Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts from the ‘The Weald’ category

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 - 6-5-2019 jpeg-1

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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The Sussex Weald, March 2019

My time in the woods has thinned. Just like the seasoned photographers in magazines tell you, planning your time is key to getting the photos you most enjoy. It also becomes dependent on weather forecasts. A few years ago a friend of mine was leading me around his favourite sites in the Czech Republic and he made a point I haven’t forgotten. Nothing matters more with photography than light. You could have the most amazing scene in front of you, but light is everything. It adds contrast, shadow and colour. It makes you feel good.

Bearing that in mind, I had a few hours in the afternoon before the sun went down to visit an ancient coppice woodland in the Sussex Weald. The Weald is a chunk of southern England that runs from the Hampshire border of West Sussex all the way to Kent in the east. It was once an ‘impenetrable forest’ but now is a large mosaic of oak-dominant woodland with a Conservation Board to protect it. Coppicing is the practice of cutting trees low to the ground to harvest the materials for wood products. It’s effectively farming the woods. Our ancestors have been doing it for thousands of years. Even beavers do it.

It produced the multi-stemmed trees see above and allows light to enter in, often resulting in a profusion of flowers indicative of a woodland that has remained there for over 400 years. March-May is the time when these flowers arrive, benefiting from the fact the canopy is still open. Wood anemones are the first of this swathe.

Like many people before (and after) me, I fell for this small white flower when I learned of its charming lifestyle. The petals close when the sun is gone and they are punished for this delicateness. It takes about 100 years to spread 2 metres across the ground. In the past it has been my job to try and protect wood anemones from trampling. I agonised over it.

Wood anemone is a member of the buttercup family. The similarity to buttercups is in the number of petals, the leaves and the reproductive parts of the flowers (the stamens and anthers) that protrude from the centre. At this time of year in continental Europe purple anemones push through crusts of snow that we don’t really have in the UK. Our friends in Europe have wood anemones, also.

Bluebells and anemones can create beautiful spreads of flowers in woods. But they don’t always make the photos you want. Anemones look wonderful with a bit of early morning or evening light passing through their petals. I went with that thought in mind to see the Sussex anemones.

This is a special time – perhaps the best in the year? – when winter has been overcome and the promise of longer days, of warmth and green is on the cusp. It could also be a genetic memory we have from our ancestors who found winter to be more uniformly cruel than we experience today.

It’s really important for me that photographing any wildlife does not add to disturbance. With woodland flowers it means taking photos from the path or sparse areas. I’ve already said how long it takes them to travel. The photo above may reinforce that: a vulnerable, delicate flower isolated in a darkening wood.

You sometimes find a single flower left over from a trampled population, like a single cottage left from an abandoned village.

Everywhere in wild corners of the UK ther are signs of a micro-shift in a season. The wood anemones hold the floor today, but the first bluebells are unfurling. In this old coppiced wood the bluebells will run rampant and the wood anemones will be squeezed. It’s just the natural order of things.

For now the windflowers, as they were once known, break out from beds of dead bracken in still leafless woods.

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Ebernoe - 22-3-2019 djg-23

March is an odd month in British woods. There is the tantalising sense of spring arriving but winter’s dankness holds fast. Though we learn to see seasons a bit like buses coming and going, I see them as more incremental. There are pointers to change every single day. It’s something I picked up through wildlife surveys, seeing the return of migrant birds, the first bees and leafing oaks. In January it’s the barking fox as mating begins, in February (or sometimes earlier) bluebells and elders leafing, in March it feels like something has to give.

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I go to the woods to take photos now more than to simply look for wildlife or listen, so there has to be some reason for taking out a heavy bag full of equipment. When I know there is a good amount of time to take photos I bring two cameras, almost always a macro and a wide angle lens, with a standard 50mm lens stowed away. If I’m feeling super strong I bring a telephoto lens (not a massive one) in case of some lucky encounter with a raptor perhaps.

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On dull days the light feels glowering and like nothing is responding. I usually turn to trees at this time to slow my impatience. Here I went looking for mushrooms with the hope of some spring glut. It wasn’t there. Pathetically, the disappointment is real. The first queen bumblebees are symptomatic of the need to survive, winter is not over for them until they have found a spot to start their nest.

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There is a lot to be said for taking the time to look at details. Turkey tail is a fungus that lingers all year and can be found in hypnotic shades and patterns on pieces of dead wood. It’s renowned for its medicinal benefits but I’ve never tried it. I’ll stick to camomile and honey.

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In the UK (and perhaps the Northern Hemisphere?) a mushroom called glistening inkcap bursts from the moss and soil after a change in the weather. It usually makes an appearance when a spell of rain has finished and the temperature is a little higher than it has been.

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Moss is one of the few colours found in a winter wood and its ability to hold dampness can sometimes boost the growth of a mushroom, as seen in the inkcap photo. Up close these primitive plants are like miniature palm trees.

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In the South Downs National Park, 10.5% of the landscape is covered by ancient woodland according to the Woodland Trust. That figure astonishes me. Much of this woodland is in the Low Weald, a stretch of ancient oak woodland that pitter patters between the South and North Downs. from near the Sussex-Hampshire border all the Way to Kent. Ebernoe Common is a National Nature Reserve managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust, home to almost every species of British bat and an amazing array of other species.

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Ebernoe also hosts populations of wild daffodil, much smaller than the shop-bought beasts that burst from lawns and roadsides. This is a spring woodland flower that indicates ancientness. It is a privilege to see them in flower, especially considering that they have declined greatly in the past century. In the still wintry Weald, spring is trumpeting silent and yellow.

Ebernoe Common, West Sussex, March 2019

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lp+ob woods - 19-1-2019 djg-17

St. Leonards Forest, The High Weald, West Sussex, January 2019

Gunshots echo from St. Leonards Forest, while up here on the dank January heath, woodpigeons fail to settle in pine branches. Within their paddock the sheep in deep black coats are startled by the scuff of my camera strap on my shoulder. They lift their heads from grazing, soon returning to their business. One with a white beard and human face gazes back at me, old man of the heath.

A powder-white and gold mushroom has been uprooted and left on a feathery bed of moss, an image of early autumn in this sodden midwinter. On the stumps of felled pine trees cup lichens grow like green, towering cities. I read that because they are a partnership of algae, fungi and cyanobacteria, they can’t truly be defined as a standalone species. Here they hold droplets of water like a precious stone in the top of a staff.

The birch bark is zebra-like in this land of deep purple, black and brown. The birches are routinely removed from heathland but to me they feel like a key part to it, a haven for many species of insect, a resource we seem no longer to know about. Every bit of this tree cut has a use for us: bark for firelighter, slippers, canoes and boxes; sap for sugary syrup; branches for brooms and spoons; wood for a fire. It follows us around and, unlike so many of our trees, is not facing an epidemic of imported disease.

Coming down off the heath, I walk up past a stream bed with alder trees climbing high to the canopy. They form dark clouds of branches and catkins at their tops. Alongside the track home holly woods stamp their permanent-feeling darkness. I turn to look left into a small break in that darkness. A silent sparrowhawk glides in touching distance of the ground, preying on blue tits that call in alarm. Those little things miss nothing until caught. It’s a reminder of how hard life is out here in January woods. It is eat, or starve trying.

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