Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘St. Leonards Forest’

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, September 2020

I walk my bike along the field edge, woodpigeons grazing the dry stubble of the field. It’s another hot day in Sussex and the land is thirsty and dry. In the distance, a hedge line with a number of small beech trees in it seems to have died. Ahead of me a small dustcloud rises and dissolves into some oak scrub. The shadows of dragonflies cross my own, a hawker coming close to my face, perhaps lured by the neon hi-vis helmet I’m wearing.

I’m heading for St. Leonard’s Forest knowing that some late summer and early autumn mushrooms are appearing. I just want to see what’s there, to maybe see something new. From the sloping footpath down into the woods, three mountain bikers appear, breathless.

‘Great sesh boys,’ one of them says. ‘I feel violated.’

Entering into this old heathy landscape, the whispering pines give a sense of endlessness. They remind me of the mountains of the Scottish Highlands and the Romanian Carpathians. Though this is southern England it feels so much like somewhere remote, wild and unchartered. I think that’s what makes these places so important.

The heather blooms still at the path edge, and up on the banks of crumbling soil where pine roots are exposed. I find small suede-capped bolete mushrooms in the shade and take pictures.

I get back on my bike and follow the old track where a couple of weeks ago deer roamed freely. Not today. I cycle slowly along the old ride that bisects St. Leonard’s Forest. In the ditches mushrooms appear: red russulas, blushers and some larger boletes. The sun shines in high contrast in the dark birch woods, where bracken still holds green. A hornet flies among fleabane flowers.

I follow a track down past bare-chested mountain bikers. Like deer, a group of people are crossing the track from one area of woodland to another. They have plastic bags full of things, reminding me of Czechia at this time of year. I slow down and hear a Slavic language being spoken. In a friendly way I ask them if they’re foraging mushrooms.

‘No,’ a younger man with glasses responds. He, too, is holding a plastic bag heavy with something.

I tell them I was just interested to know. I think they probably thought I was a warden or maybe some xenophobe. Really I just wanted to know where all the mushrooms were!

Further ahead the track thins and the woodland pinches: pine, birch and spruce. I get the feeling of a good place to find fungi. Out of the corner of my eye I catch the shape of large discs on a fallen tree. Bingo!

I dismount and take my bike off the path. There are two large bolete mushrooms growing from a log, another of the suede-capped variety half-chewed before them. I find more. Nearby, two small mammals, perhaps voles or shrews, follow each other underground in a way so direct they seem magnetised or attached like train carriages.

I take back to the track and grey-spotted amanitas appear at the track edge in their hundreds. They stand at the side like a crowd cheering me on towards the finish line.

The Sussex Weald

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St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, August 2020

I stand on the long, straight track that cuts through the heart of St. Leonard’s Forest. I recently looked for it on a map from the 1870s. I thought it might have been a 20th Century addition to ease forestry operations. To my surprise, it was there cutting through what today remains a heavily wooded landscape.

Looking around, it’s probably even more wooded now. In the 1870s, the woodland was likely oak and beech with holly underneath. Where pines now stand abandoned to nature, heathland probably expanded over more open areas.

The name ‘forest’ actually denotes open land where laws once controlled gathering of natural resources and the hunting of animals, with brutal consequences for rule breakers. ”Aforestation’ was the implementation of Forest Law on more land, often at the expense of entire vilages of people.

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At one point in history, a third of England was subject to Forest Law. It was a landscape of oppression, violently enforced by England’s Norman conquerers after 1066. The management and control of deer was a key part of the Norman forest landscape.

The track is endless in this crepuscular light. At the edges ditches are stuffed with bracken which has yellowed in the August heatwave. Sudden explosions of heather interrupt the vertebra-like leaves of the bracken.

Ahead I can see two people or animals. The light is fading, the sun has slipped beyond the pines. As I get closer I can see one is a roe deer. The other figure has gone. The deer are grazing the edges of the ditches, stopping to check on my progress. I’m moving slowly, but hurrying with my hands to change the lens on my little camera to one with more reach. I get closer but it doesn’t fear me. It turns and walks away into the dark woodland.

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Walking further down the old track, a pathway, broad and green appears on my left. Two fallow deer are looking at me. They must have been grazing with the calm roe I have just passed, but they are less accepting. They scarper, one zig-zagging and leaping to distract what is a would-be predator.

Then, from the bushes, a roe deer has been startled and lurches across the path into the undergrowth that the fallow deer has disappeared into. Squashed into that small green lane, that burst of animal limbs felt almost like watching a stampede.

The Sussex Weald

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St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, July 2020

Evening. The sun kindles embers in dangling birch leaves. The songs of birds have gone, spring is a memory. I think of autumn: the cool that grows where the sun can no longer reach. My footsteps crunch and snap in the dry, leaf-littered banks beside the gill. This stream was dammed centuries ago for the Wealden iron industry. But it still runs, just not now. The hammer pond it’s been forced to feed is now the realm of private fishing.

The beeches twist and turn on the slopes, in this light you might have thought they’re creeping up behind your back. It is so quiet that any sound feels like a warning. I hear the first faint murmur of a tawny owl.

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The bracken is high and it’s hard to see around the bend of this winding desire line. On the hill the sun lends the ranks of pines some splendour. But it’s the heather battling down in the bracken that holds most promise. Men have stolen the sun from this heath with forestry, but the pines have been forgotten. Nature lies in wait, its disruptive forces breaking rank in a way so slow it’s not known until it’s done. This place will not be the same in decades to come.

Blackbirds and thrushes shuffle song-less in the shrub layer. The dryness amplifies the sound of their size to large mammal. That old fear ticks and tocks in me. A barometer I forgot I had.

Out on the woodland ride the ditches promise an explosion of new flowers: fleabane, ragwort, valerian, hogweed, and hemp agrimony where small cream moths nectar. One is held aloft, frozen in mid-air. Peering round, I see the camouflage of a crab spider hidden among the florets.

The Sussex Weald

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St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, June 2020

Rain spots my shirt as a storm threatens overhead. The heat in Sussex has been blistering this week, with a breach of the thirty-degree mark yesterday. Today it is much cooler. I waited until the late afternoon to head out while the last embers of the heatwave petered out.

I’m amazed to see that the leaves of a fallen beech limb are still alive, still in their early spring state. It brings me back to those promising early weeks when spring appears.

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There is something sad about these paused beech leaves, perhaps because the tree has died with the fracture that has meant the leaves are so easy to reach and photograph. The tree had become rotten through its heart and base. A spring storm smashed through it and now here it lies. The leaves are beautiful, corrugated, and a fresh green.

Passing through a screen of holly and oak, I enter into an opening where giant beech trees live with great limbs like giant octopi. Everytime I come here someone has had a fire on the roots of the main beech tree. This is frustrating. The tree will be harmed by damage to the roots. The roots of a tree sit closer to the surface of the soil than you might think. This time, there is more than one firepit and signs of small trees like hazel being cut, sawn up and piled, either for another fire or a den. These old trees have clearly taken a beating over the years and I worry that people don’t understand their fragility, especially to fire.

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In the raised buttresses of this veteran beech white sawdust has been left, the trail of saw blades having cut into the tree’s bark. In a sheltered nook of exposed roots a bunch of freshly cut twigs and small sticks has been piled for kindling. Could this have been a place where someone wanted to start a fire, could people really think the tree would not be harmed? I gather the sticks and scatter them among the holly.

The Sussex Weald

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St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, May 2020

It’s the blue hour and already birdsong rises from the woods: an unbreakable wall of blackbird and song thrush. The thrush pierces through with repetition as the blackbirds pause. Chiffchaff, robin, wren, the cascading song of a willow warbler.

Straight away, the hoot of a tawny owl in the echoing micro-valleys of gills flowing through the woods. Over time new owl sound-posts arise in distant corners of the landscape.

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5am comes. In the birchy patches roe deer crash away through old bracken. Their sheer weight can be heard. A roe barks a warning – we have been seen.

The owls’ calls grow with the onset of dawn. The darkness still sits in the beech, oak and birch woodland. Pine, forever green, holds it that bit longer.

A sound from far away, slipping over the owl and deeper into the Weald. The cuckoo, master messenger of spring. We heard him here last year and wonder if he is the same bird back from the Congolese rainforest where he spent the winter. Whoever he is his life has been richer than any human’s could ever be. And the female cuckoo, she too will be hidden away somewhere in silence, listening.

We meet the crescendo of the dawn chorus now. Owls hooting on the crest of song thrush and blackbird. Cuckoo rising over everything. Crows begin the first administrative duties of the day, checking outposts of their web and marking party lines. The owls will not be lost on them.

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Down a sunken track enclosed by holly, we notice the shapes of bats hawking. It’s the path we need to take. On approach they disappear, as if they were never there. The mosquitoes landing on our foreheads are glad we’ve moved them on. I’d love to tell them, the bats will be back.

The Sussex Weald

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SLF - 6-2-2020 blog-37

St. Leonard’s Forest, February 2020

The sun hasn’t yet reached St. Leonard’s Forest. Frost covers the depressed spreads of bracken at the edge of trees. A dawn chorus still rattles on, dominated by song thrush posted across this wooded landscape. In the distance there comes the clopping of horse hoofs, a throwback to the days when highwaymen roamed the Weald and when people travelled almost anywhere far away enough, on horseback.

The horse riders appear on the hard track ahead of me. They’re galloping until they see me, surrounded by a cloud of perspiration. Their upper bodies are coloured yellow, green and orange by hi-visibility vests. The man leading the troop glares at me from under his helmet as I pass with birch trees between us. Perhaps he thinks I’m a warden.

‘Good morning!’ I shout across to them, which is met with a murmur.

Off they trot.

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Beyond the stands of spruce and pine planted on old areas of heath, the sun is climbing. I can hear the wash of the M23 as vehicles roar through its wound in the Weald. It’s one I use a couple of times a month, too, when heading further south and then east.

The first breaks of sun glow golden in birches and the spreading branches of pines. The remnant flowers of heather persist like leftover decorations.

When the sun breaks the tops of the pines, things begin to change. Rays of light cut through the plantations and light small fires in the beds of bracken. They burn amber at the base of pines.

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The birds remain elusive: crests, tits, siskins, woodpeckers. They’re all here but they’ve found all that’s left of the shadows. I can only see silhouettes.

More people are arriving now with the sun, all with dogs. One couple have more than ten between them, one pug-like thing snarls and froths at the mouth, following me for a good minute. Of course, the apologies come. It’s such a common thing, you get bored of saying ‘don’t worry about it.’

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I notice a spread of oak trees, the sun crashing down through their boughs. One curved oak with a trunk lit entirely with green moss opens its door to yet more of its fellow species. These oaks are walking out of a cold and frost-bitten night, the icy coating on the vegetation around them steaming as it melts away in the day’s eyes.

The Sussex Weald

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SLF - 5-12-2019 blog-24

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, December 2019

The path slopes up between ranks of birch, beech and oak. On the banks bracken is encrusted with frost and the addition of oak and beech leaves. I love the sight of a silver-lined oak leaf and December is the month to find them.

It’s about 9am. Mist lingers up ahead like the faint hang of smoke from a campfire. All around I can hear the falling of droplets of water. Looking at my sleeves there is no sign of rain. Then I realise it’s the frost melting in the tops of the trees. Water only falls from their crowns.

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In among the trees small birds flock and feed. These mixed groups of species have been building since September. A trio of bullfinch slip away from me in birch branches and bracken. Their fluty calls are faint and sweet. A white bib on their backs marks them out as they escape deeper into the dripping woods.

St. Leonard’s Forest was once more open than this. You can find huge beech trees dotted around from when they had the freedom to grow uninhibited. Now many more trees compete with them for light in the sky, good and water in the ground. One of the beeches has been damaged in a storm. A third of its trunk has fallen, splitting in two directions. Its summer leaves are still held by the fallen branches, shielding the scene of its collapse.

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This is not a catastrophe. It could result in the tree living centuries longer. Looking more closely the trunk glows green with moss and algae. It raises one limb still high into the air. This is its lifeline. Its heartwood is now exposed and soon more insects and fungi will move in. This is not a symptom of human error or mistreatment. Its is the true wildness of a tree stepping into the realm of the ancient.

The Sussex Weald

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St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, November 2019

The last day of autumn. The final patches of beech, oak, hazel and birch leaves are all that resist the darkest greens and browns of a winter wood. The green leaflets of an elder dangle out across the path, the only ones left on the entire tree.

Grey squirrels round the trees in small groups, like people wrapping a maypole in its ribbons. They are elf-like in a place where little else moves. I stop to take a photo of a biscuit-brown pine tree and a woman waits alongside me.

‘I thought you’d seen an animal,’ she says when I look, her dog carrying on ahead of her.

‘Just squirrels,’ I say.

She laughs: ‘Oh, yes. Plenty of those!’

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The gill is full as it slaloms down through the woods. In a pond at the edge of the path fallen oak leaves rest in perfect stillness.

At the foot of the heath, golden mushrooms grow in the soil amidst the remains of bracken. They are so easy to miss. They’re trumpet chanterelles, a species as edible as the original. Like all the mushrooms I photograph, I’m not here to pick or eat them. Their trumpets curve out like gramophones, their stipes sinuous, yellow and tapering like a birch trunk.

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These are autumn’s final moments. The frosts are creeping in, our breaths stolen away on the air as they leave our lips.

The Sussex Weald

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SLF - 17-11-19 blog-38

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, November 2019

After so much recent rain, the water flows fast through the s-shaped streambed of Sheepwash Gill. Clouds have consumed a sunny morning, Wealden clay clogs under foot. I’m trying to cross the gill by treading across the buffed sandstone which is usually above water. This is no ‘Robert Macfarlane climbing a mountain up a stream in his pants’ kind of effort. The water runs ankle-high against my boots.  On the other side a dog bounds down off the leaf-littered slope and barks at me, stopping my crossing. It’s big. It jumps around at the water’s edge in that ‘I’m trying to pretend I’m going to eat you’ kind of way. Its owner calls it back and I find another way to cross.

A girl watches me as I find a short gap to hop over. The dog is her family’s. They’re gathered around dens made from branches and logs on the banks of the gill. The eldest man is grappling with a thirty-foot long birch tree that’s hung up in another tree. He’s getting advice from his young son on how to get it down. The man is wearing brown leather safety boots, a sure sign of a construction worker enjoying a Sunday with his family in the woods.

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The birch won’t move much and he gives up. St. Leonard’s Forest is covered in birch. It’s the most westerly point of the High Weald’s heaths, much of which is covered by wild birch and gorse, or otherwise planted up with conifers for forestry. Birch is seen as an enemy or nuisance but it is a special tree that has benefited our species in our evolution. Its wood makes excellent spoons, its bark can be used as fire lighter, its sap tapped for syrup, its branches make brooms. Its Latin name ‘betula’ means ‘to beat’. Getting walloped by birch branches was once a recognised punishment, sometimes in public.

The birches are all yellowing and dropping now, turning to their deep, purple and leafless phase. The small yellow leaves catch by the petioles in mosses and on the splintered fibres of broken heartwood. In the dark pine plantations of St. Leonard’s Forest they fizz and spark.

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Explore the Sussex Weald

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St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, October 2019

After a night of stormy weather, the high winds blew through the woods and really I probably shouldn’t have been there. But October is such a special time in the woodland year that any time spent there is to be cherished.

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I walked for three or so hours in the Forest and found lots of species, masses of small brown and grey mushrooms in the leaf litter that don’t make great photos. My first find was a lovely species known as twig parachute.

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Staying in macro mode these miniscule bonnets were were growing from a bed of moss on the buttress of a tree.

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There is a small clearing I’ve recently found, well hidden from paths but obviously the secret space for other visitors as well. Here a thick humus of leaf litter and, in particular, beech nuts were creating good fruiting ground for mushrooms. This little brittlegill (I always prefer their Latin name of Russula, indicative of their redness) was one of those to benefit.

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A beech tree has dropped a large limb and deadwood fungi have begun to colonise it. This is a splitgill and only really comes to life after prolonged rain. It’s a process of re-hydration. They’re tricky to photograph but always look nice with some bokeh (the baubles of light) in the background.

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In the mosses growing in the dark and wet corners under holly trees, species like what-I-think-is curry milkcap were fruiting. This species is said to have a curry-like taste.

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St. Leonard’s Forest sits on the edge of sandy heathland soils and Wealden clay. Passing into the heathy areas which make it a ‘Forest’ (forests were open landscapes used for hunting by the aristocracy, and don’t denote woodland alone) fly agaric suddenly arrived. These shrooms are thought to have given Father Christmas his red and white outfit and provided the hallucinatory impact that gave visions of reindeer flying. I’ll write something about that one day but still, these should be treated as deadly poisonous.

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While we’re on deadly shrooms, this relative of fly agaric is panther cap. It’s definitely poisonous and is more photogenic when it’s in its bulbous stage. Again it’s common on sandy heathland soils.

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There is some constant pleasure about seeing boletes. Perhaps it’s because the cep/penny bun/porcini is the tastiest. This bolete scares me. Can you see the smiley face and squiggle of hair on the cap?

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Days of cloud were broken up by the storm and it was a relief to see some sunshine. This footbridge runs over a gill that cuts between the clay woods and the heathland on that travels further east into St. Leonard’s Forest and the wider Weald. The gill was as full as I’d seen it because of torrential downpours.

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On my way back home I found a gang of clustered bonnets on a trunk that crossed a path. It had been chainsawed in half so people can still walk through. It’s the perfect height and position for photos.

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The sun broke through the trees and lit the bonnets where they had squeezed their way out from behind the bark. To me they look a little bit like they’re hiding from something beyond the wood they cower behind.

Read more:

The Sussex Weald

My Wood-Wide-Web

 

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