple hue to the sunset, a heft, as if the atmospheric pressure is close to breaking. Down in the valley where the Arun flows, a cloud hangs below the trees. I can’t work out whether it’s mist, surely not on a day like this.

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I glimpse the mist over the fields, but instead it’s a cloud of dust. On the horizon the sound of tractors rumble deep into the lingering evening heat. Following the old footway south I can see the tractor’s dust and so cover my face. With the advent of face coverings in shops and busy places due to Covid, it’s something I’m an expert in now. To the side, a tractor cuts the hay. I wonder what hay there is even to cut this year, it’s been so dry. The dust tells part of that story. I remember one of these fields back in April or May, brimming with buttercups, fresh and green. It lost its verdant glow so quickly as the rain dried up.

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I follow the byway uphill, stepping out of the way of two older men roaring down the track on e-bikes like they’re either escaping or attending to a crimescene. I pass a favourite local oak and thoughts turn to the autumn. Along the side of the path a green metal fence has been put up to stop people and dogs, I presume, from accessing fields where sheep, horses, and jackdaws, graze. Each time I come here I watch another tree in the horses’ field get closer and closer to a full ring-barking. One ash tree has already died this year. Anxious, I look for an oak tree which otherwise could live for hundreds of years. This evening the horses are gathered around something at the fenceline. I can only guess that there isn’t the grass for them to eat and so they’re being given hay.

I follow this new green fence and cross away towards the old park, where ancient sweet chestnuts and aging oaks dot the open landscape. In the distance cattle are grazing like moons in the grasslands. On the clay track back down, oaks overhang, laden with thousands of acorns. It makes me think of all they were once used for: coffee, flour, their galls used to make the inks that mark the Magna Carta and American Declaration of Independence. In America acorns were the staple of ‘balanocultures’, Native American communities who stashed and cached acorns as resources.

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Spangle galls

Off the hill, the path is penned in by lush growth of grasses, brambles, St. John’s wort and knapweeds. There are oak saplings too. Their translucent green leaves are pocked with the pin cushions of spangle galls. These galls are home to the larvae of gall wasps. Next month the galls will fall to the ground and wasps will continue their development through winter, ready to hatch in April and begin the process once more. The seasons, they’re inescapable.

The Sussex Weald