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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Morris Minor Mutilated in vintage fashion crime

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sussex slightly sunk under storm surge

Spring tide surprise for flood defence workers
Spring tide surprise for flood defence workers – Sept 2012

Last September saw us sniggering at Rye Harbour –  watching workers renewing flood defences seeming surprised by the high Spring tide. Water lapped against cabins, swamped plant and materials, as well as drowning long standing jettys. As workers helplessly watched and waited for the waters to subside, we wondered what might happen if the tide rose higher. Now we know.

This time last week, east coast communities were battening down the sandbags before the biggest tide for decades, brought on by one of our increasingly frequent  ‘extreme weather events’. Some of Sussex succumbed too.  The storm surge swept up the Channel, slightly submerging some of our coast.

Excavators innundated
Excavators inundated

Wayward weather is a permanently trending topic on this island, and it takes a lot to turn the tide of conversation.  However with a 60 year storm surge approaching, attention was rightly distracted to another country and the flood of feeling at the death of Nelson Mandela. Little air time was left, though, for the pockets of costly catastrophe unfolding along our coasts. For those in areas where flooding was forecast – Environment Agency alerts prevented wider harm.

Although no-one is known to have died as a result of the surge, in Norfolk cliff collapses and lost homes made headlines, along with evacuees helped out of harms’ way.  However while parts of Sussex sunk under overflowing rivers – there was barely a mention even in local news.  It took many minutes of delving online to find out what happened here.

Rye Harbour, Newhaven and Shoreham were, it seems, very small stories, with sea defences submerged as the tide reclaimed and wrecked some carefully managed land. Tens of homes and businesses got wet, main roads closed (albeit fairly briefly),  and wildlife areas got a whole lot wilder.

In Newhaven the tide oozed over the banks of the Ouse – closing our train line for a day, with commuters diverted to buses while tracks were shored back up. Tens of homes were flooded, and the swing bridge remains damaged – a barrier to the business of the port.

The surge swallowed sleeping Shoreham too – closing the main road and airport for a while, businesses and homes  got wet, and the coast road briefly closed.

At Rye Harbour, while no homes were harmed – huge damage was done to a favourite walk and cycle route as the 70 year old road to the sea was swept away  –  filmed by workers on the scene. Many niceties of the nature reserve are lost.  In the centre of Rye flood barriers just contained the tide – with water seeping through walls at the heart of the ancient town.

In the context of recent worldwide weather emergencies this was a moderate disaster – so maybe it isn’t really news? As the highest tide happened late at night, hardly anyone saw it.  The Environment Agency, responsible for flood defence, estimate in Sussex alone their work protected hundreds of homes – but some still suffered seemingly in silence.

On the day before the flood – the budget confirmed 15% cuts in our front line flood defenders.  Fifteen hundred workers will be lost from the Environment Agency before next winter’s storms.  In 2012 flooding cost the UK £800 million – with a weakened workforce and flood threats increasingly frequent – will these cuts come at additional cost for Sussex and beyond? Some commentators think so.

Riders on the Storm – Sussex Style

ImageWith news reports of Brighton braced for storms – the wilder of side of Sussex embraced the waves.  Big weather events aren’t all disaster and destruction. Winds whipping up water on Southwick’s Saturday shores saw pre-storm riders  running before the wind. Windsurfers race the tides along the coast, while surfers hang out for sheltered swell inside the harbour wall. Thirsty for their thrills the neoprene tribe trot past the coffee crowd around Southwick’s hidden secret.

litter pickerWaves might be clean today but the beach below is dirty – and litter pickers scatter, plucking pieces of tossed up  plastic in an effort to protect the sea life from more harm.

Today, in post stormageddon Brighton the beach patrol buzz by – warning people out of wild waves’ way.  A  boat is battered up the ImageBlack Rock beach. How has a hapless seaman missed the gaping marina mouth? i Not quite Athina B but big enough – to pull a small crowd of half term kids and dads.

As the wildest winds blow over, a swelling shoal of surfers forms, tucked in beneath the marina’s eastern arm  – to ride the rising tide. Meanwhile seagulls are seeking shelter, silenced by the screech and rattle of masts – as the wind wails east leaving heaving swell behind.
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Balloon bounty on the beach – more crud at Camber

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother day, more drifting deadly debris on the tide.???????????????????????????????
Still more beached balloons are bobbing in the breeze – celebratory bubbles yet to burst and present a not so happy meal to choke any gourmet fish or gull – tempted by exotic imported morsels.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe menacing menu can be washed down today with reclaimed refreshments – a bottle of beer or a guilty looking juice.

???????????????????????????????Its no wonder stranded creatures look unwell.???????????????????????????????

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As well as picnics on the beach, there’s scope for seaside sport. An abandoned football chucked up by the waves is next to a knobbled knee pad.  A tennis ball has shed its skin – a fluorescent sea slug on the shore.

microtrash

Its not all playtime at this seaside though – close scrutiny reveals a micro office mingled with the shingle – a rubber, pens and the lid of of a usb.

Among the trash we do find  treasure too – a store of tiny tools to take-away.???????????????????????????????
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Camber Sands, cockles and cotton buds

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pretty lethal pickings

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASmart glass fronted holiday homes on the shingle ridge of Camber face the far horizon, but a near shore scan reveals a gallery of gruesome goods abandoned by the tides.

Beach combing for treasure here throws up a trove of toxic trash that mingles with marine life. Do cockles clean their shells with cotton buds or celebrate big birthdays with balloons?

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latex lunch for fish
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abandoned butts and party pants

Every few feet deflated remnants of celebrations are shredded to sea anemone shapes, their gaudy plastic tails tangled in washed up weed – lasting far longer in the food chain than the days and years they celebrate.  This lethal legacy of holiday haven parties has potential to tangle and strangle local birds and fish.

Are shredded pants, abandoned butts, beer cans and bottles battered by the waves remnants of wild nights out?

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condiments for crustaceans?
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brand wars on the beach
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cast away coffee

Alongside the cockle and razor shells cast aside by snacking gulls and oyster catchers, detritus from human diners drifts ashore. Near the closed for winter cafe there’s no escaping brand wars on this beach. Empty Coke and Pepsi cans compete for attention, alongside long forgotten fermenting juice and freshly left coffee cups – tasty.

While shed shells play their part in shaping shifting sands, there is no safe place for shreds of nets and tangles of line lost or dumped in the hunt to find our fish food. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWashed up wings could be the sign of  seagulls snarled in line?

Has a desperate doggy made the dive to doom?
Has a desperate doggy made the dive to doom?

The lead of a hapless hound lies at the top of the tide – has a dog despaired of modern living and done a Reggie Perrin? Or drowned doing doggy paddle? Should I dial 999?
??????????????????????There are signs on shore for us – smoking kills and wind and tide can trap. But no alarms for sea life warning of the snares we set. Most victims die invisible, although the occassional corpse washes up onshore. Like this strange seahorse found drowned – seemingly strangled by its manufactured plastic mane.

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Wandering the wilder side of Brighton – Woodvale to Rottingdean

???????????????????????????????The early summer centre of Brighton might be bursting with half term hordes, but a short stride out of the city reveals its wilder side. A walk from Woodvale Crematorium over the Downs to Rottingdean grazes gravestones, verdant verges and blue/grey horizons, passing through probably the quietest and loveliest landscape within the city boundary.

Guarded by gothic gates (that annoyingly shut in late afternoon), the graveyard provides a gorgeous semi-kempt pocket of peace. The entrance to Woodvale, and starting point for this well trod walk is the Vogue Gyratory System. A chaotic accident and pollution hotspot is enough to drive anyone into a nearby garden of rest (voluntarily or otherwise). Forming a strip between busy Bear Road and hillsides of not quite Hanover houses, it’s a tranquil space inspiring musing among  memorials.

Although ghosts of bluebells are fading in the shade, now, in early summer, the mood is more wedding white than funereal. Seeds from surrounding trees congregate like confetti on the kerb before the Coroners’ office.  Armless angels poke heads through growing grass, and the A27 drone is subdued by a chorus of birds. New modes of mowing leaves margins wild so should be sombre tombs are laced with stems of cow parsley and time is marked by dandelion clocks.  It’s the perfect resting place for quietening minds as well as buried Brightonians.

Winding steeply up the hill it’s easy to immerse in imaginings of people passed. Enormous anchors mark many graves – a reminder that this was a sea-faring town. Twin flint chapels are the  marker  that the  meander through memorials is almost through – and a final push leads us back to the land of the all too lively.

Cars growl up Bear Road grinding gears, and it’s a short sharp hike to the top past Tenantry Down. Looking west beyond allotments and city skyline, the Isle of Wight is in sight on a very clear day. Heading on along the eastern ridge, past horses grazing brilliant fields of buttercups, we reach the muddy track of medieval Drove Road. Formerly the fishwives’ route to Lewes, this smuggles behind Woodingdean’s  bungalows. Views expand  –  below Bevendean bends round contours of hills and ahead a mast marks the highest point of today’s trail – Newmarket Hill – nearly 200 metres above the sea.

???????????????????????????????Busy Falmer Road transects this drove now and a constant stream of cars heading for coast or country can only be crossed with courtesy from a sympathetic driver. Once safely back on track, we are nearly in the country – although still within Brighton’s boundaries.  Heading in the direction of Lewes, to the north the Amex Stadium, roost of Seagulls (the Brighton and Hove Albion species) crowns a crease in the hills. Staring south east, the white cliffs of Seaford Head and the Cuckmere Valley hover before the milky bluish horizon of the English Channel.

For a short stretch we walk the South Downs Way (SDW), a sky lark serenade slightly suppressing traffic noise. On a fine day the SDW is the M25 of down land paths, with columns of walkers, cyclists and riders intent on following the branded track. Many miss Castle Hill Nature Reserve, one of the Sites of Special Scientific Interest at the heart of the Brighton Hove and Lewes Downs Biosphere bid. This partnership hopes UNESCO will recognise the  unique environment of the downs, towns and seas between the river Adur at Shoreham and the Ouse in Newhaven

The descent into Castle Hill valley is steep, surrounded by scrub. It opens out on reaching  ‘Bottoms’ – Newmarket and Falmer Bottom to be precise. Shielded from external city sounds, scuffle of boots on chalk, and bleating sheep are the sole soundtrack. Chalk grassland here is a quiet riot of colour through summer. Early in a chilly season, recent rains have left lush growth of grey green grasses. For now on the floral front a cruise through a corridor of cowslips slightly past their best brings some satisfaction. By July clouds of blue butterflies should be sharing pale pink scabious, bright yellow trefoil and purple orchids.

Striding straight through the winding valley shaved sheep are looking sheepish, and planted fields starting to shoot. An uphill tarmac OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAslog is fringed by more curls of cow parsley, and by-passing Balsdean Farm and reservoir the final high is reached. Here the steely sea rises up to meet us, and the draw of seashore and thoughts of food pull us down.

Gentile Rottingdean greets with bowls politely rolled on the green by villagers in pristine whites. Posters by the pretty pond pronounce flower shows, fetes and collectables with flint pubs and tea shops to tempt. For the hungry hearty home  cooked lunch  at bargain prices can be enjoyed in the lovely Grange Gardens Cafe (in the local library). For a creative cuppa, the Open Art Cafe boasts crafts, exquisite egg florentine and a toilet full of poems. Beer and banter is on the menu at the Coach House on the seafront, which pulls perfect pints of Sussex ales (Harveys and Hepworths).  Today we don’t have time to dally, so head straight for the top deck delight of the bus back to Brighton. A good decision, as another diversion appears – the ‘improbably nimble’ Brighton Morris Men have capered their way along the coast and are jangling between pubs … maybe there’s time for a pint after all.

… and, as a special treat –

A poignant poetical pontification by former Brightonian Cuttlewoman on an August re-visit to the valley Bottoms