The Weald of Kent and Sussex

South East England is my area. It is where I was raised and, other than a few years spent abroad, it is where I have lived my whole life. In particular, the Weald and the Downs. Not so much the coastline, which has never particularly attracted me, but the hills and valleys, the woodlands and rabbits, the hidden crags and open downland, the land of streams and foxes and badgers, birds and villages and butterflies.

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On the Sussex Downs

There is a curious fact about the wooded areas of South east England, which is that there is more woodland, covering a greater area now, than was the case four hundred years ago.

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Back then, South East England was the industrial heartland of Britain. This was before the discovery of the coal seams of the North and the Midlands, and the various factors which would eventually lead to the greatest impact of the Industrial revolution being in those areas.  Instead, the modest iron deposits of the Weald were mined and worked into firedogs and nails, cannon and cooking pans, as the wealth of words such as hammer and forge in place names still bear witness.

 

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Huge numbers of trees were cut down to feed the fires of these forges, and huge numbers also for charcoal burning, for building, and near the coast the great Kent and Sussex oaks were in huge demand to build the large number of ships the navy demanded. But then from the mid eighteenth century onwards, industry began to shift northwards.

Despite the pressures on the land for building and for farming in this crowded corner of our crowded island, there is actually more woodland now than there was during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And that is not something that can be said of many parts of Britain or, I suspect, many parts of the world at all.

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The Weald is an area whose underlying rocks are sandstone and clay, which means that the unimproved soils are inevitably either light and sandy or thick and claggy. In some parts there are old sunken tracks known as ‘Summer Roads’, so-called because they became impassable in the winter months, when they might have had a foot or more of thick, wet, muddy, clay on their surface. When these were in use, journeys between villages that might take an hour or two in summer, could became almost impossibly long during the winter.

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At the moment, all everything in the news seems depressing and unpleasant and so, this post is an indulgence. Just a smattering of information, and a few photos of places I love, largely to improve my mood.

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Wordy Wednesday 5

Words.

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On World Book day I blogged about the wonderful collaboration between Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, The Lost Words, and in this I suggested that perhaps it grew out of Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks.

But Landmarks is a marvellous book in its own right, and has much the the same aim as The Lost Words, in that it introduces the reader to scores of words it is unlikely they will have come across before.

These are almost exclusively words from Britain used to describe objects and phenomena in the natural world, be it a word peculiar to East Anglia for a small stream (a currel, since you ask), a word from Sussex for a heap of dung (a maxon), or, from Suffolk, a measure of herrings or sprats (a cade).

Most of these are obscure because they are words in local dialect, and therefore only used in a small number of places, or have fallen into disuse and been virtually lost over the years, or are very specialised words that it is unlikely the majority of people would ever come across.

The book is filled with background stories by the author, either of his own experiences or those of other writers and scholars with a deep love and understanding of words and the natural world, which makes the whole book far more than simply a glossary of lost words.

The reader is introduced to a wealth of knowledge and experience on all aspects of the subject, from seas and rivers to woodlands and mountains, farmed land, the strange no-man’s land at the edge of settlements, and even deep underground.

Personally, I have been trying to drop the word smeuse into conversations since reading the book. It is a Sussex word, and so was / is in use fairly locally to me and means…well, read the book and find out what it means.

Oh, and maxon. Naturally.

Certainly a five star read.

A Sussex Footpath

The sun shone all day.

We took a bus out to the village of Hartfield in Sussex, and had a long walk through the woods and fields, and over a few hills. Spring is certainly here, now. Although there are not yet many flowers out in the countryside, even though there are lots of daffodils and snowdrops and crocuses in the gardens, there is a wonderful fresh green gradually spreading across fields and through the woods.

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The land has already dried out quite a lot after winter – unusually, so I think. Probably because we have had a relatively dry winter around here. But even where a little water still stood around in the fields and on the paths, it just gave the sun somewhere to glitter and sparkle.

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There were plenty of birds around – tits and finches, blackbirds, thrushes, pigeons, skylarks, buzzards and a hovering kestrel.

We saw the first butterflies of the year: a Brimstone and one or two Peacocks.

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There is blossom on the Blackthorn trees, and there were a few flowers out. In places, there were lots of Lesser Celandines, and here and there a few primroses.

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Honestly, I cannot think of a better way to spend a day.

South Downs Way 4 – Amberley to Winchester

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?