The Sussex Weald: between the seasons

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, August 2021

Mid-August: the woods sit between seasons. Leaves are not yet turning, the soil is dry and the leaf litter brittle. Even so, mushrooms are pushing through. I turn off the hard track to cross over the ghyll that cuts through the woodland, one of many dammed further down for the ancient iron industries that hammered this landscape several centuries ago.

Today no such industry exists but the streams still flow. In fact, from this area of the High Weald, some of Sussex’s great rivers rise and head off on their respective journeys: the Arun, the Adur and the Ouse.

Sitting on the bank, I notice fungi on fallen wood but also in the soil. They are terracotta hedgehogs, mushrooms with spikes where the gills or pores are found on other species. They’re a delicious edible mushroom.

When the iron industries were at full pelt here some 400-500 years ago, there was immigration of skilled workers from France. They brought knowledge unavailable to iron workers here in Sussex, with some tensions developing with the local workforce. On 21st January 1556, ‘Peter’ a French collier was ‘cruelly murdered’ (Weir-Wilson, 2021: p.45).

I wonder if those French men and women picked hedgehogs here, a species that’s treated as a delicacy in France. The Belgian father of a friend of mine messaged me on social media when I posted a photo of these mushrooms:

‘Pied de mouton,’ he said. ‘Clean then blanch them for 2min. Drain and keep. Fry 2 shallots and 1 garlic in butter (or oil). Butter tastes better.’

Deeper into the woodland there are the first signs of heather beginning to flower. The birdsong has dwindled but the edges of the rides burst with flowers that are covered in insects. A broken and battered fritillary butterfly nectars on hemp agrimony flowers as if for the first time. I watch to see if a butterfly with so many pecks taken from its wings can even fly, but it does, high into the overcast sky.

Further along the ride hogweed has built a great white canopy. The droneflies – a honeybee mimic – drink nectar in their tens, fizzing as they switch from one umbel to another. That’s when I notice the long, drooping antennae of a longhorn beetle, doing the very same thing. I can’t take my eyes from it, as it clambers over the small inflorescences.

After walking along the endless forestry road, I slip back into the woodland to an area of birchy bog and broken beeches. It’s quiet and still in here. Unlike the final bursts of summer flowers on the open forest rides, autumn can be found among the birch trees.

First there is a bolete with its pores and cap that has begun to turn upwards, growing from a stump. There’s a Leccinum or birch bolete of some sort standing tall (for its kind) in the soil. There are Russulas yellow, red, green and purple. These hard to identify fungi are a mental bridge between summer and autumn. They are also a welcome meal for squirrels and whatever can get there first.

It’s a reminder that the seasons are not concrete. There is give and take, building blocks can come tumbling down. Seasonal signs come with species appearing, some that pass like ships in the night.

The Sussex Weald