The Sussex Weald: autumn crashes into view

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The Rother, Midhurst, November 2019

Autumn is entering its deepest phase but summer’s life still has a breath. Along the Rother path a neon spider pushes across the mud into the wet grass. The young oaks stand like upright bonfires burning from green to gold. College students wile away their lunchbreaks on the urban netherlands of the Rother. One young woman sits on the exposed roots of a tree watching the sluice, while another rests her head on the concrete structure supporting a drainage pipe. Her male friend stands by, nervous, unsure of how to respond.

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Passing through the woods the trunk of an ancient hornbeam has been revealed again from the screen of saplings and bramble. The latter’s leaves bright yellow with flecks of red like nicks of flesh. A small flock of tits, wrens and robins lift up at the arable edges, ticking into the green bowers of a mature oak. They cross the felled and repurposed trunk of an old conifer with electrical wires, warning: RISK OF DEATH KEEP OFF.

At the gate into Woolbeding autumn crashes into view. Reds, yellows, and browns glow in a break of the sun from clouds. The South Downs loom in silhouette beyond austere pine plantations on Midhurst Common, framing the autumn trees that edge the fields I’m entering. In the meadows dandelions and knapweeds flower in isolation. The air has warmed in recent days and these flowers have taken their chance.

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The Sussex Weald: the safety of the Rother

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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.

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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.

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The South Downs: the otherworldly nature of Kingley Vale

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Kingley Vale, South Downs, West Sussex, October 2019

We enter the ashy woods of Kingley Vale, one of the most spellbinding place in the South Downs. Mushrooms are everywhere at the feet of yew, ash and oak trees as the season enters its peak.

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The light is weak so we kneel down next to the mushrooms to look more closely. We find blushers, ceps, deceivers and many brown species that are very difficult to identify.

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Archetypal mushrooms grow with black gills and caps that glow purple. Their collars hang loose like pastry over the edges of a tin.

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Kingley Vale is famed for its ancient yew trees, particularly one area that is heavily visited, the roots of the trees beginning to show above ground from the impacts of footfall eroding the ground around them. They feel like one of the most still and unmoving of tree species, owing to their hardness and strength. Their living tissue is some of the strongest in the plant kingdom and their heartwood is not at all needed for them to remain upright. Their roots can go on producing new trees even when those above ground have died, like the Borrowdale yews in the Lake District.

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Out from under the yews chalk grassland spreads to the foot of the ridge where yew and ash woods cover the hills. Many of the ash trees are succumbing to ash dieback disease, in a landscape where they are content. It is a tragedy but then it is our own fault for unchecked trade of wood products, combined with the eventual spread of fungal spores.

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In the chalk grasslands we find a cowpat with mushrooms popping from the poo. One of them is snowy inkcap, a species I have never seen before, with its powdery cap and stem. It looks like something you might find in a snow globe.

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Climbing up onto the ridge the sun slips away in the west, casting a final glow across the chalky bowl of Kingley Vale.

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The grunting of a male deer echoes in the yew woods broken by the white stags of bare bone ash branches. Knowing some of these trees may be dead lends them a ghoulishness. Their brushheads are fading into history. Many will not be here in years to come.

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The sun glimmers in Chichester Harbour and the sea. A plume of smoke spirals into the evening sky.

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In the dense and dark yew woods on the slope we hear the strange, tropical bubbling of a tawny owl. Here yews reach out into the light at the edges like multi-limbed bodies sucked into a vortex. The yews have clarified the soil, no other plant can compete. Combined with the tawny’s song, the experience is otherwordly.

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At dusk rooks flock in a sea of black over a field-edge wood. Their cawing grows louder and closer as they envelop the sky above our heads, drawing in jackdaws, drifting back beyond the tops of the trees. On the darkening hilltops deer graze like slow-footed, four-legged people. We are left with so many questions.

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The Sussex Weald: a mushroom cloud rests over West Sussex

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Ebernoe Common, Sussex Weald, October 2019

Last week I spent a drizzly and dark afternoon at Ebernoe Common, a National Nature Reserve managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust. It was raining not only water but mushrooms. The first signs of the good times came in the shape of a magpie inkcap. This is something I’ve only seen three times, twice at Ebernoe and once on the North Downs.

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The word magpie relates to the English phrased ‘pied’ which means black and white. This species goes into the delicious state of deliquesce (an inky kind of melting), just like its relative the shaggy inkcap. Unlike the shaggy inkcap, though, it’s toxic so don’t eat it. The thing I like about this image is the glow of green in the background gradually turning to yellow as autumn progresses. Beech usually provides this kind of backdrop.

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Porcelain fungus is a reliable species. It fruits in the same place, often en masse, each year. It is a beautiful species but the beauty, like so many things, lies underneath.

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The gloopy glimmer of the cap is photogenic but the gills of porcelain fungus are stunning.

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I use a small LED light to illuminate mushrooms in this way. I can’t tell you how much more character this can offer to photos. Actually I can: a lot more.

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Here you can see my roving light (yes, I meant this!) mixing it with some delicious bokeh in the background. Leaves and branches create lovely bokeh because of the break of light in the gaps.

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Here is one of ‘the finished images’. I like that the light circles can imitate the caps of mushrooms in photos and offer a deeper layer of resonance and reflection. Who knew.

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In photography, macro is where the fun happens. There are so many amazing things happening at our feet that our eyes are incapable of seeing without the help of magnification. If you want to have a go at macro, don’t hesitate. Just do it. I call this one ‘Climb every mountain’. The piece of deadwood does have the appearance of a peak in this light. The mushroom is like a protagonist, playing on a theme of mushrooms as individuals or sentient beings throughout human history:

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This seems to be particularly prevalent in German culture and Christmas or New Year celebrations. Christmas has evolved from Pagan traditions (Paganism was once considered any religion which was non-Christian) and the place nature has in the human imagination is pretty clear here.

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Back to life, back to reality. Honey fungus is enjoying its first boom phase and seems to be having a good year.

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There is a dead veteran beech tree at Ebernoe Common which is basically where all the mushrooms live. This wide angle image shows just how many larger species were making a home within the tree. Here you can see giant polypore (bottom left), honey fungus in the middle and Ganoderma brackets everywhere. This is a stunning tree and of the highest ecological importance because of all the species, not just fungi, it supports. All of these species are contributing to the tree’s decay and recycling into organic matter (soil).

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Not far away was a patch of hen-of-the-woods, an aggressive root-rotter (harsh). It’s said to smell like mice (more harsh).

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You can imagine how I thought someone was playing a trick when I passed this. A swing made from a beech log that was covered in porcelain fungus. It was embarrassingly hard to photograph well. Thankfully only the mushrooms were looking and they haven’t evolved to use Twitter yet.

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On my way out I spotted this slurp of fungus low on a log by the path.

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Looking closely with the macro lens it has the appearance of something you might find in a coral reef. Then that’s the beauty of woodland, it has a depth to it that you have to dive in to experience for yourself.

Thanks for reading.

 

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The Sussex Weald: Happy 800th autumn to you, old oak

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Cowdray Park, Sussex Weald, September 2019

It’s a grey and dark September evening. Robins sing solitary from trees in their autumnal fashion. Cars wash nearby on the A272, to and from the village of Easebourne. The bracken rests in stages of green, yellow and brown. In Cowdray Park a sign warns of the bull in the field, but there are no cattle. The only beasts are the trees sat across the undulating hillside of parkland. Here lives the 1000 year old Queen Elizabeth oak and the Cowdray Colossus, the biggest sweet chestnut in England.

I pass creeping thistle still in flower and others with their leaves thinning to a translucent yellowy green. Walking under one of the ancient oaks, it looks like a rabbit’s head, its heartwood torn out and lying on the ground. An alcove has become of its bark, like a doorway to another place. It’s a fair metaphor, the word oak derives from an old name for door.

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The second oldest oak sits on the hill, its heartwood also lost, mainly trampled out by cattle and people. But now it has a fence around it. In front of the fence stands a roe deer. It watches me in complete stillness. I approach one slow step at a time, taking a photo each time I get closer. Soon it turns on its heels and disappears off behind the tree, springing into the air. I see it rising up and down beyond the fence like a merry-go-round.

I approach the oak and see it is producing acorns. How many millions of acorns has this sessile oak tree produced in its 800 or so years of life. How many autumns has it lived through? Perhaps as many as 800. Our lives seem so small and precious, fragile in comparison to this natural treasure.

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Video: The Magnificent South Downs Way

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In August my oldest friend Adam George came home for the summer from where he lives in China. Adam makes videos about travel in China as well as his job as an English teacher out there. Having known him since we were about 4, I think his accent is now a lot less south London after 5 years in China! My friend Jamie however, still a Londoner.

Adam wanted to make a short travel video about the South Downs. We went to Devil’s Dyke in West Sussex and this is what he produced. You can see me talking about the Sussex Weald and suncream.

You can see Adam’s YouTube channel here.

The Sussex Weald: Seven miles of sunset hills in the Wealden Downs

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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The Sussex Weald: Something is right with the world (and it’s mushrooms)

Ebernoe Common, Sussex Weald, August 2019

Looking out of the window at work one morning, a colleague agreed with me:

If there are no mushrooms after this rain, then something is very wrong with the world.

Fast forward a few hours and there is something ok about the world.

Stepping out onto the track and into the woods there was a clear indicator of a mushroom party with lots of Boletus-like species typical of the season. This time, I was invited. All too often looking for mushrooms can be like arriving at a party the morning after when everyone is discarded like shells around the living room and slime coats the walls.

There was still slime on the walls on this pleasant summer’s evening at Sussex Wildlife Trust’s magnificent Ebernoe Common. It’s part of the Low Weald, an area or ancient woodland that is very much intact and once connected Canterbury with the New Forest. The slime here was the real deal, with beautiful splodges of slime mould spreading across fallen oak trunks.

Further inspection with my trusty macro lens showed the intricate beauty of this slime mould. Trouble is I don’t have the field guide yet so I’m stuck for an identification. But really does it matter? I’m not a scientist in the traditional sense and it’s their beauty I cherish most. Scientists, while we’re here, don’t even know where to put slime mould in their taxonomic kingdoms. That sounds like one hell of a euphemism.

This walk was a blitz of about 3 miles with eyes scanning the woodland floor alongside the path. By pure fluke I found this small mushroom, not dissimilar to something like a funeral bell, popping out of the soil. It is surrounded by the most beautiful palmate leaves of star mosses. The wonders of macro photography allow this world to be glimpsed and indeed shared. Macro photography is an art (not necessarily in this case) as fine as landscape photography.

I also had my larger DSLR slung round my neck with a wide angle lens. The golden hour is not quite so golden in an August wood, but it’s still worth appreciating. Notice the growth of lichens and algae on the north-facing side of this beech here for 10 points.

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One of the recent additions to my mushroom portraiture war-chest is an LED light. It’s a pretty fun way to add a new layer of interest to photos, especially of mushrooms. I also have a mini tripod for it so it is a bit like a pet android that wanders the woodland floor for me illuminating fungi. This shroom was growing down between two big boughs of a fallen beech tree. It was land of the mosquito and I made substantial donations to their bloodthirsty cause. This does look rather angelic if I may say so.

A trio of bonnets were evidence of the recent rain. Up they spring before collapsing not long after.

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Have you ever noticed just how long bluebell seed casings linger after spring? It’s a good way to identify an ancient woodland out of season. This flower was present on the edge of the woodland where a field opens out. The sun poured in and lit the tulip-like papers of the bluebell.

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My dad said he read my last post and had to look up what ‘bokeh’ is. It’s the circles or light in this image above that are caused by isolated areas of light. They are most pronounced when you have a wide aperture, so f1.4 on my brightest lens but usually f5.6 on most SLR lenses. It creates a beautiful blurred effect. Of course, I couldn’t resist it here. Looking at this image being photographed in the moment, what you can’t see is the twinkling of the light as the leaves moved in the breeze and the sun slid down. It took the breath far more than the image ever will.

Thanks for reading.

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The South Downs: a cuckoo’s see-saw song along the Arun

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Amberley, the South Downs, May 2019

I’m followed by a flock of dancing flies along the River Arun. I put out my hand to let them alight. Their bodies dance urgent as mayflies, their wings flutter soft as moths. They travel with me along the bend in the river.

Reed warblers are settling into spring song patches on the riverbanks. A reed bunting with his black warpaint holds a perch in green willow, delivering a simple, fractured tune.

Across the river a mighty willow sprawls dominant, dipping its branches into the flowing water.

An octopus returning to sea.

These great veterans stalk the Arun valley at Amberley, oaks replacing them where hedgerows arise.

A low note breaks the din of the A29 traffic and trains rattling through the chalk quarry at Amberley.

Koo…koo…koo…koo!

It’s a cuckoo.

The fields beyond the river lack trees, smudged by rushes creeping into pastures where cattle loaf. Crossing a shock of metal that bridges the banks, I can’t see it.

Out here the cuckoo can target the nests of reed warblers, but that’s the female’s job. This cuckoo has a song to sing first.

Passing away from the river on a track, towards the chalk ridge of Bury Hill, telephone wires cross the landscape. Not far beyond them, where the track is white underfoot, the cuckoo sings again.

Turning back to look towards the Arun, the bird balances on a telephone wire.

Cuc-koo, cuc-koo, cuc-koo!

His tail fans as he rocks on the wire, the full thrust of his calling causing a see-sawing that could send him tumbling.

I wonder how many female cuckoos are out there in the Arun valley, listening. Are they perched in riverside willows or the ancient, dying ash woods in the steep escarpment of the chalk hills.

One of them, somewhere, has heard him.

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Photography: Hawthorns on a hazy day up on the South Downs

Storrington, The South Downs, April 2019

A recent walk along the the South Downs on a hazy day with hawthorns. They tough it out in some of the most intensively managed landscapes the UK has to offer.

A hawthorn stands alone, overlooking the folding Downs as they run deeper into West Sussex.

This hawthorn faces out over the Arun Valley towards Pulborough. The Low Weald is hidden by mist in the north.

Along the South Downs Way the trees show signs of pathway lopping, or an extreme politeness to the thousands of users of the National Trail.

A hawthorn obscuring a village built along spring-lines. The Arun snakes away in the background.

 

A tanker sits in an open field. I think that’s a hawthorn splodged against the South Downs Way towards Amberley.

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A monoculture of wheat (I think) with a single oak on the horizon. Wheat has been grown in the South Downs for thousands of years. It has only become mechanised and intensified in the past 100 years. We may idealise the days of horse and plough in the South Downs but it was a harsh and unforgiving existence. Few people could cope with it today. There were also fewer people to feed.

There was a single break of light over the Downs. The hazy nature of the day makes the photo look like a painting. My friend said it was good that the simple things matter to me, which apparently wasn’t an insult. I agree.