The Arun valley: gateway to the unknowable Downs

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time in the Arun valley, my local access point to the South Downs. At last some rain came and we watched it shift across the Downs, all the way over to the Greensand Hills in Surrey.

I remember looking at this view in April 2021 after a year of lockdowns and computer screens. I honestly did not believe it was real. Perhaps it was the veil of mist, or perhaps I had developed some mental or neurological disorder from so much time stuck at home.

The Arun valley around Amberley is a crossing point (or perhaps washing point) of the Weald and Downs – where the river that rises in the High Weald’s most westerly point cuts a course through the chalk hills. It has wetlands of international significance in Amberley Wildbrooks and nearby Pulborough Brooks.

Arun at North Stoke, page 71 Book about the Highways and Byways of Co. Sussex, England

Like the nearby Adur, probably better known to people because it passes through the very fashionable Knepp Estate, it used to be a much wilder and freer river.

Along the Arun is the village of Bury, likely to originally have been a defensive point preventing easy Viking access from the coast, up the Arun and towards London, a key trading point (obviously). I recently read a book about Anglo-Saxon England that included some information about King Alfred’s development of ‘boroughs’. These were defensive outposts alongside rivers designed to protect from Viking invasion, which happened so regularly and to great effect in Alfred’s time.

The churchspire of Bury village can be seen among the trees on the banks of the Arun (2020)

The boroughs were an effective means of defence, for a time at least. I can think of so many placenames that include a borough of somekind: Pulborough, Bury (Lancashire, too), Borough (on the banks of the Thames) and Middlesbrough being the first that come to mind.

The Arun valley at Amberley is a place I first visited through working in the South Downs National Park. My relationship to it is about to change as my time with the National Park comes to an end, but that mixture of professional connection and personal fondness has always been an uneasy one.

It’s the place you can get a train to, which is rare in the South Downs, and enjoy some of the most accessible downland walking. There are views to the North Downs and then south to the coast. The Amberley Downs have glow worms, junipers, barn owls, ravens and rare butterflies like the duke of bergundy. It’s also home to vast monocultures of ‘improved’ grassland that were once rich in communities of now rare plants.

A lone hawthorn on the Downs with the Arun snaking away in the background (2019).
Much of its floodplain has become grazing land

The South Downs was first floated as a National Park contender in 1929 but the devastation to its chalk grasslands from the need to plough it up for crops in the Second World War left it a poor relation to the seemingly untouchable Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and Peak District. It only got full ratification as one of the final acts of the outgoing Labour Government in 2010. The Conservatives who followed have begun to cut National Park budgets through flat cash settlements, despite the effect this might have on such a strongly conservative social make-up (‘the shires’ or ‘blue wall’).

The pre-war Downs were sold as one reason to fight for Britain’s sovereignty from Nazi Invasion in the Second World War. How ironic that they ended up being denuded by the very same need to survive. Once the Downs would have been roamed by shepherds grazing large expanses of chalk downland. Today the South Downs feels in some places like an outdoor factory of intensive agriculture, with miles and miles of fences. It is not a wild place in the way that people imagine American National Parks, which in themselves were not necessarily ‘wildernesses’ either due to prior Native American presence. But it is still an incredible place to witness England’s wildlife and geology,

Your Britain – fight for it now (Imperial War Museum/Frank Newbould 1942) – this is not geographically accurate, with the landscape being a splicing together of different parts of the Downs for artistic effect

In Rebirding, a sort of bird conservation polemic, Benedict Macdonald questions the designation of the South Downs as a National Park because of its rolling hills and chalk grasslands, having read this on the website. Ironically the South Downs is one of the most wooded in its tracts of the ancient Low Weald, and home to internationally significant wetlands like those along the Arun at Pulborough. Chalk grassland is also one of the rarest habitats in Europe. It is an astonishing range of habitats, with the dry lowland heath now very rare after the Victorian and 20th-century devastation of the ‘wastes’.

The whole 100 miles of the South Downs, from Eastbourne in East Sussex, to Winchester in Hampshire, has been in my thoughts most days for the past 4 years. The Arun valley now becomes for me that gateway that exists for so many people who don’t have to consider a National Park in its entirety, a psychological doorway into somewhere freer, better and more ‘wild’.

Looking east along the Downs from Chantry Hill, June 2020

In reality it is far more complicated than that.

Thanks for reading.

The South Downs

The fungus capable of mind-control ๐Ÿ„

In June I was down on the Sussex coast at the mouth of the river Cuckmere. During a bioblitz event I was supporting I discovered something I never expected to see. At the foot of either the first or seventh of the Seven Sisters cliffs, the fenceline and surrounding grasslands were alive with invertebrates. One large thistle plant was covered in all kinds of insects. I felt especially drawn to a beautiful orange and black ichneumon wasp clambering over the spiny leaves. But there was something else that caught my eye.

The fly as found

I noticed a dead fly in a quite unnatural position, a bit like an upside down koala. It was clamped onto one of the spines in a way that reminded me of the famous victims of the parasitic ‘zombie fungus’ cordyceps. Luckily I had my macro lens with me and could get a close-up of the fly.

The fly after I had bent the spine tip of the plant over

The body looked an unusual shade for this species and, looking closer, you could see it was kind of mouldy. I showed everyone I could, taking away the images and several questions I needed to answer for myself!

That afternoon I put the photos on Twitter and had a quick reply from Lukas Large, a known fungi expert in the UK. He said it was a species of entomophthora, a group of fungi that kill flies, just as this one had done. It does much more than that beforehand, however.

Somehow, the fungus enters a final stage of mummification where it ‘gains control’ of the fly’s brain and therefore control over its functions. The fungus is then able to make the fly move to a high position in order to disperse its spores from the dead fly. That is mind blowing in more ways than one.

Thanks for reading.

Latest from the Blog

The lackey in the Cuckmere valley ๐Ÿ›

I was out and about in the Cuckmere Valley in May and had the chance to learn a little bit about some of the species found there. Here’s a small selection of images, a blend of phone pics and some from my camera.

Once again I was treated to the sight of early spider orchids, a plant I blogged about only recently. This was a big surprise, having spent a lot of time looking for them elsewhere. This is a nationally rare plant and I won’t be giving away its location. I did get the chance to learn that the flower mimics the scent of the buffish mining bee. The male bee is lured in and attempts to mate with the flower, thereby pollinating it. In the photo above you can see the pollen grains that have been helpfully, accidentally, applied by the visiting bee.

The mining bees live in the nearest exposed areas of chalk where they drill their burrows. It’s a short commute to their deceptive orchid neighbours.

The blackthorn hedges were holding populations of moth caterpillars that cover the branches in webs of silk. This is the kind of thing that pops up in local newspapers as some kind of wild clickbait. The moth is known as the lackey in English. What the significance of that name (or any of the number of weird moth names) is unclear to me.

We found this proto-Mesolithic (Stone Age) scene, with a discarded King Alfred’s cakes fungus. The fungus had probably been used to maintain the fire of one or more disposable barbecues. The stones were littered across the scorched earth like the throwaways of some prehistoric stone mason.

On the banks of the Cuckmere’s static meanders are ranks of hoary cress. At first I thought they looked like a type of sedum but in fact they’re in the cabbage family. This is an introduced species.

A view back up the Cuckmere meanders, at very low levels for the time of year. Two little egrets can be seen here.

Thanks for reading.

More macro (my tags/categories seem to be broken at the moment – will try and fix them!)

The South Downs

Early spider orchids ๐Ÿ•ท๏ธ

Chalk grassland is an incredible habitat. It’s extremely rich in plants and animals, with high cultural value from the historical assosciations with human activity over at least 8000 years. In the UK it defines the downlands of Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and Wessex. Sounds like an episode of The Last Kingdom. Thankfully I was spared the sword (this time).

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.

A landscape raked by stone, bone and iron

I visited on a sunny day in what was a very dry spring indeed (I hate how dry winter 2021/spring 2022 have been). We had heard of hundreds of orchids in recent weeks at the site but only found 3. It was baffling. Perhaps we were just too late and the dry conditions had brought an end to their season earlier than expected.

These orchids get their names from the fact their flower looks like a spider. You may be familiar with the names of bee, fly, man, lady, lizard and monkey orchids also.

They are truly beautiful.

During the survey a woman came over to talk about orchids. Her knowledge was incredible, with known locations across Kent and Sussex. She travelled by train from her home in north London.

She showed us a gentian, a type she said was only found at this location in the UK.

Perhaps the most abundant plant was milkwort, appearing in white, pink and blue.

This is some kind of daisy (probably hawkbit) with petals that look like hands shielding something.

There were a fair number of small beetles in the grasslands, including this click beetle (I think).

A nice surprise was finding a small blue, one of the rarest butterflies in the UK. This is a very small blue, though most of them in Britain are small anyway. They’re pretty much tied to chalk grasslands from what I know.

Thanks to Phillippa, Jan, James and Monica.

And thanks for reading.

More macro

The South Downs

Early spring at Petworth Park

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.

Solidarity with the people of Ukraine ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ฆ

Thanks for reading.

The Sussex Weald

The South Downs: the Sullington yew

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The Sullington Yew, Sullington, West Sussex

The South Downs is renowned for its ancient churches. Its chalk soils have also proven hospitable to yew trees. Some of the most extensive yew woodlands in the UK (if not Europe) are on the chalk of the North and South Downs in southern England.

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I had a couple of minutes in the village of Sullington at the foot of the South Downs close to Storrington in West Sussex. The village is made up largely of an ancient farmstead and the Church of St. Mary.

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The Sullington yew sits in the churchyard, supposedly 1200 years old. To me it looks like it could be younger due to its lack of hollowing in the heart of the tree. If it’s that old it would pre-date the church by several hundred years. It is true that many yew trees pre-date the churches they share a plot with. Yew trees hold strong spiritual significance to pre-Roman/Saxon Brits who were Pagan. Therefore churches came later, being Christian, on sacred Pagan sites.

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The church itself is built of flint, sandstone and other materials. Part of it is Saxon, meaning it survived the Norman Conquest of 1066. It is thought to originate from 1050.

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Here’s the tree on the Ancient Tree Inventory.

 

#FungiFriday: witches’ butter? Of gorse, it is.

Due to Christmas hols I’m a couple of days late to Fungi Friday on my blog, morphing instead to Mushroom Monday!

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time at Lullington Heath in the South Downs National Park. Lullington Heath is a National Nature Reserve with the super rare habitat chalk heath. It had lots of little waxcaps fruiting at the time.

As you can see Lullington Heath is dominated by gorse which affects the diversity of plants and fungi that can prosper there.

The gorse forms a scrubby woodland and provides ample habitat for one of the most striking species of fungus: yellow brain. It’s also known as witches’ butter, a lovely colloquial name that hints at the role fungi has in British folklore.

This is the yellow brain from the pics above. I cut it out before it was cleared and brought it into the sun. I hid it further away in the gorse afterwards.

It’s actually parasitic on crust fungi which you can see on the right hand side here.

Keep an eye out for my fungal year 2019, an account of things I found and photographed this year, which I’ll be hoping to post in January.

Merry Christmas to all the funguys and gals out there!

More mushrooms

The Sussex Weald: Woolbeding to Midhurst in the Amazonian Weald

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Woolbeding to Midhurst on the New Lipchis Way, West Sussex, August 2019

Download my route for this walk on ViewRanger

In late August 2019 a friend and I took an evening hike on a section of the New Lipchis Way. This was in addition to a previous walk from Midhurst to Singleton. The 7 mile walk began at Older Hill with astonishing views across the heathlands of the Sussex Weald to the hills of the South Downs. It’s easy to forget (or not even realise) how wooded southern England is. The stretches of woodland in the Weald are some of the most contiguous and largest in the UK. In these images they look like the Amazon rainforest. Against the foot of the Downs they offer awe-inspiring views.

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Above heather can be seen in flower, an icon of the Greensand Hills, with birch trees blending with oaks all the way to the Downs.

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Stedham Marsh is a very wet area in winter but we met it on a beautiful evening when a dry period had given us free reign over the tracks and paths.

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Mushrooms were beginning to fruit at this time. The woods were littered with brittlegills (Russula). You can see how dry it is here by the colour of the mushrooms (they’re usually more red) and the leaf litter is crisp.

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We weren’t foraging (and I’m not telling you that you have permission to do so here) but this boletus mushroom had already been uprooted and it made for a lovely image. There were hundreds of mushrooms on this walk.

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My walking buddy Jonathan agreed to pose under this huge Ganoderma bracket fungus.

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Another Boletus edulis along the way. They seem most happy in the drier progression into autumn, before the October storms when much of the leaf cover is pulled down.

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As with all walks in southern England, the walk crossed through farmsteads and settlements. This beautiful carriage was sitting at the side of a track like something from the days of John Clare when gypsies were free to roam the open landscapes of England.

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The Rother is one of the main features of this amazing walk. The river has much of its natural form, winding its way through the area. The sun created long shadows of alder trees in the water.

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Iping bridge is a local icon dating from the 17th century. It reminds me a little bit of the Anglo-Saxon helmet found in the hoard at Sutton Hoo.

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This selection of milk churns is throwback to times past. One of the things you notice about villages in southern England is how they have lost their working class rural element and have become places for wealthier middle class people. If you were here in the early 1900s it would have been different but the shifting rural economies of the post-war period have changed these communities.

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Walking in late August, the trees were heavy with acorns in what turned out to be a mast-year for oaks.

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Stedham Hall is pretty difficult to miss. It is a Victorian building built on top of something much older. How can people cope with so many rooms?

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The walk reaches Midhurst through Woolbeding, an area owned by the National Trust. Here we ended the walk under a pink and purple sky. Herdwick sheep grazed the grasslands between oak trees.

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Arriving in Midhurst you can find plenty of places to rest up after the near 7-mile walk.

The Sussex Weald

The South Downs: the otherworldly nature of Kingley Vale

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Kingley Vale, South Downs, West Sussex, October 2019

We enter the ashy woods of Kingley Vale, one of the most spellbinding place in the South Downs. Mushrooms are everywhere at the feet of yew, ash and oak trees as the season enters its peak.

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The light is weak so we kneel down next to the mushrooms to look more closely. We find blushers, ceps, deceivers and many brown species that are very difficult to identify.

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Archetypal mushrooms grow with black gills and caps that glow purple. Their collars hang loose like pastry over the edges of a tin.

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Kingley Vale is famed for its ancient yew trees, particularly one area that is heavily visited, the roots of the trees beginning to show above ground from the impacts of footfall eroding the ground around them. They feel like one of the most still and unmoving of tree species, owing to their hardness and strength. Their living tissue is some of the strongest in the plant kingdom and their heartwood is not at all needed for them to remain upright. Their roots can go on producing new trees even when those above ground have died, like the Borrowdale yews in the Lake District.

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Out from under the yews chalk grassland spreads to the foot of the ridge where yew and ash woods cover the hills. Many of the ash trees are succumbing to ash dieback disease, in a landscape where they are content. It is a tragedy but then it is our own fault for unchecked trade of wood products, combined with the eventual spread of fungal spores.

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In the chalk grasslands we find a cowpat with mushrooms popping from the poo. One of them is snowy inkcap, a species I have never seen before, with its powdery cap and stem. It looks like something you might find in a snow globe.

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Climbing up onto the ridge the sun slips away in the west, casting a final glow across the chalky bowl of Kingley Vale.

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The grunting of a male deer echoes in the yew woods broken by the white stags of bare bone ash branches. Knowing some of these trees may be dead lends them a ghoulishness. Their brushheads are fading into history. Many will not be here in years to come.

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The sun glimmers in Chichester Harbour and the sea. A plume of smoke spirals into the evening sky.

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In the dense and dark yew woods on the slope we hear the strange, tropical bubbling of a tawny owl. Here yews reach out into the light at the edges like multi-limbed bodies sucked into a vortex. The yews have clarified the soil, no other plant can compete. Combined with the tawny’s song, the experience is otherwordly.

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At dusk rooks flock in a sea of black over a field-edge wood. Their cawing grows louder and closer as they envelop the sky above our heads, drawing in jackdaws, drifting back beyond the tops of the trees. On the darkening hilltops deer graze like slow-footed, four-legged people. We are left with so many questions.

Explore my Wood-Wide-Web

Video: The Magnificent South Downs Way

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In August my oldest friend Adam George came home for the summer from where he lives in China. Adam makes videos about travel in China as well as his job as an English teacher out there. Having known him since we were about 4, I think his accent is now a lot less south London after 5 years in China! My friend Jamie however, still a Londoner.

Adam wanted to make a short travel video about the South Downs. We went to Devil’s Dyke in West Sussex and this is what he produced. You can see me talking about the Sussex Wealdย and suncream.

You can see Adam’s YouTube channel here.