National Walking Month: A Walk at Blackdown

…In which we go on an adventure to climb a down to the place of worship to the winds.

 

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It is not often that one gets to encounter an entirely new perspective on their home county. This weekend we planned to take a walk, which would reveal Sussex in a way we’d never seen before.

As the highest hill in the South Downs National Park, I have rarely gone for a walk and not seen Blackdown looming in the distance, brooding over northern West Sussex and marking the transfer into Surrey, but until this walk I had never seen the view from the other direction; the view from Blackdown itself back over my favourite haunts. The hill itself is perhaps most famous for its connection with the poet Tennyson, who lived nearby and loved the place and its views.

We took our cue from a walking guide published by the National Trust, who are the current custodians of Blackdown. You can download the guide yourself here: “Blackdown Walk – National Trust

IMG_8024.jpg The car park can be found tucked off a narrow winding lane that almost appears to lead to and from nowhere, but is actually on the edge of the Surrey town of Haslemere.
Spring green greeted us, and peace, and bird song. Bluebells pushed their heads through bramble stems that ventured out from the woodland fringes, alongside wood sage, and the four-leaf-clover like foliage and dainty white flowers of oxalis. Through a gate, a slight incline, and tantalising glimpses of land beyond the trees. We took a marginally lesser trod path, a little way off the main track, that skirted the hill edge. The route was steeper here, but dotted with benches or seats at strategic intervals, and blessed with vistas that just pleaded with us to stand and stare. The morning was still fairly fresh, and a mist-haze hung in the distance. Vegetation cloaked the hillside and steep coombes; browned heather and golden flowered furze, great statuesque pine trees and hummocks of woodlands. Turn away from the view and scale down perspective; a lizard basked in the burgeoning sun, in an echo of the hues, shapes and shadows beyond formed from bracken and mounded grasses and tufts of heather.

We cut a few yards right, back onto the main path. The track here is cut down between banks. Beneath our feet the geology is that of a greensand ridge that protrudes through the Wealden clays, running in a similar east-west trajectory some miles to the north of the chalk ridge that forms the backbone of the South Downs. This poor acidic soil laid thinly on the bedrock, is no good for agriculture, but people always find a use for natural resources. Over the centuries forest was cleared, animals were grazed, fuel was foraged, and through this constant rotation of activity a unique landscape was formed.

Heathland, due to its particular geology and history, supports a unique community of plants and wildlife species that thrive in the poor soils, acidic ponds, woody flora and patchy vegetation. In high summer, dragonflies zoom over the dark peat-stained pools, whilst winter and spring are the best times for the birds. We paused to admire one such mirror-black bog pond and found our eyes caught by a flurry of movement on the far side, below a stand of pine trees. A flock of Crossbills had gathered here, dropping down to the waters edge to drink and flying back up to the safety of the high fir branches when disturbed. More of the flock were feeding amongst these branches, using their crossed beak as pliers, prizing open pine cones to reach the seeds imprisoned inside. The male Crossbills are a beautiful rosy-red, striking when viewed against the forest green through a gap in the branches.

The path led onwards, meandering this way and that. We paused often; when the landscape suggested a place to stand and soak in the views, to gaze at something or nothing in particular. Sometimes it would just be an explosion of brightest furze or gorse flowers, a curiously shaped log, or the disembodied voice of a songbird. There was infinite variety of shade and texture in the ruffled knitted coverlet of acid green billberry, wispy birch saplings, and woody purple-brown heather that grew rumpled over ditch and hollow, hitched up around the feet of the pine and rowan trees.

Two dads sat on a bench looking on as their small boys invented whole new lands in a few meters of trenched and mounded heather; sticks became machine guns and hummocks fortresses. The path was busy, a Labrador passed one way, a pair of spaniels followed their noses in the other. Chiffchaff called repetitively, Wrens sang, and in the woodier sections little Robins appeared at the path side, as if mischievous spirits hoping to lure us off into the trees. Over the heather the broad banded backs of Belted Galloway Cattle breasted the wave of bracken and billberry, their munching and trampling an essential tool in the National Trust’s armoury when it comes to conserving this rare habitat and landscape.

The destination of our walk was one that had attracted many walkers, romantics, locals and scholars over the decades; The Temple of the Winds. Here on the highest point of Blackdown, perched on the side of the hill overlooking the great swathe of Sussex, is a stone semi-circular seat. Visitors reach the ‘temple’ through a scattering of trees, whose roots bind the path, and the opening, the reveal, is saved until the very last step around the corner. And it was thus that the view appeared before us. Muted and silvered by haze, it didn’t flow or roll across the vista as views are often described, but just hung there, layered in strata, like a pop up book or child’s fuzzy-felt picture. Foreground, and mid-ground, and distance, and beyond in the cloud and glare of sun and morning, were the phantom hills, mist ridges, in shades of colourless indistinct existence.

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IMG_8078On closer inspection, it was as though the county wore a thick, chunky woollen pullover of forest green, moth-eaten in places revealing its pale satin undershirt of pasture fields. A few of these worn patches were still barely stitched together with thin and fragile threads of hedge, knitting wood to wood. There were a few catches in the weave, flaws in the fabric, the good green cloth marked by pylon and house, a stain of yellow from the rapeseed pollen. Swallows coursed and cut through the suspended space between here and there, flitting; thoughts freed from the mind and given feathered form to populate the empty air that hangs connecting the view and the viewer.

It is easy to see, or feel, how the poet Tennyson found a muse and inspiration in this landscape.

Once we had drunk our fill of the view and been forced to concede power to the wind, we left The Temple of The Winds and followed our directions back across Blackdown. Another treat was in store, as the heathland was briefly interrupted by broadleaved woodland. On this side of Blackdown, the hillside drops sharply away, held in place only by the tangled roots of beech trees. The massive knots of the roots of these tall, grey-barked and solemn trees can be seen on the surface, writhing like snakes or dragon tails cast in stone. The beeches have recently burst into leaf, and the light and the view were filtered through a film of lime green. Before long, the fresh leaves will harden and dull slightly, then become dusty with the summer, but for the moment they embody the vigour and vividness of spring.

Back between the banks of billberry, the path led slightly downhill back towards the car park. We turned right and walked along the lane for a short distance to the small secondary car park where we had actually left the car.

 


I followed walk directions originally published by the National Trust. You can find the full details here: Blackdown Walk, National Trust.

Disclaimer: The directions and map provided is a guide only. Please take care when walking on roads and be aware of traffic and other users. The author of this blog holds no responsibility for any changes to the route including but not restricted to closures or blockages, nor any accident or injury to any persons following the directions provided. Please follow the Countryside Code when out walking, and show respect for the land, wildlife, livestock, and other people. Please take your litter home.

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