The Sussex Weald: the Saxon oak

The West Sussex Weald, February 2021

The final day of February. The seasons are exchanging but only in light. The first blackthorn flowers are breaking buds at the roadside. Two cyclists float past:

‘Do you really want Louis back?’ one of the women says to another.

They swerve away from two horse riders, one dismounted: ‘At least I know when to get off now. There’ no point pushing him if he’s so nervous.’

The light is golden, low. Birds are singing at spring levels, minus the continental recruits like blackcap, chiffchaff and willow warbler.

The ancient pond was frozen last week but now the water shimmers black and blue with broken reflections of the dark branches against the clear sky.

At the old road’s margins bluebells are leafing in patches. Beyond the shrubby edges the field opens out, home to a massive pine tree. Looking at the 19th century map of this landscape, the pine is there. It must be ancient but how old may not be discoverable.

Two jackdaws fly away from its branches, perhaps having found a suitable nest hole.

Winter is still here in the treetops at the field edge, where fieldfares chuckle, moving in small flocks deeper into the open field. Soon they will make their way north to warming breeding grounds. They feel like a treat, I don’t see or hear them that often.

A breeze rustle the oak leaves on the ground, building into a hush in the leaves of redwoods high above.

At the end of the lane stands an ancient oak tree, the Sun Oak. It probably marks an ancient boundary. A couple of weeks ago I was stood here admiring the tree and a man commented in passing:

‘Amazing, isn’t it? The farmer says it’s in the Domesday Book.’

I had always thought it was 800 years old. A refence to it in 1086 would mean it was already of significant size then. Could it really be over 1000 years old?

That puts it in the Saxon Age, a time so long ago it seems inconceivable. But that’s what makes these trees so special. They are living things that have, in their ecological existence, witness and processed so much time.

This tree, the Sun Oak, is of course on the 19th century map, too.

In the surrounding trees and woodland redwings are flocking, feeding and singing. It’s hard to describe the sound – like some distant chattering, a school playground carried on the wind perhaps. Whatever it is, it’s a sign of their need to gather. Along with the fieldfares, they will all soon be on their way and with them another season under the belt of the Sun Oak.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: stars in a different sky

The Low Weald, West Sussex, January 2021

A second wave of Covid has thrown us back into lockdown in England. You can only leave the house for essentials and exercise. It’s much harder now that the night falls early and the window on experiencing daylight has narrowed. But the days are lengthening and spring is building in small ways.

At night the foxes are making their blood-curdling cries and other social calls. They are breeding, probably just outside the back door each night.

On clear nights I sit on the edge of the bed and, with lights out, can see stars. The three lights of Orion’s Belt shine bright, but not more so than Sirius to the south-east. It’s the brightest star in the sky.

Out on my exercise for the day, I stand in a frosty glade of bracken. Silver birches are clustered at the edges, ash branches have collapsed and fallen to the ground. Their twigs reveal leafy lichens, in some places known as oak moss. There are real mosses too, little green pin cushions with their sporophytes poised.

The birds are foraging for life in this time of scarcity. A jay moves between trees and shrubs, flushing white wing-bars as it flies. Nuthatches are dripping from the tree trunks in both number and sound. Further away the hooting of two tawny owls ruffles out of the trees, half-baked. Are these early territorial warning signs? Spring, indeed.

Alarm calls break across the branches and bare blue sky. It is a beautiful day. Knowing these alarm calls mean something is happening, I look up at the patch of sky over the clearing. From the north-west two birds fly close to one another, on passage. To identify them will take a process of elimination:

  • Wings too sharp for sparrowhawk
  • Too small and direct in flight for buzzard
  • Too big for merlin
  • Hobbies are holidaying in Africa
  • Tail too short for kestrel

They’re peregrine falcons, stars in a different sky. Perhaps they are returning to the South Downs and an early morning hunting pigeons in the towns. Maybe they’re a pair getting to know each other and seeking a place to breed. Wherever they’re going, bit by bit, winter is edging away with them.

The Sussex Weald

Night photography: the empty town

West Sussex, January 2021

In 2008 I began experimenting with urban night photography. It shows how much things have changed for camera technology that I don’t even need a tripod now. Cameras today can capture much more light without reduce the image quality than they could in the 2000s.

As we’re now unable to leave the house for much other than essential things such as food and exercise, it’s drawn me closer to home. At this time of year I be looking to do some astro photography on these dark January nights. At the moment I can’t travel away from light pollution but I’m still trying to learn as much about the stars as I can. Maybe I will post some of those home images, it’s not like things are going to change anytime soon.

Usually this small town in West Sussex is bustling on a weekend night, with people visiting pubs and restaurants. On 10th January 2021 it was deserted but for people passing through.

Restaurants that you might once have been unable to book a table for were empty and only offering a remote delivery service. Note the disinfectant indoors and hand sanitiser outside on the menu table. A sign of the times.

Elvis is also staying at home.

These large stickers urge people to keep to the left, but it seems to have very little impact. You would need to completely redesign the townscape to make it work. This is going on for so long, you wonder if that will begin to happen, especially for new developements?

The local shopping centre was still open to visitors, though everything essential had closed for the day. I wonder if these handsanitising units will remain in place permanently now.

Christmas lights are perfect for practicing bokeh, the blurry circles created when the camera is out of focus.

Businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic, but I wonder if some local shops are doing better in places where people used to commute.

This local statue at least offers a sense of humour to passersbys. We need it.

Thanks for reading.