Antiquarian & Equestrian

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on July 8, 2020 by cliffdean

A constant theme of these posts has been the difficulty of placing a walk on a day of good weather – or rather perhaps of avoiding miserable conditions. Sunday looked,,,reasonable compared at least with Saturday’s rain. “Dark cloud” said the forecast for the first couple of hours, and that could have been the case at lower altitudes but in the Sussex Alps it meant grey drifts of rain, dripping trees, puddles……and mud. Over the prolonged dry spring I’d more or less forgotten about that. But as we set off along the forest track into Brightling Park there it was: yellow, impermeable, slippery.

Poor land in the drizzle, best for grazing (right), forestry (left) and hunting (pheasant pens, foreground left)

Once into the woods some wonderful habitat of mixed deciduous & coniferous woodland, both open and closed, low coppice regrowth, Occasional ancient trees like the Oak above, pollarded at some point in the past then left to grow massively top-heavy, to split apart, the wounds rotting to create welcome worlds for insects and their predators. 

Woodland birds are not conspicuous in July but there were common species such as Song Thrush, Nuthatch, Treecreeper & Siskin. We spent more time looking at plants and agreeing that, in sunshine, the place looked good for butterflies.

Out of the damp, rude woods into open grassland where a Temple invites false memories of classical harmony from a long-lost Golden Age as evoked in the paintings of Claude Lorrain & followers.

A more recent Golden age is evoked by the Airbnb Shepherd’s Hut in which weekending city-dwellers can dream of agrarian homeliness & wholesomeness.


It has been claimed that the nostalgic longing conjured up by these artfully manipulated landscapes with their framing clumps of trees, grassy plains, rippling streams and misty distances goes much, much deeper, stirring ancestral memories of prehistoric savannah.

Prospect & Refuge

With the cloud beginning to lift and a Buzzard lifting with it we reached the hilltop and some urban birds – House Sparrow & Collared Dove – occupying an asbestos barn. A continuous stream of Herring Gulls passes westwards overhead. Where are they going? Perhaps prospecting the Wealden reservoirs.

This park is famous for its 19th century follies, built on the orders of John Fuller III (1757-1834). The Tower stands about 150m above sea level but is now closed off, precluding an enhanced version of the view from the hilltop.

To the left is Darwell Reservoir while the steam to the right is emitted from the Mountfield Gypsum mines.

Brightling village: ( Swallow, House Martin, Green Woodpecker) 

Third folly: Fuller’s pyramid mausoleum. But which is it modelled on? Giza? Looks too steep.  Gaius Cestius in Rome? Perhaps not steep enough. Too small as well. Dimensions determined by the size of the available plot

 As in Great Expectations?

The history of Brightling Park can be traced through the memorials within the church, where it helps to have skills in the deciphering of Roman numbers to sort one Fuller from another. A great help is this entry from Historic England.

Fourth folly: a Summerhouse built in Coade Stone, from which privileged folk could admire the panorama. The broad grass slopes are now famous for equestrian events, though not this year when the pandemic has impacted so many individuals, services, institutions, events and social practices. The furniture remains, however, marooned in a landscape devoid of activity.

Some jumps resemble lamas

Where did the money come from to create this lovely and reassuringly English landscape?

The Clues are in the Historic England document. Fortunes were made locally from iron – especially the manufacture of cannons at a time of international rivalry for trade and colonies. Then: “In 1703 he gave the property to his nephew John Fuller (1680-1745) who that year married Elizabeth Rose, a Jamaican heiress who brought a considerable fortune to the family along with estates in the West Indies of over 1215ha.”

In common with so many treasured elements of English culture, it benefited from slavery, a fact which has surfaced in recent months to the deep discomfort of those who adhere to a former account of history, which they hold to be immutable..

In the eventual sunshine, a Red Kite glided out over the Temple and butterflies were out in the woods, including a Silver-washed Fritillary.

Jolly Peculiar Times

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on July 2, 2020 by cliffdean

This time of year is not the best for seeing a lot of birds: adults are busy feeding nestlings, fledglings try to avoid attention, post-breeding adults are starting to moult so stay undercover. So I don’t usually schedule walks between now and September and anyway, people are away or Doing Other Stuff.

This year though, as you will have noticed, is different. With the lockdown eased a little, Socially distanced Birdwalks seemed once more a possibility, especially if they entailed a small group and an unfrequented location.

So four of us enjoyed a few hours in the wonderful Weald, setting off from the high dome west of Battle, among Skylarks & Yellowhammers beneath a broad sky for once devoid of aircraft, down old lanes into the dark folds of forests, streams and iron-working sites.

I haven’t asked, but could this have anything to do with the picturesque holiday let a little further down the track?

None of us had seen each other for some months, so there was a lot to talk about, specifically the experience of lockdown (more positive than you might think), the handling of the UK epidemic (overwhelmingly negative) and book & film recommendations. So it was good not to have too many birds to interrupt the flow.

Once down in the woods there was still song from Chiffchaffs, Blackcaps and a wonderfully voluble Garden Warbler – something I don’t hear on the coast – celebrated here by Messiaen.

I had visited the area about ten days previously when, wouldn’t you know, there had been more birds about, including a family of Grey Wagtails, quite a few Crossbills rushing about and a few singing Firecrests. On this occasion the first seemed to have moved away, the second were represented by a very few fat & speeding silhouettes and the third hard to hear on account of increasing wind making its own music in the treetops.

What we did see well, however, was a busy flock of at least a dozen Siskins feeding in a Larch in one of the mature gardens at Glazier’s Forge and, at the little pond near there, always worth a visit for dragonflies, an orgy of Semaphore Flies.

I’d seen them there previously but had completely forgotten. This photo does not do justice either to their brilliantly iridescent colours or to the high-speed ballet of the males’ (bottom centre with the white-tipped wings) courtship ritual, explained in this link.

It’s quite a while since I had a page here devoted to Clapped-out Vehicles. There don’t seem to be so many these days.

Making tracks #2

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on June 12, 2020 by cliffdean

A bee-line incised by hard hooves, soft paws and sharp claws down to the very beach-bones of the rippled turf.

A ring etched to the very pebbles by enzymes from a hidden mycelium. Magpie, Linnet, Pied Wagtail, Stock Dove.

Standing out as green though it’s a ridge rather than a hollow; a causeway connecting two shingle banks, or perhaps a dam to keep long-lost tides at bay. Or both.

Ant hills & castle. Raven, Rook, Jackdaw, Starling

chdean · Recording – 20200609 – 080449
In the background, beyond the Willows of Castle Water: Cormorant nestlings, Chaffinch, Whitethroat, Coot
(Yes, I’ve managed to upload sound files! Thanks to Anny, Denzil, Michael & Tom for advice. It’s quite simple but I’m as diffident with these things as my grandmother was with telephones.)
It must be a Sign of the Times that I completely forgot to mention that another bird on a newly-uncovered island  on the lake behind the Willows was a Black-winged Stilt, which had been there for a few days. So it was no surprise and nowadays not even a very rare bird let alone one presenting any ID challenges.

Now grassed over, this inconspicuous hummock was a bunker on the Camber Castle Golf Club 1931-38/45.  The other golf club features are by now similarly subtle but can be seen clearly on contemporary aerial photos, including those taken by the Luftwaffe on May 10th 1940.

Below: in the background the lone Holly bush and to its right the dome of Oaks marking the crash site of Fl/lt Harry Hamilton’s aircraft on August 29th 1940.

Making tracks #1

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on June 11, 2020 by cliffdean

Morning at Dogs Hill Road. Whose Dogs they were and whether there should be an apostrophe somewhere are matters still keenly debated in the tight-knit community. The hill is easier, thought it’s no longer there: photos exist of it topped with a small black hut, the one in which the child-heroes are imprisoned (by an untrustworthy French teacher an her accomplice) in Malcolm Saville’s “The Gay Dolphin Adventure” Starlings, Magpies, House Sparrows, Goldfinches and, in the cold morning air, low-flying Swifts.

Early morning Herring Gulls have eviscerated the plastic bags of picnic litter. The steps to the sea are adorned with warnings and the parapet lined with memorial benches. Behind the half-closed toilets the tiny black “La Casetta di Tim” has been replaced by two black cubes, one remaining empty thought its black cladding is already beginning to fade. Black-headed Gull, Med Gull, Oystercatcher, Cormorant.

The present shore is connected to that from the late 17th century by narrow twittens further constricted by burgeoning summer brambles, the space between occupied by scrubby horse- pastures poached in winter, parched in summer. Perched in the shingle ridge, beyond the reach of 1930s floods, a varied procession of cabins + multiple amendments, railway carriages, bungalows and more recent Grandiose Designs. Robin, Dunnock, Wren, Whitethroat, Linnet

Behind the houses lies the wonderful world of the Beach Field with its bank of pebbles still bare after all these years (but for black blotches of pioneering Verrucaria) and tidal fans with silted hollows generating vegetation. Song Thrush, Chaffinch, Carrion Crow, Woodpigeon, Blackbird, Cuckoo.

Meandering between Bullace, Hawthorn & Elder, the path wanders, braids when faced with obstructing briars, puddles or barging Blackthorn thickets. One part of the former route has been completely abandoned in the last few years in response to its increasing frequency (why?) of inundation.

Bushes of differing heights suit different birds according to their feeding, singing and nesting preferences. beyond the tall Willow, a reedy ditch with Reed & Sedge Warblers while Chiffchaff & Blackcap can be heard from the taller trees in the distance.
chdean · Recording – 20200609 – 071806
On this recording: Reed Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Magpie, Carrion Crow, Pheasant, Linnet, Black-headed Gull

Graceful but deadly Hemlock

Angular, bristling Teasel

 Sweet-brier teetering on a column of stalks browsed by rabbits as far as their cruel barbs will allow. Lesser Whitethroat.


It would be good to record smells too – this honeysuckle. In comics they used to imagine Smell-O-Vision.

Rook Gibbets & Crow Funerals

Posted in Uncategorized on June 9, 2020 by cliffdean

I like Rooks.

I like the bare trees in early spring clotted with their nests and the sociable hard-caw that surrounds them, though I like their broad vocabulary of quieter growls and croaks too.  I like their purposeful cross-country twilight flights to ancient communal roosts (where I lived in Suffolk they followed a fragmented Roman road).

Here they are in nineteenth-century Winchelsea, their purple-glossed wings just one of the beautiful sights cruelly hidden from The Blind Girl.

Just over the Antiente Hille, in the twenty-first-century they are shot and their corpses displayed just as the tar-coated cadavers of criminals once were on nearby Gibbet Marsh, to Encourage The Others – in this case, not to consume seed.

I have long assumed that this primitive practice would have no effect on the Rooks – more would come to replace those killed – though it might give the humans a sense of control. The nice man who shoots them, along with Jackdaws, bears them no ill-will; it just has to be done.

But just recently my daughter directed me to a fascinating podcast on Corvid Thanatology by researcher Kayli Swift. She was looking at American Crows rather than Rooks but so much parallel work has indicated a high level of intelligence in the latter species that I fell there is likely to to be a connection.

Swift observed that Crows pay particular attention to dead comrades, collecting objects to place beside them. Other Crows will gather to look. sometimes one will attempt to copulate with the dead bird, maybe trying to convince it that lie is worth living after all. There is much more; best you read her articles yourself.


What are crows thinking when they see death?

Or watch her TED talk:

Even better, listen to the podcast because Kayli’s account there of her education is very thought-provoking. Although completely absorbed by the natural world, she found nothing of interest in school, was diagnosed as having learning difficulties, medicated……went on to a brilliant academic career (join the dots).



Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on June 8, 2020 by cliffdean

During the early days of lockdown the low-tide beach was a good place to exercise: just a few minutes from the house, almost no people and plenty of space to avoid the few there were.

Perched on the moorlog I came across this marker stone which is very obvious (if you’re looking for that kind of thing) but I couldn’t recall having  seen before.

There are quite a few of them scattered about on land round Toot Rock, War Department boundary markers from the early 19th century but, for obvious reasons, fewer on the beach.

Each one is numbered and recorded on old maps, so I rotated the photo to make it easier to read and sent it to my go-to Pett Level historian Martin King who responded:

Looking at the 1899 OS map (attached) these seem to have originally
marked out the plots of land on which the Martello Towers were built.
The number is presumably 1 rather than 11, 21, etc. So it has presumably
been there for over 200 years.

This screenshot shows the current position

Snowy weather

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on June 6, 2020 by cliffdean

My nose is still peeling and the ground is still dry but the sunny weather of (how many days ago was it?) seems consigned to oblivion. Grey clouds and a cold, cold wind whipped laundry against my face as I struggled to peg it to the line when my phone rang.

It was John W with a curious report from Pett seawall via Dorset & Icklesham of a little black & white bird which might be a Snow Bunting. It didn’t seem at all likely, but what else? Anyway, lunch was ready and this bird’s probability not strong enough to deflect me from food but over the fusilli I kept turning it over in my mind. Was it worth getting blown about on the shingle for…my phone rang again. Unlike me, John had not dithered; he had gone down there and yes, against all the odds it was a male Snow Bunting in summer plumage!

Extra layer, hat, jacket, binoculars, car keys…shoes… and down to the level where I could see John breaking the skyline. Scrambled up the steep grassy slope…the bird had flown; they couldn’t see it. The original finders had puzzled over this bird but continued with their walk for an hour or so while consulting Trevor in Dorset, after which they thought they should have another look and found it just where it had been originally. Until now.

We crunched eastwards on the shingle as lowdown Swifts hurtled past and Bearded tits pinged from the wind-thrashed reeds. Then found it again – wow – Pied Beauty – but almost straightaway a woman marching her dog looked as if she would tread on the bird, which scuttled and fluttered ahead of her for about 100m; she didn’t even notice it. I could see at this rate it would finish up at Winchelsea Beach…

First two bird photos courtesy of James Tomlinson

But no – it flew down to the shore before returning to the path and feeding busily. John was taking photos, Phil turned up inadequately clad so stayed just long enough to bear witness. It was really chilly. A Med Gull floated past.

James arrived, inadvisedly in shorts, but as he did so a little Suzuki jeep drove straight up the seawall and approached us along the beach, threatening to disturb the bird once again. The driver didn’t much like being told he shouldn’t be there (it’s Lockdown Lawlessness again) he became interested when we explained the situation and backed to drive straight down again into the busy road. Andrew K turned up and those with cameras got pictures before I headed home feeling Rather Chilled.



Second two photos courtesy of John Willsher

Although we get Snow Buntings very occasionally in winter they are of course not in the fabulous snow camouflage of the summer adult male, in fact the only time I’ve seen them like this was many years ago in Iceland. There are just two previous Sussex records for June, both considered to have been injured birds whereas this one looked just fine, in fact fit enough to fly from Cornwall where it had been yesterday, plumage features confirming it as the same individual.


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on June 6, 2020 by cliffdean

Across the shingle wastes blow relics of rebellious anti-lockdown littering. We’re used to having crowds arrive on Bank Holidays though they usually take their rubbish home or at least put it in the bins. Over the last two weekends, people have just dumped litter everywhere, just left picnic stuff where they had been sitting as if they had had enough of being responsible citizens, doing what they’re told, staying home to beat the virus yet still seeing the mountain of corpses grow day by day, seeing a senior government figure ignoring the restrictions, telling blatant lies to excuse himself.

No rain for months; a record-breaking dry spell following a record-breaking wet winter. Soil crazed and dusty. Really nice for sitting in the garden though,and walking out early to places with few people, enjoying the trackless skies and infrequent traffic, a stillness dominated by birdsong.

Whitethroats sing from the frothy white umbels of crimson-streaked Hemlock, Lesser Whitethroats rattle from cover in the Hawthorn tops, Sedge Warblers rasp from the reedy brambles and there’s a Cuckoo somewhere too.  From taller trees in the plotland beyond, Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs & Stock Doves

Scent of Elder, and pond-water stewing in the sunshine. Lambs & frogs

Crowds of Jackdaws & Rooks scour the dry pastures but the Corn Buntings are nowhere to be found: their hay field has been mown so they have moved on. Maybe none are now left west of Rye – till you get to the Downs.

The old beach ridges have dried out, crispy underfoot, crests smudged crimson with Sheep’s Sorrell but the silty gullies are vivid green, their edges zoned with golden Buttercups.

The contrast shows up old creeks and shingle spurs which have not been washed by tides for hundreds of years.

On Castle Water there’s a pair of Pochards with ducklings. Nationally, this is still a rare breeding bird but is increasing strongly with several pairs between here and Pett Level. Buzzards have become the reserve’s 100th nesting species, closely following Little Egret whose gobbling calls you can distinguish from the squeaky-wheel chorus of young Cormorants in the Willows.


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on May 29, 2020 by cliffdean

Galvanized into post-sunset action by the promise of yet another supermoon, we walked beside the canal, past blossom-white May trees and reedy ditches from which Sedge Warblers grated and rattled. Land-birds – Robins & Song Thrushes still provided from the old cliff-line a chorus to complement those occupying more recent land.

With the sky otherwise refreshingly empty of aircraft, the flight from Paris to Memphis scored a trail to the right of Venus down to the western horizon, the vapour rippling through bands of cloud.

A soundscape of lambs, frogs, warblers and one relentless motorbike, audible mile after mile as it headed away towards Rye. Misty lines of livestock settling down for the night.


Cuckoo, Robin, Cetti’s Warbler, motorbike, cattle

In the Pannel Valley though there’s the screaming of Black-headed, the yelp of Med Gulls, calls of Redshank, Oystercatchers, Avocets, a Green Sandpiper, a passing Greenshank, as they circulate above the scrape. Up the valley a Cuckoo is calling beyond a Wall of Sound from massed Reed Warblers.

A stream of gulls on swishing wings passes over the canal followed by lines of heavy geese: Canada, Greylag & (these days) Egyptian, honking, trumpeting & braying. Lapwings swoosh out of the twilight.

At the Castle Water viewpoint a Bittern has been booming more regularly than I’ve ever heard it, taking deep breaths before blasting out four or five thumping pulses at c170 Hz. This is against a background of young Cormorants sounding like squeaky unoilled wheels, three species of gulls on the nearby factory roofs, bubbling Cuckoos  and a wild gothic Water Rail. Marsh Harriers sail over the reeds and, at the last moment, Hobbies glide over the willows snatching at insects.

And there’s always a motor bike, maybe several, spreading their noise miles across the countryside. I was suddenly reminded of amber Australian evenings at the edge of Lake Joondalup where, from the snaky shallows before the dark stands of Baumea I became aware of a revving sound like a trail bike… I phoned a colleague: “Yeah mate, that’ll be Motorbike Frog” he assured me. I knew Banjo Frog but was unprepared for this. Listen to the sound…see what you think…

and while you’re here…Banjo Frog with supporting act Australian Magpie!

These (choose your own adjective) Times

Posted in Uncategorized on May 22, 2020 by cliffdean

In the sheltered world of Rye Bay, where the sun now rises in the very cusp of the curving shore, the Times have been Warm, the air often still, the sky sometimes unbesmirched, the sea, on occasion, limpid and for a time stewing up red and fragrant with Gullywater. 

Our diary too has been purged of commitments, appointments and obligations. Holidays too.  

Had the weather been gloomy or windy this last month and less like a holiday in France I might have got on with more indoor activities like this neglected blog.

The revelatory, sometimes dreamlike silence in the early lockdown days was soon compromised and in the last fortnight has gone, with the return not so much of New Normal traffic but testosterone-flooded motorcyclists and aimlessly droning light aircraft to add to the frenzy of garden machinery.

I don’t blame people at all for their massed return to the briefly empty beach: if I and my family had been copped up in a flat or small house for weeks on end I too would rushed to savour the space. light and air that this coastline offers. 

With Gatwick closed, and now represented on FlightRadar24 by one ground vehicle, most commercial aircraft are higher up or skirting the N Kent coastline on their way between America and Germany. The stars and planets have been startlingly bright.

There have been plenty of birds. Normally I’m away quite a bit at this time because spring is so wonderful everywhere and all too often we return to cool, dull, breezy disappointment (albeit with Bluebells) but not this time, with the warm updraughts supporting brightly lit buzzards, kites, ravens & gulls with such frequency that it’s hard to concentrate on reading or writing. 

Our allotment looks better than ever before. Normally we get it into shape then go off for a week or so, only to find. on returning, that the Weeds Have Won. Not now: the paths are  clear, the plots weeded and the irreducible junk of canes and weed-suppressant sheeting rationalised. Shortly before the present campaign to Rid The World Of Coronavirus we were focused on Ridding The World Of Plastic yet these green spaces are full of it – the aforementioned sheeting, all very well till it frays into a billion black threads, the netting inextricably tangled in nettle stems, the fertilizer sacks which come up on your fork from damp soil like body bags from a mass grave…

Global Issues aside, I can never stop listening in to the Blackcaps & Treecreepers in the trees, Jackdaws and once a Wheatear on the adjacent horse paddock, House Martins & Pied Wagtails on the houses across the road, the low-level traffic of Rooks to their nests, the high-level wheeling of Buzzards. Yesterday, Whitethroat & Marsh Tit were surprising additions to the list; this morning the angry snarl of a Crow announced the appearance of an unexpected Marsh Harrier.