Regular followers of this blog will be familiar with my passion for and connection with the area of the country I call home: the Sussex Downs. This week is ‘National Parks Week’, so it seems a perfect opportunity to delve a little deeper into where this love affair with my home county and its landscape begins; a reflection on over 10 years of bonding between mind and place.
I live to the north of the South Downs themselves, in the top left hand corner of West Sussex. My hometown of Midhurst is the location of the South Downs National Parks Authority’s headquarters, and claims the title of ‘the heart of the National Park’. Although I moved here as an 8-year-old, having spent my early childhood over the border in neighbouring Hampshire, it is Midhurst and the surrounding Sussex landscape that formed the main influential backdrop to the majority of my childhood. Although my own personal habitation of Sussex might only span a slowly increasing 17 years, my family ancestry tells a story of a much longer association. I have often wondered whether it is some kind of genetic memory that pulls me to the hedgerows and field edges at harvest time, or draws my eyes to search the lane verges for the first blooms of spring as the days lengthen, just as my maternal ancestors must’ve done in centuries past. Many of the names in our family tree and discovered on census records, were employed as agricultural labourers, with a few carters, bakers, soldiers, and cobblers thrown into the mix. To this day I still love the smell of leather harness, polish and saddle soap, the stretch of muscles when kneading dough, the satisfaction of tending to the soil and plants, and watching weather-clouds scud and shadow-chase across the hillside.
As a very young child, the movement and colour of butterflies on the buddleia bush in the back garden caught my eye. As I grew bolder and older I fed my curiosity by watching the birds that flocked to our bird table, and by searching for snails and woodlice to restock my ‘farms’. (These so called farms were miniature habitats I created in discarded plastic ice-cream tubs, lined up by the back door.) Weekends meant family walks wearing my red wellies, looking for fungi in autumn then beachcombing in winter, bluebells in spring, wild roses in summer.
As a teenager I found solace in knowing every tree, hedgerow corner, mammal burrow, and track that were the fabric of my neighbourhood. Age 10 or 11, I began writing nature inspired poetry. Age 12 I kept a detailed nature diary through the four or so months of my favourite time of year; harvest time as summer slips into autumn, which I still have on my bookshelf. A little later I took up the hobby of wildlife photography and I am now rarely seen without a camera. By the time I was 13 or 14 years old my parents were frequently providing the transport that facilitated numerous birdwatching outings, or ‘wild goose chases’ as my Dad liked to call them. But it wasn’t until I was 15, that I made my first real connection to the South Downs.
10 years later I still remember the time I spent as a work experience student in the summer of 2007. The two weeks were spent shadowing the rangers of the South Downs Joint Committee, who held a crucial role in maintaining the South Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the days before the National Park. I spent my birthday helping unload a charcoal kiln and learning how the coppicing rotation benefited the ecology of the woodland. A few days before that, you would’ve found me kneeling in a damp and muddy barn, cradling in my hands a barn owl chick, as the county ecologist took measurements and fitted rings to the rest of the brood. I helped with rights-of-way maintenance, and proudly pointed out to walking companions for years later, the footpath way-markers that ‘I’ put up. We had rain, and we had sun, we had bonfires and plenty of cake. I was shown how to use a scythe, where to find the bizarre birds-nest orchid beneath the dark shade of the beech tree. I saw corners of woodlands, fields and estates that I wouldn’t normally have access to. I was taught about the industrial roots of the local hammer ponds, and was introduced to the mysterious plants and creatures of the heath. From the banter and camaraderie of the office, to the burning muscle strain from hours digging into chalk or sand or bent over pulling ragwort, to the insights into the complex and hidden worlds of the wildlife and landscapes and people of my local area… there is not an experience from that fortnight that I am not thankful for.
Facts such as “80% of our lowland heaths have disappeared since the 1800s”, tend to stick in your head. The habitat is also internationally rare, with a fifth of all lowland heaths being found in the UK. I discovered these two snippets of information on the secondThursday of the work experience fortnight. I remember the day clearly. I spent most of the day on a guided walk, learning about the Wealden greensand heaths, and the wildlife that relies on them. Highlights of this particular Thursday included my first encounter with the tiny but beautiful silver studded blue butterfly, discovering the long history of the heathlands, and inspiring views of the hills enveloping the scenery to the south. After several days of such activities I was beginning to develop an understanding of how all the apparently separate elements of the region; farmland, chalk downland, woodland and heathland, actually were not separate but intricately and importantly linked, forming a wider and more complex landscape.
The news coverage on TV that evening was the usual sort of thing, I don’t remember the details. In fact, I didn’t hear anything that followed the one report that caught my attention. It had been announced that the government were proposing to change the boundaries of the proposed South Downs National Park, before it had even entered consultation or the campaign to achieve national park status had gained any momentum. The suggestion was that a large area to the north and western end of the proposed national park area, known as the Western Weald, would be removed from any consideration, along with a number of other smaller patches. The Western Weald not only included the historic market town of Midhurst, but much of the lowland heathland and other areas I had been working on all week. My work experience had opened my eyes to the bigger picture, to the landscape-wide view, and I couldn’t believe the short sightedness of the political spokesperson on the TV screen in front of me. So I did what I knew best; I picked up my pen and joined the campaigns. I wrote a poem, I wrote letters to my MP, I contributed opinions to public enquiries, I had letters published in the local paper, I collected petition signatures and even got the t-shirt.
I claim no responsibility or credit for the achievements for the South Downs Campaign or its little sister, the campaign to include the Western Weald, but the day that the designation was finally signed was a joyous one, and a moment of immense satisfaction for all the many people who worked so tirelessly for so many years.
The National Park is now 6 years old, and although not without its frictions and controversies, it is in my eyes a success. I can of course only speak of the South Downs in terms of my own experiences; it is a region with many complex layers and facets.
In the years after the campaign, I studied both countryside management and agriculture at college, and spent a brilliant 18 months as a Heritage Lottery funded trainee with the RSPB. Now my passion for my home county filters into my writing on many different levels, even when I am not consciously thinking of it.
I returned to the heathland this June, as I do every year, and spent my lunch break watching silver studded blue butterflies and green tiger beetles. At the beginning of the month I used a favourite spot on the heath as a location for a photo shoot for a blog feature on picnics. This time last year, one of my first text messages to my boyfriend contained a photo of a dung beetle I nearly stood on when walking one of the heathland paths. Earlier this week a red kite soared over my street as I walked out to my car for the morning drive to work, a bird I first saw on the Downs in 2006 and never dreamt I would see from my own doorstep.
My bookshelves are populated with aged and battered volumes; writings on highways and byways, and the little lost downland churches, and imagery-rich descriptions of the features of Sussex. If I frown and think hard enough, I could recite the poem ‘Skylark’ by Christina Rossetti, whilst remembering a morning stood on the Trundle listening to a skylark singing above a thick bank of fog.
It has been a while since my mum and I have walked together along downland tracks and noted the wildflowers and birds in the hedgerow, but we still mention in our daily conversations moments of wild that have infiltrated our everyday lives.
This weekend I am hoping for fine weather, so after some time pottering on the allotment, we can venture out with a picnic, climb up the rolling Downs via the drovers’ tracks past the shepherds church, then follow the South downs way for a few miles, walking home along the spine of Sussex.
Find out more about National Parks Week, including events near you plus tips and inspiration for visiting The South Downs or your nearest national park – visit http://www.nationalparks.gov.uk/visiting/national-parks-week