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.


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.

Splash and dash – aquaplaning Brighton’s undercliff

2014-02-02 12.24.22 Wave watching is a traditional Brighton pastime – we’ve had no shortage of watcherssplashing  spectaculars during this wet, wild winter. A very high tide arrived around lunchtime today, as columns of families and dogs ignoring or oblivious to advisories set forth for the Sunday seaside stroll.

On calmer days Brighton’s undercliff presents a safe, sedate seawall route, a gentle promenade or pedal to savour stunning views. At low water shingle gives way to the chalky floor of the shore – a maze of weedy pools to be explored. But when the wind whips up the water it’s a wild and potentially hazardous way. Waves batter concrete blocks designed to keep high seas at bay, swamping wall and  walkers with foam and spray.  paddle 2The  council might urge caution but the draw of a besieged shore is irresistible exhilaration for free thrill seekers.

chalk crumbleWhile seasoned tide twitchers set out suspecting soaking is in store, the less sea savvy meet soggy, salty surprise. Skies are  bright but the channel is churning brown from last nights’ screaming squalls. On the uncleared concrete walkways we wade through tossed up seaweed and  dumped marine detritus. Spumes of spray splash skyward, clifftop high – obscuring the horizon with curtains of glinting foam – which plummet dumping salty water on anyone not canny enough to see it coming.

Pebbles are pounded and occasionally hurled  and we pick a way over chunks of chalk sodden by relentless rain, crumbled and  crashed.  Those wise to waves wear waterproofs and wellies – others suffer very soggy socks. Beyond the sea wall pebbles pile up now higher than the path – their inland march blocked – for now – by concrete barricades. Meanwhile the council are considering what more to do in our defence.2014-02-02 13.27.29

2014-02-02 12.49.30But this  is Britain and and the comfort of a cup of tea is never far away for sea assaulted wanderers.  The bastion of the cafe at Ovingdean has stood the storms – and is slipping steaming cups through sturdy shutters – which are sipped while waiting for the water to abate and allow us a safe route home.

It’s  Candlemas  today – and dawn brought yet more deluge drowning drains in rain. This middle of winter or beginning of spring (according to creed) halfway  between the darkness of our shortest day and the equinox  promise – when light and dark break even. However, if ancient lore is to be  believed, the balmy sun is sign that we have more winter wildness to withhold.

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again…

A walk on chalk – Hope Gap

???????????????????????????????Receding grey on the first December day surprised us, as we arrived at Seaford Head. Hats and scarves were shed by kids unleashed who screamed towards the beach.

Seven Sisters

At Hope Gap hopes are realised where the South Downs meet sea. Low tide reveals the rock pooled shore ready for small adventurers to explore. Dipping between cliffs we shuffle down steep steps to trip about on chalky flint and fossils.

Grown ups take quiet time to sit uncomfortably  on rocks and stare – at Seven ancient Sisters seeing their bright white faces in sea so still it barely laps the shore. The intertidal playground pulls younger girls to tread the seaweed slippy rocks – soaking socks and shoes in salt.

hope gap 035With the tide still down we stumble round crumblings of Cretaceous cliffs, tramping over ancient shapes in stone, to the canal carved two hundred years ago that takes the Cuckmere river to the sea. This channel is caving in as cuts and climate  conspire to change the water course.

A sea-change is set to come within the haven. The human hands that formed the current view are due to leave the storms and winds and tide to shunt the shingle – making meadows into marsh.

Heading back up hill we gaze on geese that graze by the meanders – that morph with wind and rain and tide. We walk now on chalk that was once the den of dinosaurs – and may soon be reclaimed by the sea.

Cuckmere Haven


Plastic and ponies the Woodingdean way

???????????????????????????????OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs the sunshine remained settled no settling at a desk this week. Once again the Downs beckoned and off we trotted to another well trod peri-urban path. Setting out from the dog-eared dog poo decked car park on top of Falmer Hill past ditches brimming with rogue rubbish. We find a deflated dinghy marooned with a cargo of beer – 600 feet above sea level….. a sign of very poor navigation or a very high tide indeed?

???????????????????????????????Once past the reach of not so furtive fly tippers,  the track forks down the steady curve of Bullock Hill. The Downs frame the sea and sights of Rottingdean, as we follow a sheepless path to  the quiet depths of Standean Bottom. The sounds of distant Brighton disappear, and a lone hawk hovers on no wind.  Picking a way on a path booby trapped by badgers with ankle busting burrows, the trees now bare, in the bottom, fringe a half planted field of winter green.

Broken buildings guard the gateway to Castle Hill. The only sign of life is some scrappy shavings of sheep. The rusting remains of redundant farmyard tools look alien in this landscape. The valley fields, that in August glowed as Brighton’s bread basket, are now fringed with churned up chalk.???????????????????????????????

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs the sun sinks behind the hill we start a slow ascent, and swing round past gorse and grazing ponies, who watch, and munch.

Tucked in a valley corner, where the sound of cars creeps in, a dew pond reflects the sounds above as contrails cross the sky, surrounded by a Blair Witch thicket.

A steep and not too clear a climb, on narrow pony pitted deep mud tracks, leads up towards the more popular path. And, as the sun sets over Woodingdean, we can barely see the signs that we are heading home – an empty bag from Cyprus Airport duty free, and other dumped detritus, mark the trail to ‘civilisation’.

Woodingdean winter sundown

Shots of sunshine in Stanmer Park

ImageNovember is now properly nippy but a burst of low level sunshine makes a wood and downland wander irresistible. How lucky are we that within Brighton’s boundary we can make a break for the hills?

Stanmer Park provides a vast varied space for kids and dogs and sports to play outside. It’s also easy to escape the weekend hordes for a quieter stride to bottoms and brows.  Meandering through Millbank Wood passes a dew pond filled with sky and trees form gold grounded tunnels while other amber leaves resist the rage of autumn storms so far.

ImageOut on open fields, we wend a way to where walkers string along the South Downs Way, and ruminate with cows.  In the park for cars, the optimistic ice cream van sits stubbornly, enjoying the view – whatever the weather.

Turning east along the ridge, a faint growl rises from a groaning A27, connecting what look like model villages below. At Streat Hill Farm we track back towards the distant sea, serenaded by the sound of shooters. Shielded in a hillside copse – stags, hens and other parties pay to gun down (clay) pigeons and, apparently, throw axes.  The sharp shot sounds fade, replaced by crying crows, as we dip back down beneath the trees to face the last blast of early afternoon sun.