Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Surfing the Surrey Hills

We're off to Edinburgh in a few days, so it's been a time for saying our goodbyes. Our friends and our children's friends gathered at the local adventure playground to send us off - it was loud, and lots of fun. Finding such a great community is hard, and leaving it is even harder. Who would've thought raising children in central London could be so joyful and communal?

I also had another quieter goodbye to say. I've got to know the countryside of the south east pretty well and I've grown to love it. There may not be mountains but there are forests and flower-studded downs, old sunken lanes and heaths, salt marshes and reed beds, and always a pub when you need one. Exploring here has saved me from myopic summit-bagging (much as that's still a guilty pleasure) and deepened my appreciation of nature and habitats in all their diversity. I'll be back, that's for sure.

I headed to Victoria in the early blue-sky cool to catch a train into the sticks. Destination was the Surrey Hills, a forested tract of heathland almost touching 1,000 feet in some places, and a walk from Holmwood to Gomshall. It was a flawless day of hot sun (I was glad to be under the forest canopy most of the time) and a soundtrack of bees, birds and the lazy firecracker pops of gorse pods. I'll leave you with the pictures.

Bombus pascuorum in action

Leith Hill Tower

Holmbury Hill

Saturday, 4 July 2015

South Downs circular

Steve and I took the train out to Lewes on a hot and sunny morning to stretch our legs and catch up. It had been a while. The hardest part of these walks is always getting out of town, but Lewes is small and the station is almost on the southern outskirts. We found the River Ouse and a welcoming message under the bridge carrying the bypass - not the work of the local rangers probably.

Welcome to the Sussex Ouse Valley Way
We weren't expecting much from the flat walk south by the river, but it was lovely. The Ouse is tidal many miles inland, from Newhaven to a few miles north of Lewes. It's been somewhat canalised and hemmed in by embankments to protect the wide lush grassy flatlands. It's a curious landscape as the Ouse cleaves the South Downs right down to sea level on its way south; in earlier times these flatlands must have been a great inland salt marsh regularly inundated by tides surging upriver through the breach in the Downs.

The river walkway is a delight. The sun is strong and the air is heavy with the scent of grasses and many wild flowers. Steve keeps a steady pace while I stop-start, photographing little things that catch my eye - getting the habits of recording and cataloging - then rushing to catch up.

The banks of lush grass and wild flowers are full of life - red-tailed bumble bees and this beautiful iridescent pollen-eating beetle.

At Southease station we turn left up the South Downs Way on a dry chalky track, over grasslands studded with wild flowers. There are lots of mountain bikers on the trail - the downhills look great, the uphills much less so. At the top there's quite a breeze and it's clouding over. We know there's at least an hour of rain in the offing  - the BBC forecast says so. We share a grassy depression on the ridge with a group of young American lads on mountain bikes for a lunch stop. Steve is American himself and after some observation quickly has them sussed: definitely Mormons. I bow to his judgement.

From here it's an easy few kilometres along to Firle Beacon. The summit is pocked with ancient earthworks. I imagine a Saxon barrow with numerous chambers for the great and good of the times. Now all is grassed over and gone, probably stripped by Victorian treasure hunters, needing an archaeologist's eyes to read the mounds and hollows.

The rain has come and gone and it's brightening up and warming up again as we drop north off the ridge towards Firle village and a couple of pints.

There's a small plantation of what I'm fairly sure is chicory, the first time I've seen it being grown commercially in this country - the collapsitarian post-globalist's hot beverage of choice. The drink is made from the roots - roasted, powdered and dried - and the leaves are good in a salad. Only one or two flowers were out as it doesn't really get going until July.

We're feeling gung-ho after a couple of beers at the Ram Inn so we decide to walk the five miles back to Lewes rather than catch a train from nearby Glynde. We're glad we did as the walk over Mount Caburn is a delight, taking us into a little valley hidden in the folds of the hills before descending to Lewes. Skylarks provide the soundtrack and the grassland is strewn with wild flowers. Most striking are the vivid blues of viper's bugloss on the slopes above Lewes.

Climbing Mount Caburn

Looking across the fields to Glynde Place

Looking back to Firle Beacon

Up and over...
Viper's bugloss

Down into Lewes
A wee bit late back into London but well worth it. This must be one of the most varied and satisfying day walks in the South Downs, complete with a perfectly positioned pub.