Flint Flakes and Very Big Snails

We are now allowed to go out to exercise for an unlimited amount of time each day.

This may not have been top of everyone’s Relaxing-the-Lockdown-Rules-Wish-List, but other than the opportunity to finally begin to see some family and friends, I think it was top of mine. On this first day of slightly increased freedom, I take camera and notebook and go off for a longer walk than I’ve been used to this last couple of months. Nothing particularly long, but it feels good to know there is no reason at all for me to limit my walk or have to justify it to anyone.

Naturally, there are other walks I want to do even more, but I’m still reluctant to use public transport to get to somewhere I want to walk and, to be quite frank, the government has not made it clear whether I’m allowed to (although they’ve given the police a major headache if they want to try to control it). So for the moment, the South Downs will have to wait.

But now I am thinking of a walk I did almost exactly a year ago, to reacquaint myself with an area of the North Downs I lived close to a long time ago. I planned to walk along an ancient trackway running along part of the ridge of the Downs, and marked as such on the Ordinance Survey map. This is an area where many Roman remains have been found over the years, mainly in the wide river valley nearby, but I had no idea how old the trackway was thought to be, whether it pre-dated the Romans or was more recent.

But many of these routes were in use long before the Romans arrived, since the early Britons found the lower lands were frequently too marshy and thickly wooded for either easy settlement or for travel. And so it is highly likely this route is several thousand years old. One of the Old Ways. And just walking along it gives me a sense of continuity with the past.

In a wooded area the footpath passed a wide, shallow pit, although there was nothing marked on my map. Mindful that it was always possible it had been dug out by early settlers mining flints, I stopped and poked around in a few areas of exposed earth until I found a couple of flint flakes that appear to have been worked.

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To my un-scholarly eye one flake appears to just be a waste flake struck off the flint being knapped (R), but the other could be the tip of perhaps a knife that was being worked but broke in the process, or even a stone chisel (L).

Having adjusted the focus of my eyesight, as it were, to looking for worked flints, I almost missed the fact that the obvious snail shell partially revealed nearby was larger than it should have been, measuring about 5 cm across.

The Romans brought all sorts of goodies to Britain, including a large edible snail (there’s no accounting for tastes) that we now call the Roman Snail. Although found over much of Europe, they have become rare in recent times. In the UK, too, they are now only found in a few areas, including parts of the North Downs, and are protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act making it illegal to kill, handle or possess them without a licence.

The shell I found obviously belonged to one that had long ago gone to meet its maker (or maybe a few herbs and a thick gravy), although I had no way of telling how long ago.  Whether there is still a population of living snails in that area I don’t know either, since that is information that tends to be kept as secret as possible.

But both the finding of the flint flakes and the snail shell seemed to reinforce that feeling I had of continuity with the past.

Being Wistful: South Downs Way 4 – Amberley to Winchester

Mmm…I was rather forgetting I said I’d post the last part of this…

Our room looked out over what is called Amberley Swamp. We slept with the curtains open, and were woken by the pre-dawn light, although the bluey greys and purples soon gave way to greens and yellows in the low morning sun.

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But once the sun was up, the mist contrived to linger for a while longer and the cool, still air was filled with the cries of unseen birds. Later, as we left Amberley and approached the first steep climb of the day, we saw a yellowhammer on a gatepost singing its traditional ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ song.

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I tried to get a photo of the little perisher, though I wasn’t very successful.

This is all about the sheep, by the way.

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Baaa!

The South Downs landscape as we know it today was largely formed by sheep. I don’t mean that large flocks of sheep sat down and planned it as a kind of Rural Development Project, but that for certainly more than a thousand years it was grazed by huge flocks of sheep whose dung helped improve the soil so that in places crops might also be grown. This led to the felling of virtually all tree cover (originally, the Downs were forested, as was most of Britain) and the establishment of the large grassland areas we associate with the Downs today.

Fans of Terry Pratchett will recall that the Mistress Weatherwax series was set in a part of Discworld that bears a large resemblance to the Chalk Downs of England. No coincidence, I am sure, as he hailed from the Wiltshire area which includes, of course, Salisbury Plain. When I read these books, I get the sense that in describing that area, he is writing of an area that is dear and special to him. There are rolling Downs and sheep and a witch who is also a shepherd living in a shepherd’s hut, which is a caravan but not as we know it, Jim.

Shepherd’s huts were the most basic of boxes on wheels, usually with a tiny shuttered glass-less window, a bunk bed, a small wood burning stove and pretty well not much else. The  hut would be up on the downs (there’s an oxymoron that’s not an oxymoron for you) for most of the year, and the shepherd would live up there looking after the sheep. Probably no chance of a day off or a night out, month after month. It was a tough life, and not at all romantic. Even getting hold of water would be a problem, with the general lack of any water at all on top of the Downs, unless they parked up near a dew pond (see part 1).

There used to be one in the grounds of the Visitor’s Centre at Exceat, near Seaford, although I’ve no idea if it is still there now.

A number of companies now make shepherd’s huts for trendy well-off folks with a bit of garden to shove them in, and charge quite a lot of money, and they are frequently much larger than the originals would have been, and fitted out in some luxury – a far cry from how they would have been when built on the farm for the shepherd. Perhaps they need a new name for them: Mock Shepherd’s Huts, perhaps.

A quick look at what Professor Google comes up with when you enter ‘Shepherd’s hut’ into the search engine reveals an overabundance of words like ‘luxurious’, ‘style’ and ‘cool’ and ‘glamping’…you get the idea.

In the first post of this series, I mentioned I had once intended to start an outdoor adventure company, which never happened. Had I done so, it was to be called Red Kite Outdoors. I mention this, as we saw a number of Red Kites towards the end of our walk. Which gives me an opportunity to include a second poor quality photo of a bird in this post.

There, don’t say I never do anything for you.

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A Red Kite – just out of range of my camera.

As planned, on the last day we reached Winchester.

We cheated, incidentally. We were so tired after the penultimate day, we walked an easy path for 3 miles or so into the village / small town of West Meon, went for coffee there, had lunch, and then took the bus to Winchester.

We don’t care!

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An easy path

After finding our AirBnb guesthouse (pretty damn good, actually) we went and had a look in the cathedral. It is pretty close to the end (or start) point of the walk, after all.

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An arty farty reflective light shot of the cathedral that shows nothing of the cathedral

We stood around in the Cathedral as the choir went through their practice before Evensong. I do not know what piece they were singing, but it was a beautiful, haunting, ethereal piece. It was tempting to stay for Evensong, just to hear them sing again, but we had an appointment with a celebratory supper which I was reluctant to delay.

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What better way to celebrate our arrival in Winchester?

Being Wistful: South Downs Way 3 – Chanctonbury Ring to Amberley

Third post out of four – wistful memories! Feeling desperate to be out walking in these wonderful places again, but hope you’re all keeping safe and well!

We left Chanctonbury Ring without being spooked, and continued on our way.

Near Washington, the South Downs Way drops down off the Downs and walkers have to cross the busy A24. Here, they have a choice – either make a dash across the several carriageways of rapidly moving traffic and hope their luck holds, or take a detour of a mile and half to the small town itself, where they can cross via a small bridge beside the church, possibly after taking refreshments at the Frankland Arms, a conveniently situated pub.

Well, which do you think we did?

Before we reached Washington, however, we passed four disused lime kilns set into a bank. These were built in 1839 by two farmers, and were in use from then until 1930 when production ceased.

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Historically, lime Kilns were constructed to burn limestone, such as chalk, which produced quicklime. Quicklime could be added to soils that were low in nutrients, helping to fix ammonia in the soil, aerate the soil, release calcium, and make the soil more workable. It was also used to produce mortar for building, and if mixed with mud it could be used to plaster walls and floors.

It has also been used for disposing of bodies in dozens of whodunnits from Sherlock Holmes to the present day.

Useful stuff, quicklime.

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It was scorchingly hot by now, and our pace had slowed considerably. As regularly as we could, we took advantage of any shade we came across to take a breather and drink some more water.

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‘The road goes ever onward’ Wrote Tolkien. It was certainly beginning to feel that way.

After the heavy rains and wind we had encountered during the first few days, this was to be the first of several extremely hot days, during which covering ten or more miles a day with rucksacks and hills to negotiate became a mighty chore. On the plus side, we certainly felt we’d earned a cold beer when we reached our destination each night.

Being Wistful: South Downs 2 – Steyning up to Chanctonbury Ring

Continuing the re-post of this series while we’re in lockdown and looking forward to better times:

Mouse Lane begins in Steyning and runs along the foot of the scarp slope of the Downs, until it climbs a little towards Chanctonbury Ring, an old hill fort. It is a delightful route, as delightful as its name; a sunken lane full of flowers and bees and butterflies (and, no doubt, mice), cool under the overhanging trees in the hot morning’s sun. It would be pleasant to follow it the whole way, but our route takes us along the ridge, and so we leave the lane to take a footpath up the steep scarp slope.

But where we leave the lane, there is a poem inscribed on a stone block. It was written in 1915 during WWI, by a British soldier poet stationed in the Somme. We pause to read it then stand for a while in silence, each of us alone with our thoughts.

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I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring

In summertime, and on the downs how larks and linnets sing

High in the sun. The wind comes off the sea, and, oh, the air!

I never knew till now that life in old days was so fair.

But now I know it in this filthy rat-infested ditch,

Where every shell must kill or spare, and God alone knows which.

And I am made a beast of prey, and this trench is my lair,

My God, I never knew till now that those days were so fair.

And we assault in half-an-hour, and it’s a silly thing:

I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring.

Chance memory – John Stanley Purvis 1890 – 1968

Our footpath, ironically, then takes us past an old rifle range. So old, in fact, that according to a walker we stopped to talk with it is still possible to dig musket balls out of the bank behind the range.

On top of the ridge, there is a slight breeze, but it is already very hot and we are clearly in for a hard day’s walking.

Robert Macfarlane, writing in The Old Ways, records sleeping in the Ring one night, and being woken at 2 a.m. by blood-chilling screams that seemed to come from above him, and then proceeded to circle the Ring for a quarter of an hour, although he could see nothing that might account for the sounds – he rules out the possibility of a screech owl – until they finally disappeared and he fell asleep again.

I would never have shut my eyes there again, if that were me.

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The Ring has a reputation as the most haunted place in Sussex, with tales of hapless benighted travellers being scared witless for centuries. In 1966, apparently, a group of bikers decided to stay the night there and were forced to flee in terror.

We’ve been to Chanctonbury Ring before and it certainly has an atmosphere. I would have liked to have lingered for a while longer, but the downside of the journey is that we had still to cover quite a few miles in the heat to get to Amberley that afternoon.

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Three years ago when we visited the Ring, the weather was gloomy and somewhat more atmospheric, although we were mercifully left alone by whatever might be lurking around there on the astral plane.

Thankfully, it seems they only come out at night.

 

Being Wistful: South Downs Way 1 – Eastbourne to Steyning

Some of my own response to the Covid-19 crisis and the restrictions we all find ourselves under is to revisit my favourite places, in books or thought, films or photographs, or even old blog posts. It is sobering and depressing to realise I may not be able to go more than a few miles from home over the coming months, but this does help a little.

The South Downs are a favourite, so I’m going to re-post this short series I put up a couple of years ago after our most recent walk along the South Downs Way:

 

Once upon a time, or five or six years ago, if you prefer, I thought I would start up my own outdoor adventure company. It never happened in the end, largely due to the cost of insurance. However, if I had gone through with it I have to admit it would have been largely so I could go on long distance trails both in the UK and overseas without having to pay for it.

Oh, well. It was a nice idea.

The South Downs Way is a long distance footpath of one hundred miles in length, running from Eastbourne to Winchester, or Winchester to Eastbourne, if you must, along the top of the South Downs.

Hence the name.

We walked it in May.

It is usual, when writing about a journey – especially a long distance walk – to write in some detail about the scenery and the route, in sequential order. I don’t think I’ll do that this time. Instead I’ll probably jump about all over the place writing about odd things we found particularly interesting.  And post one or two photos of the stunning scenery…

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Such as this one.

So, a few points of interest.

This, then, is a dew pond:

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Chalk is a porous rock, allowing any rainfall to rapidly soak away, so the only way of providing water on the top of the downs is by artificial means. Dew ponds have been made up there for hundreds of years; a hollow is dug and lined with clay, which then fills naturally when the rain falls. Dew is probably not a significant contributor, despite the name. The downside to this simple system is should the pond dry out, then the clay, too, will dry out. When this happens, it will shrink and crack, and subsequent rainfall will leak out.

And while on the subject of rainfall, we didn’t have glorious weather all the way:

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We were forced to seek refuge in a convenient pub at the Devil’s Dyke for a couple of hours, but we made the best of it. This was clearly A Good Move because although it was still pouring with rain when we eventually left the pub, it began to clear up in about an hour and then we had sunshine for the rest of the day.

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These are cowslips. The word comes from the Old English cuslyppe, which means cow dung, because, yes, that’s where they like to grow, apparently. Years ago, before the coming of intensive farming practices and industrial weedkillers, our fields were full of cowslips, but they seem to be met with now primarily in the more open landscapes – like downland. For the first few days of our walk, especially, we saw lots of cowslips.

We had a rest day at Steyning, although we stayed at nearby Bramber.

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Bramber Castle is a strange and mysterious place, which magically energises the over sixties and causes them to revert to their childhood.

Although not for long, sadly.

Stir Crazy – A Bit

We are not quite in lockdown, but for someone who likes to spend as much time outside as possible, it feels a little like it.

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We are more fortunate than many, in that we are a short walk away from woodland, and then a limited amount of open countryside. But I yearn to walk the hills, the truly open places like moorland and marshland. I wonder whether to take a bus or train the comparatively short journey to these places. I could be up on the South Downs in two hours, and their pull is almost painful at the moment.

And my reading and writing have been affected by all this, too. I was halfway through My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk, which I was enjoying then but suddenly I have lost all interest in it. It is set in Istanbul in the sixteenth century but my heart yearns for the English countryside. So much so, that I can no longer bear to read it. So I have set it aside for now and begun to read The Moor by William Atkins; stories of myth, history and literature connected with the moorland areas of England.

And likewise, my enthusiasm for my current writing projects has dried up, and for similar reasons. I am in the middle of re-writing one novel, and over halfway through writing another, but I cannot currently drum up any enthusiasm for either. One is set in sixteenth century Persia, the other in Northern India in the 1980’s and yes, I just want to be outside, here.

I have been writing notes, though, for another idea I had intended to start only after completing one or both of those novels, but I have now decided to allow myself to begin it. I need a project I can really enthuse over, and this one will be set in the wildness of Southern England at some point in the past (I know what it is, but I’m not telling you yet!). I hope this will both give me some sort of pleasurable focus for my writing and also allow me to wander, in my mind, in those places I yearn to be.

On Windover Hill and The Oddness of Time

Yesterday, we joined a walk to the Long Man of Wilmington, on the South Downs in Sussex. The walk was led by composer Nathan James, and Justin Hopper, the author of The Old Weird Albion.

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The Long Man is a chalk figure etched through the grass into the hillside, below the summit of Windover Hill, revealing the chalk that lies beneath. When and why it was first cut is the subject of myth and speculation – and that brings us neatly to Nathan’s new composition.

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On 7th March, Nathan will premier his fantastic new choral work On Windover Hill at Boxgrove Priory, Chichester, Sussex. This has been inspired by the Long Man, its mythology, and the art that has arisen around it, as well as the written history and the geography of the surrounding land. It has a very English feel to it, in the tradition of Vaughan Williams or Holst.

Full details of the work and the performance can be found here. Tickets can also be bought by clicking ‘The Premier’ link in the sidebar there. We have ours, and it would be great to see it sold out!

This walk was by way of a taster for the concert, with a mixture of history and mythology imparted along the way, a poem from Peter Martin, read by himself, and extracts from stories read out by Justin, all of which referenced the Long Man. Also  Anna Tabbush sang two folk songs, one of which was the only song known about the Long Man, appropriately enough called The Long Man and written by the late Maria Cunningham.

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I’m not sure How many people I expected to see, but we were around forty, with a surprisingly large number being artists of one sort or another.

The weather was so much better than we had a right to expect – the forecast had been for clouds and rain, but the clouds cleared during the morning, and we had plenty of sunshine as we ascended, although it rather lived up to its name at the top, with more than enough wind for everyone.

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Here, the remains of prehistoric burial mounds sit overlooking the Long Man, and the rest of the surrounding countryside.

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Some landscapes seem to muck around with your perception of time, and Downland seems especially prone to this. I’m not entirely sure why this should be, but suspect it is a combination of factors.

It is a very open landscape, and other than the contours of the land and a few trees, frequently the only features that stand out are prehistoric ones, such as barrows and chalk figures. Due to the uncertainty around their origins, these have a timelessness about them, a fluidity when it comes to grasping their history. We see the long view, which perhaps works on our sense of time as well as space. The more recent additions to the landscape are usually in the form of fences, which can easily seem invisible as we look around for something less ephemeral than the open sky to fix our eyes on.

The Downs are an ancient landscape, in any case. When human beings recolonised what is now Britain after the last Ice Age, at first they kept to the higher ground which gave less impediment to travel and settlement than the marshy and thickly wooded lowlands. Most standing stones and burial mounds from the Neolithic or earlier are found on these higher areas.

I do not get these feelings in more recent landscapes. At a medieval castle or manor house, it is easy to imagine the inhabitants baking bread or sweeping corridors; activities as natural to us today as they were then. I feel a comfortable mixture of the old and the new, a recognisable timeline connecting the past with me.

But barrows, standing stones and hillside figures have a purpose alien and unknown to us. Step on the ground near these remains and you can feel the presence of the unknown. No wonder the belief in the past in faeries and elves who inhabited the underground, and who lived essentially out of time.

They offend our carefully erected sense of order and belonging and, perhaps, still pose a barely acknowledged threat to us today.

I might be imagining it, of course, but listening to the extracts from On Windover Hill on the website, I think I recognise that feeling in places, an unexpected musical response to my own feelings. And then Nathan’s description of his creative process on the website echoes some of this too.

I’m hooked!

Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

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Today’s mood music is early Fairport Convention while I tinker around with a poem about crows and contemplate a painting of the same. Sandy Denny’s wonderful voice should lift my spirits a bit. The climate crisis and the dreaded ‘B’ word just leave me feeling depressed and listless.

Perhaps I’ll read something.

Or go for a walk.

I’ll catch up with everyone sometime soon.

A Little Piece Of Wilderness

I went for a walk yesterday, in search of wilderness.

Although we live on the edge of a small town, surrounded by gentle countryside, I still contrive to find some wilderness. It takes me about ten minutes to leave the streets and houses behind, and then I slow my pace and feel myself relax. Tensions drop away as soon as I am surrounded by trees.

There is little wilderness to be had where I walk, yet that does not mean there is none.

Hedgerows can be corridors of wilderness. Perhaps a transient wilderness, but a wilderness all the same. Many hedgerows in the British Isles are hundreds of years old, and although each individual one may be comparatively small, places within them may have been undisturbed for most of that time and during that time many species of plants have flourished there and smaller creatures made their homes.

My path goes through a thin belt of woodland, too open to be classed as a hedgerow and too open to have private, wild, places, but once I emerge into the daylight again, there is a hedgerow alongside the path. And for a short distance, the hedgerow widens several feet, and becomes a true wilderness.

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Here, a patch of elder, sycamore and ash trees are surrounded by a dense undergrowth of brambles, interspersed with patches of nettles, a couple of holly bushes, and a few smaller plants squeezing into the daylight where they can.

It is the home of flies and spiders and beetles, visited while I am there by blue tits, magpies and some smaller birds I cannot identify.

Deep within it, there will be mice and shrews, and very likely larger mammals making their homes.

It is impenetrable by anyone without hacking their way in, and fortunately there is no incentive for anyone to do that.

It is wild, and I love that it is there.

An Abundance of Greyness

It is a grey, overcast, cool and drizzly August day, and I am feeling particularly flat and uninspired, and disinclined to human company. So in the absence of mountains, what else would I rather do than go for a walk in the woods?

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Taking black and white photographs to reflect my mood, naturally…

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Loving the Oak trees that seem to somehow look as awkward and as out of sorts as I feel…

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Relishing the lushness of the plants that still seem comparatively fresh…

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The fantastic shapes of old wood…

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The roots that look as though they might attempt to encircle the earth like Yggdrasil, the mighty tree of Norse legend…

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The paths…

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And the umbels.