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.

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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.

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.

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.

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 revolting year around Sussex

seaford stormAs the date changes and the wind rages its time for a traditional list and last year Brighton and beyond was, overall, pretty revolting.  Across the county students, stockbrokers, pensioners and families were all moved to defy ‘authority’ and protest. Here are Brighton Beyond’s top five revolts in Sussex in 2013 – proving that spoilt (and soggy) southern softies can be brave in the face of British weather and rally behind a cause.

1.The Battle of Balcombe

Before this summer who had heard of Balcombe? That annoying extra stop made by slower trains rattling between Brighton and London.  Then Cuadrilla brought their drills. While the purpose of the test drilling was to poke around for oil, the procedure was also an analysis of the suitability of the area for fracking – blowing holes underground to get at gas.  The locals weren’t keen, and the village made global news as it attracted a protest camp and repeated demonstrations.  The only thing that succeeded in holding up the work, however, was a noise complaint. Even an MP, Caroline Lucas, Brighton Pavilion’s representative, was arrested at the site – along with assorted locals and serial objectors. As the saga continues the impact on this once quietly conservative community has been divisive.  More drilling is in prospect so the battle of Balcombe could revive.

2. Saving Newhaven’s Shimmering Sands

Many might say the run down harbour town of Newhaven doesn’t have a huge amount to offer. Residents would disagree – putting up a spirited fight to reclaim as their own a unique piece of our mostly shingle shore – a big sandy beach. Only trouble is the French won’t let the locals use it. Sounds like a Daily Mail headline? It has been. The struggling port, which links Sussex with Normandy, was bought by a french business consortium, who eventually closed the beach to the due to ‘safety fears’.  Town Council and residents have long been lobbying to reclaim the sand for public use – and this long hot summer townsfolk finally lost patience, launching a prolonged assault,  with an army of bucket and spade bearing kids.  Each night ‘pixies’ broke through the barricades allowing families and children access to the shore…. Then men in black would swoop and re-seal the gaps – only for the pixies to pop out and open a new entry. Hopes have recently been raised that access to the sands could be regained, with proposals from councils for a new path on the foreshore – the fight for the right to make sandcastles continues.

3. The Defence of Combe Haven

The defence of Combe Haven, a tranquil  wildlife filled valley and SSSI, commenced as the long contested development of the Bexhill Hastings link road got underway.  In January snow protesters perched in frozen trees, pensioners stood against diggers and grandmothers canoed on the flooded site to demonstrate its unsuitablity for development. Support came from national environmental groups  who descended in droves on this  previously sleepy side of East Sussex, guiding wildlife walks  around the valley, using it as a focus for campaigns against road building.  Arrested protestors are currently in court and apparently making authorities’ heads hurt – they have produced a film to support the cause.

4. Occupy Sussex
Early in 2013 staff and students at Sussex University rallied together in a bid to halt the outsourcing of services at the university to private companies. The proposals raised concerns about the continuing quality of service on campus alongside ideological objections on the grounds that it represents a creep towards the marketisation of higher education.  A seven week occupation of university buildings ended ugly and started a year of unrest.  Lively demonstrations gained national support from politicians and institutions  – with a few resits ensuing. Suspensions of students and ongoing demonstrations mean this dispute will carry on.

5. The Grand Old Elm of Seven Dials

Eco-activism spread to urban Brighton when residents in the Seven Dials neighbourhood  rallied to the defence of an elderly elm, which almost fell to an environmental improvement scheme.  Veterans of the Combe Valley protest occupied the elm, cars and buses were diverted and local politicians  and officials wrangled. Despite being punctured by pins from well wishers’ wishes, the lopsided elm  was saved – and now stands overlooking the completed new road layout – which our local paper reluctantly say might actually be alright.

What next?
There are plenty of plans in train to upset us in Sussex –  the biggest of which could be the proposal for a new market town across a swathe of rural West Sussex, the hint that Gatwick still isn’t excluded from getting another runway and the controversial go-head for a big runway at Lydd (OK its just over the border from Sussex, but we’ll be able to see and hear the holiday jets) – it looks like 2014 could be more revolting still.