Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Midhurst’

Cowdray - 3-12-2019 blog-2

Midhurst, West Sussex, December 2019

The cloud bares blue sky wounds above the Cowdray Ruins, as mist rises from the Rother. The sun breaks from the cover and melts the frosty rushes, droplets glimmer in brambles. Bull rushes thaw like over-frozen choc ices emerging from the bottom of the freezer.

A song thrush sings from the woods nearby and it has little competition. Except for a couple shouting at their dog as it flashes through the low rushes. Imagine if a song thursh was actually just saying ‘kids, go to school’, ‘where’s my breakfast’, ‘what’s the time-what’s the time-what’s the time’. Its beauty would shrivel away and it would become an annoyance. The mystery gives it life.

The dog runs free through the rushes, its paws sloshing as it seeks the scent at the end of its nose. Its owners’ cries grow louder, angry, fear creeping in. With it a small bird, a wader, bursts from the rushes and arrows out towards the town. It has a white breast and a long, thin bill, curving as it reaches the tip. Its wings are sharp like a modern fighter jet. I’m sure it’s a snipe.

The bird will have been roosting over night in the rushes and now will seek more wet grasslands, probably where the Rother snakes behind Midhurst and where there are less people. Not that there are really so many here. On spring evenings they perform an otherworldly song flight, something that I first heard over reedbeds in Poland a few years ago.

They sing in a bizarre, electronic kind of way, but also like someone skilled at blowing through a large blade of grass. That evening I watched it soar and swoop over the reeds and river. Birds hold such potential for us, the promise of their weird songs, in these dark winter months, offers hope.

The Sussex Weald

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WB-MH - 29-8-2019 djg-5

Woolbeding to Midhurst on the New Lipchis Way, West Sussex, August 2019

Download my route for this walk on ViewRanger

In late August 2019 a friend and I took an evening hike on a section of the New Lipchis Way. This was in addition to a previous walk from Midhurst to Singleton. The 7 mile walk began at Older Hill with astonishing views across the heathlands of the Sussex Weald to the hills of the South Downs. It’s easy to forget (or not even realise) how wooded southern England is. The stretches of woodland in the Weald are some of the most contiguous and largest in the UK. In these images they look like the Amazon rainforest. Against the foot of the Downs they offer awe-inspiring views.

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Above heather can be seen in flower, an icon of the Greensand Hills, with birch trees blending with oaks all the way to the Downs.

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Stedham Marsh is a very wet area in winter but we met it on a beautiful evening when a dry period had given us free reign over the tracks and paths.

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Mushrooms were beginning to fruit at this time. The woods were littered with brittlegills (Russula). You can see how dry it is here by the colour of the mushrooms (they’re usually more red) and the leaf litter is crisp.

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We weren’t foraging (and I’m not telling you that you have permission to do so here) but this boletus mushroom had already been uprooted and it made for a lovely image. There were hundreds of mushrooms on this walk.

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My walking buddy Jonathan agreed to pose under this huge Ganoderma bracket fungus.

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Another Boletus edulis along the way. They seem most happy in the drier progression into autumn, before the October storms when much of the leaf cover is pulled down.

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As with all walks in southern England, the walk crossed through farmsteads and settlements. This beautiful carriage was sitting at the side of a track like something from the days of John Clare when gypsies were free to roam the open landscapes of England.

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The Rother is one of the main features of this amazing walk. The river has much of its natural form, winding its way through the area. The sun created long shadows of alder trees in the water.

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Iping bridge is a local icon dating from the 17th century. It reminds me a little bit of the Anglo-Saxon helmet found in the hoard at Sutton Hoo.

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This selection of milk churns is throwback to times past. One of the things you notice about villages in southern England is how they have lost their working class rural element and have become places for wealthier middle class people. If you were here in the early 1900s it would have been different but the shifting rural economies of the post-war period have changed these communities.

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Walking in late August, the trees were heavy with acorns in what turned out to be a mast-year for oaks.

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Stedham Hall is pretty difficult to miss. It is a Victorian building built on top of something much older. How can people cope with so many rooms?

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The walk reaches Midhurst through Woolbeding, an area owned by the National Trust. Here we ended the walk under a pink and purple sky. Herdwick sheep grazed the grasslands between oak trees.

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Arriving in Midhurst you can find plenty of places to rest up after the near 7-mile walk.

The Sussex Weald

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Midhurst astro - 6-11-2019 blog-2

Midhurst, West Sussex, November 2019

Nightfall. The traffic throbs white and red along North Street. The streetlamps light a line of trees penning the cars in against the buildings that crowd one side of the road. The illuminated frame of a church window stands between two black trees like a section of the Taj Mahal.

I’m here to drink in the swelling night sky. Above Midhurst the Plough sits like an advert for something half-formed or untranslated. As the night deepens more stars cluster around iconic constellations I can’t put a name to.

People pass on a couple of occasions, one man greets me, his scotty dog with a green collar glowing around its neck in the dark. The night has not dimmed its senses, it seems enlivened, sniffing at the night with ears pricked up.

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Over the Rother, where it funnels past the Cowdray ruins, the moon draws up mist from the river, matched in the cloud that sits beneath its white beam. Who knows what could be creeping in towards me under that white veil.

Aeroplanes blink and roar in the sky, male pheasants clash in metal at the margins of the wet grasslands separating the Cowdray ruins from the Midhurst traffic. The stars seep through yet more.

Explore the Sussex Weald

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Angels bonnets - Oct 2019 blog-1

River Rother, Midhurst, West Sussex, October 2019

The Rother wends its way around the foot of St. Ann’s Hill, the site of a motte-and-bailey-castle probably built by the Normans in the 11th century. The water is high and brown after heavy rain that has fallen for several days. Atop the hill the ground is carpeted by the spiky cases of sweet chestnuts, freshly fallen from the huge trees that dominate the hill. The sun, shining on what feels a rare occasion, lights the open shells, their chestnut fruits glimmering where they lie.

Away from the hilltop I follow a path that whips back across the prow of the hill. Here dead oaks lie on either side of the path. Angel’s bonnet mushrooms grow in a cluster from crevices in the sinewy wood, their white caps used as a post by a dung fly. Under one mushroom cap I notice another fly’s head poking out as it rests on the stem.

Rother - Oct 2019 blog-1

I hear the loud clopping of a dog coming towards me on the path. In my stillness it doesn’t know I’m here. As it comes closer and closer into view, its legs are in fact long and thin. It’s a roe deer, young and carefree. It sees me at a distance of ten feet and splashes through ivy, hazel and brambles down to the safety of the winding Rother.

Explore the Sussex Weald

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Midhurst to Singleton on the New Lipchis Way, West Sussex, August 2019

Midhurst is a market town in rural West Sussex, right in the geographical heart of the South Downs National Park. A friend and I spent the evening walking a section of the New Lipchis Way that connects Midhurst and Singleton. It was a walk of 8 miles through several different habitats, undulating over varied geology. The New Lipchis Way sounds like something from Pagan Britain, but really it’s just that the walk begins in Liphook in Hampshire and ends in Chichester.

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We began at Midhurst via the Cowdray Ruins, along the river Rother at the bottom of St. Ann’s Hill which once held a castle on its top. Remnants of the castle are still printed onto the hilltop. The way carries on through fields where ginormous sweet chestnuts are set in an avenue at the bottom of farmland. Soon the agricultural world is left behind for plantations imprinted on heathland around Heyshott and Ambersham Commons. Here the heather was beginning to bloom. The way crosses the old railway line that once served Midhurst.

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Soon the South Downs break into view and the heathlands of the Greensand are left behind for Heyshott village. The use of the word ‘shot’ at the end of a placename usually refers to an extra piece of land extending from a settlement. Hence Aldershot and the variable Oakeshot. The church is a combination of chalk flint from the South Downs, oak timbers, sandstone blocks and clay tiles from the Weald and wooden panels and slats, presumably also from the Weald. The church probably dates from the 13th century.

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I love the feeling of moving between settlements and countryside when walking and that drop-off in noise and activity for the stillness of an open or natural landscape. Here we passed through fields of wheat to reach the ridge of the South Downs at Heyshott. In the image above you can see the gradual dying back of ash trees on the ridge as the disease takes effect.

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Looking back from the wheatfields you can see the ridge of Greensand Hills in the background, the woody heathlands in the middle and then the churchspire of Heyshott one layer closer.

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Rising with the chalk, in the distance you can see Bexleyhill where the mast pokes out. These hills are part of the same Greensand ridge as Woolbeding Common, to the west or left hand side in this image. The river Rother runs from left to right (west-east) in this image, cutting between the distant hills and those of Heyshott and Ambersham Commons. Note the arrival of ash and whitebeam trees on either side on this rural chalky lane.

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The light began to fade as the clouds came in and we made our ascent up onto the ridge of the South Downs. It was a dark, horsefly-occupied stretch which was so steep it shut any conversation down. Yew woods covered the northern slopes, such is their want on chalk. They give off an eerie vibe, light rarely breaks their cover. They are rare as woodlands.

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Up on Heyshott Down we were met by some badger-faced sheep, evidently they get fed by passersby or people who, like us, get to this point and hit the deck. Heyshott Down is rich in chalk grassland flowers but also in burial mounds. I heard someone say once that the South Downs ridge, all 100 miles of it, was the equivalent of a really long, ancient graveyard.

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The Lipchis Way then slips down through the non-stop beech plantation of Charlton Forest. Rain came in and the light was so low I took few pictures. We found this vast clearing where new conifers had been planted. You may be able to spot the hunting seats. This is the kind of heavily industrialised landscape that is found across Europe. It could be the Czech Republic, France or Scotland. It is a controlled landscape. Hunting and shooting are common past times in this part of West Sussex.

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Leaving Charlton Forest behind after a good 20 minutes, you arrive at Levin Down, a Sussex Wildlife Trust nature reserve. On the edge of the reserve sits this twisted ash tree, recoiling from the woods and reaching out into the open landscape. This is another eerily open landscape, set against the wonderful diversity of Levin Down. The name derives from ‘Leave Alone’ because it was too steep to plough, thank God.

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The light was so dull here that my camera’s excellent low-light skills came into action. Levin Down is chalk grassland with some stunning veteran juniper trees. Juniper would once have been much more common in areas of chalk downland. I have only ever seen it at Box Hill in the wild in the UK. In the White Carpathians of the Czech Republic, a landscape similar to the South Downs, they replant them to try and resurrect their populations.

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You may know juniper from their berries because it is used to produce gin. The junipers on Levin Down are works of art. Like grim reapers their limbs look to be covered by overhanging sleeves, reaching out across the ground, rearing up like the pointed tips of hats. It feels like they’re pointing at you as they reach out to you from their place in the meadows.

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Leaving Levin Down behind, we dropped down through chalk heath (a super rare habitat), one of the most pungent meadows I’ve ever smelt due to the wild marjoram or oregano. The way drops into the old part of Singleton, a village known for the Weald and Downland Museum. Thatched cottages with chalk flints sit with windows showing a cosy inner glow. A lovely place to end the walk.

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