Umbilicus mundi

Posted in Uncategorized on April 19, 2022 by cliffdean

Too rarely, I cross the county to the Ancestral Heartlands, in reality the provenance of just one quarter of my family. On my mother’s side there was less adherence to family origins: her barber father from a Scottish immigrant family in Luton, her straw-plaiting mother from a downland family just outside the town. Both my grandmothers grew up on chalk. On my father’s father’s side, a line of coach-builders and undertakers from the railway arches at Deptford, wives from there or Bermondsey until my grandmother moved from the South Downs to the city to work as a domestic servant.

From the country suburb of Bromley, my father & his siblings holidayed with relatives in East Lavant, just north of Chichester, remaining strongly attached to that area and identifying with it so exclusively that it was only in late adult life that I fully realised the London connection. When I and my sisters were very little we too spent time in smoky flint cottages at the foot of the Trundle, whence come some of my very earliest memories (the others from our state-of-the-art prefab in SE London).

Too rarely in adult life I’ve returned to the Chichester area – not to watch birds but to explore flint villages, walk on the Downs and poke around churchyards. The Lavant – a winterbourne – springs in East Dean, on the north side of the Trundle – a massive chalk dome surmounted by neolithic & Iron Age earthworks – curving round its west side before flowing south through Chichester and out at Dell Quay.

From this family tree you can see that my antecedents moved downstream, village by village, over the course of the 19th century: East Dean, Charlton, Singleton, Mid Lavant, E Lavant. How long before that the Norrells lived in that same valley I’ve not discovered, although the head of the tree was born the other side of the road at Funtington and there were two other incomers: Kezia & Ann, both of Welsh origin.

Last year we rented a cottage in Singleton – the kind in which my forebears would have raised numerous children but now stand empty for the most part as second homes with expensive cars outside.

The families were employed in various capacities on the Goodwood Estate, including care of the steam pump which brought water up from a bore-hole. The last to die in East Lavant was my severe Aunt May, who I now discover was a bit of a rebel in her youth, whose funeral I attended while I was still at college in the early 70s and whose unmarked grave I rediscovered last year thanks to a rediscovered relative, Jenny, who still lives in the area.

Since, last year, the twin crises of Brexit and Covid had laid waste to the hospitality industry, “The Partridge” (which I suspect was once run by Kezia’s brother, doing a roaring trade during Goodwood Week) in Singleton was closed for lack of staff so we walked the half-mile to Charlton to eat in “The Fox Goes Free” and liked it so much that we’ve just stayed there for another few days.

Apart from my family connections, I knew nothing of Charlton’s significant place in English culture:

  1. It was the site of the first organised fox-hunt, “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the inedible” as Wilde so pithily put it, which the English public, by means of fake prints and place-mats in pubs has been hoodwinked into believing a true representation of the finest this country can offer. You can learn a bit about it on the Goodwood website or look at photos of ghastly people at Tatler. I say no more, except that this grim pursuit started from “The Fox”, as it then was. Quite likely my ancestors were there. On foot.

But just across the road stands this extraordinary building, Fox Hall, which served as a Meeting Room for Ghastly People prior to their blood-drooling escapades. You can stay there; it belongs to the Landmark Trust. It is said to be “magical”.

2) Fast forward to 1915 and in the very same pub was held the very first meeting of the Women’s Institute. there’s a wooden plaque to prove it though the WI website begs to differ. At any rate, a very much more wholesome and worthwhile community and one of my forebears, though I don’t know just which “Mrs Norrell” she is, was there at the start.

This was Levin Down last summer. It’s a SWT reserve.

3) Rewind again to the late 18th century and the 3rd Duke of Richmond was having drawn up a very excellent and accurate map, employing surveyors named Yeakell & Gardner – yes ,the very map-makers I’ve so frequently praised for their wonderful map of Sussex. I believe it was Lennox who commissioned for them a monster theodolite as big as a cart-wheel. This was at the foundation of the Ordnance Survey, which has been in one form or another at my fingertips for most of my life.

I think I’ve spent enough time on this for now. Chalkpit Lane, The Rubbin’ House, the scandal of the Lavant Caves and the wonder of the Trundle itself will have to wait.

Return to TQ81R

Posted in Uncategorized on April 3, 2022 by cliffdean

This circular route, south of Pett village, is one I devised during the 2008-11 Bird Atlas and which I repeated for some years, counting every species which was interesting, demanding and actually quite arduous. so a couple of years ago I just stopped doing it. Today though, a cold N wind deterred me from a walk on the exposed marshes, while a sheltered itinerary in the spring sunshine seemed quite attractive. I didn’t count the birds, though later when I looked at old records I rather wished I had. I’m sure, for instance, that there are now more House Sparrows. Certain species remain in the same places, Mistle Thrushes for example.

….and Feral Pigeons on the church spire. Since I last came here, a group has formed to take care of the churchyard by steering a path between biodiversity and traditional tidy-mindedness (lawns all through the village are still mown with relentless severity) in the confidence that some former botanical richness will re-emerge. What won’t return without the aid of dynamite is the beautiful view from the churchyard, insensitively blocked by the construction of stables on an adjoining Grand Design.

Winter storms have toppled top-heavy, shallow-rooted chestnut coppice in Roughters Wood, creating glades among the even-aged trees. This is a site for the thinly-scattered Marsh Tit and one is singing.

Rosemary Lane: Paris – San Francisco.

…and the overhanging Yew Tree of the eponymous Cottage, where a Bullfinch is quietly singing and – the most surprising and pleasing bird of the walk – a Yellowhammer. They used to be along here years ago and in other lanes too but in recent years have thinned out to invisibility, hard to find even up the hill at the Country Park, so this is a very welcome return.

Either side of the lane are subtle changes in land use. One small field has become a putting green with a picnic table. In the corner of another, smallholding polytunnels have been shredded by storms. Others are neglected and weedy. A small pond is occupied by two Canada Geese while a Heron watches nearby and a Moorhen calls from cover. Beside a paddock long mangled by horses, there are now hen coops. A pair of Buzzards glides overhead and the fourth GS Woodpecker of the morning is drumming unseen.

Market Wood: This has puzzled me ever since I’ve known it: one side of this nameless little stream is green with Bluebells but the other is not. I imagine that what is now woodland to the right was once not; ploughed perhaps or rootled by pigs. But how long ago? The 18th century map shows continuous tree cover. A few years ago, Rooks from the Two Sawyers started up a satellite colony but that venture has now been abandoned. Another outlying group of about 20 nests prospers at Chick Hill and just this spring I’ve noticed a couple of independent pairs, one Rectory Park and another behind our house, the latter attracting curious groups of onlooking corvids, amazed at the audacity of it all.

Market wood is home to another pair of Marsh Tits and a cooing Stock Dove but I’m unable to find either Gold – or Firecrests in the hollies, let alone a Tawny Owl, just the only Jay of the walk and a Sparrowhawk, bring the tally up to 43 species which is quite good for a bit of ordinary countryside..

River Deep, Wealden High

Posted in Uncategorized on March 29, 2022 by cliffdean

From the highest treetops, like lighthouses on headlands Mistle Thrushes triangulate the forest with beams of song. Standing close beneath one bird I can hear, for the first time in my life, quiet, squeaky, interlocutory warbles bridging each declamatory phrase. How have I missed this for so many years?

Though the furnaces and forges have been silent for centuries, the hammer ponds silted to meadows and the ex-industrial buildings repurposed for leisure, the iron continues to ooze day and night, year after year.

Common Frogs, safe in these uplands from invasive Marsh Frogs, continue to spawn in rusty water whose chemistry is being subtly modified by alkaline run-off from forest tracks surfaced with gypsum from the Mountfield mines.

This Purple Toothwort, only recently a new plant to me and now speckling the forest floor, turns out to be not a truly wild one but a garden variety which is making its way downstream.

Resonant calls of Great Tits & Nuthatches echo from the yet unmuffled timber while Siskins twizzle ever greater enthusiasm among the Birch twigs. In the deep-cut streambed, Grey Wagtails flutter over gravel beds and fallen branches. Out of sight a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calls before flying further to drum for a while.

The reptilian profile of a storm-smashed veteran Beech echoes that of fossils sleeping deep in the sandstone beneath.

Soggy slopes of seeping clay are emerald and fragrant with Wild Garlic at the dawn of another Pesto Season.

Ekphrastic, apparently

Posted in Uncategorized on March 15, 2022 by cliffdean

Last Monday we were once more in Canterbury, for the first time since lockdown. Once more, we walked in alongside the Stour from Chartham to a city in which parts seemed like a ghost town, especially the once-busy streets around the Cathedral which, now deprived of the lively cross-Channel day-trippers and school parties, are enjoying the Brexit Opportunities of desertion and silence.

It was getting like this before the pandemic, which has delivered the death-blow to many more businesses, in the main streets too. The few shops which have reopened around the Buttermarket which faces on to this key cultural site are depressingly vulgar.

The Cathedral nave rang to a building-site soundscape of clanking and banging as renovation scaffolding was dismantled and removed, but down in the Crypt there was no more than a muffled mumble from a group of students drawing -none of them was, however, looking at the subject I find most fascinating and which I have described before in the blog: the hallucinatory carvings on four faces of just one capital. (There are four more, but less complex and definitely less malevolent.) (It’s the malevolence that magnetizes me.)

I wasn’t drawing this time, instead taking a while to once more attempt an account of the image before me. It’s not straightforward. Here’s what I wrote on a previous post a few years ago:

It really is quite dark in there, flickering candles and soft lighting, so your eyes adjust only slowly to pick out the details. Through drawing, the rhythms emerge, far more subtle and complex than you expect. The sculptor’s skull may have housed dark visions but his hands were masterful.

But what is it? It seems to be a big bird ridden by some mad, snarling, long-fanged, two-headed hound. So far, so nightmarish. The bird’s long and curving tail – actually more like a lizard’s….has another head at the end….another bird? (ah, they’ve both got ears)…which is biting one of those….well, I first took them to be stylized Peacock’s feathers (they seem to end in eyes) but they could be tassels of some sort, attached to the saddle upon which that hound-creature (oh my God, it’s got breasts) is riding, guiding with reins and stirrup. Though facing in the wrong direction.

Why is the direction wrong? if that’s the way the stirrups are facing it must be the right way. Except that you’d expect the bird’s head, which, after all, is where the reins are attached, to be the right way…rather than the tail…

Could the two heads refer to Roman god Janus, looking both forward and back, though in neither case with great pleasure. If it’s a wolf, could the breasts relate to Lupa, the founding she-wolf of pagan Rome? Of the two beasts, the bird-or-is-it seems less malevolent.

And what is the right head pecking? If a tassel or a Peacock’s tail feather (= vanity), why? Or is it fruit? Is the bird mistaking it for fruit? Really, the hound/wolf doesn’t know which way to turn, is twisting back as the Big Bird pecks its shoulder.

I’ve done some paintings based on these capitals, and in looking once more at this one I was motivated to follow again that swooping Endless Knot of rhythmic curves, to better convey the cruel snarl, the wrinkled muzzle, the sabre fangs.

By strange coincidence I received an email that day which referred to Ekphrastic poetry. A new word! And one meaning the description of an artwork. So this is what I had been up to in the crypt – who knew?

A few years ago, in seeking information about these puzzling sculptures I turned, logically enough, to the Cathedral Information Desk where they fetched out for me a pamphlet: “The Canterbury Monsters” by J H Vaux , Meresborough Books 1989 ISBN 0948193 46 8. It’s out of print, but they let me photograph the pages in which J H Vaux had been engaged in a similar search for meaning.

In spite of his desire to deduce some coherent meaning Vaux, like me, has sometimes to concede the irreducible mystery of these works. While in the image above there seems to be a clear aggressor/victim axis, the previous one is not so easy. I suppose the wolf/jackal/whatever is clearly menacing and the bird/lizard/whatever is subjugated. But…..

And as I pondered underground these ancient and enduring mysteries, I was conscious of a similarly pitiless ferocity visited upon the cellar-bound citizens of Mariupol.

Not 5 Years Ago

Posted in Uncategorized on March 8, 2022 by cliffdean

In Lviv

Posted in Uncategorized on March 8, 2022 by cliffdean

My strongest motivation for visiting Ukraine was reading “East WestStreet” by Philippe Sands.

Death in Lviv

Posted in Uncategorized on March 8, 2022 by cliffdean

Walking out along the avenue from the city centre, you pass between bigger gardens, with calling Robins & Blackbirds, until you reach the hill of the beautiful Lychakiv Cemetery, earlier but similar in purpose to the necropolises  of London and, like them, arboreal through neglect. Unlike then, though, in that the site was abandoned or vandalised for ideological rather than financial reasons as successive occupying powers sought to selectively celebrate or erase reminders of Ukrainian identity.

Through gaps between the tall trees there appeared a few Steppe Buzzards & a Lesser Spotted Eagle circling south towards Crimea.

Like Highgate there are poignant memorials to lost sons & daughters…


…and national heroes, none of them known to me and Cyrillic inscriptions revealing nothing more. Woodland birds – tits, woodpeckers and Jays – call in the yellowing foliage. Emergent tree roots and Japanese Knotweed are elbowing monuments aside.

There are themes of exile, recalling the mass deportations which have marked Ukraine’s history.

In the green hilltop silence, away from the city traffic, with sunlight slanting through the autumn leaves, we pause by a field of steel crosses bedecked with red & white ribbons, commemorating the Polish-Ukrainian War of 1918. A Middle Spotted Woodpecker creeps up a nearby Ash.

Another warm walk past a pleasant park and a right fork then a left into Bryullov Street brings us to the undistinguished brown door of the Lontskoho detention centre, now the National Museum-Memorial of Victims of the Occupation Regimes. Inside, a guard waves us through a much heavier door into corridors painted a chipped institutional green. In the first room, a custodian is delivering a very lengthy lecture to a group of police cadets in big hats.

Inspection hatches – patriotic red berries of Guelder Rose have been left on this one – give a view of cells lit by one small high window. There’s an interrogation room furnished with one table bearing a lamp, a typewriter, a stack of papers, an ink-stand and a telephone. there’s a chair on one side and a stool on the other. Another room is equipped with a camera on a tripod and developing equipment.

The condemned cell has no window.

In 1941 the NKVD were caught out by the rapidity of the German advance and had to decide what to do with the 4,000 political prisoners in Lwów, as it then was. They killed them all. the 1,600 in this centre were shot in the small adjoining yard and buried in shallow graves. Once the Nazis arrived they publicized the atrocity, blaming it on Jews who they required to disinter and lay out the corpses for identification by family members.

The new administration then, with the eager assistance of the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police set about the extermination of the 150,000 Jewish population, in massacres and at the camps of Janowska & Belzec. Of 30 pre-war synagogues just one survives. The site of the Golden Rose synagogue is preserved as a memorial.

Across the street, people eat and drink as always. Little children play among the slabs and two teenage girls swig wine from a bottle.

It doesn’t stop there. Back in Lychakiv Cemetery, we’d noticed down the hill, through the sunlit leaves, some bigger crosses.

War graves in Britain tend to be discreet, bearing only a name & regiment and, with painful exceptions, relate to a previous era. Here we found ourselves looking into the shockingly fresh faces of the dead from the recent Russian incursion into E Ukraine, some of the boys younger than our own…

…while in the furthest corner giant teardrop wreaths marked the graves of this year’s victims.

When I’ve told friends about all this, they respond that it must have been a pretty depressing trip. While that’s true – and there’s much, much worse – my response is that it’s “thought-provoking”. One of those thoughts is that I’ve been supremely lucky to have lived in a relatively peaceful and democratic country ( I know, “at whose expense?” and “so far so good”) and another is that this happy state is extremely fragile. Yet another is that such a life has made us cosily complacent. Last night, as I watched “The Death of Stalin”, I was speculating that its wit and irony was only possible in a country that had not, in living memory, suffered such levels of oppression.

Dusk in Odesa

Posted in Uncategorized on March 8, 2022 by cliffdean

Beneath the street light of an intersection I’m once more like a five-year-old, peering at the jumble of shapes on the sign, referring back to the bit of paper I keep folded in my pocket. I’m like all those children with whom I’ve sat over decades of teaching as they attempt to decode the squiggles, trying to distinguish one from another, trying to remember the sound each is supposed to represent. Except that for me there’s already a contrary alphabet firmly installed in which some letters sound the same, some look similar but say something else and others are alien. The sounds too are sometimes new. The pupils with whom I now feel so much in sympathy are those for whom those squiggles remained mute.

One strategy is just to remember the entire shape of the word and match it to the tiny lettering on the grid of streets on our folded-out map, but the words are so long… Then a breakthrough – the same I heard from our own children during their first year of primary school as we’d be driving along and one would suddenly exclaim, “That says STOP.” With me it’s “P…U…S-H-K-I-N.. It says PUSHKIN! And that’s Ekaterina!”

For six blocks we’ve marched through alternations of light and deep pools of shadow along avenues where the tall trees lean against ornate crumbling facades, providing multiple trip hazards in the form of their erupting roots, remaining  stumps and hollows along with drains and displaced cobbles and, sweating, have just about given up our search for Roz Marin, when I spot black hats silhouetted in the distance. There was a Jewish restaurant much closer to the hotel but this is supposed to bethe best. Inside, it’s boiling hot and devoid of diners, closed; the figures  I saw are crowding instead into the tiny adjacent baker’s, where trays of sweet-smelling bread are being unloaded from the ovens.

What next? Head for those lights. But it’s a fairground, with just shawarma stalls, and beyond it a dark park.

Dark is not threatening though. The figures moving through the shadows are just strolling: old people, young couples, families with young children out in the warm night.

If we walk to the end of the park we should come to the sea.

Indeed we do, but between us and the water is a nocturne of hulls, superstructures and gantries.

Time to turn a right angle and once more enlist my crumpled bit of paper, passport to the word-world of Cyril, in the search of the lights of Deribasivska Street with its restaurants, giant illuminated fruits, horses decorated as giraffes and crowds strolling confidently along repaired pavements (but most girls wear flat shoes all the same).

According to the news, Odesa is about to be bombed…

Posted in Uncategorized on March 6, 2022 by cliffdean

I must have been aware of Odessa beforehand but for so many people of my generation the name signifies a celebrated sequence in Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” during which tumbling panic ensues as innocent protestors are massacred by Czarist soldiers.

Now, they are named Potemkin Steps and are a popular place to be photographed against a view of the bay marred by a tall hotel built in mysterious circumstances and never occupied.

More recently, in Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare With Amber Eyes” I read of the fabulous wealth accrued by 19th century traders in grain from Ukraine’s fertile black soil, invested in magnificent palaces here, in Vienna and Paris

Following decades of neglect some of these splendours have been restored…

…while others are crumbling.

The streets and parks are shaded with tall trees.


Posted in Uncategorized on March 5, 2022 by cliffdean

Another dark and drizzly morning. But that’s not the bad news. That, instead, is from Ukraine, where somehow artillery fire has been directed onto a nuclear power station housing six reactors. Reckless? Careless? Incompetence? At any rate, madly dangerous and, added to the inexorably callous targeting of civilians, residential blocks and schools, echoes the atrocities in Syria and Yemen but where are their flags among the ubiquitous blue & yellow; who knows what they even look like?

So – where, on a morning like this? Should I stand in a line at Flat Beach to tick off Green-winged Teal for my Life List?? Or head away to one of the quiet places I’ve recently ignored? But not one involving congested traffic or terrifying lanes; it has to be Brede High Wood, where there’s always enough room to get lost. The car park is almost empty and in four hours I meet just two people.

The popular main tracks are well trodden into slithery, squelchy, sticky mud but from those spider out blackened desire paths and from those too digression offers a sense of adventure and liberty, albeit the freedom to get snared by brambles and poked in the eye by twigs. Or to attempt the crossing of an arc of springs, oozing into shiny blue-black bogs of loudly sucking leaf-sludge.

There’s hardly any breeze to compete with the dominance of treetop Song Thrushes, shrub-layer Robins, undergrowth Wrens and the trickle of streams cutting their narrow way through the clay.

The forest floor is criss-crossed with rotting coppice, thrown down thirty-five years ago, and littered with lichen-crusted branches snapped down just last week.

I don’t know this part of the wood very well, I have difficulty in even visualizing its topography and there’s no way I can walk a straight line so the Wandering Reflex takes over. This way, that track; following old hedge-banks from the time it was farmland and the streams that preceded them by millennia.

This former Hornbeam hedge appears to align with an old lane marked on the OS map. It’s now truncated and stranded between more recent plantations of pine and oak
Less historic is a Volkswagen engine block parked by a pond which, from the symmetrical spoil heaps, must have been a hillside quarry.

Great, Blue, Coal, Marsh Tits, Nuthatches, Chaffinches, Bullfinches. Hardly any Woodpigeons which, in winter, are not much to be found in woods.

Not that long ago this was a meadow. Mow overgrown with even-age Hawthorns, it is studded with old ant-hills like the one at bottom right, relics of a sunnier aspect. The floor is green with Dog’s Mercury.
Another gothick Ash stool which has looked ready to collapse for many years. The left-hand trunk has now collapsed but that on the right is still tall and strong in spite of its hollowed base.
Some years ago I did a number of paintings of this tree.
…and about the same time painted this abandoned track.

On the mossy banks, Primroses are blooming. In many places, emerald spears of Bluebell are thrusting through the dead leaves and here, by a stream, the air is already scented with Wild Garlic – it’s pesto season!

As I’m walking back uphill, it starts raining. In a dark Hornbeam coppice my phone pings with this photo from a friend in Germany: “Cranes are flying back!” They were flying over when this area was uninhabited forest, when it was an agricultural village, when it was a mighty conurbation of mines and furnaces and streets, when it was bombed to rubble and rebuilt.