Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Coulsdon’

North Downs diary, Farthing Downs, January 2017

I pass through the gate onto the downs and a fox crosses the lane, that long, fluffed up tail and jinking stride. It seeks the safety of the woodland edge. Snow lingers on the downs, magpies feed in small groups. When they fly up it’s not unlike slices of snow lifting off the ground. Their strategy is simple: feed until a bigger beast passes, sit in the trees, then return. The sun breaks the dough-like cloud, a kestrel cutting through with ease. She finds the tip of a branch and balances, the twig bending under her weight. She looks out across the snow. Feeling herself perhaps too exposed, she shifts to the fox’s wooded margin. Restless, knowing she is now unwelcome in open land, she cuts west and disappears over the hill.

The hazel scrub carries beads of melted ice, hanging long out of the breeze. The shapes show black branches like little snow globes, a looking glass into some dark wood of elsewhere. On the ground the snow carries tokens of those living things that have since passed: dog, human, crow. In between them the stems of wild carrot persist. On the steepest slopes of the downs, sleds slip across the scene, their crew dressed in pink and orange, the colours of our mass production garment industries. On the eastern slopes of Happy Valley the snow rests without the patchiness of the highest point. Yet more magpies are driven from piercing their bills in search of soil. At the bottom of the hill birch trees reflect the snow’s whiteness, their reddish hue shows they are not whiter-than-white.

I heard a radio programme recently charting the decline of snowfall in Kent over the past fifty-years. It brought the presenter to the point: might snow become a thing of the past in southern England? Climate change’s predicted course means that the snowy downs here as I see them today may yet be something that can only be spoken of in the past tense. So does the act of photography now morph into a sentimental act of conservation? Our species’ recent photographic binge, due to the camera phone revolution, means that snow will never be forgotten in image, but its sensuality can’t be felt in a jpeg or print.

I forget these things so quickly when London’s short snowy affair departs, the glow of light from the white ground, the dripping trees, the soft press and crunch of boots, the sheer joy that children feel and express on their plastic sleds. Perhaps to us southerners who see so many different types of weather, the loss of snow’s short stint will barely be noticed. For climate change will bring profound challenges for species that depend on certain conditions, be they polar bears, butterflies, mushrooms or migrating songbirds. On the downs, like many thousands of others I’m sure, I seek change in itself. A different state of mind, of perspective, colours, textures and places to walk in. Nature reminds us always that change will come.

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North Downs diary, Coulsdon, September 2016

It’s dry and dull on the downs, wild carrot and ragwort desiccating, but house martins migrate overhead as they begin their return to Africa. In the damp and shady nooks of Devilsden Wood’s rotting logs the mushrooms sprout. The first I can find is a tiny bonnet rising out of beech leaves, one such leaf topped by an aphid. There is a spread of what I think are webcaps, orange-yellow in the wood dark. Now I remember the ache of kneeling for so long, gently turning the focus ring of the lens to catch the right part of the mushroom: the serrated gills, the skin of the cap. Overhead the soft calling of a tawny owl comes, at four o’clock in the afternoon. I’ve noticed this for the past month, with owls calling at two and three o’clock. The jays begin to rouse with their piercing shrieks, they are the principle mob leaders against the tawny. But no ruckus is forthcoming. I’ve read that tawny owls actually call more commonly in daylight rather than under darkness. Reading about them only this morning I learned that owls are better at hunting at dusk and some species are aided by an increase in moonlight. The jays are right to be worried, with birds taking up the largest chunk of a tawny’s diet. Under a decaying beech trunk dressed in moss the shape of a wood mouse trails into the cover of the leftover bark, another species fearful of the owl.

Away from the fungi I take a closer look at an old horse chestnut perhaps some 200-300 years in age, planted as a boundary marker on the edge of Happy Valley. It stands out beyond the still verdant hazel coppices with its floor of red crinkled leaves. It’s often the first to leaf and the first to leave. Out beyond the trees in Happy Valley the sun casts long shadows, the lines of hay the shadows of recent cutting, soon to be bailed, probably sold on to feed local grazing animals through the winter. I don’t quite know. Elsewhere on the North Downs these rows of hay are burnt, its value no longer universally high across the chalk. The sun sets over Devilsden Wood, the sheep grazing in the golden September light. All appears well in this remnant of downland past.

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Coulsdon, June 2016

Britain has descended into political turmoil, but out here on the downs normality persists. Summer’s flagship species are on the wing in the form of the marbled whites, meadow browns resting low down in the grass, feeding on hawkbits, hawkbeards or whatever these large yellow daisies happen to be. Yellow rattle flowers in its prime, this nationally rare flower in full voice on Farthing Downs. Now is the time to seek orchids, but so very many of them can be found in the right place it’s more a case of avoiding them. Pyramidal orchid, common spotted orchid and common twayblade gather in great number on one slope. Crab spiders cling conspicuous to florets, waiting for their moment.

The birdsong has not yet come to its end: a whitethroat sits atop scrub not yet cleared, singing, preening and dropping down to safety, a skylark and a yellowhammer distant. The plaintive piping of a raptor can be heard and a kestrel with feathers lost skates across, disappearing beyond the brow of the hill. Crows raise an alarm, I scan the now open downs for a bird of prey. Crows, ragged and worried, fly across the roof of woods, and more alarm calls are made. A scuffle ensues, the brown of a buzzard’s wings, like melting milk chocolate in this light, is followed into the trees by crows. It’s usually where the battle ends.

Trundling on in the growing heat, I pass through an area of oak, ash and bramble. From the long wash of pale grasses high as hips, a young deer bursts free. It jigs and jumps up, not so much running as bouncing along the sheltered belt of trees and bushes. It seems almost naked, in body and spirit, free of all sense. It ranges to obscurity. Soon a man dressed in a trench coat passes with his dog and their dwindling shapes swim in the overpowering scene of breaking sun and flowering grasses.

Moving through the quiet of Devilsden Wood, the clamour of school children’s voices behind me, I quietly question the decision of motor cross riders to drive back and forth for half an hour along Ditches Lane. There is a sense of a hollowing out, the opportunity to express oneself without remorse now, at least since Friday morning. I walk through these woods, ancient, growing, and think of all they have lived through. The world wars, Napoleonic war, the Magna Carter, what about the Norman Conquest, the Roman invasion, even the Neolithic revolution of 6000 years ago? I don’t know.

I leave the woods and its splintering blackbird phrases. Why do they still sing now, is there still time to breed? The meadows have thickened with grasses in one week, I rue their itchy monotony. We have experienced rainfall on an unprecedented scale, 40mm of rain in what Londoners call ‘the Brexit storms’. There are so few butterflies, only really the meadow brown, a creature that seems to endure rain, moves amongst the flowers. I feel ripped off, dispossessed. I dream of these meadows in winter. Now they have been reduced. Heading back I see a figure on the hill with a guitar. In five years I’ve never seen someone like this here, a place mainly of dog walkers, horse riders, retirees exploring the London Loop and the weekend charge of cyclists. I approach him.

He has dark hair in a ponytail, I don’t think he’s English. ‘Hi, can I take your picture?’ I ask. ‘I’ve never seen someone with a guitar here.’

‘Of course,’ he says. ‘Usually I play the piano but I want to busk in London so I am learning to play the guitar. I am Italian, from the north.’

He begins playing a song but can’t remember who it’s by, someone American, slapping his wrist against the hollow body of the guitar. When he finishes I ask him what he thinks about the referendum.

‘I have been here one week and in Italy they did not even talk about it. Now I am here and wow,’ he says. ‘My friends think that I am in London surrounded by cars and buildings, but I am here.’ He opens his arms to the sunny downs. ‘And I love it.’

I thank him, Marco is his name, and point him towards Happy Valley. You can go that way and walk for weeks, I tell him. It’s something I always dream of doing, ambition reduced by its likely pain and lack of time to do it. I leave him to practice, flecks of struck guitar strings ringing out from the crown of summer downland.

North Downs diary

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Farthing Downs & Happy Valley, March 2016

A motorbike oozes across the road that runs through Farthing Downs, its deep, unsettling groan scatters woodpigeons and magpies from the branches of trees. When it’s over another sound breaks through: a male yellowhammer. Its song is never quite the ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ it’s accepted as, but the mnemonic is so memorable that those of us who might not have known it ever existed can remark upon it, can seek it out. The bird is a silhouette, a blackhammer in a hawthorn bush against the bold march sun.

Winter’s decorations still remain, it is a time of flux. The cropped green grasslands and anthills look like a sheet, the racket of chalky wildflowers hidden below. If you didn’t know this was chalk grassland now you wouldn’t expect much else to come. Redwings dot the tree lines, their calls which were in October nocturnal now add to a soundscape that includes the spring skylark, high up above my head, marking out a territory that signals an intent to force new life. I see two of these birds. The skylark is one I hear or see only every few months. Its song has no hint of monotony. But one that I have missed this winter and can hear day after day in spring is the blackbird. From trees that separate Farthing Downs and New Hill it lights the valley with its gentle verses. The shadows grow long, reaching into the blackbird’s dreamy hedgeland.

In Happy Valley the hazel trees’ tails mass like wigs. Looking closely, the buds are cocked ready to leaf, some with the purple tongues of flowers poking out. The yellow grains of pollen that have come from the dangling tails can be seen. I flick the tails to help. The twigs of hawthorns are coloured yellow and blue by Xanthoria parietina. Trying to get a close up photo of the fruiting cups, the apothecia, I find the ‘roosting’ buttons of ladybirds. Who would ever see them here? Dogs, voles, mice, flowers, lichens. Surely only the most inquisitive birds would ever find them.

In the shelter of scrub the primroses bloom in old dogwood leaves. I love this time, the birds singing from the woods and trees, the first flowers breaking the rule of death and decay. No doubt, spring and summer have plenty of that to offer, but at least now the pendulum has swung the other way.

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Coulsdon, London, August 2015

The woodpigeons take flight as the gunshots ripple through the air from a neighbouring farm. I heard a little girl say, with great sincerity, that she wanted to come back to the downs with her sled when it snows, ‘I love it here,’ she said. So, what gives the fool with a gun his pleasure? It’s a question that needs answering the world over. But it’s not just pigeons that disappear into the trees at the sound of ammunition, a sharp-winged kestrel evacuated a tree in the middle of this hillside meadow, slipping into nearby Devilsden Wood like a compact disc. Thankfully the insects and wildflowers aren’t fussed by the gunfire, instead common blue butterflies drink from wild marjoram, a hornet mimic hoverfly, Volucella inanis, does the same. A white tailed bumblebee’s heft droops the heads of yellow rattle, still flowering low. From amidst the flowers birch, willow and ash leaf like little green fires ready to burn these grasslands up into centuries of shade. The man with the strimmer will hold back their revolution with those of his machine. If only the ammonia stench from the grazing cow’s dung could be cut back like vegetation. When you step in it, it follows you around wherever you go. At least I’ll have a carriage to myself on the train home.

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Wildflowers

The North Downs, Coulsdon, May 2015

Entering onto the Downs, a group of teenagers are fixing their upturned bikes in the buttercups and silverweed. They spill out onto the lane, calling across to each other when a car comes past. It’s evening and the sun hits the mounds of anthills overgrown by birds-foot trefoil and speedwell. The glowing yellow and blue petals are a precursor to the summer yet to hit these chalky meadows, their flowers like a stash of forgotten jewels. From the strip of trees and bushes that separates Farthing Downs from New Hill, a flow of blackbird music runs, moving here and there as the wind tugs and carries their songs to different places. A red fox slips into the hedgerow. Song thrushes evade the wind with their daggers and trills. Up ahead, a pair of young women pose on the path, and only until a few paces ahead do I see the selfie-stick with their phone on the end. Disappearing off, knowing they aren’t alone, they throw a few more statuettes to their camera, before slinging hand bags back into the crooks of their arms. Skylarks call from up on high, one with its wings and bill working as if it all depended on that verse. In the hawthorns the linnets ping and pang, a green woodpecker lifts up from the turf and submerges itself in some oak scrub. The magpies tread through short tufts of meadowland coloured by buttercups and the hot red stems of salad burnet, still yet to leaf. Before me is Happy Valley, its wayfaring trees flowering in white spots on the hillside. Slipping off into the chalk hollow that will lead to Devilsden Wood, the defiant song thrush sings into the tunnel of hazel and yew, a master of this underworld. On the track before me is a light brown toad, sitting in the middle of the path. Like a baby it crawls towards me and nuzzles in against the side of my boot. I remove my foot and let it continue its journey into the undergrowth.

In Devilsden Wood I feel the first hints of the evening cooling, the sun having reddened my skin in the open land. The new, hardening green leaves of beech explode in the canopy where the light hits them, the few slithers of sky that can be seen between their branches leaves nicks of light along the trackway. A couple with their two sons walk with sticks, picking their way through the undergrowth to find new paths and treasure. The bluebells hum purple in the dark hazel coppices, brightened in part by the helmets of yellow archangel and splashes of stitchwort. The wood ends and the buttercup meadows of Happy Valley simmer at the break of trees. A man and a woman stroll the way I have come with butterfly nets in their hands, a happy day spent on the Downs, I am sure.

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The route leads back into sun dappled bluebell woods swamped by bramble. Two dogs shoot past from behind a small mound and I’m taken by surprise. Meeting company in the dark wood I waste no time breaking out again into the valley. On the hill that will take me to Coulsdon Common, two lads are rolling down, swearing as their tumble takes a surprising turn. At the bottom of the hill waits a girl with hands on hips, as if deciding between them who she will choose when their race climaxes. The lad with long black hair and grunge hoodie lies on his back, raising himself up on his elbows. The girl jockeys him and lies back. They rest in the sun-draining valley like a pair of Siamese twins. I pass them and head towards Coulsdon Common, overtaking a man in his seventies:

‘Evening,’ I say.

‘Good evening, sir!’ he fires back, as if still in the military. He stops, casting his eyes across the flowering meadow to the scene of a white gazeebo in a garden where a PA system amplifies a ceremony of some sort. He is a lone figure on that track, wearing a cap and winter coat. On Coulsdon Common the goal posts gape in shade as the sun breaks through the branches, illuminating the grasses: cocks foot and meadow foxtail. It’s approaching eight o’clock and so I chunter on, passing Saturday evening strollers fresh from an afternoon in the Fox pub. A man drives a mower along the verges, a clutch of bluebells given a stay of execution around a fencepost. I drop down into Rydons Lane past houses with vast lawns dotted with wildflowers left over from their previous incarnation as meadowland or wood. The absurdity of suburbia strikes its note – carp ponds, seven cars, gates with intercoms. I leave on an incline swallowed by yew trees and bursting with chalk, a Labrador storming past me. A voice blurs with the tree dark.

‘He’s over here,’ I shout.

‘Oh, thanks mate,’ is the reply of a man in a white t-shirt, stranded amidst dogs mercury.

I walk through a familiar farm where women ride horses, a Jaguar parked close by. In winter these fields are boggied by the deep clefts of horse hooves, now they are sealed by the heat of a hot day’s sun. Crossing a stile I arrive in a field where a man smokes a cigarette at a pathway in from his house, evidently in need of some silence and peace, he does not see me. I follow the mowed path alongside a hedge of poplar suckers, beyond a dead oak and its dead ivy which has only collapsed in the past year. In need of a snack I sit on the grass and notice paths which I had not seen before. A young, fresh red fox bounds into view, skipping as if from something invisible to the human eye. It sees me and stops, staring, unsure of what I might do. But I’m only here to sit and chew a Tunnock’s Caramel. I watch it through my binoculars, its image framed by buttercups and hedges, a house at the field’s edge. Insects move in small clouds along the edge of the mower’s reach.

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On Hayes Lane I dodge speeding cars and see that patches of wild garlic are being harvested with scissors, hollow stalks standing leafless on the verge. Their thoughtful foraging will make no dent in this robust lily, a plant flowering in profusion along the trackways from here to Canterbury in spring. At the entrance to Kenley Common a song thrush rises to a protruding branch, smashing a snail against the wood. It drops it and flies away. Taking a closer look I see the snail still curled up in its brittle, fractured home. The Common is not empty, the same spreads of buttercup full with human life. A man lies on his stomach in the flowers calling for his dog to run towards him, the remaining sunlight channelling straight down his lens. I look at the English oaks, swelling woods and distant wounds of chalk quarry and wonder what draws us so readily to gather professional images of our pets. With time on my mind I snatch a glimpse of the Caterham valley and head towards Whyteleafe, the remainder of the Common swamped in the shady wood pasture by cow parsley. The wood of mature ash and wayfaring trees are bright white, naked limbs in the twilight. At the end of my walk a poorly, urban fox cub nips into the road, pausing to watch me, like its healthier meadow counterpart, to see what I might do. I watch it disappear into the avenue of parked cars and take the pavement down to catch the next train home.

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Dog stinkhorn Coulsdon, London, November 2014

In Devilsden Wood we tiptoe around fallen beech logs, slipping at times on beech leaves and clay, and the emptied mast. The nuts will have been eaten by hungry jays and squirrels. Over the past few weeks I’ve crouched down around these logs photographing their fungi: beech jellydisc with its almost caucasian flesh, purple jellydisc creeping out by the week from wisps of moss. Most startling for a layman like me was the glaring eye of dog stinkhorn, named after its canine stench. Lodged in a piece of black deadwood it had the appearance of a fox or wolf skull looking up at me. The long, finger-like stems that it had produced had collapsed, orange tips like finger nails. As Julian Hoffman has written recently, referring to the poet Rilke, we are surrounded by a world that beckons us to perceive it, to engage with it, to look and to touch. To me the fingers of the stinkhorn could be pointers to something worth seeing. Today only the jellydiscs remain, as well as a brown mushroom that reflects the white break of cloud between the trees above in its glossy cap. My friend Philip is searching for something behind me and as I look up the sharp dark shape of a sparrowhawk slices between us in silence. If we were little woodland birds we would not have seen a thing.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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