The Sussex Weald: between the seasons

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, August 2021

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.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: stars in a different sky

The Low Weald, West Sussex, January 2021

A second wave of Covid has thrown us back into lockdown in England. You can only leave the house for essentials and exercise. It’s much harder now that the night falls early and the window on experiencing daylight has narrowed. But the days are lengthening and spring is building in small ways.

At night the foxes are making their blood-curdling cries and other social calls. They are breeding, probably just outside the back door each night.

On clear nights I sit on the edge of the bed and, with lights out, can see stars. The three lights of Orion’s Belt shine bright, but not more so than Sirius to the south-east. It’s the brightest star in the sky.

Out on my exercise for the day, I stand in a frosty glade of bracken. Silver birches are clustered at the edges, ash branches have collapsed and fallen to the ground. Their twigs reveal leafy lichens, in some places known as oak moss. There are real mosses too, little green pin cushions with their sporophytes poised.

The birds are foraging for life in this time of scarcity. A jay moves between trees and shrubs, flushing white wing-bars as it flies. Nuthatches are dripping from the tree trunks in both number and sound. Further away the hooting of two tawny owls ruffles out of the trees, half-baked. Are these early territorial warning signs? Spring, indeed.

Alarm calls break across the branches and bare blue sky. It is a beautiful day. Knowing these alarm calls mean something is happening, I look up at the patch of sky over the clearing. From the north-west two birds fly close to one another, on passage. To identify them will take a process of elimination:

  • Wings too sharp for sparrowhawk
  • Too small and direct in flight for buzzard
  • Too big for merlin
  • Hobbies are holidaying in Africa
  • Tail too short for kestrel

They’re peregrine falcons, stars in a different sky. Perhaps they are returning to the South Downs and an early morning hunting pigeons in the towns. Maybe they’re a pair getting to know each other and seeking a place to breed. Wherever they’re going, bit by bit, winter is edging away with them.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: the caddisfly on the streambed

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

The cold has come to the woods, and with it, the silence of birds. It’s not all quiet. Rain has fallen overnight and there is a gushing to the hill as it wends its way through the woodland. Looking at the water I see the bare sandstone. The water, over a very long time, has cut through the soils and softer substrates. Walking here over several years I have wondered why the sandier heathlands rest high up and the ancient woodlands of oak, beech, hazel and holly grow only really in the clay gulleys. It’s here, the answer.  The stream has cut through the sand and washed the gravel away to reach the sandstone.

I follow the twisting stream up hill, jumping from bank to bank, where vegetation blocks progress. In a slowed stretch something small and black is moving against the flow on the clay streambed. It’s an invertebrate, what I think is a caddisfly with a pack of debris on its back. It looks to be trying to grab at a small stone or piece of material on the streambed. It could be ready to attach itself to the stone and move to its next stage, the pupa, before becoming an adult insect for a month next year.

Ferns spool out from the freshly leaf-laden banks and the trees are drenched in moss. It dawns on me: this is south-east England’s rainforest.

The Sussex Weald

Further reading:

The Sussex Weald: the buzzard’s lunch

The River Arun, Horsham, West Sussex, November 2020

Again we must stay close to home. The oaks are in their orange and gold phase. The bright sun catches in their leaves against blue skies, darkening their grey-black trunks. I stop to look out over the Arun’s water meadows. Two large white Sussex cattle rest on a hillock, doing nothing.

From the mature trees that edge the Arun, a bird swoops down into the rushy grasslands that spread away from the river. I can see from its size and underwing that it’s a buzzard. It returns to a perch in a bare ash tree on the river’s edge. I don’t have binoculars so I can’t see what it has, but it took something. Surely it’s too late for frogs or toads.

A man and a woman approach from behind me to share the view across the river’s wet edgelands. The woman has an orange bin bag and a litter pick.

‘Seen anything good?’ she asks.

I point out the buzzard, that it’s hard to see because it’s so well hidden.

‘No,’ she says. ‘I’ve just seen it because it moved.’

Impressive, but perhaps unsurprising for someone with an eye for litter picking.

I say that I don’t know what it has. She tells me that she only ever sees them soaring but never perched. She and her partner live on the edge of the farm. They see buzzards all the time.

All summer I heard a young buzzard calling from a nest along the river, It was incessant, persistent. Every time I visited I could hear it calling. Then I spotted a huge ash tree and saw it sitting up there, calling still. It was out on a branch, begging to be fed by its parents.

As an exiled Londoner, it feels an intense privilege to be able to walk ten minutes from home and happen upon the breeding ground of this great and prospering hawk. A fellow exile said much the same to me, that he had found buzzards roosting in trees across from his new home in Peterborough.

Our conversation about the buzzard dissolves in that awkward English way, and the couple head off in search of more litter. I stay on, wondering what it is the buzzard is having for its lunch.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: deer reclaim the Forest

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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

The Sussex Weald: under the trees mushrooms glow

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St. Leonard’s Forest, Sussex Weald, June 2019

Gentle rain falls as dog walkers share tales in the car park. Squirrels saved from their pet’s jaws giving thanks with a bite of their own. Birdsong swells from the understorey, perhaps five song thrush sing to sure up territories. Either side of the track is a wall of green, from the shrubs to the canopy of oak, birch and beech.

There is a feeling of a deeply wooded landscape here, the continuity of the Weald stretching away east to Kent. Of course it has now been broken, so many times, but there is a sense of the wilderness that faced the Romans and later the Saxons upon their respective invasions of Britain. It is thought St. Leonard’s Forest was part of a wooded landscape that stretched all the way to the New Forest, as recently as a thousand years ago.

The rain has drawn me out here. It is such a relief that this June is one of mini-monsoons, compared to last year’s heatwave hell. The nearby South Downs were rendered brown for months. At the side of the path, under the darkness of a beech, mushrooms glow. They sprout peach-coloured, or maybe apricots on sticks, from a tree stump. They are sulphur tuft, one of the most common species but very photogenic.

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Further into the forest chiffchaff sing from the pines, a distant willow warbler’s melody decaying in the darkening evening air. There is a scale to this landscape that feels expansive. Woods challenge our human senses of depth and time. Moving along the footpaths the woodland shifts from clay where beech and oak prevail, to the pine and birch dominated sands where heathland once was kept open by local people expressing their rights of common.

Down a track through birch and holly a single flute-like note comes from the trees above my head: a bullfinch. It calls over and again. It’s a beautiful sound.

Returning round through dark areas of oaks and veteran beeches, I find a small toadstool uprooted at the edge of the footpath. It’s an amanita of some kind, a ring around its neck like Shakespeare or a ruff, patches of white webbing still on its grey-brown cap. Amanitas are a fearful family of mushrooms, being home to the deathcap and destroying angel, to name but the most potent. But I’m not here to eat these marvels of nature, so I take my photos, capturing memories to take back to the town, to ease the sense of dislocation from this ancient wooded landscape, its bullfinches and mushrooms.

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