Oak timbers: Arnside Cottage, Hampshire

I was travelling into East Hampshire for work in August and realised it would probably be one of my last chances to photograph a cottage I had passed several times.

Arnside Cottage is, as you can see, situated at the road side, in the village of Clanfield in East Hampshire. Technically it has been adapted on several occasions over the centuries, as most timber framed buildings have.

From what I know, the square timbers so closely boxed together show it is likely not one of the oldest of its kind out there. That said, Historic England have dated its origins to the 1500s. You can see that the gaps in between aren’t wattle and daub, but look like flint built in, much like the garden wall. The flints will have come from mines in the nearby South Downs.

The mixed locations of windows is quite entertaining, and the thatch is always nice to see. I’m glad I made one final stop-off to take its picture.

Thanks for reading.

Oak timbers | South Downs

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Salmon egg slime mould ๐ŸŸ

This is not a fungi post. If itโ€™s anything, itโ€™s probably closer to animals. It also may exhibit signs of memory despite not having a brain. Sounds like you’re in the right place.

Winter oyster mushrooms ๐Ÿ„

A walk around a wet woodland reserve where the river ran free of its banks, merging among poplars like something from prehistory (i.e. no Internet).

Oak timbers: Old Stack Cottage, Amberley

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In early December I was passing through the village of Amberley in West Sussex. It’s a very quaint village at the foot of the South Downs in West Sussex. This rather well updated cottage is located at the roadside, at the end of the village’s main throughway. It was surrounded by rather sinister, leaden skies, as rain threatened to pass through. Thankfully it didn’t.

It’s very difficult to get photos of these buildings without cars nearby, but I feel that it gives a sense of the cottage’s place in time. The model and type of vehicle will likely be very different in 50 years time, when the cottage should still be there, such is the level of investment and care that goes into these buildings in this area.

On the left hand side you can see part of an old barn, with its sloping thatched roof and its clapboard-style entranceway, where wagons would once have been drawn in to unload.

Historic England have dated the building to the 1600s.

Thanks for reading.

Oak timbers | South Downs

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Night photography: Jupiter snuggles up to the Moon ๐Ÿช

An article popped up recently highlighting the chance to see several planets in the sky at once. On the evening of the 29th December 2022, I took out my camera and tripod to see what was happening out there in the garden.

Earpick fungus in Hampshire ๐Ÿ‘‚

Here’s an account of the final fungi walk of my calendar for 2022. It was held on Saturday 19th November on the birch and pine heaths of Bramshott Common, where Hampshire and Surrey cross paths. West Sussex isn’t far away either. It’s an area that is arguably Wealden in character, but inside the South Downs National Park.

I wasn’t able to take any photos during the walk, other than the header image (not visible in email). For a better account of the fungal communities at Bramshott Common, please see my blog from a couple of months ago.

Back in October this Ministry of Defence site contained basketfuls of mushrooms. On 19th November however, they had all gone on holiday. Where fly agarics had previously flung themselves onto paths, only one could be found across the entire walk, tucked away behind a heather shrub. Interestingly, I had been speaking to the person who did find it, moments earlier. She had grown up in Sweden and spoke about how as a child she was taught about mushrooms in school. This heathy, birchy, piney landscape must have been similar to landscapes she knew from Sweden.

The brown birch bolete parties of the previous visit had dwindled to the last man standing, spotted somehow among the identical shades of fallen birch leaves on the ground. As my scouse family says, well in that lad.

Cassius V. Stevani, IQ-USP, Brazil, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My personal highlight of the walk was when an attendee found a small bonnet-like mushroom among the leaves. I picked up the pine cone it was growing from. The spindly bonnet slumped, but it seemed to have bioluminescence. The one we saw is not the same species as the one in the image above (Mycena luxaeterna) which is found in rainforest in Brazil, but it had a glow and was a bonnet so that’s not too far off.

Does anyone out there know this magical bonnet mushroom in a European context?

Anyway, holding the pine cone up to show off the glow-in-the-dark mushlette – let’s call it that – I mentioned earpick fungus to the group, a species I had only seen once before that is found on pine cones. Looking at the cone again I noticed a small antenna poking up from the cone’s segments. It was earpick fungus! I wish I could have taken a photo with my macro kit but it wasn’t possible. I was surprised by how small and difficult to see the fungus was, only really spotted because it was so close to my face.

As I’ve said previously this autumn: visualise the mushrooms you want to see in the world. Sometimes it works out well.

Big thanks to Olivia and Dan from the South Downs National Park’s Heathlands Reunited project for putting on the walk, and to all the lovely people who came along and made it worthwhile!

Thanks for reading.

Fungi | South Downs

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Wishing you a very jelly Christmas ๐Ÿง 

On a recent visit to Streatham Common in SE London, I was taken aback by the number of December mushrooms. In SE England we’ve switched from -5 one day, to 12C a few days later. The seasons seem to be collapsing around us, and then reviving themselves. It feels like the only reliability we mayโ€ฆ

Looking for birds in the frost and fog ๐Ÿฆ

As seen on Sunday 11th December, my final guided walk of 2022 for London Wildlife Trust. London woke to freezing fog with hoar frost in places, as temperatures stayed well below zero. These are difficult days to get out of bed, but the rewards of a foggy, frosty oak woodland are too good to miss.โ€ฆ

Oak timbers: Arnside Cottage, Hampshire

I was travelling into East Hampshire for work in August and realised it would probably be one of my last chances to photograph a cottage I had passed several times. Arnside Cottage is, as you can see, situated at the road side, in the village of Clanfield in East Hampshire. Technically it has been adaptedโ€ฆ

The South Downs: old ash tree

This week’s single photograph is an old ash tree in Amberley, West Sussex, taken on 2nd December 2022. This tree may once have been part of a laid hedgerow, hence its wider base. Ash trees are disappearing from the British landscape thanks to the invasive fungus known as ash dieback. I do try and record the older ash trees when I see them. This tree’s left-hand branch is pointing to one of the highest hills locally, Amberley Mount, up on the South Downs. The bracket fungus seen higher up the tree is probably shaggy bracket.

Thanks for reading.

Further reading: The South Downs

The Sussex Weald: Autumn sunset at Cowdray Park

A new blog post series of single images, maybe, to counteract the decline of Twitter and the TikTok-isation of Instagram?

This image was taken at Cowdray Park near Midhurst on Monday 14th November. It was a stunning autumn evening, with trees in shades of gold, yellow and orange all the way to the sumptuous Downs.

Chanctonbury to Cissbury in the South Downs

On a warm and clear day in October I walked between two of Sussex’s most famous and well-loved hillforts: Chanctonbury Ring and Cissbury Ring. This is a walk that you can access by public transport, with buses to Washington and then from Findon off the A24.

I didn’t know much about Iron Age hillforts until I worked in the South Downs National Park and had the chance to learn from people working at the National Trust and other heritage experts. Still, my knowledge is not strong on this subject.

It is amazing to think that these hilltops might once have held the equivalent of small villages, using the hilltops to monitor the movement of people across land in the north, and at sea in the south.

The walk winds its way up through woodland to Washington chalk pits, an old chalk quarry that’s now habitat for butterflies and orchids. Here you get good views north to the Greensand Hills where Leith Hill, the highest point in SE England can be spotted (out of shot on the right hand side in the north).

It wouldn’t be a walk for me without the sighting of something fungal. The cow pats in a field approaching Cissbury Ring contained some inkcaps which may be the uncommon snowy inkcap. In the distance the ridge of the Downs bowls away west towards Amberley and the Arun Valley.

Immediately upon ascending the Downs, you can get good views south to Cissbury Ring, a hillfort much, much bigger than Chanctonbury Ring. In the distance are views of the south coast and, in this image, the Rampion windfarm. It’s named after ‘the pride of Sussex’, round-headed rampion, a flower more common in the South Downs.

You approach Chanctonbury Ring on the South Downs Way. I like this subtle stretch of the trail, with the beech trees that cover the ring giving a parkland feel.

In the distance beyond Chanctonbury Ring are the aerial towers of Truleigh Hill, home to the Youth Hostel and secret bunkers (apparently).

I first heard of Chanctonbury Ring when reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. There are stories of the ring being ‘haunted’, not just by nature writers. It’s a welcome place to sit and rest, taking in the views under the fair shade of the beech trees. You can understand why this smaller hillfort would be such a good location to observe the comings and goings in the surrounding landscape.

Continuing east on the South Downs Way, views of Devil’s Dyke begin to open out. During the walk the site was visible through the glinting of the sun hitting car windows in the National Trust car park!

Devil’s Dyke (what is one of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring parts of the Downs) can be seen in the mid-left/centre of the image where the dark lump of woodland sits atop the ridge. Truleigh Hill is again visible with the masts.

Turning back to look over your shoulder gives a nice view of Chanctonbury Ring. I think the lump of hills in the right hand side of the image is Black Down, the highest point in the South Downs National Park, near Haslemere in Surrey.

Leaving the site of Chanctonbury Ring gives the impression of walking straight into the sea.

There’s a southern turning to take towards Cissbury Ring and off the South Downs Way. The track leads alongside arable fields and shooting cover. In this view the distant shape of the Isle of Wight is visible in the top right.

The resplendent South Downs set against a ribbon of blue sea and cloud-scattered sky.

Approaching views of Cissbury Ring.

Cissbury Ring is owned by the National Trust, thank god.

On Cissbury Ring there are better views of Brighton and the Seven Sisters cliffs reaching round to Eastbourne. This was a good way to observe the landing of invading armies but probably also to monitor trade.

Out at sea you can get closer views of the white turbines of the windfarm. The development required cables to be dug into the landscape, with a long strip having to be cut through the Downs to reach the electricity terminal. One person I know who lives in Hove said they were comforted by the red flashing lights on the horizon at night.

This sycamore tree got quite a lot of Instagram interest during lockdown, when a local person posted stunning phone pics of the sunsets up here. This is looking towards the Findon Valley.

Looking back where we’d travelled from, Chantoncbury Ring’s mini-hillfort can be seen as a beech clump on the hill, but much smaller now.

To the west, if you have binoculars, you can see the City of Portsmouth outlined on the horizon.

A last look across the Findon Valley, west into the Downs. The ramparts of the hillfort are in the image’s foreground.

Thanks for reading.

Further reading: The South Downs

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December leaves ๐Ÿ‚

One of my favourite things to photograph in winter is a frost-encrusted leaf. Where the frost remains long enough it allows for us non-early risers to enjoy some at lunchtime (to look at, rather than eat). On the morning of Thursday 8th December I could hear sycamore leaves falling in the garden. There was aโ€ฆ

Muggeridge Field path ๐Ÿ‚

There’s a field I pass by on walks near where I live. Recently I was walking along the path next to the field and took the photo above, the oaks turning to yellow across the landscape. The shadow of trees to the right, combined with the sunbeam, make it look like half of the Greenโ€ฆ

Oak timbers: Old Stack Cottage, Amberley

In early December I was passing through the village of Amberley in West Sussex. It’s a very quaint village at the foot of the South Downs in West Sussex.

The Arun valley: gateway to the unknowable Downs

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time in the Arun valley, my local access point to the South Downs. At last some rain came and we watched it shift across the Downs, all the way over to the Greensand Hills in Surrey.

I remember looking at this view in April 2021 after a year of lockdowns and computer screens. I honestly did not believe it was real. Perhaps it was the veil of mist, or perhaps I had developed some mental or neurological disorder from so much time stuck at home.

The Arun valley around Amberley is a crossing point (or perhaps washing point) of the Weald and Downs – where the river that rises in the High Weald’s most westerly point cuts a course through the chalk hills. It has wetlands of international significance in Amberley Wildbrooks and nearby Pulborough Brooks.

Arun at North Stoke, page 71 Book about the Highways and Byways of Co. Sussex, England

Like the nearby Adur, probably better known to people because it passes through the very fashionable Knepp Estate, it used to be a much wilder and freer river.

Along the Arun is the village of Bury, likely to originally have been a defensive point preventing easy Viking access from the coast, up the Arun and towards London, a key trading point (obviously). I recently read a book about Anglo-Saxon England that included some information about King Alfred’s development of ‘boroughs’. These were defensive outposts alongside rivers designed to protect from Viking invasion, which happened so regularly and to great effect in Alfred’s time.

The churchspire of Bury village can be seen among the trees on the banks of the Arun (2020)

The boroughs were an effective means of defence, for a time at least. I can think of so many placenames that include a borough of somekind: Pulborough, Bury (Lancashire, too), Borough (on the banks of the Thames) and Middlesbrough being the first that come to mind.

The Arun valley at Amberley is a place I first visited through working in the South Downs National Park. My relationship to it is about to change as my time with the National Park comes to an end, but that mixture of professional connection and personal fondness has always been an uneasy one.

It’s the place you can get a train to, which is rare in the South Downs, and enjoy some of the most accessible downland walking. There are views to the North Downs and then south to the coast. The Amberley Downs have glow worms, junipers, barn owls, ravens and rare butterflies like the duke of bergundy. It’s also home to vast monocultures of ‘improved’ grassland that were once rich in communities of now rare plants.

A lone hawthorn on the Downs with the Arun snaking away in the background (2019).
Much of its floodplain has become grazing land

The South Downs was first floated as a National Park contender in 1929 but the devastation to its chalk grasslands from the need to plough it up for crops in the Second World War left it a poor relation to the seemingly untouchable Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and Peak District. It only got full ratification as one of the final acts of the outgoing Labour Government in 2010. The Conservatives who followed have begun to cut National Park budgets through flat cash settlements, despite the effect this might have on such a strongly conservative social make-up (‘the shires’ or ‘blue wall’).

The pre-war Downs were sold as one reason to fight for Britain’s sovereignty from Nazi Invasion in the Second World War. How ironic that they ended up being denuded by the very same need to survive. Once the Downs would have been roamed by shepherds grazing large expanses of chalk downland. Today the South Downs feels in some places like an outdoor factory of intensive agriculture, with miles and miles of fences. It is not a wild place in the way that people imagine American National Parks, which in themselves were not necessarily ‘wildernesses’ either due to prior Native American presence. But it is still an incredible place to witness England’s wildlife and geology,

Your Britain – fight for it now (Imperial War Museum/Frank Newbould 1942) – this is not geographically accurate, with the landscape being a splicing together of different parts of the Downs for artistic effect

In Rebirding, a sort of bird conservation polemic, Benedict Macdonald questions the designation of the South Downs as a National Park because of its rolling hills and chalk grasslands, having read this on the website. Ironically the South Downs is one of the most wooded in its tracts of the ancient Low Weald, and home to internationally significant wetlands like those along the Arun at Pulborough. Chalk grassland is also one of the rarest habitats in Europe. It is an astonishing range of habitats, with the dry lowland heath now very rare after the Victorian and 20th-century devastation of the ‘wastes’.

The whole 100 miles of the South Downs, from Eastbourne in East Sussex, to Winchester in Hampshire, has been in my thoughts most days for the past 4 years. The Arun valley now becomes for me that gateway that exists for so many people who don’t have to consider a National Park in its entirety, a psychological doorway into somewhere freer, better and more ‘wild’.

Looking east along the Downs from Chantry Hill, June 2020

In reality it is far more complicated than that.

Thanks for reading.

The South Downs

The fungus capable of mind-control ๐Ÿ„

In June I was down on the Sussex coast at the mouth of the river Cuckmere. During a bioblitz event I was supporting I discovered something I never expected to see. At the foot of either the first or seventh of the Seven Sisters cliffs, the fenceline and surrounding grasslands were alive with invertebrates. One large thistle plant was covered in all kinds of insects. I felt especially drawn to a beautiful orange and black ichneumon wasp clambering over the spiny leaves. But there was something else that caught my eye.

The fly as found

I noticed a dead fly in a quite unnatural position, a bit like an upside down koala. It was clamped onto one of the spines in a way that reminded me of the famous victims of the parasitic ‘zombie fungus’ cordyceps. Luckily I had my macro lens with me and could get a close-up of the fly.

The fly after I had bent the spine tip of the plant over

The body looked an unusual shade for this species and, looking closer, you could see it was kind of mouldy. I showed everyone I could, taking away the images and several questions I needed to answer for myself!

That afternoon I put the photos on Twitter and had a quick reply from Lukas Large, a known fungi expert in the UK. He said it was a species of entomophthora, a group of fungi that kill flies, just as this one had done. It does much more than that beforehand, however.

Somehow, the fungus enters a final stage of mummification where it ‘gains control’ of the fly’s brain and therefore control over its functions. The fungus is then able to make the fly move to a high position in order to disperse its spores from the dead fly. That is mind blowing in more ways than one.

Thanks for reading.

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Earpick fungus in Hampshire ๐Ÿ‘‚

Here’s an account of the final fungi walk of my calendar for 2022. It was held on Saturday 19th November on the birch and pine heaths where Hampshire and Surrey cross paths. West Sussex isn’t far away either.

Grey heron at woodland edge

A grey heron (Ardea cinerea) at the edge of a woodland at Warnham Nature Reserve in West Sussex, Sunday 4th December 2022. The heron was looking back and forth across the reeds and wetlands. The temperatures have dropped to more typical winter levels, meaning birds and mammals that don’t hibernate will be under added pressureโ€ฆ

Books: On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester ๐Ÿ“š

Another short book review to point you in the direction of a great read. On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester is a personal account of a life lived within a frame of chalk – Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire. It’s a story of major development threats, many of which prove unstoppable. We’re talking here about theโ€ฆ

The lackey in the Cuckmere valley ๐Ÿ›

I was out and about in the Cuckmere Valley in May and had the chance to learn a little bit about some of the species found there. Here’s a small selection of images, a blend of phone pics and some from my camera.

Once again I was treated to the sight of early spider orchids, a plant I blogged about only recently. This was a big surprise, having spent a lot of time looking for them elsewhere. This is a nationally rare plant and I won’t be giving away its location. I did get the chance to learn that the flower mimics the scent of the buffish mining bee. The male bee is lured in and attempts to mate with the flower, thereby pollinating it. In the photo above you can see the pollen grains that have been helpfully, accidentally, applied by the visiting bee.

The mining bees live in the nearest exposed areas of chalk where they drill their burrows. It’s a short commute to their deceptive orchid neighbours.

The blackthorn hedges were holding populations of moth caterpillars that cover the branches in webs of silk. This is the kind of thing that pops up in local newspapers as some kind of wild clickbait. The moth is known as the lackey in English. What the significance of that name (or any of the number of weird moth names) is unclear to me.

We found this proto-Mesolithic (Stone Age) scene, with a discarded King Alfred’s cakes fungus. The fungus had probably been used to maintain the fire of one or more disposable barbecues. The stones were littered across the scorched earth like the throwaways of some prehistoric stone mason.

On the banks of the Cuckmere’s static meanders are ranks of hoary cress. At first I thought they looked like a type of sedum but in fact they’re in the cabbage family. This is an introduced species.

A view back up the Cuckmere meanders, at very low levels for the time of year. Two little egrets can be seen here.

Thanks for reading.

More macro (my tags/categories seem to be broken at the moment – will try and fix them!)

The South Downs

Early spider orchids ๐Ÿ•ท๏ธ

Chalk grassland is an incredible habitat. It’s extremely rich in plants and animals, with high cultural value from the historical assosciations with human activity over at least 8000 years. In the UK it defines the downlands of Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and Wessex. Sounds like an episode of The Last Kingdom. Thankfully I was spared the sword (this time).

In early May I was fortunate enough to visit a chalk grassland site near Brighton with two people who knew the landscape extremely well. I had been invited to visit this area to help find early spider orchids 3 years ago but the pandemic got in the way of travelling there.

A landscape raked by stone, bone and iron

I visited on a sunny day in what was a very dry spring indeed (I hate how dry winter 2021/spring 2022 have been). We had heard of hundreds of orchids in recent weeks at the site but only found 3. It was baffling. Perhaps we were just too late and the dry conditions had brought an end to their season earlier than expected.

These orchids get their names from the fact their flower looks like a spider. You may be familiar with the names of bee, fly, man, lady, lizard and monkey orchids also.

They are truly beautiful.

During the survey a woman came over to talk about orchids. Her knowledge was incredible, with known locations across Kent and Sussex. She travelled by train from her home in north London.

She showed us a gentian, a type she said was only found at this location in the UK.

Perhaps the most abundant plant was milkwort, appearing in white, pink and blue.

This is some kind of daisy (probably hawkbit) with petals that look like hands shielding something.

There were a fair number of small beetles in the grasslands, including this click beetle (I think).

A nice surprise was finding a small blue, one of the rarest butterflies in the UK. This is a very small blue, though most of them in Britain are small anyway. They’re pretty much tied to chalk grasslands from what I know.

Thanks to Phillippa, Jan, James and Monica.

And thanks for reading.

More macro

The South Downs