A walk in Sussex woodlands and meadows with brother Geoff & his dog Phoebe. A real Spring treat – three separate sightings of brimstone butterflies. These early strong fliers as as delightful as the primroses they help pollinate; glorious splashes of yellow marking a countryside waking from its Winter sleep. Some say the brimstone’s colouration is why butterflies are called butterflies. I hold to the theory that the word is an inversion and that they were originally ‘flutter-bys’. The woods and field boundaries we walk, with their network of paths, bridleways and green lanes are the remnants of the once great ancient forest that covered these gentle contours of clay & sand – the Sussex Weald. Their gradual clearing, pre industrial revolution gave impetus not just to forestry, shipbuilding & construction but also to iron smelting & brick working. Oak standards underplanted with coppiced hazel are still the dominant arboreal form hereabouts. When my brother & his family first came here to live in 1970 the woods were still commercially managed in the traditional way, but no longer, which is a great pity. Maybe one day they will be, when we learn to value and re-invent past skills for contemporary uses. Two surprises further enhanced our walk. The first a wide dell full of ransoms, with just a hint of the garlic as the sun breaks through to warm them. The second a fallen tree trunk sticky with with feathered remains of a wood pigeon a raptor had taken. I was fascinated, if not intimidated, by swathes of fierce needled blackthorn and buckthorn (the brimstone’s feeding plant) breaking into a mass of exquisite white flower. When combined with bramble the scrub is so dense and protective that only small mammals and birds can enter. Perfect for the rabbits, badger, foxes and deer that thrive hereabouts. No longer confined as stock proof hedging these tough native thorn trees are slowly colonising fields now free of stock, which would otherwise have controlled & confined them. In Summer the abandoned pastures will be dense with meadow flowers my brother assures me. Among the woods are small hidden ponds, puddled in the clay, now mostly overgrown, that once supplied stock with water. The old estate house is gone, replaced by apartments in a neo-Georgian mansion style, but the ornamental lake remains, graced with water birds and shoals of carp. A moment of excitement and danger when Phoebe puts up and chases a male pheasant, reminding me that the land is still used by an estate for shooting game. I can only assume there is money in setting aside for nature to make this rare abandonment of agriculture worthwhile for the landowner. It is undoubtedly rewarding in every other way for residents & visitors alike.
Overnight foray into the heart of the Lake District; a two hour journey to Bassenthwaite to stay with old friend Stefan Escreet at his family home in the village. We take a walk next morning with Stefan & dog Solo down to Bassenthwaite Lake. Talk of ospreys who’ve successfully – with human help this century – made this fish rich lake their breeding home. The village’s dignified old church lies, isolated in pasture, by the water’s edge. A marker measure on the churchyard wall reminds us of earlier flooding. Snowdrops and gravestone lichens predominate and tonally blend with the local slate. We see our first newly born lambs of the season, many with plastic coats to maintain body heat, something I have not come across before. The unavoidable current feature of this broad glacial valley is a temporary one – The Thirlmere Pipeline. Crews with lots of earth moving plant on site & supporting construction traffic passing us along the winding country lane. United Utiliities are laying A 30 km contour hugging double pipe that will take water from their Thirlmere reservoir across the national park to a new treatment plant in west Cumbria to supply the population there. To protect the sensitive nature of Ennerdale’s Lake their extraction licence runs out in 2022 so this is the alternative. We wander off tarmac down a once overgrown green by-way now stripped back raw & crudely paved with rubble hard core to allow construction traffic access. We come across previously discarded old farm machinery newly exposed in its rusted intertwinning with hedge & wire. Not quite sure what it was when in use but looks fascinating never the less. Hopefully official restorative work and nature’s own hand will heal the environmental damage over the next couple of years.
After the big snow comes a slow thaw. The ground sodden but no wind and the sun returning. Bulbs, previously covered under a weight of whiteness, relight their green fuses & push on regardless. Edward Thomas caught the seasonal transition brilliantly in his poem ‘Thaw’…. Over the land freckled with snow, half-thawed/The speculating rooks at their nests cawed/ And saw from elm tops, delicate as flower of grass/ What we below could not see, Winter pass.
‘The Beast from the East’ arrived four days ago and has quite isolated us, along with many thousands of other country dwellers. We’re among the lucky ones who don’t have to go out for work or other urgent business. Arriving straight from the Arctic, the whipping winds breach the normal west weather patterns, forcing fine ice sharp snowflakes into every nook and cranny of our home’s easterly blind side, coating the normally sheltered back porch and marooning our parked cars under wide drifts in the yard as well as filling the garden to its walled rim. Wind chill makes matters more intense and the temperature never rises above freezing. We have the big store cupboard and the freezer so can last out for now. With no distractions a lot gets done quicker than it might have otherwise. I complete last year’s tax figures & plan the next work project; Kim applies herself to current drypoint etching & printing. In between we read & cook then layer up to clear a path to garage & gates, compost bin etc. Our lifeline of a C road is blocked then unblocked. The post has been withdrawn & only the odd 4×4 is seen passing until today when even they seem to have stopped. Contractors driving tractors with ploughs, lights flashing, appear and disappear clearing a temporary way through snow showers gusting horizontally over the land. Sometimes a resident’s car will follow cautiously in its wake. We know of a farmer further up the valley taking his wife to work on the tractor in our market town 20 miles distant, picking her up again at day’s end. Around us all stock have been moved off the fields & taken in by. At our front garden feeders up to 30 or so birds engage in a daily life and death feeding frenzy. Bramblings, seasonal continental visitors, merge with the chaffinches, their look alike cousins. The assorted tribe of super agile tits monopolise the peanuts while the bigger, more numerous and aggressive chaffinches the seeds. Natural ground feeders like robin, dunnock & blackbird hop along the hard packed snowdrifts below for fallen seeds & nut morsels. Over the crags yesterday I saw a buzzard pirouette and try to land on the field’s stone wall before giving up and soaring down on the ferocious wind away to the burn. We have warmed ourselves in beating the overcoat weights of snow off evergreen bushes to provide access and extra food sources for the birds. Yesterday, March 1st, was the first day of meteorological Spring. To remind us of that fact here’s the picture of a honeysuckle on a corner of stone wall, caught & covered by the snow, suspended in the moment, frozen in bud.