Friday, 28 September 2018

Heartland Walks #2: Rookery Hill and Bishopstone

Ambiance: atmosphere, feel, setting, environment, mood, character, air, quality
Heartland: core, hub, nucleus, focus, centre, middle
Here: now, at this time/point/juncture
Locale: location, setting, place, milieu, area, locality, site, spot
Locality: area, neighbourhood, zone, vicinity, section, quarter, ghetto, district
Milieu: setting, environment, scene, background, situation, location, locale, ambiance
Neighbourhood: area, region, district, locality, zone, quarter, vicinity
Surroundings: environs, settings, environments, backgrounds, backdrops, atmospheres, ambiences
Vicinity: neighbourhood, district, locality, area, purlieu, locale

The rain is already close as Leo and I lock up and disappear into the weekend. The forecast predicts rain is still two hours off, but the dark phalanx of cloud marching eastwards suggests otherwise. The first spots are felt before we’ve walked a quarter of a mile and my wet weather gear is out and on as the curtain of rain washes over us. The ferry disappeared into it moments before and is gone, like disappearing into a waterfall. The wind is fidgety: a low breeze carrying the whiff of Newhaven’s industrial Saturday morning rises to a headwind, surfing the first enthusiastic rain wave, then settles back to near calm with the steady rain. We are crossing the chalk east ridge of the Ouse valley in search of the floodplain below. I have felt a growing appetite to watch and hear Curlew as they return from their upland nesting sites to coastal wintering grounds. We will explore the heartland of the Ouse floodplain. The tide is high and rising, so there is a good chance they will be sitting it out somewhere in or around the Ouse Estuary Local Nature Reserve. From a trig above The Rookery, the narrow ribbon of the Mill Drove shines wet and bisects the Tide Mills ruins. To its east the land stretches flat to the Buckle and curves inland through the old Pelham estate towards Bishopstone and its church sat slightly elevated above the once-marsh, where now a criss-cross of drains cut through damp meadows which still become a shallow wetland in winter. Curlews and countless other waders once would have piped the mudflats at low tide. Surrounding escarpment and steep ridges show where the tides would once have lapped up to twice-daily. This, then, shall be our starting point.

The road to the village at Bishopstone rises gently, so once over the stile built into the flint wall, one drops down into the floodplain below. A path into Bishopstone Wood - the Rookery - is a causeway between two ponds which dry out during good summers. Three other ponds lie nearby. They're alive with dragonflies then, but none are seen today as I pass towards the woodland edge. Great trees planted by Thomas Pelham-Holles, the Duke of Newcastle and twice Prime Minister, sometime after he inherited the land from his uncle in 1711, mark the boundary between the wood and pasture. They are outliving a decaying flint wall that follows the tree line and marks the route of Duke's Walk through the trees and up towards Norton Top. One of the largest sycamores I know stands over the corner with great vertical boughs reaching like outstretched fingers towards the sky. Its bark is thick with lichen-crusted scales. Elms and big beeches which may be nearly 300 years old mark the edge further up.

It takes a little imagination to see a harbour here with ships moored up, sailing between Rookery Hill and Hawth Hill to and from the river proper and the sea beyond, but this was once the scene. Perhaps the ponds are its last trace? To imagine this better, it is helpful to view the floodplain from Rookery Hill above. The hill was once a promontory bounded on three sides by the estuary. It has Bronze Age barrows and Romano-British and Saxon settlements which once looked across the tidal flats to neighbouring settlements on Hawth Hill and beyond across the floodplain to the sea. Much of this is buried beneath the bungalows of the Harbour View estate. The river followed an eastward course to the foot of Seaford Head until about 1567, and a ferry-boat operated at Bishopstone to transport people and livestock to and from the shingle spit and its road which stretched along the coast, beyond the parish of Sutton. In 1567 the river burst through the spit somewhere between what is now The Buckle and Tidemills. The channel beyond silted up and marked the end of Seaford as a Cinque Port. Only The Old Brickfield, The Salts and Martello Fields, the position of St. Leonard’s Church in the old parish of Sutton and the course of Steyne Road – steyne meaning a stony place – are physical hints of the old course of the river. Imagine the joy of being able to bypass the old port and its rules and taxes. Was there human agency involved with the change in the river’s course?

Later still, in the 1750s, a storm disturbed the shingle spit and the river broke through to the west at Meeching, soon to become the New Haven. Between these two events the floodplain at Bishopstone was a harbour. It’s fascinating to imagine ships moored where the seasonal ponds remain. Shapes in the ground today suggest banksides where the land rose out of the estuary. Water still influences this land, even if only as the dregs of its former glory.

Back below Rookery Wood, the lush grass and damp ground is no good for sheep grazing and a small herd of well-behaved cattle spends most of the year here and through the open gate leading into the field to the north, by the few houses. This land has lived different lives throughout history and the peaceful inertia of today may once have been rather more influenced by the tides and industry of the local people. This is a common theme that will recur as I walk south and then westwards through the floodplain. Standing now though in the once-estuary, where trees and pasture have replaced the wooden ships and their harbour, ripples of history can still be felt. The lowest levels are still inundated after the winter rains each year and the land is usually off limits during the early months. At these times it might even be navigable by boat.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Heartland Walks #1

The River Ouse and its floodplain is Newhaven's lifeblood. 
It is an in between land; a little-tamed, wild hinterland; the heartland. 
Everything flows from here.

Laying in bed at night I often hear a coarse purr rising from the port of Newhaven. It carries along on prevailing winds through the bedroom window. Our house overlooks the flat levels of the lower Ouse estuary, Newhaven’s heartland, sculpted by the migrating river as it snaked and carved its course through the millennia. The view stretches southwards to the sea and inland past the quays which line the river. Visible through a gap in houses opposite are damp pastures and arable fields surrounded by open drains, some of which may be remnant creeks that once snaked like eels through tidal mudflats, others dug in straight channels from the sixteenth century, when the river rediscovered its ancient route to sea by Castle Hill. The purring sound comforts me. Rather than disturbing or delaying my sleep, it ushers it on. It is the sound of home, of familiarity, of safety. I recall that same sound forty years ago when, as a child, laying in bed on the other side of town, it would purr its lullaby. I sometimes wonder whether the source is a discrete activity or just the sound of the town resting after a tiring day of work, its heartbeat.

The purr reveals a fact about the town: it is a place of work, where work is done. The narrow ribbon of quayside activity which lines the river has pulsed daily since the first fishing boats and barges carried goods to and from the port, inland to Lewes and beyond or along the coast, working around the tides. At any time today one could hear the deep bass roar of the ferry as it arrives and leaves or the crash of waste transfer stations, whirring roof-mounted fans and a thousand other sounds. But when the white noise settles down for the day, the purr is still there. Piecemeal  changes might mostly have gone unnoticed, yet the town has seen a multitude of activities come and go in this small parcel of land, some influenced by local need, others by the relentless march of progress, all punctuated by the repossession of those places by nature before it is again evicted for the next endeavour. The pulse of change seems to have quickened during recent decades. Decisions taken by a few people with narrow interests, inconsiderate of the wildlife and the town’s character, have attracted the townsfolk’s ire.

Not everyone is bothered. To wave away change as inevitable and legitimate is to miss a vital truth about any place. Sense of place is not really about the physical characteristics found on the surface geography; it is an intricate tapestry of things threaded into the collective memories and experiences of a population. It is temporal as well as spatial, geography of the collective mind, and it raises a further truth: how can it be expected that a developer or a town planner or anyone who does not share our rootedness understand the catastrophe of change in a place? To those naysayers who don't think so much of Newhaven’s wild heartland and its history, I offer the example of the current East Pier, which during the last 125 years or so has become a cherished feature within the town's character (an east pier of some sort has been there since about 1670, by the way). There are memories surrounding the pier. There was the occasion of the steam dredger, surrounded by the town’s fishing fleet as it dredged silt, fish and shellfish alongside the pier. I imagine it every time I walk along the East Side beach at low tide and find the shells of Mactra stultorum, the Rayed Trough Shell, resting on the sand, where its community still siphons mud at the river’s mouth as it must have since the river first cut its way through to the sea here. Purple Sandpipers sit out the high-water on the little pier and wait for the tide-washed parts of its skeleton to be revealed. Many birdwatchers have told me this is where they first saw a Purple Sandpiper. Fishermen cast their lines today in the same arc as previous generations, hoping to lure the fish which follow the tide out and in. Eric Ravilious painted the pier on several occasions from the quayside or from his room at The Hope Inn. People once waved off little boats from the pier as they sailed out to rescue troops stranded at Dunkirk.  These stories are etched into the heart of the town’s identity and the hearts of the townsfolk.

The east pier is nearing the end of its time, soon to be replaced by a deep water berth and the protective embrace of a new sea arm, which no doubt will itself find its way into our hearts. Many locals will mourn the passing of the old pier though. The upset is caused not so much the harsh fact of change, but more as a result of many small acts of vandalism, this one included, which corrode Newhaven's character. These are irreversible acts occasioned upon us, the locals. No developer or decision-maker will consider the cumulative impact of these acts upon us, or care about where the sandpipers will be displaced to, or even whether the impact upon the ray shells will be catastrophic. They won't care if they bury beneath tonnes of aggregate the place where we once sat on sandy towels with long departed loved ones, or where a couple had their first kiss. These things have no value to them, only us. We are the ones who mourn the loss of these things, the familiar patterns of place. Our map – the one in our collective consciousness – has depth and emotion which is lacking from the physical, unsentimental statement of ownership spread across the developer’s desktop. Rather than sharing a cold geography, we are in fact a series of diverse threads embroidered into a psychogeography which forms an intimate knowledge and shared sense of community.

Change can be positive when it is made considerately, but it is important to remember and provide witness to past changes in order to inform how best to do it now and in future - to place them in a collective memory, where experience and feeling take precedent above physical geography. In this way we can be agents of positive change tomorrow by knowing what is important today and yesterday. As the shadow of change now looms over parts of this heartland and I am denied the right to explore familiar places once accessible, I resolve to explore this small hinterland between The Buckle and Newhaven’s East Quay and inland to the Drove and beyond to the most northerly influence of the town, keeping to the floodplain all the way. I'm interested in the Seahaven hinterland and the blurred line of where Seaford ends and Newhaven begins. This line has shifted with the course of the river throughout history. Seahaven is the perfect compromise. This is no wasteland, no forgotten place; it is the artery, the lifeblood. It is its energy which has made it difficult to be tamed by people. Natural processes have shaped this land above any other influence and created what we see and walk upon today. I will try and collect a snapshot – a word-map – of this place as I find it now and as we have known it and placed it on display in our collective memory.

The purring sound drifting through my open window over from the port may one day cease. It might be drowned out by the acoustic creep of industry. It might be replaced by another familiar noise. Its passing may not be noticed, but its lullaby may be remembered when its absence disturbs my sleep.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Old Shed

Willow Beauty Peribatodes rhomboidaria in crypsis

Our old garden shed is popular with the Willow Beauties. It's one of my favourite moth species. They're there every morning in recent weeks, two or three or four of them. It fascinates me how in the near-dark they are able to choose a surface that blends with their wings. Crypsis, the behaviour by one animal of avoiding detection by another; truly it's a wonder of the natural world.

The old shed needs to go. The rusty hinges are failing; the warped wooden slats no longer overlap and keep the weather out. The slope above the shed at the top of the garden needs shoring up with a thick wall to protect our neighbour's greenhouses from the effects of time and gravity: downland heading down land. This is a project for another year though, so for now the shed belongs to the moths and the spiders, the woodpigeon who sits on top in the afternoons, the black cat who teases our dogs (and scares the pigeon away), and the privet and ivy, whose roots behind the old shed are holding the slope together for the moment.