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Kingley Vale, South Downs, West Sussex, October 2019

We enter the ashy woods of Kingley Vale, one of the most spellbinding place in the South Downs. Mushrooms are everywhere at the feet of yew, ash and oak trees as the season enters its peak.

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The light is weak so we kneel down next to the mushrooms to look more closely. We find blushers, ceps, deceivers and many brown species that are very difficult to identify.

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Archetypal mushrooms grow with black gills and caps that glow purple. Their collars hang loose like pastry over the edges of a tin.

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Kingley Vale is famed for its ancient yew trees, particularly one area that is heavily visited, the roots of the trees beginning to show above ground from the impacts of footfall eroding the ground around them. They feel like one of the most still and unmoving of tree species, owing to their hardness and strength. Their living tissue is some of the strongest in the plant kingdom and their heartwood is not at all needed for them to remain upright. Their roots can go on producing new trees even when those above ground have died, like the Borrowdale yews in the Lake District.

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Out from under the yews chalk grassland spreads to the foot of the ridge where yew and ash woods cover the hills. Many of the ash trees are succumbing to ash dieback disease, in a landscape where they are content. It is a tragedy but then it is our own fault for unchecked trade of wood products, combined with the eventual spread of fungal spores.

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In the chalk grasslands we find a cowpat with mushrooms popping from the poo. One of them is snowy inkcap, a species I have never seen before, with its powdery cap and stem. It looks like something you might find in a snow globe.

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Climbing up onto the ridge the sun slips away in the west, casting a final glow across the chalky bowl of Kingley Vale.

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The grunting of a male deer echoes in the yew woods broken by the white stags of bare bone ash branches. Knowing some of these trees may be dead lends them a ghoulishness. Their brushheads are fading into history. Many will not be here in years to come.

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The sun glimmers in Chichester Harbour and the sea. A plume of smoke spirals into the evening sky.

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In the dense and dark yew woods on the slope we hear the strange, tropical bubbling of a tawny owl. Here yews reach out into the light at the edges like multi-limbed bodies sucked into a vortex. The yews have clarified the soil, no other plant can compete. Combined with the tawny’s song, the experience is otherwordly.

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At dusk rooks flock in a sea of black over a field-edge wood. Their cawing grows louder and closer as they envelop the sky above our heads, drawing in jackdaws, drifting back beyond the tops of the trees. On the darkening hilltops deer graze like slow-footed, four-legged people. We are left with so many questions.

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