One of the most beautiful sights in English nature is a Low Weald bluebell woodland. The shimmer of blue in the evening sun pocked by the white stars of wood anemones. These are my favourite evenings of the year, the promise of spring but still delivering on all you had hoped to see in the darker months. Summer just can’t match this.
This square of woodland in the Sussex Low Weald was not officially open access, but we kept to the paths and no bluebells were harmed in the making of these images. There is a lot of conversation about access to the countryside at the moment in England, and how power and privilege resonates in the landscape. These are important conversations and the issues are complex.
It was my first visit to this woodland, much like another picturesque bluebell wood a little further north that has now been completely closed to public visitors. A look at the maps shows how a larger landscape of natural woodland had been chomped up by farmers to become fields, leaving this section completely isolated. That will have occurred over the past few hundred years.
However, it had all the key indicators of ancient woodland, as seen here: English bluebell, wood anemones, greater stitchwort, dog’s mercury, wood spurge, and all under a shrub layer of hazel and high canopy of oak.
This kind of habitat is very much human-made, with centuries of coppicing hazel and felling of oak standards. That doesn’t stop it from being good for wildlife, coppice woodland is one of the richer landscapes in the UK.
Last week I went for a walk in rather grey and glowery weather. It was in hope of seeing some earlier spring signs but was more a reminder that winter persists.
I found a small collection of glistening inkcaps, along with one of my favourite large brackets. Those are pictured here with my hand for scale.
Otherwise there were some small polypores (probably turkey tail) and a few lichens that had been enriched by recent rain.
Life is rather full-on at the moment so I’m not finding the time or energy to write something longer or more detailed. It’s also a mental thing, just don’t have a lot to say. Photography will be the focus in posts for a little while.
The other morning I was heading downstairs to do the annual Big Garden Birdwatch. This annual event is one I’ve been partaking in since 2011 when my interest in birdwatching got real.
I opened the curtains as I do each day (obviously?) and saw a lovely sunny winter’s morning out there. The street was filled with sunshine and, down by the tyre of a parked car, I noticed a small grey bird basking in the sun.
Sparrow, I thought.
As the seconds passed I thought of how usually there are more of them together, usually they make noise. Their markings are different, too.
A dunnock, then, I thought.
But then it flew up onto a wall and I picked up my binoculars. It was neither of those birds.
The other day I had been visiting a churchyard in the Sussex Weald when I noticed another sparrow-like bird perched in an unusual place – on the corner of one of the lower roofs. When travelling in France, Germany, Spain and Czechia, I had become used to seeing a little bird in this spot. It was then that I realised what the bird in the churchyard and, subsequently, the street was.
This is bird very close to a robin in appearance but they are rare in Britain. In winter they spend time here if pushed across to Plague/Brexit Island by extreme cold weather. On the continent, robins are more scarce, a role-reversal of sorts and they spend more of their time in woodlands, rather than gardens or parks in towns. This is thought to be because robins established themselves in Britain before black redstarts could get a foothold after the end of the last glacial period some 14,000 years ago. I can’t back that theory up here unfortunately.
In Czechia the name for black redstart is a beautiful one: rehek domácí. They are known as ‘little chimney men’, as my friend translated it, because they appear covered in soot and they spend their time on chimneys. I don’t think we have bird names in the English language that can match that.
The ‘start’ refers to the tail of the bird, an old English word in the way that ‘shank’ means leg (rather than its more grisly modern meaning). Its tail is indeed red.
I spent a frosty olde morning at the foot of the South Downs where the Sussex Weald dissolves into the wetlands of the Arun Valley. I’m no early riser, so these experiences of frosty landscapes are to be treasured.
Everything was iced over.
Last year’s daisy heads were encrusted with ice, lit by the sun as it broke over the tree line.
Wiggonholt Common resides next to Pulborough Brooks the RSPB reserve. It’s a heathland nature reserve home to nightjar, woodlark and other uncommon birds. The views you can get of the heathland and its smattering of pines give it a look of real vulnerability. That’s about right though, as heathland in England is a rare habitat now.
The sun just began to break through the trees and light the trunks of these five pines.
Over on the other side of the common, the sun hadn’t arrived yet. The muddy paths were frozen still and the hoar frost decorated the birch trees growing at the heathland edge.
In the reserve proper, a single oak can be seen at the edge of the farmland where the Arun’s wetlands begin.
Pulborough is a good place to see communities of lichens like cladonia where they splash out across the green timber fencing. No chemicals are in the timber which means the lichens and other fungi proliferate.
The upturned chandeliers of hogweed flowerheads.
Spider silk hung from the twigs of the trees like silly string.
Yellow brain or witches butter, a fungus, looked like a proper tree-bogey.
The spiders webs that remained were laced with frost, as this L-shaped twig displayed so well.
Bracken looking somewhat birdlike, like the back of a golden eagle as it surveys the landscape. Or just some bracken.
The lagoons were glassily calm, marked by the winter calls of waders like redshank. I’m not very good with wading birds, I’m better in the woods. In the distance you will see the South Downs on a clearer day. The mist still sat there to hide them from lowland eyes, with temperatures as low as at least -3.
On my way in a couple had stood for minutes staring through binoculars at a song thrush on the path. I was waiting for them to look away so I could nip by, but it went on for so long I started to wonder if they were statues paid for by Swarovski. Their song thrush was enjoying a moment in the sun as I made my way back up to the exit. A worthy perch for this mighty songster.
One morning recently, I spent a couple of hours wandering around my local tract of the Sussex Weald. The bracken and beech were glowing as the sun edged its way up through trees. The sun had blown the world wide open. After a personal self-imposed Omicron lockdown to protect a significant event, it felt like the sun had ripped up that anxious feeling of being locked away. Life was in full flow:
Sun rising, melting the frost and ice in the woods. Winter bird flocks – blue tit, nuthatch, siskin, lesser redpoll. Great spotted woodpecker hammering to mark out its territory. The chirp of a skylark passing over the canopy, perhaps on migration, maybe heading to the South Downs.The hollow sound of the M23 and aeroplanes connected to nearby Gatwick. The strategic calls of crows. A jay screeching. Gunshots pop beyond the woods.
The light in January and February appears at a fairly sociable hour, and after frost the landscape glistens even more. At this time I seek out beech leaves, with their patchworks of fading cells and arrowing veins.
I was using my 12-100mm f4 zoom lens, with more a mind for landscapes, when I spotted this bracken frond dangling down with a droplet of water at its tip. The sun was creeping up through the pines in the distance. The melting frost in its path upon reaching the bracken providing the lush bokeh circles that bed the image down.
I read recently that the photons of sunlight that touch our skin take 200,000 years to travel from the sun itself. That’s around the time that our ancient Homo sapiens ancestors were evolving. So often we can barely see weeks or months ahead when the world we live in is so ancient in its making, it can feel impossible to comprehend. Taking the time to stop and think about it makes life so much richer.
Hi everyone! After a bit of a break from podcasting, it’s great to release a new episode of Unlocking Landscapes. This has taken a while to edit but it’s a really relaxing one I think. So much so that I actually fell asleep when listening to one of the drafts a few months ago.
In May 2021 I walked 8 miles into the Sussex Weald to see if I could hear a cuckoo. The weather was fine and there were loads of birds out, many of them in full song. This is an episode best listened to through headphones so you can hear the birdsong, the wind through the trees and the buzzing of bees in the woodland landscape of the High Weald. It’s an immersive episode with a guided walk feel, focusing on listening to the surrounding landscape.
Mid-August: the woods sit between seasons. Leaves are not yet turning, the soil is dry and the leaf litter brittle. Even so, mushrooms are pushing through. I turn off the hard track to cross over the ghyll that cuts through the woodland, one of many dammed further down for the ancient iron industries that hammered this landscape several centuries ago.
Today no such industry exists but the streams still flow. In fact, from this area of the High Weald, some of Sussex’s great rivers rise and head off on their respective journeys: the Arun, the Adur and the Ouse.
Sitting on the bank, I notice fungi on fallen wood but also in the soil. They are terracotta hedgehogs, mushrooms with spikes where the gills or pores are found on other species. They’re a delicious edible mushroom.
When the iron industries were at full pelt here some 400-500 years ago, there was immigration of skilled workers from France. They brought knowledge unavailable to iron workers here in Sussex, with some tensions developing with the local workforce. On 21st January 1556, ‘Peter’ a French collier was ‘cruelly murdered’ (Weir-Wilson, 2021: p.45).
I wonder if those French men and women picked hedgehogs here, a species that’s treated as a delicacy in France. The Belgian father of a friend of mine messaged me on social media when I posted a photo of these mushrooms:
‘Pied de mouton,’ he said. ‘Clean then blanch them for 2min. Drain and keep. Fry 2 shallots and 1 garlic in butter (or oil). Butter tastes better.’
Deeper into the woodland there are the first signs of heather beginning to flower. The birdsong has dwindled but the edges of the rides burst with flowers that are covered in insects. A broken and battered fritillary butterfly nectars on hemp agrimony flowers as if for the first time. I watch to see if a butterfly with so many pecks taken from its wings can even fly, but it does, high into the overcast sky.
Further along the ride hogweed has built a great white canopy. The droneflies – a honeybee mimic – drink nectar in their tens, fizzing as they switch from one umbel to another. That’s when I notice the long, drooping antennae of a longhorn beetle, doing the very same thing. I can’t take my eyes from it, as it clambers over the small inflorescences.
After walking along the endless forestry road, I slip back into the woodland to an area of birchy bog and broken beeches. It’s quiet and still in here. Unlike the final bursts of summer flowers on the open forest rides, autumn can be found among the birch trees.
First there is a bolete with its pores and cap that has begun to turn upwards, growing from a stump. There’s a Leccinum or birch bolete of some sort standing tall (for its kind) in the soil. There are Russulas yellow, red, green and purple. These hard to identify fungi are a mental bridge between summer and autumn. They are also a welcome meal for squirrels and whatever can get there first.
It’s a reminder that the seasons are not concrete. There is give and take, building blocks can come tumbling down. Seasonal signs come with species appearing, some that pass like ships in the night.
I was lucky enough to have a couple of hours to spend in Ashdown Forest last week. The light was beautiful and the views expansive across this famous part of the Sussex Weald. For those who don’t know, Ashdown Forest was the inspiration for A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. I very nearly titled this blog ‘Winnie the shroom bear’.
The mushroom situation at the moment in Sussex is one of a twilight late summer boom, with not really enough rain recently to feed the fungi and maintain the fruiting window. However, where there is shade there is moisture and therefore there is hope.
I followed a path into the woodland, away from Ashdown Forest’s famous heathlands. The ground did look quite dry, so I wasn’t expecting to find too much growing from the soil.
My first sighting was, in fact, in the soil. In the shade at the edge of the path I found a group of common puffballs.
This is an edible species, and though two looked in fairly good condition, I wasn’t looking to forage for food.
On the opposite side of the path a piece of wood was covered in feather moss. The moss was home to a gathering of glistening inkcap mushrooms. They were in wonderful condition, with varying stages of growth in the bright green bed of bryophytes.
Under a beech tree I noticed some large fallen wood sitting in heavy shade. This is always a good place to find fungi because there will be high levels of moisture and damp throughout the year. Especially under beech which casts heavy shade through its leafing phase.
My guess for this species would be stump puffball which grows in large numbers on decaying wood. From a distance they looked like fairy inkcap, but were of course much larger when looking properly. As I knelt down to take these photos, the sunlight broke through on occasion and then faded away. It was a fateful fungi photo.
Off of the path, as I considered whether there was enough time to take things a bit deeper into the woodland, I found an incredible beech tree. This looked like an old beech pollard (regularly cut high) or perhaps a coppice (regularly cut to the stump for regrowth). It had lost a huge limb which lay in front of it, providing a home for a Ganoderma bracket fungus, as so many beech trees both standing and fallen do.
I don’t know Ashdown Forest at all well. It feels to me quite an elusive place. This short walk allowed me to experience more of its quiet allure. I hadn’t expected to see so many unusual beech trees, which would probably qualify as veteran with the discerning experts out there.
This is another wonderful beech tree which has experienced damage to its trunk. The image above shows the tree’s own ‘aerial’ roots feeding of its own decaying wood. No doubt fungi has its role here in helping the tree roots to feed on itself by softening up the wood with its own decay processes.
My hour was up and I had to head back to the car park. On the return leg I noticed some very small yellow mushrooms on the bank built up along the footpath. It clicked that they were probably chantarelles. I looked at the gills of one that had fallen loose and could confirm they were. There is a beech leaf in the left of the image above which provides scale – they really were tiny.
On the way out I noticed the heather was flowering, one of the final acts of summer. It’s always good when there are shrooms on show to support this darkening shift in seasons. The days are getting shorter, the leaves will soon be on the turn and the mushrooms will be arriving.
Last week I dropped in on a favourite Sussex Wildlife Trust woodland. It’s a place I only ever visit when travelling to or from work. It’s a place with a funny name, The Mens. It’s even funnier when I tell others I’m going to The Mens after work. The name is said to derive from the word ‘common’, a place where local people would have had foraging and grazing rights in centuries past. It’s now a significant ancient woodland in the Sussex Low Weald, holding National Nature Reserve status. It’s special because of its naturally occuring beech and holly, though I’m no expert on its specifics. It is a uniquely beautiful woodland. It is highly sensitive, and when I go I do my best to treat it with a high level of respect and care.
It’s one of the few places in SE/central southern England outside of the New Forest, that I have visited, where moss and algae cover tree trunks. Above is the typical assemblage of mature beech, oak and a surrounding sea of holly.
You can see indicators of how many mushrooms are likely to be in fruit when you first enter a reserve. I saw the above within the first few paces. It’s is a mushroom called spindleshankGymnopilus fusipes (to my knowledge, happy to be corrected), which grows around the buttresses of oak trees. In a separate recent walk, it was the most common fungus I saw, and so is enjoying a key fruiting period.
In terms of tree health, I wouldn’t say it was a ‘good’ sign because there is some decay going on and it is defined as a parasitic species. In a woodland like this, it is normal and part of the life of the woodland. It helps to disconnect ourselves from our normal notions of life and death when in woodlands, it doesn’t play out in the same way there. Dead and decaying trees are crucial to a woodland’s life and longevity.
Spindleshank is often first seen like the group below, bursting on the scene. It is probably attached to a root or piece of wood under the soil.
This was the only fruiting mushroom I found during the short walk but there was a large abundance of slime moulds growing on fallen wood and some standing trees.
These orangey-pink blobs are a slime mould known as wolf’s milk Lycogala epidendrum. It’s famous because you can pop it and it emits a gunk of the same colour. It’s quite cool.
You will find it on decaying wood that has been in situ for several years, often in shady and damp conditions.
This species looks a bit like slug eggs. As with most slime mould I find, I’m not sure of the species.
We have had a very wet time of it in southern England, which should be cause for celebration, really. This same species was making the most of the conditions.
My camera is capable of doing in-camera focus stacking. This means it can take several images at different focus depths and merge them together to make an image with everything in focus. This is a dream come true for macro photography, especially when the subject is so tiny.
This is a species of coral slime mould. I have seen so much of this in the past few days spent walking in oak woodlands in West Sussex. It’s clearly striking while the woodland is wet.
Here are some landscape images from a March visit to Mayo which I’ve been posting a bit of recently. This landscape fascinates me in many ways: the cultural history (of which my family has links), the ecology and geology. My family’s cottage is located near a mountain range that would probably be classified as hills… Continue reading The homefires burn in the mountains of Mayo 🇮🇪→
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.… Continue reading April flowers at Nymans 🌹→
The final day of February. The seasons are exchanging but only in light. The first blackthorn flowers are breaking buds at the roadside. Two cyclists float past:
‘Do you really want Louis back?’ one of the women says to another.
They swerve away from two horse riders, one dismounted: ‘At least I know when to get off now. There’ no point pushing him if he’s so nervous.’
The light is golden, low. Birds are singing at spring levels, minus the continental recruits like blackcap, chiffchaff and willow warbler.
The ancient pond was frozen last week but now the water shimmers black and blue with broken reflections of the dark branches against the clear sky.
At the old road’s margins bluebells are leafing in patches. Beyond the shrubby edges the field opens out, home to a massive pine tree. Looking at the 19th century map of this landscape, the pine is there. It must be ancient but how old may not be discoverable.
Two jackdaws fly away from its branches, perhaps having found a suitable nest hole.
Winter is still here in the treetops at the field edge, where fieldfares chuckle, moving in small flocks deeper into the open field. Soon they will make their way north to warming breeding grounds. They feel like a treat, I don’t see or hear them that often.
A breeze rustle the oak leaves on the ground, building into a hush in the leaves of redwoods high above.
At the end of the lane stands an ancient oak tree, the Sun Oak. It probably marks an ancient boundary. A couple of weeks ago I was stood here admiring the tree and a man commented in passing:
‘Amazing, isn’t it? The farmer says it’s in the Domesday Book.’
I had always thought it was 800 years old. A refence to it in 1086 would mean it was already of significant size then. Could it really be over 1000 years old?
That puts it in the Saxon Age, a time so long ago it seems inconceivable. But that’s what makes these trees so special. They are living things that have, in their ecological existence, witness and processed so much time.
This tree, the Sun Oak, is of course on the 19th century map, too.
In the surrounding trees and woodland redwings are flocking, feeding and singing. It’s hard to describe the sound – like some distant chattering, a school playground carried on the wind perhaps. Whatever it is, it’s a sign of their need to gather. Along with the fieldfares, they will all soon be on their way and with them another season under the belt of the Sun Oak.