April flowers at Nymans ๐ŸŒน

My partner and I made a couple of visits to Nyman’s in West Sussex recently to drown our sorrows after the death of our lovely rescue cat. We drowned those sorrows in flowers. Nymans is one of the jewels in the Sussex Weald, with amazing views across woodlands towards the South Downs.

I usually photograph less formal landscapes than National Trust gardens, but perhaps I am too particular sometimes. The stark colours against the grey backdrop of the day (literally) make for really pleasing images. All the pics here are ‘straight out the camera’ and I haven’t edited them. Olympus cameras produce beautiful jpeg files which my experience with Nikon equipment has never matched.

Thanks for reading.

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The Weald: misty views from Leith Hill

Leith Hill, Surrey, January 2022

When you talk about the highest point in south-east England, I wonder what people living far away must think. We’re not talking great peaks here, but instead a stone tower on a modest 313m-high hill. And this tower of course sells tea.

I’m referring here to Leith Hill, a hilltop managed by the National Trust. Leith Hill has stood out to me over the past two years, most tantalisingly during lockdowns when I could see it from the furthest I could legally walk from my house in the most extreme lockdown times.

The tower is built from sandstone that was probably quarried nearby. This stone, if it is said material, is often a sign locally of wealth and status, when local materials indicated as much. This part of the world is geologically rich, with the landscape having so many stories to tell about the Earth and deep time.

“This tower together with 5 acres of land was presented to The National Trust for places of historic interest or natural beauty by W.T(?) MacAndrew Esq. of Reigate on 5th October 1923 to be held for the public”

Leith Hill sits on the Greensand, distinct from the Weald Clay to the south and the chalk of the North Downs seen here in the distance looking north towards London.

Leith Hill seen from the Sussex Weald (looking north) in May 2020 when England was under strict lockdown

Throughout the lockdowns I would see this distant hill from where I lived in Sussex. Though I hadn’t seen them for several months, I knew that my family were locked down on the other side in London. It was a strange comfort. My dad would sometimes send a photo of the North Downs that he could see far in the distance on clear days. Even when kept apart the landscape seemed to connect us.

When visiting Leith Hill and looking to the south, there were misty views of the Surrey and Sussex Weald. Millions of years ago this would not have been visible, with everything instead being covered by a dome of chalk that connected as far as NW France. This is the land bridge that megafauna like wolves, bears and mammoths would have used to enter what we now call Britain. Don’t tell the Priti Patel.

The chalk was eroded over millions of years and exposed the Weald Clay, which soon was covered by wildwood. That woodland lingers today in more formal oak, hornbeam and hazel woods that are now managed as coppices or nature reserves. Beyond the picnicking couple (above) you can see Leith Hill Place, originally built in 1600.

There is a unique pine tree up on the hill, a survivor from some of the first trees to arrive in this landscape after the last glacial period some 14,000 years ago. Though there was probably a more Anglicised pine species, the Scots pine is the only UK variety remaining. It thrives in this heathy landscape of the Greensand Hills.

Thanks for reading.

The Weald

Macro Monday: ship burials and robberflies at Sutton Hoo

Macro Monday 14th September 2020

The insect world is winding down, it’s true, but September can be a great month to see invertebrates. This is especially true for spiders in gardens (and in your house!). At the beginning of the month I visited Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This blog focuses on two locations, firstly the National Trust’s Sutton Hoo, near Ipswich.

Sutton Hoo is famous for its Anglo-Saxon ship burials which, on the eve of the Second World War in 1939, threw up one of the most incredible archaological finds in British history. An entire ship was found to have been buried, with much of the discovery based on the chemical shadow of what was once there. An amazing haul of items was discovered with the boat, thought to be that of King Rรฆdwald of East Anglia, a pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon king who died in approximately 625 AD.

The boat he was buried in was probably hauled up here from the river Deben, where the boats are moored, by Anglo-Saxon warriors and buried under a mound of earth.

The National Trust have an exhibition centre which displays mainly replicas of some of the 3000 things found in the mounds. Museum collections are great for macro because they’re well lit and isolated by the darker backgrounds. This was a replica of one of the items found.

This gold pendant dates from the 4th-5th century AD, so 1600-1700 years ago.

Outside, I didn’t have macro in mind. I was carrying my micro four thirds camera and lenses which are so light they can be carried anywhere. Walking around the estate I noticed a feather on the ground, and that an insect was resting on it. I couldn’t believe it when I looked closer.

It was a robberfly, with prey in its spear-like mouth parts. Note here how I cropped to include the beautiful fronds of the feather.

The robberfly wasn’t bothered about me. When I got really close, I could see it had an ichenumon wasp as prey! Heathlands are exceptional landscapes for insect diversity, so there was always a thought in the back of my mind that something like this could crop up. This blog could not be posted without some reference to wasps.

This is an image which I hope I haven’t laboured, but it’s just an incredible thing to find resting on such a beautiful macro subject in its own right – a feather. You do see this kind of image again and again on Instagram, where I’m sure people are feeding prey to robberflies in order to get a photo in a studio. That’s not my style.

Walking around the burial mounds of Sutton Hoo, we found lots of red and orange caterpillars on the move. I’m not sure of the species! ID welcome in the comments please.

We then moved on to the Suffolk coast, which is just down the road from the Sutton Hoo estate (great job by the way, National Trust). In the long grass of one of the dunes this very similar black and orange moth was holding tight to a blade of grass.

He’s a pretty rad looking dude up close.

Coastal landscapes are something of a foreign language to me in ecological terms. A visit to the coast is far more an emotional or spiritual experience (I don’t swim), a reminder of childhood, or our vulnerability when faced with the vastness of the sea. A line was drawn in the sand.

I managed my first marine macro photo! This tiny crab was pointed out to me by my companian who was spending her time seeking out stones and other small things on the shoreline. Taking photos of tiny animals under moving water is a challenge I probably won’t have to take up again any time soon.

Thanks for reading.

Photos taken with Olympus OM-D EM10 MIII with 60mm f2.8 macro lens and 45mm f1.8 lens

More macro

#FungiFriday: weeping conk at Ickworth Park

Fungi Friday 4th September 2020

This week’s post is coming to you live from my phone. I’m on holiday, sans PC et laptop, blissfully. In fact, a friend has just sent me a pic of a fungus on WhatsApp, so it’s like a digital mycelium bristling onto life between my palms. Sounds so weird.

Suffolk is the stage for this week’s #FungiFriday, a county of underperforming football teams and myriad beautiful cottages. Not least the one where Harry Potter was born.

If Suffolk is the macrocosm, the National Trust’s Ickworth Park is the microcosm, where the fungi made their appearances to me in this week of weeks.

I only became a member of the Trust a couple of years ago but I now regularly visit their properties and estates because there are just so many in Sussex, compared to south London. I have come to know some of their employees and understand the work they do. I think there are few finer organisations in their sector.

In more recent developments their attempts to interrogate the role of slavery in their cultural archive makes me proud to be a member, alongside their commitment to welcoming everyone to their sites and properties. They are also exceptional when it comes to the conservation of and investment in ancient woodland landscapes, places I, like many across the world, have a deep personal affection for. In my view, The National Trust shows us that being rural and ‘traditional’ is no excuse for failing to champion diversity and inclusion, or to shine a light on the darker sides of British culture. If you feel like that ‘cancels your history’ then you won’t like my blog! ๐Ÿ˜ฌ

Within minutes of entering Ickworth Park proper, I noticed an unusual growth from the side of a large oak tree. Seconds later it dawned on me – it was a fungus.

Upon closer inspection I found that this was a special fungus, one that comes to life at this time of year. It’s weeping conk, a bracket fungus that exudes the water it draws out from the tree/soil.

My companion approached this fungus with disgust but within 30 seconds was in complete awe of its caramel-coloured droplets. It goes to show how conditioned we are to find so much in nature disgusting, when really it is cause for fascination.

The more you look, the more it looks like dessert.

I even managed to get a bit of bokeh (blurred circles of light in the top right) in to garnish this special fungus.

Ickworth was an exceptional site for ancient and veteran oak trees. In my experience, this equals fungi. This is because soils are often more ancient, undisturbed and stable, where fungi thrive along with all the other organisms they interlink with. The above was one of the larger old oaks that we passed by along the main paths.

I said I thought the National Trust were excellent in managing ancient woodland landscapes and I flippin’ meant every word. One thing they understand so well is the need to plant to replace trees being lost now and in the next century.

Next week I’ll share some more finds from Suffolk, including an epic visit to Bradfield Woods. Things are popping up out there and autumn is showing its fruity signs.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms