The Arun valley: gateway to the unknowable Downs

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time in the Arun valley, my local access point to the South Downs. At last some rain came and we watched it shift across the Downs, all the way over to the Greensand Hills in Surrey.

I remember looking at this view in April 2021 after a year of lockdowns and computer screens. I honestly did not believe it was real. Perhaps it was the veil of mist, or perhaps I had developed some mental or neurological disorder from so much time stuck at home.

The Arun valley around Amberley is a crossing point (or perhaps washing point) of the Weald and Downs – where the river that rises in the High Weald’s most westerly point cuts a course through the chalk hills. It has wetlands of international significance in Amberley Wildbrooks and nearby Pulborough Brooks.

Arun at North Stoke, page 71 Book about the Highways and Byways of Co. Sussex, England

Like the nearby Adur, probably better known to people because it passes through the very fashionable Knepp Estate, it used to be a much wilder and freer river.

Along the Arun is the village of Bury, likely to originally have been a defensive point preventing easy Viking access from the coast, up the Arun and towards London, a key trading point (obviously). I recently read a book about Anglo-Saxon England that included some information about King Alfred’s development of ‘boroughs’. These were defensive outposts alongside rivers designed to protect from Viking invasion, which happened so regularly and to great effect in Alfred’s time.

The churchspire of Bury village can be seen among the trees on the banks of the Arun (2020)

The boroughs were an effective means of defence, for a time at least. I can think of so many placenames that include a borough of somekind: Pulborough, Bury (Lancashire, too), Borough (on the banks of the Thames) and Middlesbrough being the first that come to mind.

The Arun valley at Amberley is a place I first visited through working in the South Downs National Park. My relationship to it is about to change as my time with the National Park comes to an end, but that mixture of professional connection and personal fondness has always been an uneasy one.

It’s the place you can get a train to, which is rare in the South Downs, and enjoy some of the most accessible downland walking. There are views to the North Downs and then south to the coast. The Amberley Downs have glow worms, junipers, barn owls, ravens and rare butterflies like the duke of bergundy. It’s also home to vast monocultures of ‘improved’ grassland that were once rich in communities of now rare plants.

A lone hawthorn on the Downs with the Arun snaking away in the background (2019).
Much of its floodplain has become grazing land

The South Downs was first floated as a National Park contender in 1929 but the devastation to its chalk grasslands from the need to plough it up for crops in the Second World War left it a poor relation to the seemingly untouchable Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and Peak District. It only got full ratification as one of the final acts of the outgoing Labour Government in 2010. The Conservatives who followed have begun to cut National Park budgets through flat cash settlements, despite the effect this might have on such a strongly conservative social make-up (‘the shires’ or ‘blue wall’).

The pre-war Downs were sold as one reason to fight for Britain’s sovereignty from Nazi Invasion in the Second World War. How ironic that they ended up being denuded by the very same need to survive. Once the Downs would have been roamed by shepherds grazing large expanses of chalk downland. Today the South Downs feels in some places like an outdoor factory of intensive agriculture, with miles and miles of fences. It is not a wild place in the way that people imagine American National Parks, which in themselves were not necessarily ‘wildernesses’ either due to prior Native American presence. But it is still an incredible place to witness England’s wildlife and geology,

Your Britain – fight for it now (Imperial War Museum/Frank Newbould 1942) – this is not geographically accurate, with the landscape being a splicing together of different parts of the Downs for artistic effect

In Rebirding, a sort of bird conservation polemic, Benedict Macdonald questions the designation of the South Downs as a National Park because of its rolling hills and chalk grasslands, having read this on the website. Ironically the South Downs is one of the most wooded in its tracts of the ancient Low Weald, and home to internationally significant wetlands like those along the Arun at Pulborough. Chalk grassland is also one of the rarest habitats in Europe. It is an astonishing range of habitats, with the dry lowland heath now very rare after the Victorian and 20th-century devastation of the ‘wastes’.

The whole 100 miles of the South Downs, from Eastbourne in East Sussex, to Winchester in Hampshire, has been in my thoughts most days for the past 4 years. The Arun valley now becomes for me that gateway that exists for so many people who don’t have to consider a National Park in its entirety, a psychological doorway into somewhere freer, better and more ‘wild’.

Looking east along the Downs from Chantry Hill, June 2020

In reality it is far more complicated than that.

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The South Downs

Wasp-faking at Bedelands ๐Ÿ

Last August I recorded a podcast with Dr. Beth Nicholls about bees. The podcast was recorded at Bedelands Local Nature Reserve in the West Sussex Weald. You can listen to that entertaining jaunt (your thoughts and mine) through bees here.

I only had a couple of hours to record with Beth and spent the time afterwards seeing what was living there. There was a lot of wasp-faking going on, that’s for sure. It’s taken me nearly a year to actually find the time to look through the images and process some of them.

Bedelands is a Local Nature Reserve (a local authority designation for green spaces of ecological and public significance on land which is in public ownership or similar) in Burgess Hill. It’s a mixture of Wealden woods of oak and hornbean, some wetlands, and Wealden grasslands. The grasslands seemed to be quite rich to me in both invertebrates and flora. A lovely space.

This is a very cool hoverfly that can be found over quite a large international range. It’s one of the more obvious wasp-mimic hoverflies. Its scientific name is Chrysotoxum bicinctum. Absolute wasp-faker.

A more common hoverfly is one with a great common name (among others) – the footballer! It’s another wasp-mimic species. The football name comes from the stripes along the thorax (below the eyes above) which look like Newcastle, Grimsby or Juventus style kit colours.

In the moth world, I found this small grey-brown species that appeared much like a grass head. It was reaching over an oak leaf and wasn’t bothered about my lens getting super close. This appears to be one of the grass veneer moths. Moth knowledge is not strong in this one.

The scales of moths are quite incredible up close, like little roof tiles or pieces of paper.

Here’s a closer look.

Moving into the non-insect, invert world, August is a month of arachnids. This is a European harvestman, a harmless thing. They use their legs to do their ‘seeing’.

The desiccated seed cases of a flowering rush was the hiding place of one of the ground crab spiders.

I have been seeing this in my garden, but they seem to be quite common elsewhere and in places like grasslands.

Perhaps the most exciting and dramatic sighting was this wasp spider, of which there were a couple around. They’re recent arrivals in the British wildlife community, and another addition to the wasp-mimic gang.

The underbelly of the wasp spider doesn’t do justice to its name. From this angle you can see just where it gets its name from.

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April flowers at Nymans ๐ŸŒน

My partner and I made a couple of visits to Nyman’s in West Sussex recently to drown our sorrows after the death of our lovely rescue cat. We drowned those sorrows in flowers. 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. The stark colours against the grey backdrop of the day (literally) make for really pleasing images. All the pics here are ‘straight out the camera’ and I haven’t edited them. Olympus cameras produce beautiful jpeg files which my experience with Nikon equipment has never matched.

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The bluebell trespass

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.

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The Sussex Weald

Oak timbers: All Saints Lane, Canterbury

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All Saints Lane is a residential cul-de-sac (apologies to anyone living there who saw me peering in) which has one incredible stretch of timber framing. Turns out you can rent one of the cottages and they have their own website. Possibly the least information you’ll find on any website, however.

All Saints Cottage is dated to the 1500s and is described on the Historic England website as an “L-shaped timber-framed range.” According to this TripAdvisor review, it “was a pilgrims’ rest associated with Eastbridge Hospital. It later became cottages. At one time, a school of dancing operated on its upper level, which comprises one, very long room.”

I hope those dancers didn’t bang their heads too often on those low-hanging oak beams! Looking at these these buildings from the outside, it’s the squiffy-ness that can give a sense of their age. This is not a technical term, but if it’s neat and tidy it’s probably from the 1900s.

I think a lot of people consider all doors in England to look like this. They don’t.

These are the other demons I mentioned in a previous post. The one on the left hand side has hoofs, the one on the right seems to be a lion with a mane. It seems the hoofs are indicative of a demonic or devilish nature.

In this photo from the AirBnB page you can see how it’s been swallowed up by a side extension. Poor timbers.

If you’re not staying for the night, All Saints Lane is a dead-end, so your only option is to head back out onto St. Peter’s Street.

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Fungi ๐Ÿ„: March smatterings

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 Iโ€™m not finding the time or energy to write something longer or more detailed. Itโ€™s also a mental thing, just donโ€™t have a lot to say. Photography will be the focus in posts for a little while.

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Solidarity with the people of Ukraine ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ฆ

More mushrooms

Early spring at Petworth Park

A series of photos from a sunny late winter/early spring afternoon in Petworth Park. Though it’s located in the South Downs National Park, it’s a Wealden landscape of huge ancient oak and sweet chestnut trees. The views of the South Downs from Petworth are heavenly.

The oaks and chestnuts seen here are very old. The wider landscape contains some of the oldest oaks in Britain.

Photos taken with an Olympus E-M5 MIII + 12-45mm f4 lens, lightly enhanced in Adobe Lightroom.

Solidarity with the people of Ukraine ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ฆ

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The Sussex Weald

The Weald: misty views from Leith Hill

Leith Hill, Surrey, January 2022

When you talk about the highest point in south-east England, I wonder what people living far away must think. We’re not talking great peaks here, but instead a stone tower on a modest 313m-high hill. And this tower of course sells tea.

I’m referring here to Leith Hill, a hilltop managed by the National Trust. Leith Hill has stood out to me over the past two years, most tantalisingly during lockdowns when I could see it from the furthest I could legally walk from my house in the most extreme lockdown times.

The tower is built from sandstone that was probably quarried nearby. This stone, if it is said material, is often a sign locally of wealth and status, when local materials indicated as much. This part of the world is geologically rich, with the landscape having so many stories to tell about the Earth and deep time.

“This tower together with 5 acres of land was presented to The National Trust for places of historic interest or natural beauty by W.T(?) MacAndrew Esq. of Reigate on 5th October 1923 to be held for the public”

Leith Hill sits on the Greensand, distinct from the Weald Clay to the south and the chalk of the North Downs seen here in the distance looking north towards London.

Leith Hill seen from the Sussex Weald (looking north) in May 2020 when England was under strict lockdown

Throughout the lockdowns I would see this distant hill from where I lived in Sussex. Though I hadn’t seen them for several months, I knew that my family were locked down on the other side in London. It was a strange comfort. My dad would sometimes send a photo of the North Downs that he could see far in the distance on clear days. Even when kept apart the landscape seemed to connect us.

When visiting Leith Hill and looking to the south, there were misty views of the Surrey and Sussex Weald. Millions of years ago this would not have been visible, with everything instead being covered by a dome of chalk that connected as far as NW France. This is the land bridge that megafauna like wolves, bears and mammoths would have used to enter what we now call Britain. Don’t tell the Priti Patel.

The chalk was eroded over millions of years and exposed the Weald Clay, which soon was covered by wildwood. That woodland lingers today in more formal oak, hornbeam and hazel woods that are now managed as coppices or nature reserves. Beyond the picnicking couple (above) you can see Leith Hill Place, originally built in 1600.

There is a unique pine tree up on the hill, a survivor from some of the first trees to arrive in this landscape after the last glacial period some 14,000 years ago. Though there was probably a more Anglicised pine species, the Scots pine is the only UK variety remaining. It thrives in this heathy landscape of the Greensand Hills.

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The Weald

The Sussex Weald: the little chimney bird

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.

Black redstart.

A male black redstart in an old Czech town

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.

A male black redstart in Mikulov, Czechia

In Czechia the name for black redstart is a beautiful one: rehek domรกcรญ. 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.

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The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: Pulborrrough Brooks ๐Ÿฅถ

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.

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The Sussex Weald