Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Way-side at dusk

Rooks and Jackdaws at dusk

The track - stair-rod straight
The track that links Mount Pleasant with Bishopstone stretches stair-rod straight for about two miles along undulating downland foothills. I suppose it is old and I wonder if it is ancient: along its highest crest it passes a series of earth barrows; in the other direction it passes beneath the metalled surfaces of Falaise and Seaview Road before reverting to rough footpath and plunging steeply downhill to St Leonard's Church at Denton.

It is a footpath, bridleway, rough track, road, a link between settlements, cemeteries and people. It is a wildlife corridor, field headland, a ribbon, a river of life flowing through and beyond barren, harvested fields. This path is not a gash cutting through the landscape, not a wound inflicted by modern farming; it is an artery which carries things through the landscape: feet, hooves, cartwheels, tractor wheels, paws, bicycle wheels, and, during heavy rain, even the eroded chalk powder of the earth itself.

The path downhill from Mount Pleasant reaches a nadir before rising steeply again above Foxhole Farm; here at its nadir it forms a natural sump where traffic-ground dust is spattered into a heavy paste by late-summer rain, lubricated into a downward flow into the sump, where it collects as a chalky slub. At the turn of each year we call this slub January Butter. Today it is mixed with dried grasses and the manure of passing horses in a sticky, grey daub.

Sussex has a rich dialect when it comes to mud. Sussex roads gained a notoriety for their heavy-going state when Daniel Defoe lamented about them in his Grand Tour, during his struggle through the Wealden clay. My chalky track, high above and to the south of the heavy clay, has been a dry bed for months but, tonight, as I walk along its course, the intermittent rain has softened the harvest dust. Today has felt more in common with October than August and the sticky paste reminds me to be thankful for the dryness of the season and clean dogs at the end of each walk. These dog-days are numbered, but one day of sun and wind tomorrow will bake hard the chalk-rich earth again.

Knotgrass flower
The abundance of plant and insect life in a field headland can be astonishing. The track is still a green life-rich corridor flowing between harvested desert fields, despite September grass sideburns which look long overdue a shave. The bottom of the sump is adorned with a carpet of knot-grass, its deep pile extending down into the restful sediment transported into the sump by forgotten rains. The dominant species, though, is greater plantain, which have poked out thousands of tongues upwards in defiance of the harvest blades, like anenomies greeting a rising tide.

In recent weeks we have been entertained by an abundance of butterflies: meadow browns, gatekeepers, marbled whites and common blues, with the odd wall brown. Tonight though the track has given its greatest gift of the year in a hawking barn owl; not a ghostly white figure but an unmistakable silent silhouette which drifts across the straw stubble away from the pell-mell of my dogs. The same airspace during our morning walk was taken by a hovering kestrel. Further along the track we pause and listen to a tawny owl somewhere below us in The Rookery. A second one answers somewhere lower down in the wood. We haven't seen or heard them here before and we happily add them to our mental list alongside barn, short-eared and little owls which we remember from the thirty or so years past that we have walked here.

Gulls #1
Walking along the track early this morning revealed that the barren fields have been colonised by pioneers: paroled arable weeds free of regimented crops, flocks of rooks, jackdaws, gulls, pigeons and a dozen greylag geese. These are gleaners and grazers. I wonder if these are some of the large skein of about 120 geese I saw making their way along the Ouse Valley a few days before? On that occasion I saw a single mallard punching well above its weight at the front of the V, skein-surfing their bow wave.

Gulls #2
The track has faded to a low glow as we near home. The rooks and jackdaws are making their way back home while, above, gulls are coast-bound in dribs and drabs. A fox chatters and chuckles somewhere within the maize field, but there is no sign of the barn owl. The maize whispers in a low breeze as we pass it and it conjures the illusion of unwanted company. A hushed chorus of dark bush-crickets guides us along. The path is straight and, when we walk through this country, we walk as the crow flies.

Coast-bound gulls

Walking home, as the crow flies

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