Sunday, 3 January 2021

Newhaven's Open Spaces - places for wildlife and memory vaults

Memory might be mapped across our lifetimes as a line of recollections, fading in a slow dissolve over time into a series of punctuated dashes and dots.

View from Meeching Down, Newhaven, 1987

 

I've lived in Newhaven for nearly fifty years – a period of time long enough to have developed a deep and intimate passion for the town, a sense of place and a firm and unshakeable 'rootedness'. I've lived in six different places around town which, when plotted on a town map, form a shape which reminds me of the constellation of Orion the Hunter, a pattern of stars which climbs above the southeastern horizon each evening at this time of year, his loyal hunting dogs* at his side.

I have felt the most in touch with the daily pulse of the town while living in our current home, thanks in part to a broad view across the Ouse Valley. We see the comings-and-goings of the ferry and trains, the red flashes of the level crossing lights, the traffic passing or tailing back over the flyover, and people walking with their dogs along the beach at Tidemills. At least six nature reserves can be seen from the house, along with a few other smaller open spaces. Three of these (Castle Hill, Meeching Down and Bollen's Bush) form three clay-rich outcrops along the skyline which might be called Newhaven's 'three peaks'.

For a busy industrial port dominated by the flow of things through the town onto other places, it feels to me that we have a good share of open spaces. A quick calculation of the 720 hectares contained within the Newhaven Civil Parish produces a land area for the six nature reserves of approximately 112 hectares, or about 15% of the town's land. Added to this are several other open amenity spaces, undeveloped land containing woodland and scrub, hinterlands between surrounding parishes and the embracing South Downs National Park. I don't know how this compares with other towns elsewhere, but it feels like something worth cherishing and protecting.

These special places contrast with other parts of the town which have changed during my fifty years: the riverside quays have become more of a sink for waste materials passing through from elsewhere; areas of the Valley, Newhaven Heights and the floodplain have been developed or are in the process of development; and other patches of land such as the recent destruction of some stunningly diverse chalk grassland at The Crescent in Denton** have been irreparably damaged by inconsiderate management.

 

Open spaces bring people together

The special places we have now are crucial refuges and interconnecting corridors for wildlife, but they are important also for things like the town's character, our collective social identity and places to meet and enjoy time away from the thrum of daily life, to pause, reflect and contemplate. To create memories. All these things combine to grow our individual and collective sense of rootedness in the town – like a form of social and cultural woodland, our roots holding us together, anchoring down our seaside community. Having places where happy experiences and memories are lived is central to this.

Memory might be mapped across our lifetimes as a line of recollections, fading in a slow dissolve over time into a series of punctuated dashes and dots. A memoir expressed through the medium of Morse Code. At Meeching Down ('The Union') I can remember my Dad lifting me up so that I could see the sea above the line of willows behind Northdown Road, learning to ride a bike, playing in the sandpit, sledging down the snow-covered hill towards Brighton Road, an encounter with a Woodcock which is as fresh in my memory as if it happened just yesterday; and, more recently, an enjoyable evening of moth trapping with local families. When I think about those dots and dashes, I'm amazed by how many were made in the town's open spaces. 

 

Me on The Union (Meeching Down) in 1972

These are places where we come together and create memories. They have been especially important during the Covid-19 crisis, even if we have not been able to meet in such great numbers. They deserve our care and good stewardship. This year is important for the UK's role in environmental management, on both the local and global stages, and it has begun with our exit from the European Union and its changes to environmental and farming laws and culminates in September with the COP26 meeting***.

I want to challenge every person this year to find their voice and speak up for nature and the environment, to be a part of promoting the value of open spaces for now and the future and to get outside and create those moments which live long in the memory. Places which live in the front of our minds are safer and more resistant to change.



Notes

*Canis Major and Canis Minor. See: https://www.constellation-guide.com/constellation-list/canis-minor-constellation/.

**Following a change in ownership of a small plot of land with good quality semi-improved chalk grassland and which had been sensitively and lightly grazed for many years, the new owner fenced off a right of way crossing the land and cleared the flora back to the chalk substrate for an unconfirmed change of use. The South Downs Planning Authority has since ordered the owner to reinstate the land, but the rich diversity of flora will take decades to recover, even with favourable management.

*** The COP26 summit will bring nations and non-governmental organisations together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC). See: https://ukcop26.org/.

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