This post is a bit misleading (hello, Prime Minister) as it’s about a house at the edge of St. Mary’s Churchyard in Horsham, West Sussex. Apologies if you’ve navigated here expecting something more numinous. Here a beautiful old house resides. The problem is it’s name is not exactly blogpost title worthy, and I can’t think of anything snappy. It’s at the end of the famous Causeway, a road that’s renowned for its colourful timber-framed and weather-boarded buildings.
The house is simply called 24-26. It’s dated to 1615 and has since been broken into three properties and extended along the churchyard’s edge. The trees to the right hand side are lime trees that form an avenue along the Causeway, illustrated below at a younger stage:
It was a quick lunchtime visit to the household recycling centre, the kind of thing that is exciting enough in a year of lockdowns.
Having been waved in and asked to mask-up, I got out of the car and began searching the options to recycle some fabric. A workman was collecting materials and asked me to make it easier for him and drop it straight into his dumpy bag. It made it easier for me, too.
It was a warm and cloudy afternoon with the sun breaking through. The air held that acrid whiff of landfill, like sickening vinegar.
Returning to the car, I was distracted by something. The one-way system that takes you through the recycling centre was edged by wrought iron fencing. Beyond that an old, overgrown hedge with brambles, hawthorn and perhaps willow, marked by a large oak tree. This area sits on Weald Clay, which I’ve learned was once known geologically as Oak Tree Clay, so common is the species in this landscape.
A bird was singing from somewhere along the hedgeline, mixing in with other bird calls and sounds. Typical late April in southern England, with the new arrivals from Europe and Africa breaking out in song after unthinkably dangerous and long journeys north. After resting, you would sing, too.
The song was being thrown around, I couldn’t pin it down. Then I heard the rapid, reverb-laden drip-drip-drip-drip-drip.
I had heard this song a few times before in Sussex, with their stronghold at Knepp or else at Woodsmill in Henfield. In 2017 I’d honed my understanding of their incredible song while on a conservation study tour of the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. Hearing this bird in little olde England is something else.
The song was unmistakable. I took out my phone and recorded a short clip. Just 20 seconds.
I had to drive along to the next bay to dispose of some cables and empty tins of emulsion. I wanted to tell the men working on there what they could hear if they listened, and ask if they already knew. They might have known. I asked one worker a question about solvents and he replied with eastern European-accented English. Nightingales are not so rare in that part of the world, perhaps he knew their song from his childhood.
It’s why I love John Keats’s poem so much (below), because he knew how important birdsong was to all people. Not just landowners who know how to welcome nightingales, those who can afford holidays to hear them, or those as privileged as me to live in this beautiful place. By that I mean Sussex, not the tip.
Thou was not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown
This bird had flown all the way from Africa in a time of globalised trauma, when they are disappearing from our island as a species. We are all connected, we just need reminding sometimes.
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.
The River Arun, Horsham, West Sussex, November 2020
Again we must stay close to home. The oaks are in their orange and gold phase. The bright sun catches in their leaves against blue skies, darkening their grey-black trunks. I stop to look out over the Arun’s water meadows. Two large white Sussex cattle rest on a hillock, doing nothing.
From the mature trees that edge the Arun, a bird swoops down into the rushy grasslands that spread away from the river. I can see from its size and underwing that it’s a buzzard. It returns to a perch in a bare ash tree on the river’s edge. I don’t have binoculars so I can’t see what it has, but it took something. Surely it’s too late for frogs or toads.
A man and a woman approach from behind me to share the view across the river’s wet edgelands. The woman has an orange bin bag and a litter pick.
‘Seen anything good?’ she asks.
I point out the buzzard, that it’s hard to see because it’s so well hidden.
‘No,’ she says. ‘I’ve just seen it because it moved.’
Impressive, but perhaps unsurprising for someone with an eye for litter picking.
I say that I don’t know what it has. She tells me that she only ever sees them soaring but never perched. She and her partner live on the edge of the farm. They see buzzards all the time.
All summer I heard a young buzzard calling from a nest along the river, It was incessant, persistent. Every time I visited I could hear it calling. Then I spotted a huge ash tree and saw it sitting up there, calling still. It was out on a branch, begging to be fed by its parents.
As an exiled Londoner, it feels an intense privilege to be able to walk ten minutes from home and happen upon the breeding ground of this great and prospering hawk. A fellow exile said much the same to me, that he had found buzzards roosting in trees across from his new home in Peterborough.
Our conversation about the buzzard dissolves in that awkward English way, and the couple head off in search of more litter. I stay on, wondering what it is the buzzard is having for its lunch.
I stand on the long, straight track that cuts through the heart of St. Leonard’s Forest. I recently looked for it on a map from the 1870s. I thought it might have been a 20th Century addition to ease forestry operations. To my surprise, it was there cutting through what today remains a heavily wooded landscape.
Looking around, it’s probably even more wooded now. In the 1870s, the woodland was likely oak and beech with holly underneath. Where pines now stand abandoned to nature, heathland probably expanded over more open areas.
The name ‘forest’ actually denotes open land where laws once controlled gathering of natural resources and the hunting of animals, with brutal consequences for rule breakers. ”Aforestation’ was the implementation of Forest Law on more land, often at the expense of entire vilages of people.
At one point in history, a third of England was subject to Forest Law. It was a landscape of oppression, violently enforced by England’s Norman conquerers after 1066. The management and control of deer was a key part of the Norman forest landscape.
The track is endless in this crepuscular light. At the edges ditches are stuffed with bracken which has yellowed in the August heatwave. Sudden explosions of heather interrupt the vertebra-like leaves of the bracken.
Ahead I can see two people or animals. The light is fading, the sun has slipped beyond the pines. As I get closer I can see one is a roe deer. The other figure has gone. The deer are grazing the edges of the ditches, stopping to check on my progress. I’m moving slowly, but hurrying with my hands to change the lens on my little camera to one with more reach. I get closer but it doesn’t fear me. It turns and walks away into the dark woodland.
Walking further down the old track, a pathway, broad and green appears on my left. Two fallow deer are looking at me. They must have been grazing with the calm roe I have just passed, but they are less accepting. They scarper, one zig-zagging and leaping to distract what is a would-be predator.
Then, from the bushes, a roe deer has been startled and lurches across the path into the undergrowth that the fallow deer has disappeared into. Squashed into that small green lane, that burst of animal limbs felt almost like watching a stampede.
It’s the hottest August day since 2003 so I’ve waited to go out until the evening. The sky holds all manner of clouds as the sun slips away. There is a purple hue to the sunset, a heft, as if the atmospheric pressure is close to breaking. Down in the valley where the Arun flows, a cloud hangs below the trees. I can’t work out whether it’s mist, surely not on a day like this.
I glimpse the mist over the fields, but instead it’s a cloud of dust. On the horizon the sound of tractors rumble deep into the lingering evening heat. Following the old footway south I can see the tractor’s dust and so cover my face. With the advent of face coverings in shops and busy places due to Covid, it’s something I’m an expert in now. To the side, a tractor cuts the hay. I wonder what hay there is even to cut this year, it’s been so dry. The dust tells part of that story. I remember one of these fields back in April or May, brimming with buttercups, fresh and green. It lost its verdant glow so quickly as the rain dried up.
I follow the byway uphill, stepping out of the way of two older men roaring down the track on e-bikes like they’re either escaping or attending to a crimescene. I pass a favourite local oak and thoughts turn to the autumn. Along the side of the path a green metal fence has been put up to stop people and dogs, I presume, from accessing fields where sheep, horses, and jackdaws, graze. Each time I come here I watch another tree in the horses’ field get closer and closer to a full ring-barking. One ash tree has already died this year. Anxious, I look for an oak tree which otherwise could live for hundreds of years. This evening the horses are gathered around something at the fenceline. I can only guess that there isn’t the grass for them to eat and so they’re being given hay.
I follow this new green fence and cross away towards the old park, where ancient sweet chestnuts and aging oaks dot the open landscape. In the distance cattle are grazing like moons in the grasslands. On the clay track back down, oaks overhang, laden with thousands of acorns. It makes me think of all they were once used for: coffee, flour, their galls used to make the inks that mark the Magna Carta and American Declaration of Independence. In America acorns were the staple of ‘balanocultures’, Native American communities who stashed and cached acorns as resources.
Off the hill, the path is penned in by lush growth of grasses, brambles, St. John’s wort and knapweeds. There are oak saplings too. Their translucent green leaves are pocked with the pin cushions of spangle galls. These galls are home to the larvae of gall wasps. Next month the galls will fall to the ground and wasps will continue their development through winter, ready to hatch in April and begin the process once more. The seasons, they’re inescapable.
Welcome to one of those weeks that is little more than a lament at how dry southern England is. This week I’ve been in two different woods and the story is the same – the recent rain in Sussex has not given much of a boost to fungi. I managed to zoom round a local woodland one lunchtime and found a couple of things.
To give a sense of the impact of warm dry weather, even in the space of about ten days, check out the difference here. What is now a very dehydrated piece of birch wood was previously alive with slime moulds and all kinds of other life.
It is mainly a matter of rehydration, however, and when the temperatures drop and more rain arrives, the show can go on.
This is a species of Ganoderma bracket fungus growing on fallen wood. I only later noticed that a snail is hidden away in a nook of the fruiting body! You can tell I was in a rush. I wrote a lot more about brackets recently.
This is smoky bracket, not an omlette. I have seen this small community of brackets growing over the past few weeks. Again, it was only later that I noticed the other life, in this case a resting fly.
I was pretty disappointed in this mushroom hunt but then it was somewhere between 25-30 degrees (Celsius). The area which I’ve mentioned before, that has been opened up, is now experiencing more trampling, including mountain bikes coming through. From my experience of woodland management, that was predictable.
But some management that was really positive was the creation of dead hedges of logs and branches in a well-shaded area. This was where the mushrooms were hiding! I found a nice patch of oysters that were swamped/protected by brambles. This is a nice edible mushroom, not that I’m picking.
I also spotted this small mushroom, such a joy to find something. I like its veiny-cap and the reddishness. I’m not sure of the species.
Dry times such as these make alternative topics a pressing need. At the moment I’m researching an article on fungi and Chernobyl, so stay tuned for that.
Evening. The sun kindles embers in dangling birch leaves. The songs of birds have gone, spring is a memory. I think of autumn: the cool that grows where the sun can no longer reach. My footsteps crunch and snap in the dry, leaf-littered banks beside the gill. This stream was dammed centuries ago for the Wealden iron industry. But it still runs, just not now. The hammer pond it’s been forced to feed is now the realm of private fishing.
The beeches twist and turn on the slopes, in this light you might have thought they’re creeping up behind your back. It is so quiet that any sound feels like a warning. I hear the first faint murmur of a tawny owl.
The bracken is high and it’s hard to see around the bend of this winding desire line. On the hill the sun lends the ranks of pines some splendour. But it’s the heather battling down in the bracken that holds most promise. Men have stolen the sun from this heath with forestry, but the pines have been forgotten. Nature lies in wait, its disruptive forces breaking rank in a way so slow it’s not known until it’s done. This place will not be the same in decades to come.
Blackbirds and thrushes shuffle song-less in the shrub layer. The dryness amplifies the sound of their size to large mammal. That old fear ticks and tocks in me. A barometer I forgot I had.
Out on the woodland ride the ditches promise an explosion of new flowers: fleabane, ragwort, valerian, hogweed, and hemp agrimony where small cream moths nectar. One is held aloft, frozen in mid-air. Peering round, I see the camouflage of a crab spider hidden among the florets.
It’s a great relief to be able to share some fungi from the Wood Wide Web this week. There has been steady rainfall in recent weeks which gave the sense that some summer shrooms might be ready to appear. At this time of year I’m looking for the early indicators of autumn’s fungal moment, which appear in the form of brittlegills or Russulas, in scientific language.
The fungi described this week are garnered from two walks in the woods of the Sussex Weald in West Sussex. The first walk was a short evening wander to a mixed woodland with signs of ancient woodland flowers like bluebell, but with lots of birch, hazel and some oak. It then pretty abruptly turned to pine, which happens quite often in the Weald because of the arrival of sandier soils where the Weald clay ends, and the prevalence of forestry.
It was much more dry than I had hoped but mushrooms are tenacious things. This nicely illustrated a new fungal phrase I learned in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweet Grass (p.112 in the ebook). You can listen to an interesting podcast with the authorabout mosses.Tthe Native American language of the Anishinaabe describes “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight” as ‘Puhpowee’. And so was this very small brittlegill pushing through the leaf litter.
I have never really tried to identify brittlegills to species level because they are so numerous and similar. I would guess this species is the charcoal burner. But I could be wrong about that.
This is one of the red brittlegills from August 2018 in the Weald, something to expect in August through to September.
It’s a very dim view due to the light but my companion found this fungus within a fungus. It’s a species of oysterling. You can see a black springtail (or maybe even a tick?) on the left hand side for scale.
The second walk was in the afternoon at another Wealden woodland I am getting to know quite well. I recorded an Instagram story guided walk of this experience which you can see here. If you have the Gram.
Again it was well-nibbled brittlegills that could be found. This is probably the work of a small mammal with some input from a slug. I’ve seen grey squirrels pick these mushrooms, and spin them around by the stem and nibble down the gills. That interested me because grey squirrels are an American species. Brittlegills are also found in North America, so perhaps they are just returning to their roots. Does belittle the idea that grey squirrels don’t belong in European landscapes, the evidently do. Yes, I know about red squirrels.
I’m sure these species are not in any way appetising for the reader. This is probably one of the green brittlegills. It looks a bit ghoulish but I was pleased to find it. All these finds were just at the edge of footpaths.
A common summer mushroom is rooting shank, one of the toughshanks. ‘Shank’ has a pretty dark meaning in modern language, particularly in London, but it’s an old name for leg. That’s where the names of red or greenshank come from in the bird world. Americans call similar species ‘yellowlegs’. I prefer the olde Englishe names.
Rooting shank is quite an abrupt shroom, it just shows up where it likes. You can find it from now through to September from the woodland floor to stumps and buttresses of trees. This dream of a shroom was in the White Carpathian mountains in the borders of Czechia/Slovakia but I first saw it in urban south-east London.
It’s not a fungus, but this dog vomit slime mould was a lovely find (believe it or not). This amazing video gives a much better explanation of what this slime mould is up to:
It was only after taking this photo of the slime mould’s birch log that I realised how much was happening. You can see the early stages of small polypore fungi moving in from the outer edge as the wood degrades. I think the greyish blobs next to the slime mould may be Lycogola species, sometimes known as wolf’s milk. Lyco means wolf. The puffballs, Lycoperdon mean ‘wolf’s fart’. Oh dear. And we don’t even have wolves in the UK anymore, just in Downing Street, LOL!
It’s the blue hour and already birdsong rises from the woods: an unbreakable wall of blackbird and song thrush. The thrush pierces through with repetition as the blackbirds pause. Chiffchaff, robin, wren, the cascading song of a willow warbler.
Straight away, the hoot of a tawny owl in the echoing micro-valleys of gills flowing through the woods. Over time new owl sound-posts arise in distant corners of the landscape.
5am comes. In the birchy patches roe deer crash away through old bracken. Their sheer weight can be heard. A roe barks a warning – we have been seen.
The owls’ calls grow with the onset of dawn. The darkness still sits in the beech, oak and birch woodland. Pine, forever green, holds it that bit longer.
A sound from far away, slipping over the owl and deeper into the Weald. The cuckoo, master messenger of spring. We heard him here last year and wonder if he is the same bird back from the Congolese rainforest where he spent the winter. Whoever he is his life has been richer than any human’s could ever be. And the female cuckoo, she too will be hidden away somewhere in silence, listening.
We meet the crescendo of the dawn chorus now. Owls hooting on the crest of song thrush and blackbird. Cuckoo rising over everything. Crows begin the first administrative duties of the day, checking outposts of their web and marking party lines. The owls will not be lost on them.
Down a sunken track enclosed by holly, we notice the shapes of bats hawking. It’s the path we need to take. On approach they disappear, as if they were never there. The mosquitoes landing on our foreheads are glad we’ve moved them on. I’d love to tell them, the bats will be back.