Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts from the ‘The Weald’ category

Devils Dyke - 2-8-2019 - djg-6

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.

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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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Ebernoe Common, Sussex Weald, August 2019

Looking out of the window at work one morning, a colleague agreed with me:

If there are no mushrooms after this rain, then something is very wrong with the world.

Fast forward a few hours and there is something ok about the world.

Stepping out onto the track and into the woods there was a clear indicator of a mushroom party with lots of Boletus-like species typical of the season. This time, I was invited. All too often looking for mushrooms can be like arriving at a party the morning after when everyone is discarded like shells around the living room and slime coats the walls.

There was still slime on the walls on this pleasant summer’s evening at Sussex Wildlife Trust’s magnificent Ebernoe Common. It’s part of the Low Weald, an area or ancient woodland that is very much intact and once connected Canterbury with the New Forest. The slime here was the real deal, with beautiful splodges of slime mould spreading across fallen oak trunks.

Further inspection with my trusty macro lens showed the intricate beauty of this slime mould. Trouble is I don’t have the field guide yet so I’m stuck for an identification. But really does it matter? I’m not a scientist in the traditional sense and it’s their beauty I cherish most. Scientists, while we’re here, don’t even know where to put slime mould in their taxonomic kingdoms. That sounds like one hell of a euphemism.

This walk was a blitz of about 3 miles with eyes scanning the woodland floor alongside the path. By pure fluke I found this small mushroom, not dissimilar to something like a funeral bell, popping out of the soil. It is surrounded by the most beautiful palmate leaves of star mosses. The wonders of macro photography allow this world to be glimpsed and indeed shared. Macro photography is an art (not necessarily in this case) as fine as landscape photography.

I also had my larger DSLR slung round my neck with a wide angle lens. The golden hour is not quite so golden in an August wood, but it’s still worth appreciating. Notice the growth of lichens and algae on the north-facing side of this beech here for 10 points.

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One of the recent additions to my mushroom portraiture war-chest is an LED light. It’s a pretty fun way to add a new layer of interest to photos, especially of mushrooms. I also have a mini tripod for it so it is a bit like a pet android that wanders the woodland floor for me illuminating fungi. This shroom was growing down between two big boughs of a fallen beech tree. It was land of the mosquito and I made substantial donations to their bloodthirsty cause. This does look rather angelic if I may say so.

A trio of bonnets were evidence of the recent rain. Up they spring before collapsing not long after.

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Have you ever noticed just how long bluebell seed casings linger after spring? It’s a good way to identify an ancient woodland out of season. This flower was present on the edge of the woodland where a field opens out. The sun poured in and lit the tulip-like papers of the bluebell.

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My dad said he read my last post and had to look up what ‘bokeh’ is. It’s the circles or light in this image above that are caused by isolated areas of light. They are most pronounced when you have a wide aperture, so f1.4 on my brightest lens but usually f5.6 on most SLR lenses. It creates a beautiful blurred effect. Of course, I couldn’t resist it here. Looking at this image being photographed in the moment, what you can’t see is the twinkling of the light as the leaves moved in the breeze and the sun slid down. It took the breath far more than the image ever will.

Thanks for reading.

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Knepp, West Sussex, July 2019

The footpath runs off Countryman Lane behind a deer-proof gate. In this case it’s keeping them in. On the gate a sign welcomes visitors to the Knepp Wildland Project. A woman with three dogs holds the gate open for us. I’m here with friends visiting for the day from London, where the Knepp narrative of rewilding lowland England and its successes for wildlife are influential. We’ve come for a circular walk on the public footpaths that cross the Knepp Estate.

Knepp is an ancient deer park that, with investment from government and the landowner’s private wealth, is attempting to prove that farming can be done in a way that is much more sustainable and beneficial for wildlife. Critics say that most farmers lack the personal finances of the Knepp Estate and government investment to sustain the same, low-intensity measures to remain in business. Some people just don’t like change. Many farmers in Sussex are tenant farmers, not landowners, meaning they don’t possess the same money to set up a rewilding project in the first place. Many proponents of rewilding argue that farming shouldn’t happen anyway and the land should be allowed to re-establish natural states of woodland, grassland and wetland.

The footpath is lined with stringy hedges growing to a state of woodland. Large oak trees thrust up from the Wealden clay every few metres, the pillars that hold the Low Weald together. Trees like these run all the way west to the New Forest. In one of the hedges a bike has been locked up, purple ribbons are tied to hedge trees at intervals. It’s an indicator: we have arrived in purple emperor butterfly high season. A man with a large telephoto lens marches towards us, his tripod legs splayed like a broken umbrella. He sees that we’re looking up at an oak, where the emperors fly high. He sets his kit up, eyes open wide in anticipation, mouth gaping. He barely acknowledges us.

We carry on, purple emperors flying lower and in pairs, the white markings on their wings translucent in the light as they pass over our heads. Behind a hedge where people are warned not to go, a couple with their dog asleep in the grass watch with craning necks yet more of these superstar butterflies. The man with the tripod reappears on the horizon, spotting the small group, he homes in again like an insect-seeking missile. Further ahead two vehicles are parked on the track, a group of men are standing around a film camera pointed up at the canopy of an oak. One of the men squints into the viewfinder and grips the equipment, ready to shift it when its subject moves. Another man stands back smoking a cigarette, possibly the film’s producer.

‘Seen a blue tit?’ I say.

The smoking man offers a wry smile in response. The camera man takes his eye away from the camera and grins.

Leaving the oaken lane and continuing along the public footpath, we follow a circuit around and meet a couple tuning in to a turtle dove singing beyond the crown of an oak. My friend has just heard her first ever turtle dove in the UK, in six decades of living here, and she’s touched by its turring. This is a bird on the edge of extinction in our great nation. The couple tell us they’re camping and that it’s disappointing to hear the nearby A24. Their expectations of Knepp didn’t include the sound of the combustion engine.

The man says a spotted flycatcher is hunting around the corner from a branch, and so it is, along with a juvenile. This is the first fledged juvenile spotted flycatcher that I have ever seen in the UK, and the first flycatcher in southern England. Like the nightingale and turtle dove, they seem at home here, indeed they have made this piece of the Sussex Weald just that. There is so much chin-scratching, speculation and opinion in nature conservation. When you see results such as these, it’s hard to disagree with the state of a place.

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SLF - 13-6-2019 djg-6

St. Leonard’s Forest, Sussex Weald, June 2019

Gentle rain falls as dog walkers share tales in the car park. Squirrels saved from their pet’s jaws giving thanks with a bite of their own. Birdsong swells from the understorey, perhaps five song thrush sing to sure up territories. Either side of the track is a wall of green, from the shrubs to the canopy of oak, birch and beech.

There is a feeling of a deeply wooded landscape here, the continuity of the Weald stretching away east to Kent. Of course it has now been broken, so many times, but there is a sense of the wilderness that faced the Romans and later the Saxons upon their respective invasions of Britain. It is thought St. Leonard’s Forest was part of a wooded landscape that stretched all the way to the New Forest, as recently as a thousand years ago.

The rain has drawn me out here. It is such a relief that this June is one of mini-monsoons, compared to last year’s heatwave hell. The nearby South Downs were rendered brown for months. At the side of the path, under the darkness of a beech, mushrooms glow. They sprout peach-coloured, or maybe apricots on sticks, from a tree stump. They are sulphur tuft, one of the most common species but very photogenic.

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Further into the forest chiffchaff sing from the pines, a distant willow warbler’s melody decaying in the darkening evening air. There is a scale to this landscape that feels expansive. Woods challenge our human senses of depth and time. Moving along the footpaths the woodland shifts from clay where beech and oak prevail, to the pine and birch dominated sands where heathland once was kept open by local people expressing their rights of common.

Down a track through birch and holly a single flute-like note comes from the trees above my head: a bullfinch. It calls over and again. It’s a beautiful sound.

Returning round through dark areas of oaks and veteran beeches, I find a small toadstool uprooted at the edge of the footpath. It’s an amanita of some kind, a ring around its neck like Shakespeare or a ruff, patches of white webbing still on its grey-brown cap. Amanitas are a fearful family of mushrooms, being home to the deathcap and destroying angel, to name but the most potent. But I’m not here to eat these marvels of nature, so I take my photos, capturing memories to take back to the town, to ease the sense of dislocation from this ancient wooded landscape, its bullfinches and mushrooms.

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Cuckfield, West Sussex, May 2019

With some hours of Bank Holiday Monday to spare, we drove to Cuckfield in West Sussex. Pronounced ‘Cook-field’, it gets its name from the cuckoo.

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The chuchyard in Cuckfield is vast. A country walk in Sussex is never complete without a visit to at least one church (which, if it’s old enough, usually has an ancient yew tree next to the building). Entering it from village streets dominated by a cedar of Lebanon, it spreads over the gentle crest of a hill, the South Downs rolling along in the distance. On that evening, they were so green and clear they seemed within arm’s length.

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The South Downs beyond the spread of Wealden woodland, from Cuckfield Park

Entering into a church I am always struck by the smell, like an antique shop. There is cool and a sudden stillness. The small churches of English villages hold the scars of our history often with lists of names of people killed in the First World War, or sometimes with gruesome histories stitched into tapestries. Most of them are not actually English but Norman (1066). The yew trees in their grounds often date to pre-Saxon times (500AD), even before Christianity was dominant in Britain.

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In the church a tapestry of a tree held symbols of the village. Perched on a branch was a cuckoo with its sharp bill and grey head.

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No cuckoos sang in the churchyard and no yew tree had lived long enough to recall Pagan Britain, but a castle of a giant sequoia grew amongst the graves.

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We walked for four miles into the woods and fields that edged the village. Great veteran oaks sat on field margins, quintessential Wealden scenes of sprawling boughs and hefty trunks with woodland on one side and an open field on the other.

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I spend a lot of time traveling by car between the Weald and the South Downs. From the corner of my eye I can tell when the Downs are done and the Weald has returned. It’s a case of oaks sitting in hedgerows of neatly set fields. Looking at a map of the Weald, these fields are glades carved out of the ancient woodland that once cloaked the entire area between the North and South Downs. No, it probably was not wall-to-wall woodland (as people say), but its openness was more rugged and less formal. Less civilised. It’s not all oaks in fields, however. Here a Scots pine stood in a private field, framed by the woodland footpath we were taking and the rounds of hay rolled up against the fenceline.

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As is the way in the Weald, the most spectacular trees are the oaks like this one here. At the edge of a field this oak has lived without woodland close by for probably over 500 years.

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As with so many oaks like this one, as they age they begin to tell a tale of all they have survived. The boles, knobbles and scars, the direction of the boughs and their sprawl.

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In the plentiful chunks of remnant ancient woodland, the oaks are smaller and white with algae. The latter is a measure of better air quality, of less chemical pollution from farming. They are smaller because they have to put up with competition from other trees. In May their toes are decorated with spreads of red campion, stitchwort and yellow archangel.

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To see these flowers in this state is one of the moments of the year. It takes the breath away. It is a measure of what we have lost in Britain (mainly between 1960-1990) to our brutal, thoughtless treatment of the landscape.

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Bluebells were at their crispy peak. I love them in the evening, all that frames them: the light coming through the new green leaves of trees at the field’s edge, a silhouetted oak trunk and the faintest of light reaching those curling petals.

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Not all of the trees in the woods make sense. Walking down a lane as we looped back to Cuckfield I noticed this ogre of a beech tree sat on a wood bank. Was it an old hedgerow tree? The trees around it were young, bluebells spread around its buttresses. Perhaps it was in a more open landscape that had now become closed. It showed signs of severe cutting, that is what had given it the look of an octopus.

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Passing through Cuckfield Park on the return to the village, the bright yellow and orange of chicken of the woods broke the lowering evening light. Growing from the felled trunk of an old oak at the edge of wood and field, it spread through barbed wire and even goosegrass, a sign of how quickly it was growing. This is a sign of spring turning towards summer and even, like the fox’s bark in January, the first sign of autumn. Seasons are not set things, their threads reach out far beyond the timescales in which we define them.

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A quick up and over through gill woodland, so typical of the High Weald with its alders and snaking stream, we found the churchspire peeking out from a horse chestnut in flower. Here a queen bumblebee took the last of her nectar for the evening on flowers that appear almost as orchids up close.

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Shelleys - 26-4-2019 djg-4

The Sussex Weald, West Sussex, April 2019

I visited a small woodland in the Sussex Weald after work to make the most of a break in the showers. My aim was to catch the bluebells in the early evening light when I think they look best. The forecast was for cloud but it was windy enough for some sunlight to break through. This woodland is coppiced and was where I photographed the wood anemones last month. It is the bluest bluebell woodland I’ve ever seen. My friend always tells me, ‘no, it’s purple!’. He’s right.

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Bluebells are a huge draw for anyone who has a camera (so that’s everyone). It’s part of the traditional spring experience to go to a bluebell wood, in most places that still have them. That’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted, ancient woodlands like those in the Sussex Weald are being lost, despite the fact that they are irreplaceable habitats. Their species diversity has evolved over thousands of years. At a coppiced wood like this, their ecosystems have coalesced with our management of them for wood products. The oak above might be a coppice, but it could also be three oak saplings fused together.

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Something felt quite gentle and warming about this oak plugged in amongst bluebells. Perhaps it’s the slight lean, it’s almost an invitation to pass by. The mental and physical benefits of spending time in woodland are great.

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I’ve noticed the flush of new green oak leaves and how quickly that freshness is lost to the stiff darker shade.

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Take these two oaks in the High Weald from a week earlier. Their new green is incredibly fresh but will now have darkened. You have to enjoy every moment of spring before it goes.

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Back to the wildflowers. Before visiting the wood I spoke to a colleague whose job it is to survey woods. He said he’d seen very few early purple orchids this year, possibly due to the colder than average January and then sudden heatwave in February. I said I would report back on my findings. I discovered a patch of about 10 flowering on the wood’s edge with plenty of other spotted leaves yet to produce flowers. I had seen them in the same patch a couple of years ago so knew where to go.

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I find orchids that grow in woods to be twice as exciting as those out in the open landscape. It’s a personal thing, because the diversity is far greater out there. There’s something about woodland versions of other species, birds or butterflies for example. There is something so interesting about the fact some species have made a niche for themselves in certain types of woodland only. Don’t get me started on firecrests. It’s even more interesting when these species, especially the wildflowers, escape out into the surrounding landscape.

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It’s not possible for the flowers to do much of that in this slither of the Sussex Weald because it’s surrounded by a monoculture of oilseed rape. On the contrary the farm is making its way into the woodland through the run off of fertiliser and water being piped in. You can see where the wildflowers are being pushed further into the woodland, away from the polluted areas. It’s something happening to almost every small woodland in England in one way or another.

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Photographing the orchids was tricky because it was windy, dull and the plants were small. I used a telephoto lens and tried to maximise the bokeh around the flower. These flowers are beautiful even when out of focus.

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The woodland flowers felt as if they were at their peak. Elsewhere yellow archangel spread amongst bluebells.

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The details of a wood at this time of year are incredible. If you look closely it’s not just the bluebells that will attract you, the fronds of bracken unfurling are worth investigating. These primitive plants reproduce through spores and pre-date flowering plants like bluebells by millions of years. It’s a tough plant and can be a bit invasive. Oliver Rackham reckoned it was the most common plant across the whole of the UK.

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People often say they spend a lot of time trying to remove pendulous sedge from their gardens. It gets around. It’s actually a resident of ancient woodland and can be found in the wood. I passed this community of sedges on my way out as a few bands of sunlight broke through the clouds and lit their drooping seedheads.

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That light broke free as I made my way out again, illuminating bluebells either side of tree trunks. It was a reward for gambling on a grey sky.

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