The lackey in the Cuckmere valley 🐛

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 🕷️

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 🇺🇦

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 Weald and suncream.

You can see Adam’s YouTube channel here.

The Sussex Weald: Seven miles of sunset hills in the Wealden Downs

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

Midhurst is a market town in rural West Sussex, right in the geographical heart of the South Downs National Park. A friend and I spent the evening walking a section of the New Lipchis Way that connects Midhurst and Singleton. It was a walk of 8 miles through several different habitats, undulating over varied geology. The New Lipchis Way sounds like something from Pagan Britain, but really it’s just that the walk begins in Liphook in Hampshire and ends in Chichester.

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We began at Midhurst via the Cowdray Ruins, along the river Rother at the bottom of St. Ann’s Hill which once held a castle on its top. Remnants of the castle are still printed onto the hilltop. The way carries on through fields where ginormous sweet chestnuts are set in an avenue at the bottom of farmland. Soon the agricultural world is left behind for plantations imprinted on heathland around Heyshott and Ambersham Commons. Here the heather was beginning to bloom. The way crosses the old railway line that once served Midhurst.

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Soon the South Downs break into view and the heathlands of the Greensand are left behind for Heyshott village. The use of the word ‘shot’ at the end of a placename usually refers to an extra piece of land extending from a settlement. Hence Aldershot and the variable Oakeshot. The church is a combination of chalk flint from the South Downs, oak timbers, sandstone blocks and clay tiles from the Weald and wooden panels and slats, presumably also from the Weald. The church probably dates from the 13th century.

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I love the feeling of moving between settlements and countryside when walking and that drop-off in noise and activity for the stillness of an open or natural landscape. Here we passed through fields of wheat to reach the ridge of the South Downs at Heyshott. In the image above you can see the gradual dying back of ash trees on the ridge as the disease takes effect.

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Looking back from the wheatfields you can see the ridge of Greensand Hills in the background, the woody heathlands in the middle and then the churchspire of Heyshott one layer closer.

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Rising with the chalk, in the distance you can see Bexleyhill where the mast pokes out. These hills are part of the same Greensand ridge as Woolbeding Common, to the west or left hand side in this image. The river Rother runs from left to right (west-east) in this image, cutting between the distant hills and those of Heyshott and Ambersham Commons. Note the arrival of ash and whitebeam trees on either side on this rural chalky lane.

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The light began to fade as the clouds came in and we made our ascent up onto the ridge of the South Downs. It was a dark, horsefly-occupied stretch which was so steep it shut any conversation down. Yew woods covered the northern slopes, such is their want on chalk. They give off an eerie vibe, light rarely breaks their cover. They are rare as woodlands.

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Up on Heyshott Down we were met by some badger-faced sheep, evidently they get fed by passersby or people who, like us, get to this point and hit the deck. Heyshott Down is rich in chalk grassland flowers but also in burial mounds. I heard someone say once that the South Downs ridge, all 100 miles of it, was the equivalent of a really long, ancient graveyard.

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The Lipchis Way then slips down through the non-stop beech plantation of Charlton Forest. Rain came in and the light was so low I took few pictures. We found this vast clearing where new conifers had been planted. You may be able to spot the hunting seats. This is the kind of heavily industrialised landscape that is found across Europe. It could be the Czech Republic, France or Scotland. It is a controlled landscape. Hunting and shooting are common past times in this part of West Sussex.

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Leaving Charlton Forest behind after a good 20 minutes, you arrive at Levin Down, a Sussex Wildlife Trust nature reserve. On the edge of the reserve sits this twisted ash tree, recoiling from the woods and reaching out into the open landscape. This is another eerily open landscape, set against the wonderful diversity of Levin Down. The name derives from ‘Leave Alone’ because it was too steep to plough, thank God.

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The light was so dull here that my camera’s excellent low-light skills came into action. Levin Down is chalk grassland with some stunning veteran juniper trees. Juniper would once have been much more common in areas of chalk downland. I have only ever seen it at Box Hill in the wild in the UK. In the White Carpathians of the Czech Republic, a landscape similar to the South Downs, they replant them to try and resurrect their populations.

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You may know juniper from their berries because it is used to produce gin. The junipers on Levin Down are works of art. Like grim reapers their limbs look to be covered by overhanging sleeves, reaching out across the ground, rearing up like the pointed tips of hats. It feels like they’re pointing at you as they reach out to you from their place in the meadows.

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Leaving Levin Down behind, we dropped down through chalk heath (a super rare habitat), one of the most pungent meadows I’ve ever smelt due to the wild marjoram or oregano. The way drops into the old part of Singleton, a village known for the Weald and Downland Museum. Thatched cottages with chalk flints sit with windows showing a cosy inner glow. A lovely place to end the walk.

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Explore my Wealden archive

The South Downs: a cuckoo’s see-saw song along the Arun

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Amberley, the South Downs, May 2019

I’m followed by a flock of dancing flies along the River Arun. I put out my hand to let them alight. Their bodies dance urgent as mayflies, their wings flutter soft as moths. They travel with me along the bend in the river.

Reed warblers are settling into spring song patches on the riverbanks. A reed bunting with his black warpaint holds a perch in green willow, delivering a simple, fractured tune.

Across the river a mighty willow sprawls dominant, dipping its branches into the flowing water.

An octopus returning to sea.

These great veterans stalk the Arun valley at Amberley, oaks replacing them where hedgerows arise.

A low note breaks the din of the A29 traffic and trains rattling through the chalk quarry at Amberley.

Koo…koo…koo…koo!

It’s a cuckoo.

The fields beyond the river lack trees, smudged by rushes creeping into pastures where cattle loaf. Crossing a shock of metal that bridges the banks, I can’t see it.

Out here the cuckoo can target the nests of reed warblers, but that’s the female’s job. This cuckoo has a song to sing first.

Passing away from the river on a track, towards the chalk ridge of Bury Hill, telephone wires cross the landscape. Not far beyond them, where the track is white underfoot, the cuckoo sings again.

Turning back to look towards the Arun, the bird balances on a telephone wire.

Cuc-koo, cuc-koo, cuc-koo!

His tail fans as he rocks on the wire, the full thrust of his calling causing a see-sawing that could send him tumbling.

I wonder how many female cuckoos are out there in the Arun valley, listening. Are they perched in riverside willows or the ancient, dying ash woods in the steep escarpment of the chalk hills.

One of them, somewhere, has heard him.

Explore my South Downs archive