Holmbury Hill

Sherborne Lane is a footpath leading up to Holmbury Hill which lies north of Ewhurst. The path starts at the edge of the lowland Wealden Clay and soon begins to climb the greensand of  the hills. I cannot find out why this path is given a name, as most are not, and nor can I discover where the name comes from. At first it skirts meadowland bordered by hedgerows, moving in an easterly direction. In the hedgerows the Elder trees are now in bloom, promising a good harvest of berries for amateur wine-makers in the autumn. Country lore tells us that, ‘English summer begins with Elder flowers and ends with Elder berries.’ There are many superstitions associated with the tree and it is believed to have potent magical properties because a tree spirit known as the Elder Mother resides in the plant. Readers of ‘Harry Potter’ will know that the most powerful wand in the realm is made of sambuccas and is called the ‘Elder Wand’. It is truly wonderful how our hedgerows are steeped in history, folk tradition, medicinal remedies and ancient stories: when you walk any path, you are walking in an avenue haunted by the past and it is almost as if our ghostly ancestors walk alongside us.

Another common plant adorning our hedgerows in the early summer is the greater bindweed. Bindweed is the bane of gardeners, choking borders and growing at formula one speed but in the countryside the white bell-shaped flowers twined in the shrubbery is very striking. Its more delicately formed cousin Lesser Bindweed has a smaller pink and white striped flower is also common at this time of the year.  In a recent poem, ‘Tithonus’, Alice Oswald describes the sun rise at dawn; it is a strikingly original poem, attentive to the world as it emerges into the light. The following lines describe the bindweed:

and then a chaffinch starts with a
long run-up to reach the same old
and a spider looking neither left
nor right with the same obsessive
then midges the same then
bindweed still in her night
clothes in the same long entangle
ment slightly sticky to the touch

Alice Oswald

This is a poet who is making her reader experience all of their senses: making them reappraise how they look at the countryside.

The footpath soon starts ascending, gently at first but soon the contours get tighter. To the left the slopes are darkened by Holt Copse, mixed woodland that is broken up by swathes of meadowland. On the south side of the path runs a ditch, more or less dry at the moment but no doubt a conduit to rainwater running off the hill. I suspect this stream marks the intersection of the sandstone with the clay. I wonder if I am getting closer to  understanding the footpath’s name, as a bourne is a stream that flows in winter and is dry during the summer months.

Ecologists discuss invasive plants these days; these are plants which are introduced and run out of control. It seems that certain plants flourish in conditions that are foreign and then become a menace. I find it odd that three species have over-run the upper part of this footpath: Horse or Mare’s Tail, Himalayan Balsam and Carex pendulas. These plants alter the natural habitat of an area, choking native plants and appearing in great swathes. We first noticed the Mare’s Tail, which covered a valley in the woodland. At first sight the plants look attractive, as the soft fronds give a misty appearance, like a green sea. All is not as it seems, the roots of these pests can reach more than 2.5 metre (7 feet) down and are almost impossible to eradicate. It spreads very quickly, either by rhizomes or by fragments of root and can completely destroy the natural vegetation. Gardeners fling their hands up in horror at the very mention of the weed! A little further on we noticed that the path was bordered by stands of Himalayan Balsam. This plant likes damp conditions and often colonises river banks or pond-sides. An alternative name for this plant is ‘Policeman’s helmet’,  a homely name chosen because of the shape of the pink flowers. It was introduced in the nineteenth century and quickly spread; each flower produces eight hundred seeds, which pop out of pods, accounting for its rapid reproduction. Again it strikes the innocent eye as being attractive but this masks the ecological damage done by the species. I don’t know what has happened along this path, whether weeds have been dumped here but it suffers from yet another pest, the sedge Carex pendula. These originated as garden plants but are spreading into the countryside; once again they produce myriad seeds, grow quickly and spread. Judging by evidence of the remains of destroyed plants, it would appear somebody has tried to eliminate these aliens, without much success. It is salutary to see how easily the pattern of habitat can change in a short space of time and how vigilant country lovers have to be.

Moving on to happier subjects; the path is getting steeper and we are very clearly on sandstone now. With the increasing height some breathtaking views are opening up, looking south over the Weald. On the left is Hurtwood House School and the footpath then crosses a narrow road and cuts through to another country lane, Radnor Road; at this junction we looked down onto a grand looking Regency mansion. Built in 1800, this impressive building is now home to Mullard Space Science Laboratory [ed: part of University College London’s department of Space and Climate Physics]. It may be a surprise that the cutting edge of space research in this country is conducted in a building that one would expect to find Jane Austen’s characters wandering around. I like to think that the sense of spaciousness and unpolluted air in this place governed the decision to locate a modern laboratory in this building. If telescopes were ever trained into the night sky by Mullard’s scientists, then they could scarcely hope for a clearer prospect. I remember being struck by Robert Southey’s (1774-1843) alarm when travelling to Brighton and looking back to a London illuminating the night sky. To his generation, night was darkness and clarity:

 ‘Twas a light that made
Darkness itself appear
A thing of comfort

Robert Southey

Today how hard it would be to reproduce that. Mullard’s scientists have embraced the ways in which literature and science can co-exist; in 2014 the poet Simon Barraclough became Poet-in-Residence, encouraging the scientists to write poems based on their knowledge of  astro-physics. The immensity and mystery of space has always been a source of inspiration for poets and I have always thought that there was a poetry in the esoteric mathematics that seeks to explain the hardly comprensible elements of the Big Bang, String theory or Black Holes. The Australian poet Les Murray (1938-2019) signals this inscrutability in his lines:

Where inner sky is black below shine
As if space were closer, down.

Les Murray

I was lucky enough to attend the launch of the anthology, ‘Laboratoria’ at the end of Simon’s residency and was astonished by the range and quality of the poetry: clearly there were a lot of candidates for Cranleigh Writers’ Group at Mullard’s: plug, plug.

From the frontiers of modern space exploration we go back to the Iron Age; walking past a row of “chocolate box” cottages, we come to the final ascent of the hill. It is now I regret all the “comfort” buns and cakes of lockdown because it is steep, very steep. Ahead of us are some intrepid off-road cyclists and even they push their bikes up and admit that it was hard going. This slope formed the main defence on the south side of the fort: how impregnable it must have been. Archaeologists have found sling pebbles on the site and I imagine myself back in one hundred BC being pelted by stones, as I try to scramble to the summit; it is a terrifying thought.

The vegetation has changed, there are silver birch trees and the bracken, 2 metres in height, encloses the path. Stands of Foxgloves bring  colour to the scene but we are a bit too exhausted to take in the picturesque. The hill-fort was situated in a commanding spot at 261 metres (856 feet) and covered a large area of 3.6 hectares (8.9 acres). It was also defended by deep ditches and high ramparts to the west and north and would have had dwelling huts and folds for animals. There have been two major excavations of the site, one in 1929 and then in 1974. Many of the finds can be seen in Guildford Museum and include, La Tene III pottery, flints, beehive quernstone fragments and sling pebbles. Animal bones were found as were post-holes indicating where the dwellings were.  It is not Sutton Hoo but it does form a significant part of our local history. The fort was used for a relatively short period being vacated by 70 BC and it has been suggested that there was a violent end to the occupation. We will probably never know what happened here but it does send a shiver down the back when you stand and contemplate the fate of these unknown people.

The summit is a classic heathland habitat,  with acid loving plants such as heather and bilberry covering an area which has been cleared to conserve both the outlines of the fort and the characteristic flora. To the north we can see central London and pick out The Shard on the sky-line: south we can see the Downs, with Chanctonbury Ring visible. It makes you feel on top of the world but there are a lot of people sharing the enjoyment and this feels weird after the weeks of isolation. People now share an uncustomary caution in the presence of others and social behaviour has become awkward as a result.

We scramble down the hill, vowing to bring walking sticks next time, as we slip several times.

Why do I avoid the roads
That other travellers take,
And seek hidden paths
Over the rocky, snow-clad heights?

Schubert quoting Wilhelm Müller

Laments the melancholy wanderer in Schubert’s song cycle ‘Winterreise’. Now, I do not share his misanthrope or wintry desolation but I am a sucker for ‘hidden paths’. My family love to recount the number of times ‘Daddy has got them lost’ and I am drawn to explore tracks which I have never been down before; I think that there is a primaeval urge that drives us to what is unknown: it is, after all, why we engage in space travel. This instinct is followed by Robert McFarlane when he discovers the ancient routes that criss-cross the country in his beautifully eloquent book ‘The Old Ways’, a “must read” for any country lover.

And so, we don’t take the same path back but are lured off the beaten track by an innocent sign pointing south. It is a fortunate choice; we break out of a line of trees into a small field set aside as meadow. The day has been cloudy but at this moment the sun breaks through and reflects the corn colour of the yellow oat grass, across which a multitude of meadow browns bounce over. The field is enclosed by trees, mixed woodland to the west and a brake of tall oaks, ash and chestnuts along the other boundaries. Birds are singing a polyphony of melodies. It feels like a place that hasn’t changed in centuries, the faint breeze in the leaves carry Keats’ lines into my mind:

And then there crept
A little noiseless noise among the leaves,
Born of the very sigh that silence heaves:

(I stood tip-toe upon a little hill. 1816)

How subtly Keats leaves that last word hovering so close to ‘heaven’. I think as we step into this lost place we have found a bit of paradise.

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