Wealden Worship and Wrens in the Woods

I could hear the song thrush even before I opened my eyes. In that lull of morning when the world breathes gently and gathers itself for the day, I lay and listened to the bird’s song ringing out like a call to prayer. Yellow spring sunlight found its way through the east-facing window of the bedroom, to caress the magnolia wall in familiar petal-patterns.

Saturday. In a rare example of benevolence, the weather gods were smiling; the forecast set to plus 20c and sunny all over the bank holiday weekend. I had made a last minute change of plan the night before, for how to spend my one free day. As my lift retreated down the lane and turned out onto the main road, blending into the steady stream of traffic heading to May-day events across the county, the serenity of the woods closed around me, and I knew I’d chosen well.

There is solidarity to be felt when one walks amongst trees. If heathland is a landscape of contradictions and rivers a world of movement, then woodland is a place with rhythm. From the woodpeckers’ drumming to the two-note metronome of the chiffchaff, even the annual growth rings of trees, everything in woodland is measured and runs to nature’s heartbeat. In spring, the pulse of life quickens, but the woodland is unflustered; it’s done all this before. New leaves break bud, unfurl, stretch into patches of sunlight left by the previous generation of trees felled by winter’s onslaught. Carbon dioxide transfers in, oxygen flows out. The felled trunks absorb moisture; fungi feed their filaments through fissures in the timber. Gradually over time nutrients pass back into the soil to be reabsorbed, stored, used as building blocks and are finally released in the continual cycle of growth and decay. Considering the world as a tree experiences it, brings a whole philosophy of new perspectives.

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Anyway, I digress, I was telling you about my walk. I had plotted the route the previous evening, based on a footpath sign I had spotted during one of my lunch breaks earlier in the week. It is early May – peak bluebell season. In these woods, a scattering of unusual white individuals, adds realism to the metaphor of ‘a sea of bluebells’, appearing like pale crests above the great puddles of blue blooms that lap the trunks of the trees. Our native bluebell is delicately scented; an essential part of the woodland experience at this time of year. The morning sunlight illuminated fresh beech leaves, and from the shadows came the explosive songbursts of wrens.

Leaving the woods behind, I stepped out onto the lane. More Bluebells flowed down the steep banksides, joined now by Garlic Mustard, Cow Parsley, and Pink Campion. Green leaves that seemed so slow to emerge a few weeks ago now grow thickly around the frayed flower stalks of the Blackthorn where the snow-blossom has blown. Another hedgerow thorn, the May blossom (Hawthorn), is opening creamy white petals scented with sweet almond. Even the Oak leaves are changing from their new-forged bronze to verdant green as they flood with bitter chemicals in defence against the onslaught of spring caterpillars. The Great Tit will help them out however (if he ever takes a break from singing ‘tea-cher, tea-cher’ in the hedgerow!), his nestlings will consume a huge number of caterpillars gleaned from the leaves and branches; a vital protein source perfectly timed to aid a successful fledging of this years brood.

IMG_9586Having started at the woods on the edge of the village of Stedham I took a left before the bridge at Iping Village, following a footpath that threaded between the field edge and private gardens, peering across which offered glimpses of the River Rother beyond that, the footpath I would follow on the return leg later.

The field that rolled to my left was bare of livestock or crops, although I knew that in a matching field over the brow of the hill the ground was pierced with green sprigs of asparagus. The ploughed earth was a red-umber, the colour of the Sussex oxen that would once have worked the land in times pre-horse and tractor.

IMG_9630Woodland again, and more bluebells. Few pairings of wildflowers in nature are as delightful and Bluebells and Greater Stitchwort, and here they were joined by Pink Purslane, Yellow Archangel and Ramsons. A wooden footbridge carried me across a rife that carved its own narrow ravine through the wood as it searched for a point to join the River Rother. I considered lingering in the hope of spotting a Grey Wagtail, or dreaming of the secretive otter, so recently returned to the county, foraging beneath where my feet now rested. But I had a few more miles to cover.

A stile lifted me out of the woodland into pastureland. Few fields retain the herb rich sward that would have once been commonplace, as intensive management and ‘improved’ grassland replace traditional meadows. The honey-scented Crosswort and creeping blue Bugle still hung on here at the edges of the field. Another stile and another field; this one tall with grasses, buttercups and dandelions, then again the path was threaded, narrowed, a line on a map between fenced private lands. These rights-of-way cannot be eradicated, but it struck me that it does sometimes seem that travellers are less than welcome – you have to have a purpose to be out these days; a dog to walk, somewhere to go, a cause to champion. I hurried along this stretch, drawn onwards by the song of Blackcaps from an overgrown and forgotten orchard that frothed with blossom. I paused at the orchard edge, acknowledging the ancient gnarled and twisted trees still visible among the saplings and nettles, and imagined I could hear the ghosts of generations past as they would have gathered and worked and sung at harvest time.

Checking my map I know I was close to the destination of the first section of my walk. A brisk walk along the lane, I came to a stone bridge across the river, my first encounter with the Rother on this walk despite glimpses through the trees throughout the morning. Perched above the river on a man-made mound was Chithurst Church. One of the smaller churches I have encountered, it is also one of the oldest. Consisting of a simple nave and chancel, with a modern porch forming a later addition, the tiny church dates from the 11th century making it a place of worship for potential over 1000 years. The site itself predates the stone building; a crossing point on the river and the location of fresh water springs, Chithurst would have been familiar to Christian and pre-Christian worshipers and cultures since people first inhabited these Wealden woods. Indeed, it is suggested that the mound the church rests its foundations on, may be far older than written history can recount. You don’t need written history to understand Chithurst Church however; you just need to sit, as I did, for a few quiet moments inside the church, or on the bench outside the porch overlooking the river. The hand-smoothed wood of the pews, the rough-hewn stone, the air suspended between the roof struts, all is imbued with the energy of prayers, tears and laughter. You breathe in the every hope and fear of a community that gathered here to attempt to bring some sense and comprehension to an over-aweing world, century upon century. Perched as it is on its pedestal-like mound, the woods surrounding it, the river winding past its feet, Chithurst Church has the feeling of a point of stillness, an axis for the world about it. Light, reflected by the river, was softened by the trees and captured by the leaded windows of the church to be distilled as gently dancing patterns on the yellow-grey Sussex stone. Swallows swooped overhead, and doves belonging from the manor house next door uttered soft deep coos.

Visiting Chithurst had been the main purpose of my walk, but it was time to continue my day. Opposite the church was the signpost that directed my new path, once again approximately parallel to the river. Land use here was primarily equine facilities, and the beasts eyed me with a mixture of curiosity and caution as I crossed their fields and the polo training grounds. An ornate metal bridge seemed lost and out of place in a stitch of woodland that connected the pasture to arable farmland, hinting at an aristocratic heritage to the land here. The next field I picked my way around the edge of, was going under the plough. A tractor shunted and then rested on the far side, parking up for a lunch break. I was amazed by the depth of the furrows; the freshly turned earth rose in broken ridges two foot or so.

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Perhaps the effects of Chithurst were still lingering in my mind when I reached the colossal Oak. An ancient tree, a third decaying, with an asymetircal girth several arm-spans-round watched over the junction of the fields. I couldn’t help but marvel at the trees apparent age, and wonder what stories it would offer up if inclined to speak.

On the far side of the field, as is often the way with Sussex paths, another tree, this one a mere sapling in comparison to the Oak, marked the location of the stile and the approach to my second church of the day. Iping church is a very different affair to the ancient and tiny church at Chithurst. Here, the solitude and contemplation of Chithurst was replaced by a sense of busy community and pride. I was welcomed by the churchwarden; the flowers were being prepared ahead of the Sunday service the following day. Very much a village church, Iping is not grand, but it does hold echoes of family honour, and is clearly a focus of pride. Solid stone walls bear plaques and inscriptions dedicated to the memory of locally esteemed dynasties, and a large font must have borne witness to many baptisms. Bordered by a substantial farm yard on one side (with its ladybird picture book barns and bull pen), and the lilac scented gardens of a large house on the other, Iping Church would surely make the perfect setting for a novel about the exploits of a Victorian rector and his family of daughters.

The final leg of my walk was back on familiar territory, following the riverside path that links Iping village to Stedham. I crossed the bridge over the River once more and turned left off the lane, opposite the path I had taken earlier that morning when I had approached Iping down the lane from the other direction, and half expected to pass myself walking the other way. It was unseasonably hot, the weather seemingly having skipped spring and gone straight for summer, and the shelter of trees was welcome. A speckled wood danced in the dappled light. For the first time on my walk, my path crossed that of other people; this section is popular with dog walkers. A war party of camouflage-face-painted children were den-building and secret-password-calling in the woods with noisy exuberance, but the river flowed on un perturbed several feet below. The waters slowed and widened to fit under the stone arches of Stedham bridge, a moorhen called from the bankside vegetation.

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Perhaps it was because I was tired, and thinking more of the cup of tea and spot of lunch that awaited at the end of my walk, but the atmosphere seemed less tangible at Stedham church. I didn’t go in, the door was closed and the building somewhat more imposing than the previous two incarnations; a place for the loyal church-goer which I admit I am not. Indeed, I spent far longer studying the huge yew tree that stands hollow and twisted and ancient in the churchyard; the last relic of old-land spiritualism, untameable and immortal within the manicured and stage-managed setting.

The last half-mile of my walk was a pleasant stroll through Stedham village. I passed pretty cottages, a green and a village hall, and pondered on the experiences of the morning. Three villages, three churches, and the images that lingered on my mind. The blossom of the orchards where the Blackcaps sang hidden, the Cow Parsley that jittered in the breeze by the graves at Chithurst Church. The colossal Oak with its twisted branches, leaning beside the gate with its roots in the wet meadow alongside the river. I lingered for a few moments more among the bluebells whilst I waited for my return lift home, and the wren sang brightly.

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