Sunday, 12 April 2015

Balcombe to Horsham via St Leonard's Forest

Low dark cloud raced across the sky as I left Balcombe station. The rain came down and there were no photos.

A few miles later, into Nymans Woods, it clears up suddenly and swiftly. The forest floor blazes golden brown, a thick carpet of beech and oak leaves.

It's starting to feel like summer but the trees are still bare. Only the holly, ivy and moss provide shocks of green.

It's been mostly dry for a couple of weeks and the going is easy, There's little mud on the footpaths and much of the route is on metalled or gravelly bridleways. Through the village of Handcross, bisected by the six thundering lanes of the A23, then diving back into lush lanes, between green banks scattered with primroses.

Deepest Sussex, about as bucolic as you can get in the south east. At times you do feel quite far away from it all.

The sun is strong, the going is easy, and I'm covering ground fast.

Iron was worked in the Weald from prehistory to the 18th century. As the industry grew it needed more water. There are still many little reservoirs scattered through the folds of the land.

Lunch is taken sitting on a mossy bank by the bridleway watching the world come back to life.

It's getting hot and from here to Horsham the trail goes almost against the grain of the land. Up, over and down a succession of ridges...

...stalking a peacock butterfly, camera and hand, hoping it'll stay still long enough, but it doesn't...

...and on into St Leonard's Forest where the wood anenomes are at their peak...

...following the High Weald Landscape Trail to its terminus in Horsham.

A track runs dead straight along the broad crest of a ridge in the heart of the forest. Scots pine, birch and even heather thrive up here on the old heath. I really like it up here, the big skies seem closer somehow.

Horsham is near. There are dog walkers and a smattering of litter, then more houses, then a straight road by suburban houses and a convoluted walk around to the station main entrance guided by a friendly local. In an hour I'm back in London but spend another hour trapped on a bus snarled up in an angry funnel of traffic around Waterloo as a crane takes up half the road to send yet more glass and steel skywards.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

A day at the marshes

Easter shutdown on the railway meant a narrowing of options for getting out of London for a walk. HS1 down the Thames estuary was still running. Half an hour from St Pancras through the strange semi-industrial interzone of the estuary flatlands and I was here on the Hoo peninsula, the north Kent marshes.

The villages sit well back from the river, on the first hints of higher, drier ground. The river is a rumour beyond the horizon. I pass a house called Thames View but the Thames is out of sight. The marshes seem tame at first, grazed, but up close they ooze water. The path follows an embankment between channels thick with head-high rushes.

Higham Marsh is full of life. Lapwings whoop and tumble, a heron patrols, and Canada and greylag geese fly in to feed.

There's a big aggregate works near the village of Cliffe. Decades of digging out sand has created artificial lakes, new habitat. The RSPB have a reserve here.

Finally the coast, the mudflats on the outermost reach of the Thames. It's not a place for people here. The marshes don't feel like they've truly been reclaimed, humans haven't quite pressed home their advantage.

The human impact here seems tentative and provisional. There are derelict solitary buildings scattered over the marsh, abandoned piers with signs warning of strong currents and weak structures.  The rotting wooden hull of a large boat is half-buried in the mud. Ruined Cliffe Fort sits on a promontary, built in the late 19th century to defend London from attack, complete with one of the earliest guided missile systems.

Cliffe Fort
Around Cliffe Fort the path has collapsed in places and I need to scramble over rubble and rubbish and bricks. Shocking amounts of plastic are washed up here, brought down the current from the metropolis.

Meanwhile huge container ships ply the river bringing vast amounts of new consumer goodies into the city's maw. I can feel the subsonic thrum of the engines in my chest and through my feet even when the river is obscured behind an embankment and sea wall.

Looking inland, the marsh beyond the Cliffe Pools is heavily grazed, tousled and inhospitable, sprinkled with ruins.

I walk on and on following the river towards the sea, into a grim headwind and a venomous drizzly rain. I pass a mysterious grid of ruined warehouses.

I find a little shelter for lunch and watch a huge ship pass the Canvey Island oil refinery and dock at the container port opposite. In the time it takes to make a brew and eat a sandwich it executes a 180 degree turn before coming to rest. Three cranes lower and start to lift off the containers.

It's as eerie a place as I've ever been. I don't know what makes me feel uneasy - is it the landscape itself, or what's been made of it, a place not for people but for giant machines? Off the path it's certainly not a safe landscape. There's real menace here.

I turn and head back. The weather's improving, flock after flock of wading birds gust overhead to land on the river. There are many ducks on the marshes.

Back at Cliffe Pools I turn inland and walk the perimeter of the reserve.

Through the aggregate works, the sun is out and it's warm, maybe the warmest it's been all year so far.

Back at Higham Marsh the skies are captivating...

...and life goes on. The geese graze, the lapwings tumble and mob a heron, who slinks off to lurk amongst the rushes by the creek.

I'm feeling it in my legs a lot by the time I reach the station. It's hard to judge distances in this landscape. The landmarks don't change much because they're visible over large distances. On the train I unfold the map on a table and sit back mildly astonished to realise I've walked over 16 miles. I'm looking forward a little more than usual to being back between four familiar walls.