Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘The North Downs’

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North Downs Diary, Detling, Kent, July 2017

Standing outside the Cock Horse pub in Detling, a man smoking a cigarette approaches me. He points to the Pilgrims Way across the road:

‘When you do all this walking,’ he says, ‘where do you sleep?’ His step is a little unsteady, speech a little slow.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘We don’t have to sleep in the woods.’ These walks have been mostly in one day, bar the odd night in a B&B.

He’s interested that I’m trying to walk the North Downs over a longer period – ‘that’s commitment,’ he says, launching into tales of life in the village. He points again towards the Pilgrims Way and a Tudor gate on the corner.

‘That’s the oldest structure in Detling,’ he says.

Reading the plaque in front of it, the gate once led to a resting house for pilgrims making their way to Canterbury, perhaps as far back as 1200. But he has more to tell:

‘Two peacocks used to walk around the streets. They were so noisy I would throw out any food I could just to shut them up.’

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Now there are no peacocks in the street. Where did they go? He points again across the road, cigarette stub between his fingers.

‘One of them jumped off the wall and into the road. She was run over by someone who works in the pub – she’s not working tonight. It was just a little car but the bird was totally obliterated.’

What happened to the male bird, I ask.

‘He kept on walking around, making this terrible racket because he was on his own.’

We thank him for his stories and cross to re-join the Pilgrims Way.

This morning we began our walk at Rochester station. Stepping off the platform it was not only the river Medway that cut the downs. For nearly an hour our nostrils filtered the stench of muck. Nowhere was safe: Rochester Cathedral with its sprawling Catalpa tree, the river itself and adjacent Dickensian suburbs (Oliver Twist Way). Perhaps only the forlorn sight of a magpie searching for food on plastic grass in a front garden drew our attention away from that invasive agricultural funk.

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The escape from the smell only came upon gaining the heights of Nashenden Down, where Kent Wildlife Trust are returning arable monoculture to chalk grassland richness. The work had already made a difference as Peter, my Kentish companion for the day, had found a wall butterfly basking in amongst flowers protected by a shelterbelt of trees. Overhead swifts, house martins and swallows fed on an aerial sea of insects as they migrated south away from our troubled isles.

From Nashenden Down we looked across the Medway to the point where, ten months ago, we had stumbled out of the endless and overgrown chestnut coppices to be met by the bolt of high speed rail and the meandering Medway. At Nashenden Down the fields of wheat were bordered by red poppies with petals torn away by the same winds that earlier had brought the foul smell to Rochester. I pulled out my phone and streamed Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, revelling in the pastoral glory of Albion.

Beyond Nashenden Down, the North Downs Way then turned to the woody ridge with small breaks of chalk downland and random litter and fly-tipping. On knapweed stems Peter demonstrated an unerring ability to find brown argus butterflies, a member of the blue family. This is a skill he has perfected after months of working in Cambridgeshire meadows. At Bluebell Hill the wind whipped the sloe-heavy scrub and flattened the fields of marjoram. It was no land for the comb-over.

The route slips away beneath the A229 and then slaloms to one of several holloways haloed by overgrown hedges of hawthorn and field maple. A right-hand turn in the hedge arrives in a field marked by Kit’s Coty, the remnants of a Neolithic burial chamber, erected some 5000 years ago. The trail rises again after crossing the route of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link at Boxley into Westfield Wood, a steep ascent through brown yew woods. The creation of the tunnel resulted in the discovery of Britain’s earliest well-dated Neolithic longhouse, some 6000-years-old. That fact added a further layer of magic and mystery to the deep shade of the yew trees that followed it. That mystery evaporated in the gruelling ascent to the ridgetop of yews, breaking again into the lighter landscape of silver birch and field maple. At the track side stood an old oak with a hollow heart.

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To get to this side of Detling, where we met the local man with many stories to tell, we had to cross the A249 on a footbridge named ‘Jade’s Crossing’. It was constructed in memory of an eight-year-old girl and her grandmother who were hit by a car trying to cross the road in December 2000 when no such crossing existed.

‘I knew her family,’ the man outside the pub said. ‘Her grandmother died with her. Jade ran out into the road and her grandmother tried to grab her.’

To know that we could only safely cross the road because a girl and her grandmother died trying to do so, along with two other people before them, is terrible. They brought the A249 to Detling, cut the village in half, and it took 40 years for government to make it safe.

Back on the North Downs, the pub and its tales behind us, we step to the side of the Pilgrims Way as cars pass. We turn off into fields and head back up onto the chalk ridge of the North Downs Way. The light is fading, specks of rain touch our cheeks, clouds loom. In the scrub red and black berries offer warnings, chalk flowers form a mat at the path’s edge: the ever-present marjoram, enjoying a bountiful year, broken by spikes of agrimony, vervain and the fading leaves of yellow-wort. We stop to take in the folds of the downs, creases formed over millennia by water running down into the Medway valley.

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In the grey, rain-flecked sky, swallows and swifts feed in the last of the light. To them, it is autumn, they are returning south to Africa. We, too, are moving into the autumn and heading south, but only as far as Bearsted station. Whoever we are, wherever we’re going, we all seek safe passage.

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North Downs diary, Banstead Woods, March 2017

A bench has been built in a patch of recently churned clay, a rusty red. The bench matches the colour, dedicated to Jamie Eve who passed away in 2016 aged 26. His dedication tells passersby that he loved this place. A bouquet of tulips and ivy lies on the seat. Around Jamie’s bench bluebells peek, it is that special time. All across this wood the lilies push through. All around us life is returning, our side of this earth is coming closer to the sun, and wildlife is responding.

Edward Thomas, a poet made famous, really, by the success of Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways and sense of invigoration given to the subject of nature writing, wrote about the Banstead Downs. It is only because of reading Macfarlane’s books that I know of Thomas and for that reason that this time of year, when bluebell leaves threaten to reveal flowers, when the earliest pipings of blackbirds don’t quite progress to nightly songposts, reminds me of his poems. I have never truly got on well with his style, but Macfarlane’s success is the ability to bring you closer to the lesser known authors, walkers and naturalists. The line ‘Spring is being dreamed’ is one that is quoted across media formats at this time of year. It perfectly encapsulates that rough and wearied time when winter has bitten in and bitten long, but spring’s presence is unmistakable.

You can feel it in the movements and actions of birds, the great tit, chaffinch, blue tit, tree creeper all singing and moving across the wood. The consensus is growing. The hornbeam’s branches look different to the way they were two weeks ago, as the buds begin to break with their usual slowness. Small clusters of leaves spit from elder branches, hawthorns are never too ready to shift with the season. Throughout Banstead Woods large oaks stand in stoic silence. There is no hint of a leaf, their fistfuls of buds, many of which will never be needed, remain golden brown and closed. I remember last year seeing the tiny red leaves of oak coming out months in advance on the 25th January in south London, but this year there has not been the mildness to tempt the oaks out.

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These oaks, along with beeches, hornbeam pollards and mighty sweet chestnuts, suggest this wood was once more open, lighter and more intensively managed. These trees bestow a grandeur not quite felt in other woods I know along the North Downs, even the mighty beeches of Devilsden Wood. Here the trees are all on the plateau of Banstead Downs, their scale is not reduced by the steep slopes of the many valleys that cut through this chalky landscape. Here storm Doris has broken limbs and split trees, several by gusts blown along a ride that cuts widely through. Sometimes you have to squirm through branches to carry on.

I pass a man with binoculars and ask him of hawfinch and lesser spotted woodpecker, two birds that are rumoured to be present here. He has black curls with a touch of grey and says he has never seen them but ‘surely they must pass through’. He exhibits a sense of contentment in what the land holds for him this afternoon. It marks the end of Banstead Woods, signalled by a family passing, booted and offering a greeting as they make their way inside. At the wood’s edge the landscape opens out, a few of the typical farmland oaks stand in the centre of the field and along a hedgerow boundary. I follow the path along the wood’s edge where crumbling oaks and beeches dominate, with laurels and rhododendrons creeping in at their toes.

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At nearby Canons Farm a buzzard perches in branches, mobbed by crows, stirring starlings, sparrows and finches to leave their feeding until later. Above a lane enclosed by a close crop holly hedge birds explode across the grey sky, the buzzard following them in a blaze of alarm calls. Following the road round past a small clutter of houses where a man revs his van and reverses out, its emissions pungent, the buzzard perches in the branches of an oak. In the distance jackdaws roost and break in the tops of trees, closer at hand a crow swings low and short of the buzzard. It is unworried by the attention, taking its time, waiting for the right moment to move off over the fields again.

Tracing a path through leafing croplands that lead into the wealthy suburbia of Kingswood, the prospect of spring has been sidelined. It rings true – those who have no closeness to or desire to venture into woods or landscapes of the less manicured kind, can have little sense of the changing seasons. Treading the verge on route to the train station beside mansions with static laurel hedges, four cars and paved driveways, I can guess what Edward Thomas valued more.

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North Downs diary, Farthing Downs, January 2017

I pass through the gate onto the downs and a fox crosses the lane, that long, fluffed up tail and jinking stride. It seeks the safety of the woodland edge. Snow lingers on the downs, magpies feed in small groups. When they fly up it’s not unlike slices of snow lifting off the ground. Their strategy is simple: feed until a bigger beast passes, sit in the trees, then return. The sun breaks the dough-like cloud, a kestrel cutting through with ease. She finds the tip of a branch and balances, the twig bending under her weight. She looks out across the snow. Feeling herself perhaps too exposed, she shifts to the fox’s wooded margin. Restless, knowing she is now unwelcome in open land, she cuts west and disappears over the hill.

The hazel scrub carries beads of melted ice, hanging long out of the breeze. The shapes show black branches like little snow globes, a looking glass into some dark wood of elsewhere. On the ground the snow carries tokens of those living things that have since passed: dog, human, crow. In between them the stems of wild carrot persist. On the steepest slopes of the downs, sleds slip across the scene, their crew dressed in pink and orange, the colours of our mass production garment industries. On the eastern slopes of Happy Valley the snow rests without the patchiness of the highest point. Yet more magpies are driven from piercing their bills in search of soil. At the bottom of the hill birch trees reflect the snow’s whiteness, their reddish hue shows they are not whiter-than-white.

I heard a radio programme recently charting the decline of snowfall in Kent over the past fifty-years. It brought the presenter to the point: might snow become a thing of the past in southern England? Climate change’s predicted course means that the snowy downs here as I see them today may yet be something that can only be spoken of in the past tense. So does the act of photography now morph into a sentimental act of conservation? Our species’ recent photographic binge, due to the camera phone revolution, means that snow will never be forgotten in image, but its sensuality can’t be felt in a jpeg or print.

I forget these things so quickly when London’s short snowy affair departs, the glow of light from the white ground, the dripping trees, the soft press and crunch of boots, the sheer joy that children feel and express on their plastic sleds. Perhaps to us southerners who see so many different types of weather, the loss of snow’s short stint will barely be noticed. For climate change will bring profound challenges for species that depend on certain conditions, be they polar bears, butterflies, mushrooms or migrating songbirds. On the downs, like many thousands of others I’m sure, I seek change in itself. A different state of mind, of perspective, colours, textures and places to walk in. Nature reminds us always that change will come.

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North Downs diary, Coulsdon, September 2016

It’s dry and dull on the downs, wild carrot and ragwort desiccating, but house martins migrate overhead as they begin their return to Africa. In the damp and shady nooks of Devilsden Wood’s rotting logs the mushrooms sprout. The first I can find is a tiny bonnet rising out of beech leaves, one such leaf topped by an aphid. There is a spread of what I think are webcaps, orange-yellow in the wood dark. Now I remember the ache of kneeling for so long, gently turning the focus ring of the lens to catch the right part of the mushroom: the serrated gills, the skin of the cap. Overhead the soft calling of a tawny owl comes, at four o’clock in the afternoon. I’ve noticed this for the past month, with owls calling at two and three o’clock. The jays begin to rouse with their piercing shrieks, they are the principle mob leaders against the tawny. But no ruckus is forthcoming. I’ve read that tawny owls actually call more commonly in daylight rather than under darkness. Reading about them only this morning I learned that owls are better at hunting at dusk and some species are aided by an increase in moonlight. The jays are right to be worried, with birds taking up the largest chunk of a tawny’s diet. Under a decaying beech trunk dressed in moss the shape of a wood mouse trails into the cover of the leftover bark, another species fearful of the owl.

Away from the fungi I take a closer look at an old horse chestnut perhaps some 200-300 years in age, planted as a boundary marker on the edge of Happy Valley. It stands out beyond the still verdant hazel coppices with its floor of red crinkled leaves. It’s often the first to leaf and the first to leave. Out beyond the trees in Happy Valley the sun casts long shadows, the lines of hay the shadows of recent cutting, soon to be bailed, probably sold on to feed local grazing animals through the winter. I don’t quite know. Elsewhere on the North Downs these rows of hay are burnt, its value no longer universally high across the chalk. The sun sets over Devilsden Wood, the sheep grazing in the golden September light. All appears well in this remnant of downland past.

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Rainfall on the downs. Still the jackdaws toe the grasslands in their flock, still green woodpeckers cut arcs across the landscape, still the spring’s song builds in hedgerow blackbird music. Linnets flock to the small bushes of rose and hawthorn, skylarks lift from the turf, dropping back down onto the grassy mounds of anthills. So few flowers, but rosettes are massing at the margin of soil and sky, the dropwort, rattle and eyebrights feeding on the thinnest layer of nutrients, readying to flower. But the rain still falls and so I make for Devilsden Wood where bluebells have peeled from green to that almost purplish colour. Our common name feels a little inadequate. But then that’s the joy of common names, there are so many, they each tell a tale of our senses through time. Wood anemones, probably my favourite flower, were known as windflowers because people thought that they only opened their petals when the wind blew. Here they bloom in their little flocks amidst dogs mercury and more bluebells.

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Ash coppice, North Downs, October 2015-1

A coppiced ash tree along the North Downs Way near Oxted, October 2015. Coppicing is the act of cutting a tree at its base to harvest wood and encourage more growth in the following years. This ash is now grazing land and is likely to be left over from formerly coppiced ancient woodland, tracts of which are still found along the edges of the field. The tree is full of holes and crevices for fungi and invertebrates but must be feeling the pressure of the hoofs of grazing livestock on the ground around it.

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