Archive for Downs

Over-exposed

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on June 27, 2017 by cliffdean

Last Friday – a 6 mile walk from Berwick to Berwick via Firle Beacon, Bo-peep & Alciston, looking for chalkland plants & maybe a few farmland birds.

Nice and sunny with interesting flowers & Marbled Whites on the scarp but once (panting) on top it was monocultured and windy.

Swift calls over Berwick Church but none to be seen – for they came from a lure set in the tower, part of a scheme to encourage these fabulous birds to nest there. The local school or maybe Sunday school has been involved, to judge from the streamlined cut-outs embellishing the Bloomsburied interior.  Good luck to them all; at our end of the county we still have several pairs putting on a breathtaking display around the ruined arches of St Thomas’ Winchelsea.

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS IMAGES OF THE SOUTH DOWNS.

Yes, beautiful. Yes, inspiring. Yes, over-represented and misrepresented. I recently had the misfortune to see a film called “South Downs – England’s Mountains Green” which featured a pretentious vicar striding through deserted landscapes (drone-filmed in early morning to keep the shadows gorgeous and the people out). Whenever I go to the Downs there are plenty of people walking, running, cycling, riding horses or flinging themselves into the air, in addition to those attending livestock, ploughing or driving in fence-posts.

This film was in the timeless/changeless/unspoilt/ vein, as oblivious to ideological battles over farming & conservation as it was to the busy coastal conurbations that flank the chalk ridge. Not only do they feel obliged to perpetuate this consoling myth but they have to find a Character to front the whole charade – in this case a wholly unconvincing Celebrity Christian called Peter Owen-Jones. I’d never heard of him, luckily missed him, but soon discovered he’s a media darling. A refreshing dose of realism can however be found on Mumsnet discussions which include reassuringly (not just me, then) sober comments such as:

“And also kind of naff, with his cuban heels and his slightly dirty FE lecturer circa 1986 clothing.”

“On the contrary, I think he’s a bit of an arse. And, frankly, a heretic. <lights pyre>”

“Sometimes I think he looks like a weird old woman, other time surprisingly fit in a sincere-but-silly kind of way.”

I’m fed up with the cliché of “unchanging landscapes”. At Wadi Rum, for instance, absolutely nothing happens day upon day, year upon year  (apart from the 4x4s full of Europeans wearing Arab headdress and chucking out litter) and then you find rock drawings of all the animals that once lived here – when there was still vegetation.

I’ve just spent a few days with good friends in the Lake District – Unchanging By Popular Demand of holidaymaking Wainwrighters who insist on sterile fells inhabited only by Meadow Pipits (alright then, the occasional Skylark or Wren). I’m with George Monbiot on this one: its Romantic cultural heritage has the area in a stranglehold.

And as for over-exposed – My God, the paintings, the poetry, the novels, the guides, the sculptures of Herdwick sheep, the artful photos of fells, reflective water and dry-stone walls with never a military jet nor a traffic jam to be seen… Yes, it’s beautiful, yes, it’s inspirational, it’s moody too and features a number of steep slopes leading up small hills traversed by retirees with rucksacks and walking poles.

‘This wonderful film captures the great British countryside in all its glory.’ Daily Mail

But as much as the Lakes are filtered through an early 19th century lens, I have to confess to seeing the South Downs through a Raviliousian framework. I’m cautious about it though.

What about the wildlife? Oh, I don’t know. I’ve forgotten. The usual stuff. The flowers I have to relearn every year or whose names resurface slowly in the Lava Lamp Of Recall.

I do recommend the “Cricketers Arms” however, which is changeless. Apart from the prices.

A Symbolic And Meaningful Photograph.

A dark day in Downland

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 23, 2016 by cliffdean

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Via Cacciatori del Sile is on the one-way system not far from Treviso station. In the mid-70s it was, by day, an ordinary residential street but by night busy with cars cruising for rent-boys, many of whom were underpaid soldiers from the city’s barracks. Two girls from the Oxford School of English invited me for lunch at their flat there one day, having made an expedition to the Pescheria, armed with a useful book which would help them to both identify and prepare the seafood on sale there.

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It emphasises the cultural distance between then and now that I was only just encountering for the first time items such as radicchio & pesto or dishes now commonplace such as Spaghetti alla Carbonara & Tiramisu. I was all too aware of how reverently my Italian friends approached their food but this was the first English book I’d seen which dealt with the subject at the same level of seriousness. What’s more, it was written in a style at once elegant, unpretentious and informative.

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That lunch was the first occasion I’d eaten cape sante & cape lunghe but, more influentially, the first time I’d heard of Elizabeth David. The forceful ink cover illustration by Renato Guttoso looked a bit crude and old-fashioned but was so much part of the package that, when the book was re-issued a few years ago with a plain cover it just didn’t seem right.

Over the years since, I’ve returned to these yellowing pages for a few recipes or to dip into commentaries on certain themes. I like the modesty of its scale and personality compared with more recent celebrity offerings.

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It was only a few months ago that I learnt David was buried at Folkington, just yards from the woodland clearing where we’d parked for Downland walks and determined to pay my respects on the next occasion I passed that way. In the meantime, I discovered she’d had an interesting life so ordered the book by Artemis Cooper, whose biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor I’d previously enjoyed.

The walk, planned for the Solstice, was advanced by a day in view of a dire weather forecast for Wednesday and got off to a good start when I blithely misread the map & set off on a route which added a couple of miles to the expected itinerary. No matter – we skirted through Friston Forest down to Litlington and along the river up to Alfriston before heading off across the fields towards Wilmington, where we planned to eat. We visit that area with sufficient infrequency to render memorable historic walks with family & friends. Since the grey midwinter day had never really got light, a tasty lunch and extended conversation at The Giant’s Rest projected the latter part of our circuit into failing light as we followed hollow lanes incised by a million feet and hooves towards Folkington.

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Cooper’s fluent, conversational style makes for easy reading but my memory is so bad that by the time we arrived at sunset in the churchyard I struggled to recall the familial relationships of various Gwynnes commemorated on the slabs

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Elizabeth David’s freestanding headstone is distinctive however, for the lively and affectionate carving of those ingredients which typify her love of Mediterranean Food (her first book), surrounding a capacious marmite.

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More recent reading: everyone’s heard of Lawrence of Arabia but what about Gertrude Bell? Her life was so exotic, adventurous and influential, yet unfulfilled, that it would make a fantastic film. Then I discovered that Werner Herzog had just made it!! My misgivings when I saw that Bell is played by Nicole Kidman are borne out by some reviews, but it might be worth a watch.

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Bombarded by Bugs

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on November 3, 2016 by cliffdean

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Hallowe’en: still, warm. Still warm even so late in the year yet this is not new – 2 years ago we walked in such sunshine from Chartham to Canterbury. Today to the Downs, motivated as much as anything by the imminent expiry of a £10 voucher at The Cricketers in Berwick. A high-altitude hike culminating in a Deluxe seafood Platter is in our sights.

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There has been no strong wind to strip golden leaves from miles of screening plantations alongside the A259. With such splendour abounding it seems perverse to head for the least arboreal landscape in sight. But… Lanes leading to the scarp are littered with distinctive hues & patterns according to the trees which overhang them, at different times Hazel, Ash, Field Maple, Sycamore, Blackthorn, Whitebeam & Poplar.

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From flinty fields at the top rise a hundred Skylarks. Though the prospect beyond is still hidden in haze, Buzzards, Kestrels and playful Jackdaws are rising in the warm updraughts. Passers-by score highly on the Scale of Salutations and I envy those who have risked shorts as well as short conversational exhanges.

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Around Firle Beacon we begin to get hit by Harlequin Ladybirds – hurtling black dots which come to rest in dozens upon the trig point…

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..and as we drop down towards the village we join thousands more in the sun-trap. They swarm over gate-posts, clamber through our hair and drop down our shirts. We’ve been warned about this by the Daily Mail:

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Biting alien ladybirds riddled with STDs are swarming the UK in their millions posing a major threat to our native bug

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I’m pretty worried. They’re all over me. If I pick up one of these STDs, how will I convince the doctors at the clap clinic that I caught it from Ladybirds??

It gets worse – apparently they could “ruin the Christmas party season by spoiling fine wine and secreting disgusting stinky liquids.”

But wait – are these the sort we’re talking about? Luckily, the entomological unit of the Mail Online has an ID guide: HOW TO SPOT A SEX CRAZED FOREIGN INVADER

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Yes, they’re definitely the multi-platform Harlequin but, stabbing urgently at my phone, I learn with relief that: “Although they are not thought to be as harmful to humans, they can let off a nasty smell and crawl all over the furniture leaving ugly stains.” BUT “They also bite when they run out of food, which can spark a severe allergic reaction.”

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Vigorously brushing Sex Crazed Foreign Invaders from our persons (thanks for the heads-up Daily Mail!) we return at a brisk pace along the shaded Old Coach Road, reaching the pub just, luckily, towards the end of another feeding frenzy, this time of fellow voucher-holders eager for a discounted lunch.

But the day’s crises are not over: the Deluxe Seafood Platter has vanished from the menu………..

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Crowlink – Seaford

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on July 31, 2015 by cliffdean

P1230370Between Crowlink and the Cuckmere, we met no-one at all; perhaps they were all keeping indoors on account of the Killer Seagulls reported every day in the Daily Gullible.

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We didn’t see a lot of birds either, in spite of early promise at the crassula-fringed Crowlink Dew Pond, which was alive with drinking Linnets, Whitethroats, Stonechats and a Corn Bunting too.

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Killer Gulls, yes, and Killer Ravens & Killer Peregrines too. Killer Rock Pipits on the cliff-top turf and – most surprising of all – 3 Killer Gadwall flying over the sea. But never mind the birds, it was beautiful: a National Landscape Icon of the highest order. And lots of lovely chalkland plants that I see just often enough to be reminded of their names before I forget them again.

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Clustered Bellflower

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The White Cliffs of Dover – as they are referred to when extra whiteness is desired – continue to be photographed from every angle, in every season and light. I don’t know why I bother to replicate these images but – when in doubt, take a photo, maybe a selfie from the edge.

Later, on Seaford Head, we searched for the worn patch of grass where everybody stands to take yet another picture of That Iconic View. (Actually, we couldn’t find it; I think they queue up on the path.)

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For how long have people been signing in pebbles on this last brow before the river? I recall it only in quite recent times. This one is a cut above as far as chalk-based calligraphy is concerned and I’m also pleased to see non-Roman alphabets now employed.

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In researching the another item on the agenda, I came across a plea to designate Cuckmere Haven as an historic battleground.  

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Arriving at the Cuckmere much too early to stop at the boringly retitled “Cuckmere Inn”, we cut down the west side of the river to find ourselves amid Killer Plants!

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Why, oh why?

Further along, there’s a cairn, dedicated to the memory of Canadian soldiers who camped there but were then all killed when German aircraft strafed the field, according to the inscription. A local witness had thereafter laid a wreath on the site every year until his death. I was surprised I had never heard this terrible, tragic story before, so searched for more information, only to find the account appears to be entirely uncorroborated.

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By this time, the wind had become very strong and thoughts turned to a) Kittiwakes b) lunch. The former were sudden  – all the whiteness and atmospheric cries confined to a couple of hundred metres – the latter distant. The former, exquisite; the latter less so, though a very cheap 2 for 1 at The Old Something-or-Other.

juv Kittiwake Seaford

Cracking Shot by Alan Parker

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Thrift atolls

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Then the return aboard a brand-new grasshopper-green double-decker, equipped with wi-fi so you don’t have to look at the view and full of SE Asian students photographing stuff in burst-mode.

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Too windy

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on August 29, 2014 by cliffdean

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Completely the wrong kind of weather for migrants but the only day that suited. Along the white cliffs from Birling Gap, up and down over blasted brows of bleached grassland and into hollows of wind-grooved, birdless scrub.

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Knocked about by the gale, we initially sought respite in the lee of Horseshoe Plantation, watching for the source of the various ticks emanating from cover. An interesting, tick-related fact has emerged in the last couple of years.  I had always associated this contact note with Blackcaps (BC) & Lesser Whitethroats (LW), convinced that Common Whitethroats (WH) could be distinguished by their scolding buzz. Then I noticed that Common Whitethroats too uttered ticks. Maybe just when they had young? Or was it the young themselves who did it? I felt a bit stupid for never having noticed this until, just the other day, I read a post from 19th August on the Portland blog in which people I regarded as Hard Men Of Birding had noticed the very same thing – for the first time.

“And little curiosity from today: at various times we’d heard what we took to be a Lesser Whitethroat calling from in and around the Obs garden so it was quite a surprise when the bird was finally mist-netted and turned out to be a Common Whitethroat – had it not have called as frequently in the hand as it had done in the field we’d have put money on the fact that there must have been two birds involved!”

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When warblers did appear, it was in rapid transit from one refuge to another but as we sat getting damp backsides among the Devil’s-bit Scabious, we had more satisfying views of other species in the area, especially a family of Yellowhammers (Y) and then 3 Corn Buntings (CB) which came to feed on the blackened berries of Wayfaring Tree, while across the road about 10 Stonechats (SC) sped & hovered over the barley.

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A couple of Ravens croaked over, then I noticed a bigger and floppier bird crossing the opposite hillside, an Osprey (OP), which headed on out to sea over Belle Toute.

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Once we left the peace & quiet of the wood, back into the hectic wind, we came across a flock of 9 Whinchats (WC) (my spell-checker proposes “Chitchats”) and yet more Stonechats(SC). During the rest of the walk, by scrutinizing barbed-wire fences, we saw more of both species. I wasn’t really counting must they must have totalled about 15 and 30 respectively.

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The wind got stronger until, as we came onto the slope down to the river, in view of the customary oriental girls taking selfies and Little Egrets (ET), it was hard to stand still, so it was a relief to drop down to sea level and follow the rising tide towards the pub, encountering en route 14 Greenshank (GK), 4 Ruff (RU) & 10 Dunlin (DN).

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In view of the inauspicious weather, I had thought we’d be lucky to see 40 species, but it added up to 48. I recommend the Steak & Merlot Pie.

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Chalky

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on August 1, 2014 by cliffdean

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High on chalk

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on July 19, 2014 by cliffdean

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Why does it feel so different on the Downs? I’m sure something changes in the light. Maybe there’s less moisture in the atmosphere thanks to the absorbency of the rock beneath.

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There are high points in the Weald too – Brightling for example – but you look out from there upon a prospect blanketed with forest, ridge after ridge of treetops, buildings and operations hidden in the oaken jungle.

From the Downs though everything is exposed. From your turf-scented belvedere you can inspect with serene detachment  the everyday movements of the mortals below. It reminds me of an intricate model railway lay-out (albeit with just the one straight line): the soundless traffic crowding the A27, twinkling windscreens in Drusilla’s car park, the cloud of dust raised by a combine hidden behind a hedgerow, a tractor converting as it crawls shapeless hay into geometrical bales, a slab of incongruous colour where a paraglider is unfurled  beside a distant hill-figure.

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In the sunshine there’s little motivation to move on. Immersion in the mesmerizing movements of butterflies, bees and beetles seems sufficient. A few runners struggle up the steep white track, a millennial intaglio of trade, travel and transhumance, their skin gleaming with sweat, their journeys validated numerically by instruments strapped to their arms.

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Chysotoxum bicinctum. Photo by Alan Parker

The air nearby is textured with songs of Skylarks & Meadow Pipits combined with faint Blackcap carried up from the combe on warm, weak currents. There’s a constant flickering dance of Marbled Whites & Chalkhill Blues.

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Moving on. Eventually. Stop to talk to a fencing contractor as he tensions barbed wire. Beneath his truck, his dog lies sensibly in the shade. He explains his powerful post-driver, armed with a spike that can drive through solid chalk. His hands, hugs and scarred, prompt a series of tales on the theme of fingers lost to the hungry gears and blades of agricultural machinery.

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And then – I’ve never been just here before – an unsuspected alignment of headlands: Norman’s Bay, Galley Hill, East Hill; a Martello Tower, Marine Court, Hastings Harbour Arm. It’s the reflection of “A Distant View of Pevensey”.

Three young Ravens are croaking in the updraught, and as we drop down to skirt the scarp back towards Wilmington. their hoarse voices can be heard among the herd of cackling Jackdaws. The begging mew of a fledgling Buzzard issues from the trees. Earlier a juvenile Peregrine was scouting across the slopes.

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Lunch in the “Giant’s Rest”. Local beer from the Long Man Brewery. Rabbit pie is on the board, suiting my “Eat Your Way Through The Problem” policy. (“Where’s your rabbit from?” “The car park”. Zero food-miles.) Great filling; fine crust. Nice pub.

Later I check this pub on Trip Advisor and find to my surprise that the reviews are all over the place. That’s the trouble with TA: when the reviews are unanimous you know what to do. I’ve found it very useful in choosing accommodation once I’ve discarded the bilious opinions of discontented Americans. But when it comes to contradictory reports on eating places I end up worrying that I’ll be one of the unlucky ones. Without it, I’d just pick a place (the first on the left seems to be a good strategy) and enter with optimism and good will.

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Appetite sated, thirst slaked, desire for exercise minimal, we negotiated the labyrinthine streets of Seaford to visit the Kittiwake colony. I’m ashamed to say that I’d never been here before in the breeding season (I blame the A259) but now concur with ” Birds of Sussex” in calling it “one of the county’s natural treasures”.

On such a hot afternoon, the promenade was packed with vehicles, the beach busy with bronzing bathers and as soon as you opened the car door you heard the chorus of Kittiwake cries. We never hear this in the Far East. These days we rarely even see them.

It’s not just the singular soundscape nor the spectacle of slim-winged gulls swirling around the dazzling chalk-face, but the heady aroma of guano (so rare in Sussex! Only here and Ternery Pool!) wafted over the vertiginous white crags, laced with just a hint of shingle-based barbecues.

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Although in recent years this limited site has held more than 1000 nests, a recent post on the SOS sightings page expresses concern that both numbers and productivity are falling. Though I lack previous experience for comparison, the ledges looked pretty hectic and the proportion of  young healthy enough, so long as they clung on with their big black feet.

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Photo by Alan Parker