John Lewis-Stempel writes in his book Meadowlands:
November is one of my favourite months, with its faded afternoons of cemetery eerines, and its churchy smell of damp moulding leaves.
The clocks have gone back and the evening comes early, the sun setting in late afternoon, creating the gloomy half light so characteristic of this month. It is a month that starts with a commemoration of the dead, as 2nd November is All Souls Day when in some countries church bells toll to comfort the dead and candles are lit in remembrance of them. The traditions also include the giving of soul cakes to children who come to sing or pray for loved one’s souls.
Another layer of remembrance and mourning follows on from this, for November is when we remember those who have died serving their country in wars. Collective memory is important for many reasons, not least because it is what gives our communities historical rootedness, strands of memory linking past and present. War memorials were erected in villages and towns across the country following the end of the First World War and Remembrance Day was instituted at the same time in November when the Armistice was signed on 11th November 1918. The memorials name all who died, in Ewhurst 62 men are named : it is difficult to imagine the hole that this made in what was a small village. Such loss was repeated time and time again countrywide. On the memorial stone I recognise names of people who still live in the village; before the later twentieth century families would have stayed in the same place for hundreds of years and the web of local relationships would have the complexity of a warren. Working class people, the majority, did not move much: social mobility is a modern concept for most of us and so the pool of people individuals knew was limited. To put it another way, if you went to the local school it was as likely as not that you would end up marrying somebody in your own class. It does not take much imagination to recognise that this considerably restricted choice and it also led to the inter-marriage of fairly close relations. A photograph taken in the early 1900s of pupils at Ewhurst school shows that there were about forty children in all; this would represent a whole generation. Some of the older children (the school took children up to the age of fourteen, after which most would go out to work) in the picture would no doubt have marched off to war in 1914. I wonder how many have surviving relations living in the village today.
Spending time looking at old pictures and maps of the village reveals enormous changes since 1918 and I love to transport myself back to that world and imagine what it was like. In some ways this is not so difficult as many of the old buildings of that era are still with us; so the church, the school, the houses bordering the green and the Victorian cottages lining the High Street, the Old Rectory and many other dwellings would have been familiar to a soldier returning home after the First World War. Pictures of the village show what looks like a farm track running through the heart of the place and a complete absence of cars. The village was largely self-sufficient, having a smithy, butchers, general store and bakery. Buses did not reach Ewhurst until 1921.The aspect has also changed for in a painting by James Ogilvy Pitch Hill (formerly called Coneyhurst Hill) looms above us, bare of trees and covered with a purple sheen of heather. Today, the same hill is under tree cover, as are the slopes leading up to it and it is a less obvious presence. Our young soldier would not have seen the large expansion of dwellings which have grown up around the core of the village and nor would he have recognised most of the names of the newcomers that arrived here in the century after his return. Whilst most of his kin would have found local employment, either in service, agriculture or in the limited industry of the region, those that came after were predominantly commuters, giving the place a feeling of being a dormitory town, where the tentacles of modernity have crept in irrevocably, ‘All changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born.’ as W B Yeats prophesied in his dark lament Easter 1916.
A young man returning would have seen new horizons but his mind would also be haunted by grotesque nightmares, he would look towards the new world through a glass darkly and a bleak loneliness would greet him in a village robbed of its heart. The really chastening thought is that everybody in this tight-knit community would have known or had contact with a victim of war; the grief must have felt universal and its rawness was always to be renewed in November. What little consolation the families and friends of the dead would find came in memory, the holding onto the presence of a departed loved one and this was given manifest form in the Celtic Cross of Cornish granite standing outside the church Lych-gate, speaking to us for generations to come.
As many trees cling to their remaining leaves, the branches, the skeletons of trees are bared and there seems a bridge between life and death. It is a twilight world hinted at in T S Eliot’s great spiritual poem Ash Wednesday:
In this brief transit where the dreams cross The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dyingT S Eliot
November is a ‘dreamcrossed’ month when nature closes her eyes, drowsy after the springing forth of life, and prepares for death to arrive in the long winter.
A new month meant a new walk. There are still so many local footpaths to explore and with another lockdown we decided to try them out. It is a beautiful balmy day, feeling more like spring than autumn; it is also Jackie’s birthday, so we feel very lucky to have this weather with us. We take our usual path to Yard Farm. Just before the farm there is a footpath, crossing fields to Westland Farm: for the last few months this path has been unaccountably cordoned off and a row of new native hedge trees planted along its route. As it stands it will take a most determined hiker to hack his or her way through the brambles but being undaunted and following a lead given me by Alice Breeveld I managed to fight off the foliage and got to see the spindle bush that she had told me was there. Its pink berries with an orange centre illumine the hedge. Even more surprising, the same bush a few yards on is in flower, tiny creamy florets which should be out in May or June, showing how confusing the mild climate is for our flora. The spindle gets its name because its hard, tough wood was used for spindles to wind thread on.
The loss of footpaths is a serious issue recently high-lighted in an article by the Guardian correspondent Patrick Barkham. He reported that “citizen mapping” efforts initiated by the Ramblers revealed 49000 miles of footpaths in England and Wales were missing from modern maps and were in danger of being lost forever. The government have set a cutoff date of January 2026 after which it will not be possible to reclaim or safeguard rights of way. The local environment group LEAP work very hard to maintain the paths in the Ewhurst area and this helps to keep them open and in use but clearly we have to be vigilant and ensure that land-owners do not act irresponsibly blocking rights of way and preventing us all enjoying access to the countryside.
A hundred yards or so after turning left onto the road at Yard Farm there is a gap in the hedge and the path goes across fields in a north-easterly direction. On the left is an area of mixed woodland and crows and wood pigeons constantly fly out of the trees across the field, the crows making a raucous noise. These birds may have been disturbed but more of that later. The path takes us through a gate beyond which there is a steep incline climbing up very open fields. This land looks like parkland and there are wonderful old oak trees dotted over it; this is an area that has been landscape designed in an eighteenth century style and the estate belongs to North Breache Manor. The building soon comes into view at the top of the slope, impressive with its turrets, a bell tower and mullioned windows. Built in 1881-82 to a design by the architect Aston Webb for John Fletcher Bennett, it is mock Tudor with Arts and Craft movement features. Local sandstone was used from Leith Hill Quarry and the whole estate is 270 acres. The owner chose the spot as he could look across his land and on a clear day see the South Downs and the sea, a vista to be envied. I noticed that there is a copse in the middle of the parkland and through the binoculars I saw that the trees ringed a small pond, which I am certain would draw a lot of wildlife to it: one to keep an eye on.
Leaving the manor behind, the path is bordered with hedgerow and more imposing, old oaks. I took a photograph of one tree which was catching the morning light like a glory in its golden leaves.There is a rather wonderful description of parkland oaks in Kilvert’s Diary, which I will quote, not because it describes the rather younger North Breache oaks but instead it speaks of the essence of these venerable trees:
I fear these grey old men of Moccas, (the tree he is writing about is the King Oak of Mocca Park, Hereforshire) those grey, gnarled, low-browed, knock-kneed, bowed, bent, huge, strange, long-armed, deformed, hunchbacked, misshapen oak men that stand waiting and watching century after century. No human hand set these oaks. They are “the trees which the Lord hath planted”. They look as if they had been at the beginning and making of the world, and they will probably see its end.
This is almost a premonition of Tolkien’s Ents and tree spirits in Lord of the Rings.
Though most of the leaves and berries are gone the hedges still are home to lots of birds, offering protection from the harsher weather to come. It is a lot easier to spot the birds as they are no longer camouflaged by the leaves. In the hedges I spotted Tree Sparrows, Long-tailed tits and Dunnocks. The Tree Sparrows hover along the hedges, which is a favourite habitat particularly when these border fields, as they feed on both seed and insects. This delightful little bird, like so many other farmland species, has seen a quite drastic decline in its numbers, although there has been a slight revival in recent years. Long-tailed Tits are gregarious birds and I saw some ten on the same bush; if you are lucky they will visit gardens in flocks. By contrast Dunnocks tend to be more solitary and also spend more time near the base of the hedgerow. They have a very melodious song, not unlike that of a Robin; they are on the amber list of conservation, so whilst not in danger they are not very common.
As we walk along the hedge the familiar cry of Buzzards can be heard. Over the woodland and fields there are three birds circling high in the sky, the sun glinting on their bronze feathers. The perfect light enables me to get an excellent view through the binoculars; I can see the razor sharp, menacing hooked bill and gimlet eyes as they soar over us. Following years of persecution by game keepers, the devastating effect of pesticides like DDT and the dwindling Rabbit population due to myxomatosis, the buzzard has been a protected bird and is now the commonest of our raptors. It can be seen in most parts of the country and feeds on a wide variety of small mammals, birds and carrion. All birds of prey have excellent eyesight and these birds will be patrolling the boundary of woodland and field in the hope of seeing rabbits or voles and mice; furthermore they will be scouting further afield in search of fertile new hunting grounds. It was undoubtedly their presence that had spooked the crows and pigeons in the woods.
The hedges and strips of woodland that divide the land, boundaries that mean nothing to buzzards, are historic, possibly going back for centuries. The enclosures acts did not effect this area and there are signs that the mixed hedges are ancient; for example the path we are following has a bank and ditch, the shrubs growing some height above the ground and this is a sure indicator of land boundaries established long ago.
Soon this path joins a country lane called Lyefield Lane at Cobbetts Farm. Cobbetts is a large stud farm, with extensive horse-riding facilities: many of the large farms in this area are given over to equestrian activities, as the land is really only suitable pasturage for horses, cows and sheep. We scale the rather high stile and walk by the farm house which lies hidden behind high, dense hedge and soon we dip down to another stile beyond which is a lake. This is a gem on this walk, which has reed beds on its margins, alder trees, a bush that loves having its roots submerged in water and a kind person has built a circular seat around the trunk of an oak tree. It is a lovely spot to stop, have a rest, a picnic or a drink and watch all the activity on the lake. There are lots of coots, mallards and moorhens; I am sure patient watching would reveal a number of other birds and animals. The lake is fed by a small stream that flows down from the hills and a thin strip of water carries on parallel to Lyefield Lane. To the north of the lake a field has been planted with a number of specialist trees and pathways mown across this; it is heartening to see that this sort of conservation is being practised by landowners.
We are now on the borders of Forest Green, a village lying beneath Leith Hill, which we can now see as we take the path southwards. Leith Hill is famous for its tower, which is a landmark for miles around, particularly visible when the trees have lost their leaves. The tower was built in 1765 by Richard Hull of Leith Hill Place and from the top of the tower you can look north to central London or south to the sea. Hull wanted people to enjoy the countryside and decided that his tower would make Leith Hill over 1000 feet. He would be pleased to know that the National Trust now owns it and the hill has hundreds of visitors each year.
There is a magical quality about the path as it winds through an avenue of trees. Again the trees are rooted on a high bank and we feel as if we are in a tunnel taking us to a mystical place, especially as the sunlight is playing through the leaves and shadows dance in front of us. The high bank is pitted with rabbit holes, these often dug under the exposed tree roots. This year I have seen very few rabbits and this is probably because the poor old bunny is being hit again by another ferocious disease which is decimating populations. The Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (RVHD2) is highly infectious and frequently fatal; this is likely to have a knock-on effect as many predators rely on rabbits as a main food source. Clearly we are not alone in fighting a deadly epidemic this year. It is therefore good to see this elongated warren here, although we do not see any rabbits. I will have to come back in the early evening, when they are most active, to see how many are around.
As the path veers sharply east we get an even better view of Leith Hill and I can make out with the aid of binoculars the tall Scots pines on the summit of the hill and a purple haze which must be the heather. There are still lots of rabbit holes in the hedgerow and we soon come out onto a metalled track, this is Pond Head Lane. At this point we are not too sure where we are and luckily a horse rider is able to tell us to follow the Yellow Brick Road and he is not joking, as we soon discover. The lane takes us past Pond Head Farm, a Grade 2 listed building in an idyllic setting, overlooking a pond with views over fields up to woodland. Jackie says she’d like to live there and I’d love to live her dream but don’t have the spare millions in the piggy bank! I have not been able to find out much about its history but the timber framed frontage suggests it dates back to the fifteenth or sixteenth century. It is a classic chocolate box cottage and emanates peaceful tranquility.
The Yellow Brick Road turns out to be a track that links Pond Head Lane and Lyefield Lane. A little way along there is a plaque with the name on it; why it is called this I don’t know. It is well marked and we notice drainage channels have been dug along its sides and pipes have been laid; clearly someone maintains it. It goes through dense mixed woodland and the area is quite damp, so there are lots of ferns and fungi growing. Just into the wood I saw a group Clitopilus prunulus fungi, known by their English name The Miller; these mushrooms are funnel-shaped and may be seen growing in rings within woodland glades. These were scattered over a quite large area but not in a ring.
As we come to the end of the path a small brook runs alongside it and a number of ferns grow in its banks. We join Lyefield Lane at its junction with Lower Breache Road, which we follow back towards Ewhurst. It is one of the joys of walking that there are always new paths to be found and we wonder that we have not been on this route before. In fact we enjoyed the walk so much that we’ve done it two more times in November, each time seeing the different moods of the countryside, as the weather changes and the season advances.