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A Midsummer Nights Eve

‘Tis a Midsummer Nights Eve and plans are afoot for a mid evening journey the sort distance to St Roches Hill, the Trundle Iron Age hilltop fort, the aim a circular sunset walk with 360 degree views across Chichester to Bognor, Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight, round over Kingley Vale to Blackdown, to Midhurst and Heyshott Down.

Halfway, south westwards, out of the lowering sun, a bright shape materialised from between barns and meadow hedge in the form of a gold and white barn owl, seeming surrounded by a guilded halo of shimmering light, it cruised the overgrown roadside bank with a soft, slow determined flapping motion, looking for all like a golden ghostly form – a sign of hope and glory or simply an honest hardworking parent just going about the business of collecting enough food to feed the kids? Whichever, it was a joy to behold and certainly gave us cause for a sharp intake of breath.

With this vision still echoing and bouncing around us we climbed the bleached white path to the top of the hill, up onto the chalk track circle where the view, albeit somewhat hazy, was as spectacular as it had been for thousands of years, since the feet of ancient folk, be they Warriors, Celts, Romans, Saxons, Druids or 19th century poets, did tread the chalk and pause to stand and stare.

As is their way, the Skylarks still hung high up in the fading evening sky, throwing down their tuneful notes to rain upon us as Yellowhammers called rhymes of ‘bread and no cheese’ from every stumpy thorn tree and elderflower bush. The calcium rich, dusty turf was a carpet of herbaceous joy to the senses with scented wild thyme, yellow vetch, pyramid orchid and moon daisies, the gentle breeze catching the wild grasses and wheat growing in the sloping meadows causing a swish and a sway as June Bug Chafer beetles crowded and buzzed around every bush and hedge.

We stood and watched in wonder as slowly, oh so slowly, the sky paled, then blushed and the scarlet sun began to sink lower, then as the flaming crescent top of the sphere became as one with the dark tree capped western horizon, another barn owl slipped, silent and ghostly, across the silvergilt waving grasses, to circle, back and forth then back once more, around the ancient hilltop, the ghost of a chieftain, Lord of all he surveys.

The Nature of Me

This blog has been sitting on the ‘back burner’ for quite a while, it is the introduction to something special to me, something I have been compiling for a long time, it has a way to go yet, editing, re-writing and tweaking here and there but it is coming along nicely, so here goes ………

The Nature of Me – Recently the news has been full of important Mental Health issues, people, famous and unknown opening up their hearts to tell their stories of anxiety, depression and much, much more, being tremendously brave in opening up not just to themselves but to the world about what has troubled them in the hope of helping others.  Seeing, hearing and reading about this makes one feel very humble and thankful that in comparison some of us have had an relatively easy ride, but if we are really honest with ourselves many of us have had some small issue in our lives that may have been battled through or ‘brushed under the carpet’, or if not experienced first hand have had connections with mental health stress through friends or family members.  Life cannot be ‘stream-lined’ and ordered, it takes its own twists and turns and we have to go with the flow or battle against the tide. I have been lucky generally, having a comfortable, secure childhood, holidays in Devon or Exmoor, steady employment when working, a long lasting, loving marriage and a couple of wonderful children, but none of these things can ever be without some amount of anxiety, we have struggled through un-economic times with high mortgage debts and teenage children’s own stress and anxiety but we count ourselves as lucky.  As a terribly shy child I was happy in my own company, I immersed myself in nature, toy farms and ‘What to Look For in nature’ Ladybird books, nature was my solace, my escape from the world, it was my world, an interest that I kept to myself, soaking up information like a sponge and never sharing with school friends for fear that it was ‘not their thing’, even as an adult this passion was rarely shared until I had children to ‘teach’.  I always had a wish to draw and paint nature, write about it, research it, but as a child of the 60’s and 70’s we had no internet, no computers, only pen and paper and the village library.  When our children were nearing senior school age a set of circumstances and a house move prompted me to begin writing things down, accounts of outings, holidays, activities, in the form of letters and diaries, and to paint the countryside around us. My Grandmother May Violet was a very quiet lady, brought up by her Victorian grandparents, my Cousin’s husband, who was a journalist and could get a good story out of anyone, would sit with her and encouraging her to talk about her childhood, I remember him saying that she should write it all down or it would be lost, sadly they both passed away before this was done.  Maybe this is a lesson to us all? Having made the house move I immediately felt at home in our new surroundings and set about investigating my home patch, not just discovering the nature and the landscape but my own family ancestral links with the area, which truly did turn out to be ‘home’.  Being creative can bring its own anxieties, whether a writer, painter, designer or other artistic producer we always seem to hide in our shell, always unsure of peoples opinion, afraid friends will say ‘how lovely’ so as not to offend.  This was me, as an untrained artist I paint how and what I feel, my own vision, always scared of revealing my work to the public. However, with the help and encouragement of loved ones I gathered my courage and joined a couple of local art groups having some success.  The writing I kept quiet until I read Chris Packham’s ‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar’ and was moved by his honesty, then a couple of years ago I suffered with an eye problem and came close to losing the sight in one eye, which as an artist was doubly terrifying.  Spending endless hours with nothing to do but think and listen to the radio and the birds outside a plan began to form, so now I too have opened my heart with words and paintings, it is not a huge monumental story, it is no big deal, it is not full of drama and life changing experiences but it means a great deal to me, it explores my childhood memories, my secrets, my history, ‘the nature of me’ and how these things may have influenced me and moulded me into who I am.  It tells of how I began beneath the Sussex South Downs, moved away, explored my nature and returned full circle coming home to the nature and the land of my fathers’.  Having put this all down on paper the next move is having the courage to share it, so publishing this blog is that first tentative step.

 “Each careful step along the byway, much more much more than this…………”

Blog: Streamline

A little stream rises somewhere below the northern slopes of the South Downs a mile or so beyond my window, it flows between meadows, then below the old railway embankment and through wet woodland where it can spread its waters wide in the shadow of Alders, their tops purple /red with their own catkins in winter, their roots spreading into the mud and leaf mould between the rhizomes of yellow flag iris. Hear there is a culvert beneath a road where the grating becomes blocked with autumn flotsam, the little stream enjoys the luxury of a slow escape from the flood –spread of the woodland as if enjoying a long slow bathe before slowly seeping away. On its way here after heavy rains it loiters and backs up and is not shy in stretching its width up over the garden of any rural house it might happen to pass or to swirl and push before it fallen logs to add to the blockage. In fact it has enjoyed, over the years, changing and evolving the nature of the woodlands on its way through, eroding banks to wash away bluebells and goat willow and bringing with it seeds of clump forming sedge and the bright pink invasive, sweetly scented Himalayan Balsam, to colonise the wetlands in summer, sneaking some seeds into its pocket to distribute them further downstream to the town pond where they are not welcome.  In spring mallard duck raise their ducklings amongst the sedge below the blue haze of bluebells and grey wagtails flaunt their yellow belly as they mudlark along the banks. In summer the balsam hums with bees, tall grey heron stalk the wetlands and in autumn a kingfisher may be seen flashing along the streamline or the pure white of an egret paddling for fish fry or picking his way through the cowpats along the meadow edge. Whilst in the blue above, above the woodpeckers and nuthatches, the song thrushes and finches, buzzards soar and mew. Having enjoyed this space to spread the stream narrows and bubbles, past factories and bungalows, gurgling around and over discarded concrete and brickwork abandoned with the closure of the railway which crossed the marshy bog land that once divided the road routes leaving the ancient medieval market town, the lower route off along to villages below the downland slopes, the higher off up over the Downs dropping into the Cathedral city and the coast.  After flowing under the ‘new’ road, our stream boarders a now ‘scenic’ pathway skirting between more wet woodland and red brick houses. Here in spring golden marsh marigolds and yellow flag bloom, woodpeckers enjoy the rotting wood foraging provided by old tree stumps and brambles make mounds of arching branches where hidden wrens either scold at you or sing loudly at the pleasure of it all and peacock and gatekeeper butterflies flutter, rest and feed in companionship, the butterfly season having begun early in spring with orange tips and brimstones that patrol the grassy edges where ladies smock flower in April. The red brick houses are fronted by neat gardens and hedges, beech still clothed all winter long in last year’s leaves of rust brown, crisp but spotted with rain damp and still rattling in the breeze.  The beech is host to chirping gangs of house sparrows and dunnocks sit atop the privet performing their unfinished songs, repeating and repeating as if the last verse has been lost to time.  Black privet berries decorating the hedges to be silvered with pearls of winter frost-melt. Gently both path and stream meet the town pond, the water slipping into the depths of the still water where Canada geese stretch their necks and honk, moorhen climb the reeds to reach seeds and tree creepers climb around and around the wrinkly bark of the stately oak supported by their stiff tails. Once at the other side of the pond the stillness and reflections are suddenly replaced by the swirling descent as our stream, refreshed and re-fuelled it leaves the pond again in a rush, squeezing under the road bridge and crashing with a roar down the little weir to go dashing and splashing off along the old wharf to join its bigger brother the West Sussex Rother.  Wherever I walk locally this little stream is with me, if not directly crossing my path it is not far away, we are friends, we have an understanding, we are company, I love this little stream.

Shades Of Grey

Here in Sussex it has been one of those typical grey mid-winter days when it is not really misty nor even terribly gloomy but just quietly still and pale – the pale grey of a Collard Dove’s wing, neither grey nor fawn just a shade somewhere in between.  Against this the trees look etched in with an artists fine nib pen, the only sun to catch on them being a glimmer of lemonade light at around midday, coming to reflect briefly in the  water filled runnels and puddles between the clods of mud along the byway. As the midday glimmer faded back to collard dove I took on a sudden urge to be outside and gathered hat and wellingtons, pulling on a warm tweed and took the shortcut through the John Deer yard dodging tractors and trailers as I went.  Ducking left then right at the old depot cottages and out onto the farm track I stopped, breathed, looked up and listened and had a strange memory of being at London Zoo in the 60’s and seeing the Snowdon Aviary, why, I have no idea, I was small and cannot remember going in but remember my father being interested as he loved all things architectural.  I guess it was something to do with the sound of so many birds, the tree tops today were full of whistling starlings and twittering finches creating that aviary atmosphere.  It is surprising the enormous selection of notes that come from a flock of starlings, the finches turned out to be the most ‘charming’ goldies and the larger more robust ones became greenfinches when the binoculars focused.  In the thick ivy pink breasted wood pigeons dangled, hanging flapping for balance as they picked off the berries then, in their usual silly startled way, fell from the branches flapping away with sharp wing claps at my approach.  New pond was a glass mirror of inverted trees, the only disturbance being a bright, sharp winged black headed gull noisily performing acrobatics and steep dives towards the mirror, pulling up abruptly moments before the mirror cracked.  I scanned the low branches along the bankside for tell-tale signs of azure blue that would herald the visit of a kingfisher, but no, I could not find him, he wasn’t here today, or maybe the light was just not bright enough to bounce from his iridescent feathers. The black head was joined by another and they preceded to scream at each other as they danced over their own reflections, suddenly, as if woken by this cacophony, a songthrush launched forth with a set of loud repeated phrases, leafing through the pages of his songbook too fast only to settle into his favourite tune and continue with less haste.  With this still echoing up the lane I passed hazel catkins which were definitely longer and yellower this week and elder buds that has burst whilst I had not been paying close attention.  Around my boots the tiny, shiny green hearts of celandine leaves and parsley frills were pushing through the loam, I checked under the beech hedge where sometimes you can find earthstar fungi but there was only thick, rich leave litter turned over by the blackbirds tangerine bill.  The northern side of the rough oak bark was mint green with lichen and a row of turkey tail fungi marched up a make-shift gatepost at the allotment entrance.  Taking another left turn, dozens of black faced sheep gazed at me curiously, I stared back then noticed that the dark winter bare tree skeletons behind them where host to chattering jackdaws bouncing around in the branches in that continual half argumentative half playful way that they have.  A single jack peeled off from the group as the wide wingspan of a red kite rose above the trees to flap lazily across the sky space, seemingly unaware or uncaring of the muttering, quarrelsome bird taking ill-aimed stabs at his forked tail.  I watched as l the jack gave chase for a few more wingbeats before it retreated, downcast and disappointed leaving the kite to soar unhindered over the old dairy rooftops towards my home, only a well clogged muddy field of cattle stopped me from following and completing my walk in a circular route. Turning about I back tracked towards the allotments where my attention was caught by a variety of bird alarm calls filling a far tree line, I stood tight against a gatepost and waited for the cause of the unrest to materialise through the undergrowth but the disturbance settled and I found myself surrounded by a delightful gang of twittering pink budgies – long tail tits of course! They bounced and dangled merrily as if set free from the restrictions of a festive Christmas tree, through the branches and twigs around me,  I waited and watched as they moved on in a straggling ‘wait for me’ kind of parade leaving behind them just a tinkling echo of themselves and a tiny single bright eyed firecrest who seemed to have been tagging along for the ride, just for fun.  The collard dove had begun to transform into blue grey of a Merlin.

Missing

What have you been missing this year, in these strange ‘no travel’ months? 

Going West is the thing we have missed the most, it would have been high on our list of trips, back towards my Druid’s homeland so dear.  We miss the moors and ancient stones, the pasties and the ale, the Cornish drizzle, the Dartmoor mist, and the sun sparkled sea where gannets sail and the rainbows caused by hail!  Sharing Lizard views clear out to sea with raven, chough and seal and standing high on Chapel Carne, looking out, across, turning right around seeking views from shore to shore and as far as St Michael’s Mount.  I miss the rocky heights of Hound Tor with sun baked granite and wild bees and the mossy greens of Wistman’s Wood that make my fingers itch to paint, but most of all I miss this bird – my Dipper bird – the bird that first I saw as a child nature nerd and to search along that same bubbling bouncing river is my every holiday mission.  The Dipper bird that became my secret passion nearly 50 year ago and in these years of necessary nature conservation lives on still in that same location, so this year it is me that’s missing, I wonder if he is missing me, that strange woman in purple with a habit to stand and stare? So if anyone is down Tavistock way and glimpses my little friend perhaps you would safe the memory and be kind enough to share.