We decided to explore more footpaths this month, as there were still several on the map that we hadn’t walked. The idea has always been to walk from the house and not use the car and it is surprising how much latitude this gives. The first of December was a lovely sunny day, ideal for rambling and we decided to head in the direction of Lukyns, a large mansion on the edge of the parish. To get there we followed a route that was very familiar, up to the badger wood at Gull’s Isle and then along to Radnor Place Farm. There is always something new to see in these woods and I noticed some enormous bracket fungi growing on the fallen trunk of a silver birch tree, one of these looked remarkably like a Cornish pasty, though I doubt it would be as tasty. The nearest match I can get in the guide book is Laetioporus sulphurous, which loses its yellow colour as it ages and looks a similar shape. The other bracket was white and I think was Piptoporus betulinus (Birch Polpore), which, as its name suggests, is commonly found on Birch trees. This is not edible but has been used in various ways; it is an effective razor strop, though few men use the type of razor that is sharpened in this manner today, it is also good as tinder and can be utilised as an absorbent or for polishing.
The stream running beside the path to Radnor Farm is much more conspicuous now that the wayside plants have died down or been cut back and it is also faster flowing with higher water levels. There is a brick construction bridging the water and it looks like this has been there for many years, however it is hard to see what its purpose is. My guess is that it acts as some kind of flow control, preventing flooding. This ditch follows the path for some distance, up until the equestrian centre of Lukyns; its line is marked by a variety of trees and bushes such as silver birch, white poplars, blackthorn and hawthorn. In one tree by the stable I see that a large flock of starlings are gathered, they probably get prime pickings near the farm. They are noisy and quarrelsome, so nothing new there.
It is at this point that we take a new route, going further east up to Lukyns. This mansion was built in 1911 to a design by Ernest Newton for the Scottish engineer Sir Dugald Clerk, who lived there until his death in !932. It has views to the South Downs and clearly suited a successful man living his final years in the country. The gardens were originally laid out by the famous Surrey gardener Gertrude Jekyll, although little of her design remains today. It is interesting that a wave of affluent people came to the Surrey Hills in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, building substantial properties. This has rather obscured the historical poverty that had existed in Surrey for hundreds of years. Apparently Lukyns has a ghost, first spotted in the 1930s by the owner Sir Kenneth Lea: I wonder who it is and why their unsettled spirit still wanders there.
Although the footpath goes quite close to the house it is almost impossible to see it as a thick, tall hedge keeps prying eyes out. We do, however, on this clear day get a fine view across the Weald as far as the Downs. By the fence I see late flowering Cat’s Ears, a tough weed usually flowering in high summer. At the end of the path we come to Three Mile Road, which leads up to Holmbury House and Holmbury Hill. We have to walk a few yards up the road, taking our lives in our hands as the cars speed up this narrow country lane: why, I wonder, is everybody behind a wheel in such a hurry?
Finding the footpath well marked, we carry on east towards Holmbury Farm. It is along this path that we cross the parish boundary, though there is nothing to mark this. The path is heavy going as it has been churned up in the wet weather by walkers and horses. Dipping down there is a small pond at the bottom of the slope, its margins full of reed-beds. Up the slope off the path the hill has a coppice, the trees are bright against a blue sky, the shapes of their branches marked clearly as they are without leaves.
Holmbury Farm is yet another posh equestrian centre, which looks as if it has had a lot of money spent on it in recent years as the original building has been modernised in a very tasteful way, with wood panelling and what looks like a dormitory for those working there. The views are again wonderful, as it stands on a high point of land. From the farm we now pick up the path going southwards, this runs parallel to Cotton Row, a country lane linking the Ockley Road to the Holmbury St Mary Road. We are going downhill for a while and come to a lane where we turn west back towards Ewhurst; we cross open fields and see a Roe Deer run out of the hedge, the first one I have seen for a while. Soon after buzzards appear, one makes for a stand of trees and I am able to watch him roosting in an oak for some time. I also see a rabbit scurrying up the field and it is not long before we realise why this creature is alarmed. Crossing the stile I spot a buzzard on the ground, tearing at the carcase of another rabbit. The bird is so intent on its prey that we are able to watch it at close range. Other buzzards are wheeling round in the sky, no doubt waiting for their turn and wishing that we would move on. Such encounters with wild nature are rare moments to be cherished.
At the top of this field are barns and beyond these Brookhurst Farm is situated on Three Mile Road, which we re-cross and climb a steep incline known as Prince Hill. All the way we get glimpses of both the Surrey Hills to the north and the Weald to the south, a feeling of freedom and openness exhilarates us in the slight breeze. Coming down the other side of the hill we re-join the familiar path from Lukyns to Bramblehurst Farm, our walk has taken us in a big circle.
South of Ewhurst the walks take you into the Wealden clay, a much flatter terrain towards the border of West Sussex. It is an area I have ignored and so we set off one Sunday morning in the direction of Old House. To get to this we take the path from Gadbridge Lane, cut through the narrow brake of woodland and scale the wobbly stile into the very large field which has numerous oak trees scattered over it like parkland in a Jane Austen novel.
Old House stands at the end of a long drive and the footpath weaves around the property. As the name suggests the building dates back to the mid fifteenth century, additions were made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: the house was much altered in 1928 by John Horniman, with a north-east wing being added. There is a lake and the gardens are landscaped into different sections, including an orchard.
To the south of the house the path goes through mixed woodland and comes to a cross road. Here we go left, in a north-easterly direction and we soon reach a beautiful group of mature Beech trees, with a carpet of glimmering bronze leaves under them. The trees cover a steep hillside and must be at least two hundred years old. In the wayside there are lots of rabbit burrows and smaller holes probably occupied by voles and mice. A silence reigns in this tranquil place.
It is, of course, impossible to experience quiet for long in the twenty-first century and it is not many minutes before we come onto Somersbury Lane. It is necessary to walk along the road for some way before continuing on the footpath and we are shocked by the amount of litter strewing the verge. It is troubling that those that devote themselves to preserving the countryside, can have their efforts trashed by thoughtless travellers. Unfortunately litter-picking, which is carried out by various individuals and organisations in the area, has had to be postponed during the pandemic and this has led to the worsening situation.
Still, let us leave the roadside, returning to calmer waters. The path links to the Horsham Road and passes behind Somersbury Manor, a timber beamed property dating back to the sixteenth century or earlier. We cross a rickety bridge over a stream, coming to an orchard and an area of field where willow is being grown, presumably commercially.
I thought that we would find the path continuing across the main road but the Pitchwood Stud looked forbiddingly private and so we had to walk up the entrance of Buildings Wood. The footpath follows a track into this area of ancient mixed woodland. It is a large wood covering most of the area between the Horsham Road and Walliswood village; the wood gives us a sense of what the whole region must have been like before this part of Surrey became populated. Impenetrable forest covered the Weald, with poor dwellings housing people scraping a living off the land in woodland glades. Buildings Wood remains dense, in private hands it is closed to the world and we peer into the austere gloom of tightly gathered trees, shadows dancing ominously among them. There is, though, a human presence as we reach a house, Widewoods, which has its origins in the late sixteenth century: when I was last here a few years ago the house was derelict, a sad shell of what it must once have been. Luckily it seems that somebody has taken on the task of restoring the house, as there are signs of extensive repairs being done, with scaffolding erected all round it.
Our way takes us behind the house, past tennis courts which have not seen play for many years, into the wood going back north towards Ewhurst. There are many hazel bushes and I see that somebody has put a lot of Dormouse nesting boxes on these. Dormice have experienced a serious decline in numbers, The Woodland Trust estimates a population fall of 52% since 1995. The loss of favoured habitats of ancient woodland and hedgerows has had a detrimental effect on Dormice and climate change disrupts the hibernation cycle, leading the animals to come out of their torpor too early, when there is insufficient food to sustain them. In autumn they will store up body fat, eating fruit and nuts and, as the cold weather arrives, they come down from the trees and build nests on the ground. Entering a state of torpor, Dormice have been known to spend seven months in hibernation. We do not see any sign of these rare mammals and it is a very lucky person who does get a chance to observe them in the wild; this wood would be the perfect habitat though. Lewis Carroll immortalised the Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland when the contrary, peevish creature irritates Alice with its illogical nonsense:
“Once upon a time there were three little sisters,” the Dormouse began in a great hurry; “and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well-“Lewis Carroll
“What did they live on?” said Alice who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.
“They lived on treacle,” said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.
“They couldn’t have done that, you know,” Alice gently remarked. “They’d have been ill.”
“So they were,” said the Dormouse; “very ill.”
As Alice leaves the mad tea party we are given the unforgettable image of the Hatter and the March Hare ‘trying to put the Dormouse into the teapot.’
Coming out of the wood and leaving behind the topsy-turvy world of Wonderland, we cross fields and then follow the boundary of the Polo Club. The flat land is ideal for this sport, although I do wonder if the muddy clay is a problem in wet weather. It is a featureless plain, only coming to life when fine horses, ridden by riders with mallets chase after a wooden ball, attempting to score goals against their opponents. Today a few carrion crows are picking desultorily at the ground and the main feature is Cobbler’s Brook which flows along the eastern edge of the grounds, carving a deep valley in the land. The exit leads us past Plough Farm and we then take the route through the woods back to Ewhurst.
At this time of year it is a struggle for small animals and birds to survive. Daylight hours are few, the time when lots of birds will feed and cold conditions mean that they use much more energy. A recent RSPB report reveals that small birds like Blue Tits are not able to lay down a lot of fat, estimating each bird will only have enough to get it through one night and, therefore, a winter’s day has to be spent searching for food. A blue tit weighs just 11g and needs 1 Kcal per gram of body weight each winter day. This translates as the equivalent of 300 small insects weighing 10g in total. It is why we do birds a good service in putting feed out for them, a static, reliable food source allows them to conserve energy. Birds also develop downy feathers in the autumn, acting as insulation. The research, for example, reckons that House Sparrows’ plumage weight increases by 70% following the autumn moult.
In the middle of December we had a cold snap, reminding us that we cannot rely on mild weather lasting. Mist clothed the hills and frost speckled the hedgerows, a few times this lingered all day, penetrating to the bone the damp chill. This was succeeded by heavy rains and on one day we were walking through the badger wood and back to Bramblehurst, starting off in mild, sunny weather we ended the walk sheltering from torrential rain and hail. On this walk I saw several chaffinches and goldfinches in the trees, active in the day and possibly the chaffinches were migrant birds coming south. It is strange how nature sometimes throws up phenomenon that demand to be read as symbols. Just to the side of the path running alongside the badger wood is a pine tree, blasted by lightning and depleted of its bark by bark beetles which excavate long burrows for their larvae at the junction of the heartwood and cambium layer, that now stands, almost white, like a pagan totem used by worshippers of Mother Nature: a draw to the faery folk as the solstice approaches.
Drawing near the Winter Solstice is a time of year when, in the words of the poet John Donne (1572-1631), ‘The world’s whole sap is sunke.’ This comes in the poem A Nocturnal upon St Lucies Day, Being the Shortest Day. Saint Lucy used to be celebrated at the solstice until the calendar changed and it is fitting that this should be so as Lucy means light and she is seen to bring light and hope at the darkest time of the year, when, as Donne writes later in the poem, ‘The sunne is spent.’ I love Donne’s use of the earthy word, ‘sunke’ giving a sense of nature buried deep: the mythology of the solstice is centred on the antagonism of death and life, a time of year when the forces are balanced against each other. In pagan times it was said that the ancestors awaited the rebirth of the Oak King, also the Sun King or Giver of Life, as the season turned from winter to spring. The evergreen trees, holly, ivy, mistletoe and pine trees, were signs of life in the desolation with bright berries reminding folk of birth and bonfires were lit to symbolise warmth. As we walk in the country today the bright colours attract us, a holly bush just off Gadbridge Lane or on the Street, looking as if it has been decorated to give cheer; ivy berries enticing many birds to feed on them and mistletoe wreathing the high branches of trees, an ancient fertility symbol that, like so many pagan customs, is still potent today.
I think the Druids must have been disappointed this Winter Solstice as it began with grey skies and rain, not a sign of the sun. We walked down to Cobblers’ Brook Wood, where the sound of the swelling water in spate rang through the trees and the cascade of waterfalls had changed the normally tame stream into a rushing river. I could sit and listen to the sound of running water for hours, it is both calming and has a heady drama at the same time.
Climbing up Hilly Field the wind whips across the open field and on a winter’s day I suddenly realise how exposed it is. This is borne out by the gnarled shapes of the ancient Blackthorn hedge at the summit of the hill; covered in grey lichen and bent into many different shapes it is easy to imagine a group of Macbeth’s witches waiting to curse the Thane. I find a way into the wood and stand in an open space, listening to the wind in the tree-tops and feeling for a moment the kinship Druids must feel with the dark forces in a winter wood. Coming out of the trees I see the hills are still shrouded in mist and casting a midday gloom on the world: on the shortest day of the year it is going to get dark very early. I think T.S. Eliot’s meditation at the beginning of his poem Little Gidding offers a profound description of midwinter:
Midwinter spring is its own seasonT.S. Eliot
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
It is fascinating that customs and beliefs are formed of a palimpsest, layers of cultures created over generations. Early Christians retained many of the ways of their pagan predecessors, most importantly celebrating the birth of Jesus in mid-winter and keeping it as a time of feasting and renewal. Many carols pay homage to the trees that were worshipped by earlier generations and it is clear that the Victorian practise of decorating Christmas trees has origins in the deep past.
Another Victorian addition to the Yuletide was the Robin. It was during the nineteenth century that the postal service began and cards at Christmas were delivered by postmen who were dressed in red uniforms, earning them the nickname “Robin redbreasts”. It didn’t take long for the bird to start appearing on the cards and so it has remained ever since. The Robin’s bright colours make it stand out at winter time and it is a common garden bird, a familiar sight, making it very popular. It is another bird that has adapted well to living in close proximity to humans but is really a woodland species. Many things draw robins to our gardens; you will certainly see them if you are digging a patch and they can be very bold, I have had one sit on my arm. Of course it is the worms they are after, although one cannot help indulging in a bit of anthropomorphism. Another thing that makes them very attractive is their beautifully melodious song, which can be heard clearly at this time of year. This is actually a territorial warning to other birds and Robins are known to be very aggressive when defending their own patch.
The morning following the solstice was bright and we wanted to get a walk in before the weather changed. We re-traced the walk to Somersbury Manor, which I described earlier and therefore will only highlight a couple of things. Firstly, the ground is very boggy and the effort required is much greater as a result. We noticed that a lot of trees had fallen in the high winds and a recent victim lay across the path, making the bushes and trees it lay across groan under its weight. This oak was covered in thick ivy, which must have made it top-heavy and susceptible to the elements. Another reason for woodland experiencing a higher rate of loss is the changing eco-balance: this year Ash die-back has led to these trees dying, which in turn means there is more open space surrounding the remaining trees, making them more vulnerable to wind damage. Furthermore, as large trees fall their extensive root systems disrupt and loosen the soil structure in the vicinity and this can make nearby trees to be more unstable. In other words one change in habitat can have multiple consequences on a whole area. This certainly seems to happening in a lot of the woodland near Ewhurst, although it must added that woods exist in a natural cycle where old trees will die and be replaced by young saplings; there will be a constant balance maintained.
Along this path which goes north east, with Great Copse on one side and the Coxland Estate to the south the low winter sun shines through the beeches creating a strange sepia light, resembling early Victorian photographs. The play of this light also gives the leaves on the ground a burnished appearance. This impression is fleeting as the sun passes behind clouds and changes the reflection of its rays constantly.
As we cross behind the manor house I glimpse a kestrel flying low over a field and a little while later I see a jay alighting on an old oak tree. There is a noisy colony of starlings roosting in a large oak they are constantly leaving and returning in flocks. I notice that the perfect hole of a woodpecker has been drilled into a large oak and I have seen several other holes in the area; the Great Spotted Woodpecker is the more common bird but Green Woodpeckers are not infrequently seen. These woodland birds will visit gardens, especially if there are trees and hedges.
There has been a pipeline excavated to Widewoods, following the line of the footpath. I assume that this is all connected to the restoration of the old building. It is very clear why the village walks are so boggy, as the thickness of the clay dug out is astonishing and it would seem impossible that water could percolate through it. I am somewhat dismayed to see the digger is being used to batter down a young oak tree that is in the way; we see that its branches are being wrenched off in what can only be described as a barbaric manner: noble trees deserve more respect than this.
As we near the Polo Club the ground is quite flooded and a bridge over a tributary of Cobbler’s Brook is touching the surface of the water; it will not be long before this route becomes impassable. It is exhausting walking through the deep mud in wellies and makes the distance travelled seem much further. We are glad to get back home for a rest.
In the days leading up to Christmas we do a couple more walks but everything seems to be sleeping and there is not much to report. On Boxing Day I decide to take a twilight walk to see if I can see any badgers in the woods at Gull’s Isle. The stream just before the wood is a torrent and it is very close to a deep badger hole, so I do wonder how the animals react to this close proximity to running water. By the time I enter the wood the light is fading fast and I think this would be a good time to see them emerging from their sett. I walk very quietly and then the peace is disturbed by two people on an evening run through the wood. They will have gone right past the sett and will deter the badgers. I stand next to an oak tree about fifteen yards from the main sett; badgers have poor eyesight so would be unlikely to spot me and I wait.
It is slightly eerie standing in the middle of a wood as darkness descends. There is a strong breeze and the bare branches sway, making cracking and creaking noises but I feel both alone and yet at one with nature, buried in something that is much greater and more powerful than I am. After about fifteen minutes I still haven’t seen any sign of badgers and yet I am glad to have shared in this nocturnal world. Walking back across the fields to Bramblehurst Farm the wind is getting stronger and this is prelude to Storm Bella that was to wreak havoc during the night. The next day the storm passes as quickly as it arrived and gives way to a bright, cold morning and we walk up as far as the Hurtwood House School but do not have the nerve to attempt the final slippery slope up to the top of Holmbury Hill. There are a lot of branches down and rainwater streams down the hill. The most dramatic evidence of wind damage is in a field near Woodlands Farm: here a pony shed has been blown off its foundations onto the footpath. The three ponies in the field must have been terrified, though fortunately unharmed and one of them comes up to us with very sad eyes to have a stroke.
Sometimes a walk will really reward the naturalist. We took the North Breache Manor path on Tuesday before the New Year. A cold, slightly overcast day our first sighting was a flock of herring gulls gathered on pasture at Yard Farm. Research has shown that winter numbers of these birds are increased by gulls from Scandinavia who come escaping the severe northern weather and in search of food supplies. The presence of sea gulls in Ewhurst may be due to migration, although it is also true that the sea is not far away as the crow flies and herring gulls have readily adapted to inland habitats. This is a relatively recent pattern, as a hundred years ago Herring Gulls were rarely observed inland according to John Coulson an expert on seabirds whose recent book on gulls makes fascinating reading. Coulson points to a curious behaviour in birds on pasture, they can be seen paddling on the spot, their webbed feet stimulating earthworms and other invertebrates to come to the surface.
The sense of the landscape opening out in winter is noticeable as we cross the land of North Breache Manor, where the rolling fields lead to woodland marking the horizon and then what is commonly called a “big sky”, giving a great sense of space which many landscape painters convey in winter scenes. As we walk alongside Cobbetts Farm two Mute Swans fly low overhead so near we hear the sound of their wings, the effortless vibration of air. I can understand why the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was so inspired by the passage of Whooper Swans. His diary entry for 21st April 1915 reads:
Today at ten to eleven I saw 16 swans. One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, what beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming silver ribbon.Jean Sibelius
This inspired Sibelius to write the “Swan Hymn” which forms the majestic finale of his Fifth Symphony.
As I watch the swans my eye catches something else in the tree top. Black and upright against the grey sky sits a Cormorant: I have never seen one in this area and, despite its seeming hauteur regarding the world below it, its appearance is a bit anachronistic. Cormorants do fly inland and take up residence by lakes and rivers but these are more often large stretches of water. They, for example, can often be seen fishing by the Thames in London. The bird remains motionless as we walk below his watch tower.
Today was indeed a lucky one, in a field near Lyefield Farm a flock of birds has gathered. The binoculars reveal the russet wings and yellow spectacled face markings of Redwings. These winter migrants come south from Scandinavia and Russia, escaping the harsh climate of these countries. I estimate that there must be a hundred birds, all turning over the surface soil and vegetation in search of invertebrates. Redwings are also attracted to berries, particularly holly and mountain ash, stripping heavily laden bushes in an instant; in fact I wonder if the depleted holly bushes in the village are a result of this avian invasion. It is fascinating to watch how flocks of birds behave, the least threat of danger is communicated and they will fly off a short distance, only to return when the threat is over. There is the constant flurry of birds taking off, while others are landing. A writer in The Guardian recently lamented an absence of Redwings in her north London home; I think they must have all decided to take up residence here. A couple of days later I saw another flock near Brookhurst Farm at the foot of Holmbury Hill, suggesting a local irruptive migration. The migration destinations will be determined by the birds’ food source and the climate: since this year has been a bumper one for berries, it is not surprising that they are visiting us in great numbers.
We deviate from our usual route and take the easterly footpath which passes near Mayes Court, another large country residence. This gives an excellent view of Leith Hill and prominent on the slopes is the childhood home of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Leith Hill Place, now in the care of The National Trust. The house dates back to the seventeenth century and it is likely that there was a dwelling even earlier. In the eighteenth century the owner General John Folliot improved and extended the property in the popular Palladium style. The history then gets really exciting because in 1847 Josiah Wedgwood and his wife Caroline (nee Darwin) moved in. Charles Darwin was Caroline’s brother and he is said to have conducted experiments in the grounds. Skipping forward a few years Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) is brought up in the house and so begins his life-long love of this area of Surrey. As a young man he became fascinated by folk songs and began travelling round the country searching for the old songs that country people were singing and then transcribing these. The whole English Folk revival in the early part of the twentieth century meant that many songs that would have been lost forever survived. Pertinent to this time of year is the story of the Forest Green tune which VW heard Mr Garman, a local labourer, singing in 1903. The melody was sung to the words of The Ploughboy’s Dream but Vaughan Williams set the music to the words O Little Town of Bethlehem, now one of the most popular of English carols.
Further along this path we come to the home of another famous person. Lower Breache Farm was home to Chapman Pincher, an expert on espionage and known as ‘the lone wolf of Fleet Street’. It is an idyllic place, with carefully tended gardens which even at this time of year manage to look impressive. There are pleached fruit trees and walls and hedges separating different sections of the garden and it lies in a secluded valley, cut off from the hurly burly of the modern world. Chapman Pincher lived to be a hundred, dying in 1914. An uncompromising man, he had the ear of many prominent politicians and exposed the presence of moles in MI5.
I must now draw December to a close but I will be looking at the turn of the year in the next article, with some fine poems to celebrate it.