Seizing December sunshine on the South Downs Way

phone pix 114Sharp air and sunshine strike as we stride away from Southease Station seizing a weather window for a winter walk. Low December light leads the way, glancing across a glassy Ouse as a tide smoothly slips in, we swing across the bridge.

Past passive ponds and ditches there’s no sign of stirring in the village except a resident of Rectory Cottage religiously OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAremoving sun kissed smears from windows. The fug of fires wafts through fast moving traffic on the Rodmell road we dodge to reach hills.

Planted on the path of the South Downs Way is a partridge – maybe seeking sanctuary from the thump of distant guns? Sun warms sodden soil and the valley volleys with cries of phone pix 120crows and gulls foraging flinty fields for fodder as we ramble the rubbly road.

A steep climb up the scarp beyond chomping cows brings us to the brow of Mill Hill.  We look out to watch the river meet the sea – at Newhaven, where the incinerator squats outside the town – like an alien invader waiting to poounce. Here we find a sign offering the temptation of a side track To The Pub. But now six hundred feet above the sea it can’t compete with a OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAcloudless swathe of sky that’s set to soothe the soul.

Onwards up and down the Downs passing the farm at Breaky Bottom we are flanked by sea and civilisations. To the South the Channel seems silent and calm today, while Lewes castle stands apart, marketing the town before the clusters of homes to the North. The roar of the road carrying Christmas shoppers is muffled by distance, cows chomping cud and the squelch of mud as boots stump through OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhoof churned sludge.

It takes an hour to reach the concrete relief of the downs’ own yellow brick road. Riven by weather this cracked track remains a reminder of a war, and now provides a South Downs speedway for cyclists who arrive by braving the more challenging chalk rutted trails.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Where road gives back to traditional track a moss covered memorial log waits for the weary walker, providing a prime perch. Supervised by sheep its time to toke on tea and murmurate over mince pies mangled by travel. Time to stop and ingest the spread of Lewes Brooks spanning the valley below. From a far off farm a single skein of smoke unfurls framed by OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFirle Beacon and the short train sneaks along the line to Seaford.

Now the sun has dropped towards the sea so its time to stride the scarp while watching shadows draw shapes across the land. Trees lean inland shoved sideways by westerly winds – but now almost nothing stirs. One lone cyclist slips along in silhouette against the soon to be slumbering sky, while a wobbly OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA wind turbine spins – in no perceptible wind.

Reaching Newmarket Hill Brighton brigthens in the dark beyond the column of cars on Falmer Road. Reluctant to return we grasp a last glance back to catch a candy floss sky topping ice cream coloured cliffs at Seaford Head. Ahead the outlook dims in dying light as we wend the way round OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWoodingdean along the course well trod by horses. Puddles illuminate the way with reflections of the sky as we paddle and slide towards home along the backs of bungalows.

Finally four hours since starting out we strike back onto pavements and make the steep slog down Bear Road to Brighton which finishes a very fine nine mile meander.

Autumn murmurations on the plot

IMAG0026Following wet and wind the season is settled into a sultry South Downs autumn. Although no hint of cold or frost days are suddenly shortened by an hour.IMAG0027_BURST001 Soil is concealed by bonfire bright leaves breaking free from trees and floating down to land  – protecting precious soil and precarious plants. The air is still and waiting for winter. With the ground  now gold, as summers’ green dies and rustles under foot, flashes of life remain – a reminder of spring to come.

Branches bear bright berries, ladybirds linger and the last of the butterflies – red admirals – bask still on bare earth. Made brilliant by the sinking sun dahlias in danger of death by frost tempt tired bees for a final forage. They feebly feast on these flowers before they fade. Skeletons of poppies, seed long IMAG0029scattered, cast lacy shadows across the grass as the season of the dead creeps upon us. Scabby apples sit abandoned on a tree – ignored even by blackbirds and looking like Halloween. The lone raven has returned to Roedale – shining darkly, patrolling shut up sheds with watchful eyes. Higher up magpies perch and mutter awaiting opportunities for mischief.

Digging at dusk to plant garlic seems wise – to ward off wayward wildlife and less earthly intruders.  The robin stalks me,  rustling through remnants of plants, rooting for a ready meal to fuel it through the night. As evening falls the ghostly gathering of starlings  loops lazily above the trees of  Hollingbury Woods, then vanish with the fading light.

Brighton Butterfly business is booming

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????Another sun scorched day another downland valley filled with fluttering. Beyond the boundary of the South Downs National Park the city fringe is filled with things in flight.

Allotment air alive with red, white, blue and black as butterflies thrive.

Red admirals sail the breeze and peacocks perch on paths or beam their colours from buddleia blooms.

Tortoiseshells tease and rarely settle – flaunting flashes of burnt orange, red and white – at rest revealing perfect patterns on their wings.

Browner butterflies stick more shyly to the ???????????????????????????????shadows ???????????????????????????????– flitting along hedges and weed wrangled beds. Gatekeepers gather in gangs, alighting on bee buzzing  lavender.

Meadow Browns range round ragwort and a single Speckled Wood  flies low amongst the greenest leaves.

The whites range higher – seeking to spy brassicas to brood on –  sneaking their caterpillars under our nets to feed on our hard earned  greens.

In Roedale Valley, butterfly business is booming.




Brighton butterfly bonanza

OK so its a moth

??????????????????????   At the hottest height of summer Castle Hill, the centre of Brighton’s Biosphere reserve,  is crowded with colour.

Bees too busy to be bothered by passing walkers provide the soundtrack for a saunter.

Grassland is bright with butterflies flitting from flower to frond, finding food and flirting.

Shielded by the Downs from the sounds of human traffic, all that can be heard is the thrum of insects working while the sun shines.

Vivid peacocks sunbathe on chalk paths – too shy to ??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????be caught on camera by the stealthiest approach.

Others are more brazen, flaunting vibrant colour contrasts with their favourite floral flavours.

Chalk hill blues, marbled whites, skippers, admirals and six spot burnet moths burn bright against the softer tones of scabious and cornflowers.

And no-one else is here to see this hub of natural industry.



Southease – Glynde – Bank Holiday battering

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStepping out at Southease onto the South Downs Way the backdrop is deep steely grey. Flowers flourish OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERArefreshed by rains and contrast with green green grass as the train slides on to the sea. No turning back now as  watchful men track down Itford Hill clutching their Bank Holiday play planes against the gathering  threat. Committed to wending up the chalky trail buttercups and birdsfoot trefoil stand bright against  gathering gloom, while Newhaven harbour fades from view. A gentle drizzle drapes across the soft southern scarp, shrouding sheep who, heads down, continue the serious business of shaving  grass.

No shelter for sheep or striders who shrug off the shower with barely a shudder as drizzle turns to deluge. Approaching the ridge however, an outsize fluorescent hump glows in the gloom, hugging the brow of the hill, providing a hide for a huddle of hikers who have turned their backs on waxing wind and whipping rain. The wild and westerly air is acrid with the tang of  scorching plastic but no sign of smouldering smoke. Where does the sharp pong come from that masks the scent of grass and sea?  Is the incinerator below sneaking smells above the Ouse while shrouded in foul weather?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the apex of Itford Hill, a wail  hails beads of ice beating down on more Bank Holiday bimblers – stinging any unprotected parts. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABundled in makeshift bivvys another clump of soggy explorers cower. All activity (but mine) is terminated by terminal weather.  A soggy half a mile stomp further on, at the junction of the ways, one bold and bearded sightseer braves the breezes – failing to inspire his expedition to emerge from underneath their Gortex covered group. By now its clear that waterproofs are futile in the face of rain thrown with this force.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt last the post points  downward and a respite path appears  –  rutted with almost rivers as water runs into the valley. Cloud begins to clear as inland shards of lightning strike the sky. A lone jogger, strangely, dry, trots on, while damp warmth radiates from the sky and the rain tacks north – leaving lightning to sparkle on tiny waterfalls tumbling over gravel towards  Glynde.

Brighton Sheepshare Easter Sheep Feast

???????????????????????????????No day on the Downs is complete without encountering sheep. They stubbornly stand and sit in  the middle of paths, ignoring an oncoming bike or walker, inexplicably amble in line across valleys, or range themselves on ridges like a woolly army ready to charge like the Black Sheep of nightmares.

Why are they there? To keep the Downs downy – nibbling the landscape into shape? To add bucolic ambience to the view? To provide something meaty for us to  nibble? Or are they a man made plague of woolly maggots despoiling the natural land? And where do they go?

In order to get closer to the local flocks, it seemed sheepish not to take up an offer from  Sheepshare to sample a sheep for an Easter feast. Set up by Brighton Community Agriculture, Sheepshare offers the opportunity to buy a quarter of a freshly butchered sheep purchased direct from a South Downs farmer. So, to see the sheep through to its final fate £40 was paid for what is apparently premium meat. Would it turn out to be a baaaargin?

Butchering a share of sheep
Taking the right tool to the sheep

The order is placed and sheep shared out at a community collection point – on this occasion the gardens of 2014-04-12 11.17.16Brighton’s Brighthelm centre.  Shaded from spring sunshine a table groaned with bags of bits – leg, shoulder, chops and mince. Sheep are chunky beasts and a quarter of one quite weighty. It just about fits in the panier of a bike – ideally requiring a counter balance to avert an inadvertent sheepwreck.

Next comes the challenge of sharing out the share of sheep to squeeze it into storage. Easy enough to count out chops – but how to slice up a sheepy shoulder? Innovation in the form of haphazard home butchery was at hand – and it was swiftly sawn into more seemly sized chunks.

Now to eat some meat. For a novice sheep chef a 4kg leg is a kitchen challenge, and guests have been invited to help us gorge.2014-04-17 16.35.09  General advice seemed to be insertion of some flavours and a slowish roasting. Rosemary is duly picked and poked into holes, along with garlic and a dribbling of lime to counteract memories of greasyness of grandma’s well meant lardy roasts.  Then to slide in the oven and wait – nervously peeping as the garnish chars and smoke seeps out, clouding the house with whiffs of  charring flesh. Distraction comes in the form of mint sauce. Remembering cloyingly sickly stuff from a jar, is home made any better?  Boiling sheep eatsugar and vinegar signifies not but mashing garden mint is nice and it’s crushed to make the condiment.

At last – judgement time has come. Despite unpromising outward appearance, carving reveals meat cooked to pinky perfection – just like the pictures in a celebrity cheffing book! Surrounded by the safety of vegetables, and mint sauce that tastes like mint sauce only mintier…. its time to sample our share. The verdict is the sheep have done a jolly good job of turning downland greens into a shearly delightlful dinner.

2014-04-17 20.11.50
would ewe believe it!

Thank ewe Sheepshare – and sheep.

2014-04-17 20.36.29
sheep rustler

Scraping the Bottom at Brighton Marina

2014-03-22 14.48.42The beginning of Spring is when boats of Brighton Marina leave their moorings to be hauled from the water by the Thunderbird contraption.

Behind the battered marina wall  –  rapidly repaired following the thrashing of storms –  the boatyard is bulging with tacky bottoms awaiting their annual wipe by owners who

Thunderbird contraption
Thunderbird contraption

dream of  rippling bluish seas and sultry skies. Propped up on plinths doting owners  pamper their water borne pride – preparing for  a new season of sea going fun.

Swanky yachts stand proud anticipating expensive fitting out, dwarfing older wooden boats, whose flaky paint and grainy gunnels await attention from no less caring owners.

A mash up of machinery, cables, tools, grease and grinding – suffused with smells – not of sea salt but solvents.  The boatyard makes a gritty contrast to the concrete playground of  landlubbing visitors’ to the marina – who flood generic eateries to cradle pints of lager, clutch cappuccinos and fantasise about a lazy life at sea. Here the hard graft of boating is underway, as owners (or their flunkies) undertake the grubby business of the annual scrape, wipe and anti-foul.

???????????????????????????????This season, our adolescent  Orkney is boxed in by big bold shiny yachts of James Bond 2014-03-22 14.45.15villain proportions, and their equally shiny shouty owners cruising up in Jeeps, Jags and Boden(!) wellies.

However cheeky chatter with contractors has earnt us relief  from clamouring crowds  – as Orkney is invited to take cover in the boat shed to leave them room.  In a temporary shelter from erratic weather, the boat is cosseted and cleaned – allowing extra time for elbow greasing a hull that  is  polished to perfection – ready to slip quietly into the Channel, and catch us fishies for tea.

Morris Minor Mutilated in vintage fashion crime

A Morris survivor?

On an amble round the shiny shops of W1 in London today  a Morris Minor parked in the window of one of Britain’s premier lifestyle stores was a nostalgic surprise. As one raised on the back seat of a green Morris 1000, held safely in place not by state of the art child seats but a grandparent sandwich, or a pile of pillows to place in tents (and a hamster) fond memories were evoked.  Memories fogged by well meaning suffocation, the anaesthetic scent of Murray Mints or clouded by the fug of parental cigarette smoke and the comforting whiff of lead filled fuel.

The real Morris Ponk

But health and safety hadn’t been invented then, and as our means to escape suburbia and reach the Sussex seaside or soggy camping fields beyond, we loved the friendly curves of Morris Ponk. Even today the almost extinct growl of  throaty exhaust  announcing a Morris is underway is unmistakeable from half a mile away.

The Wicker Morris?

On closer inspection of the car on display today, a sticker reading  ‘I survived the scrapage scheme’ is in the rear window.  Maybe, but this poor Morris did not survive some vicious visual merchandiser who has seen fit to saw its aging body in half. Looking innocent from the street, inside the shop we find the car has been carved in sacrifice to a pseudo vintage fashion montage. This poor moggie’s carcass is on surreal safari.  Perched on the seat a beast – half giraffe (a comment maybe on ill advised giraffe genetics?), half lady, accompanied by a crocheted chimp with nuts. Wicker man meets retro style on the trip of very strange dreams indeed.

Cuthbert - safe - for now
Cuthbert in his bunker – safe – for now

So, be warned keepers of the last surviving Morris’s out there – you might have escaped scrapage but you aren’t safe from the whims of fashionistas.

However we are heartened to see this Minor Documentary demonstrating  not all young(er) folk are Morris molesters.

Dead sheds, daffodils and shifting soil

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn allotment expedition, dodging deluges, finds daffodils daring to stick their heads above ground. There is no need to dig for roots as they weren’t the only things standing out. The pounding  of rain has removed the lightly chalky soil and parsnips destined for dinner are poking up and  pecked.

Alongside erosion of our soil, and supper, structures put up to protect plants are vandalised by weather. On neighbouring plots we witness catastrophic loss, where whirls of wind have upturned sheds and left them on their backs, for dead. Greenhouses lie gutted, their shattered glass shining in the the odd sliver of sun. Fruit  cages are thrown into anguished shapes – leaning inland to escape more gusts and gales, and  compost containers have crashed and rock and roll,   lying helpless on their sides. The  splinters and bits of anonymous allotment kit is scattered wide.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThree miles away, 200 feet below,  waves are clobbering  the coast and carving up sea walls, and floods are flowing in the lowerOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA lands. High on the hills we’re not immune from wind and water – as small waterfalls form and wash away the earth.

Allotment plots perched on the Downs face the full  force of westerly weather. They are not  immune to frequent floods as rain rushes from the heights of Hollingbury Camp.  Small waterfalls form on tracks, as rain runs across the newly tarmaced car park, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAmaking rivers of our routes, and pouring onto some unfortunate plots. Damns and channels have been dug by gardeners to defend their soil and crops from deluge – a microcosm of the the problem faced by the farmers who grow the rest of our food.  A lesson that the water needs to find a way.