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

Macro 📷: City Nature Challenge 2021 (in the South Downs…)

In recent months I’ve become somewhat addicted to iNaturalist. It’s a website or app which collects species records but has AI which can identify a species from a photograph. It can be used by anyone and even has an auxiliary app called Seek which can scan plants, animals, fungi and other animals and identify in real time. It’s the way ecological monitoring is going. Nature conservation is dominated by too small a cohort of people and needs to find ways to open its doors to more people. I will never forget hearing of a lifelong species recorder who wouldn’t provide their sightings to science, and that they would rather be buried with them than share them.

It’s lamby time

Onto more inclusive ways of thinking, over this bank holiday weekend it’s the City Nature Challenge (CNC) where people the world over submit species records to iNaturalist and into the project. As of 10pm on Sunday 2nd May there have been 631,418 sightings submitted. Amazing!

I went to a part of the South Downs that was just about included in the Brighton CNC catchment. I used my zoom lens rather than a dedicated macro because I was doing general ‘work’ with creatures great and small. I used an Olympus 12-45mm lens which can still do macro to a degree (in normal camera terms it’s 24-90mm because I was using a Micro Four Thirds camera, which has a cropped sensor). It worked like a dream.

Xanthoria parietina, a sunburst lichen

I photographed each species once, rather than everything, which would never work – can you imagine? I’d still be there now. I really noticed how, even though I probably recorded about 100 species on the South Downs Way, it was dominated by a small number of species. Ground ivy was very common, as was hogweed, white deadnettle and nettles.

Another Xanthoria sunburst lichen

The most dominant species were nitrogen-loving, just like this golden shield lichen above which is able to deal with fertiliser and other agricultural pollutants. I wonder how different things might have been before the Second World War’s agricultural boom. The Downs is known to have lost a vast area of chalk grassland in the 20th century, one of the rarest and richest habitats in Britain.

Two ravens (centre) and a red kite

I will save you all the generic images of flower-less plants. I did manage to capture record shots of ravens mobbing a red kite, of which there were several. I love ravens, they are such intelligent and characterful birds. They are also not quite common enough to feel as familiar as crows or jackdaws.

A heath snail

One of my favourite encounters was with this heath snail which was curled up (so to speak) in the flower head of a dandelion or hawkbit. I instantly saw this and started talking to myself dangerously loudly about what a nice image it was. I hope you agree!

Hawthorn trees with the Arun Valley in the background

I inspected some old hawthorns that were dotted on the edges of the grasslands. I’ve heard they’re good places in the South Downs to find lichens. Though I found nothing outrageous, there were some beautiful species growing on the branches.

These are possibly the beard lichen Ramalina farinacea. iNaturalist has a weird name of farinose cartilage lichen. Farinose seems to mean mealy or floury. That’s a new one for me.

A small parcel of woodland atop the Downs

On this section of the South Downs Way there is a sudden square of woodland which the path cuts through. I had always thought this was perhaps planted or some recent woodland that had grown up on fallow land. But I found something that makes me think very differently about it.

Town hall clock

This is the first time I’ve seen town hall clock or moschatel. I was amazed to find it. It’s an ancient woodland indicator, which suggests that the woodland is far older than I had realised.

Cowslips flowering en masse

It was nice to witness the typical downland spread of cowslips. Last year we got locked down before this began, and now I’m just getting back here at the point that they’re peaking.

The view towards Amberley

The weather started behaving like something you’d expect in the Yorkshire Dales which cut my species recording short, bar a few desperate snaps in the cold and wet march back to the start.

I managed to capture this footage of a hunting kestrel, hardly macro, but worth sharing.

Thanks for reading.

More macro

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

Bury - 2-5-2019 jpeg-2

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