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Malta 28th September to 2nd October 2021

Looking towards St.Johns Co-Cathedral on Valletta as an early October storm brews

Five days and fifteen more posts to add in due course as we spent every day out on foot or by car exploring as much as we could. This was facilitated by a museum pass which saw us taking in art, history, archaeology and numerous forts, as well as trips away from Valletta to Mdina, Dingli cliffs.

There was time too to swim, to sunbathe, shop, eat and drink Cisk.

There was also time to meet family, talk history, climate change and politics.

Buxted Park, 24th September 2021

East Sussex Dog Friendly Walks

It has taken a month before I have started to double back on my favourite walks; I could have easily gone another 8 weeks exploring the coast, South and North Downs without ever visiting the same place twice but there comes a point when you want the ease of going somewhere familiar. This time I understood where to park, where to set off, where to hang back and how long it would take on different sections of the walk.

Parking could not be easier; the grounds of Buxted Park are, contrary to your expectations, open to the public. I had done a U-turn the first time I had entered through the stone gates by the lodge and parked across the road in Buxted – this time I parked under the trees in the dedicated parking by the St.Mary’s Church. There must surely be days when this is impossible.

I was brought here originally by ‘East Sussex Dog Friendly Pub Walks’ which saw me completing circular routes with Evie earlier in the summer between Plumpton and Ditchling around Arlington Reservoir. Today I am armed with my growing knowledge of trees, an interest in the countryside and history and an eye for a good view.

Organ Music is playing in the Church; I don’t enquire. Entering a place of worship with a dog feels inappropriate and if I tether Evie outside she will bark. I give a passing nod to the War Memorial whose names I plan to research at some stage and head towards the ancient yew and a side gate out of the cemetery into the park. The yew tree is reportedly over 2,000 years old. Whether it is now one tree or several is a moot point as the trunk has opened out into a crown all coming from a common base. My mind is a whirl of inspirations and wonders I had as a boy – a BBC TV drama I recall (or perhaps a book) in which a lad left a sword he had used in the Middle Ages under an oak sapling only to retrieve it many hundreds of years later. My mind dwells on ideas of a rejuvenating immortal who takes sucker, if not life-force, from ancient trees like this – modern graphics having him (or her) by the tree at different stages of its growth.

There were many dog walkers out on our last trip; today there are a handful – families too. Last trip I took close interest in the trees downed in the 16th October 1987 storm. I’m sure Buxted featured with trees flattened like so many chopsticks and all aligned from the south-west. Whilst much of the wood was cleared enough has remained in place to regrow creating peculiar semi-mature hedge-like stands of successive trunks emanating from the fallen tree – I like nature’s capacity to rejuvenate like this.

Today I peg my walk to the oldest trees that I spot, a stand of oaks, a lone park-planted redwood and a couple of beech by the lake.

Littlewood, Buxted 24th September 2021

Woodland Trust

Although I got myself to the entrance of the wood I was fooled into thinking it was someone’s private drive as the cul de sac here is made up of large detached homes – the air of the wood and its surrounds is ‘gentile’. I wonder how many here helped find the funds to purchase and protect the wood, or perhaps it was something the original developer did.

For almost the first time on one of these Woodland Trust woodland walks I appear to have set off from the entrance gate – no fancy noticeboard. I guess without the trees this little wood would cover the size of a rugby pitch. All Trails has me in and out in 45 minutes or so.

You can see the management plan, the plantation planted trees thinned, some old wood cut and stacked, the variety of species, but what this feels like is the bottom of someone’s garden, albeit a large one. 

Maps and plans from OpenStreetMap and All Trails. 

The southern edge of the wood is boarded with large detached houses with equally sold fences, while part of the northern edge has a dense, high hedge of conifers and more hedging. 

I can see locals enjoying this but wouldn’t make the journey especially. 

I double back to Buxted Park, pull up in a parking space down from  the church. This is open parkland, heath and a couple of ornamental lakes, but there are huge 300 year old oaks and a yew tree over 2,000 years old. 

Hargate Wood, Tunbridge Wells 22nd September 2021 

The Woodland Trust

Best laid plans … As always I failed to find an official entrance and after going back and forth along the southern edge of the wood I pulled in at a likely spot before Evie exploded with frustration and the need to go.

It was an inauspicious start to find myself looking at a flytopped dishwasher; I couldn’t have been in a Woodland Trust Wood – I wasn’t, but I was close. 

From the OS map I could see that I was on the outer edge of Hargate Wood so could follow a path of sorts along the edge of a field to Sprat’s Brook then make myself upstream and into the woods proper. 

The 9 year old came out in the brook – the compulsion to engineer a few sticks here and there took me back to the so called ‘water works’ at Mowden Hall – the tiniest trickle of water that the youngest boys, me amongst them, age 8 or 9, would play in for hours redirecting runnels of water and forming dams. 

The wood properly revealed itself in the shape of mature oaks and Scots Pine and a pond with a Woodland Trust bench and dedication. 

By now I am an All Trails fan, zooming in close to show paths through the wood that even the OS map doesn’t pick up. I can also orientate All Trails to True North so I become as handy as a compass in the palm of my hand. 

We make it across to a closed reservoir along one edge of the woods then double back. Having met no one in an hour it was a surprise to meet a woman walking her dog and her daughter’s dog, which I learned is scared of skateboards and cyclists – apparently there is a cyclist about in the woods somewhere. She lives in Tonbridge and wanted somewhere her daughters might be let off the lead without being spooked.

Having found our way back to the car via a few misdirections over poorly erected wire fences I drove a few minutes to the ‘official entrance’. 

It is a disappointing start: a lot of cars parked up, the noisy A26 along this side of the wood, and the smell first and then the site of dog shit – this is my first encounter of a ‘dog shit alley’ despite the notices asking people to pick up and despite the prominent bin along this stretch. A couple of young dog walkers with an array of five dogs, only one on a lead, another escapee with its lead still on was indication enough that dog poo was being left in situ. What is the solution? To start with any bin has to be placed further down the path and there should be several of them – someone who is too lazy to pick up after their dog does not double back to bin the offending matter – they either leave it where it is, or toss bag, poo and all into the undergrowth.

Moving deeper into  Hargate Forest you start to see the Management Plan in action – the fir trees fined, opened up heath thick with bracken and self-seeded saplings and ancient trees that have toppled, cleared from the path but otherwise left in situ.

I’d visit again: it is easy to park, and easy to find (once you’ve got your bearings) and once into the depths of the ‘forest’ you are away from the traffic on the A26 and Bunny Lane, with mature deciduous trees, Sprat’s Brook and a pond. Though largely eradicated rhododendron is creeping back in various spots. I’d never appreciated what a problem it was, as a child loving to vanish into the maze of stems of a mature stand of rhododendron with their tunnels, dens and burrows. They kill the light so that nothing on the ground can then grow. 

Kiln Wood and Turnmill Wood, Blackboys, 20th September 2021

Woodland Trust 

First Wood of the Day. I’m on a minition to ‘bag’ a few today; the twitcher in me is out. 

Evie and I walked from the village of Blackboys. We’re earlier enough to be ahead of school drop-off and far too early for  the wonderful looking pub. 

Across the busy B2192 to Heathfield from Uckfield Road and into the woods. Sadly the noise from the traffic is never far away – how much more pleasant it would have been to have been here, quite against the regulations, during the Covid-19 lockdown when even our local wooded walk along the edge of the busy A27 Lewes bypass was silent.

We get quickly away from the road and in so doing move through a patchwork of land use types.

Indeed, there is a second wood, Turnmill Wood, not yet on the Woodland Trust website (or missed amongst the 1,000+). There’s a ‘remnant of precious ancient woodland’ in here – dark between mature trees and pooling streams. It is a treasure, but sad in its isolation, like a neglected standing stone, or a piece of Hadrian’s Wall alone in suburban Newcastle. Foreigners must laugh at our niggledly loves and precious attitudes, but when you just have crumbs or ancient woodland left rather than vast forests stretching miles over mountains and dotted with wide lakes what else can we do. 

It doesn’t take long to find the ‘other’ entrance, or the correct entrance to Kiln Wood – there’s layby parking here too – for two or three cars at least, off the busy main road. 

It is more of an entrance too, with some of the features I am coming to expect and recognise in a Woodland Trust managed wood – excellent steps, gates, bridges and signage. I’m looking forward now to returning to these spaces after a downpour or in the rain, once the tree cover has gone and in winter. So my frantic ticking off woods in Sussex now is to set me up for 28 or more return visits over the next 6 months through autumn, winter and spring.

I’m used to telling a person’s story each day of the year for The Western Front Association, people, almost always young men, who served and died during the First World War, rather than peacefully and commemorated like this in a local wood. I have my eye on several spots around Sussex, a beach in Northumberland and a snow covered slope in the French Alps, so my ashes will have to be bagged up and split, and funds set aside for a bench or two such as this.

The Blackboys Inn is so picture-postcard that in the summer, and outside Covid-19 travel restrictions, I am sure it is popular. I’ll aim to get here for lunch or an early evening snack next time. 

Lake Wood, Uckfield 20th September 2021

Woodland Trust

Woodland Trust 

The third wood of the day. I struggled to find somewhere to park on the side of Rocks road and started in the wrong wood (Westpark Local Community Nature Reserve) albeit with some very old trees on the edge of a housing estate on the edge of Uckfield. 

Is this the green belt? Protect patches of woodland, however small, on the edge of town? It is squeezed in between a dual-carriageway and a housing estate,trodden on, frequented by dogs, where litter is dropped and domestic cats roam. I wonder if such patches of woods are nothing else but sad remnants, moth-eaten like a tattered regimental flag – reflecting days of glory long gone. 

I doubled back to a narrow layby by a stone wall to try my luck again. I am finding that regardless I am generally better off on foot once I am in proximity.

Access is limited; the land is walled off and fenced in. There is a single entrance from this side of the wood. We take a path and head for water. I notice the bird boxes – someone cares. 

I sense that this is a large landscaped garden from a stately home (Buckswood Grange) rather than a natural park – the estate dissected by the Uckfield bypass, the manor house long gone or turned into a care home, apartments or demolished.

I find the lake, then follow the track around its perimeter finding Ruskin-like stone cliffs, tunnels and scrambles. There is a huge Wellingtonia and a beech. 

All is sadly diminished by the noise of the  A26 and litter. Not much, but having picked up a few items I realise I don’t have gloves and a bag or the energy to do any more. 

I’ll be back – wearing headphones. For local residents this is a pleasure garden – just sad we can’t dampen the noise of traffic, trucks and motorbikes on the dual-carriageway. Noise pollution is tolerated where air pollution is not. 

Little Foxes Copse, Hadlow Down 20th September 2021

Woodland Trust

Second Wood of the Day. Getting here was a joy in itself, with multiple single track lanes between high hedges, with woods everywhere the trees often arched across the road like the nave of a cathedral. Though early autumn there is barely a hint of trees changing colour. 

There is parking for a few cars at the gate into the Copse. The sound of horses on the road are more likely than traffic. It is a blessing to be away from the main roads.

On each of these walks I take a moment to listen and record the local sounds; I’m yet to add these as an MP3 file. I also breathe in the place to get the smell of it; often this is distinct, such as hot crispy bracken, or warm pine or wet leaves in a bog.

I’m also getting used to moving between a Woodland Trust and other public access woods as often the patchwork of woodland as it stands is owned by different bodies and individuals – not all with the same agenda or resources. 

For the parking, the hilltop views, the variety of scenery from new copse, to older woods I will certainly return here. 

William’s Wood, Warninglid, Horsham 18th September 2021

The Woodlands Trust

Very difficult parking, though on a return trip I’d still aim for Belle Vue Country House and park on their lane until I am advised of a better alternative.

As the third car to a small layby that would take 2 ½ cars I wound myself down the lane by the main road and had to double back. A footpath alongside Belle Vue takes you into the woods. Here following your nose rather than a map can have you tacking tracks across and between private land and fields with footpath access only to parks and gardens brutally excluding outsiders with high fences, signage and barbed wire.

For the fifth or sixth time I have failed to do what I promised myself: check details on the Woodland Trust website for exact details of where to go once on foot. The printed ‘Explorer Guide’ gives the most basic of information that gets you to the vicinity of the wood.

I was inclined to follow my feet and my senses so was soon off track around mixed woods, down paths, over streams and into agricultural land. Had it been raining I may have doubled back earlier, but I had the morning to myself and time to kill. I let serendipity take over. 

I would have preferred a circular walk so pressed on regardless even when Google Maps pointed out that I was a long way off course for the Woodland Trust wood I had been aiming for. I found the ‘Keep Off, Keep Out, F*** Off signs oppressive. This was heightened by the sound of barking hounds in what turned out to be large, distance kennels. That and people having fun over that fence by the ornamental lake that you could just about spot.

I had to stand on a busy road realising this would be a dangerous and unpleasant way back to my starting point so I doubled back. At least the walk back was quite a bit quicker and this time I got myself into Williams Wood – all for taking a right turn rather than a left. 

This is indeed ‘part of a much larger woodland’ – once part of the grounds of Stonewick. It is the diversity here that appeals, with quite different local landscapes from the pools around the deeply ravined streams, pools and swamp onto higher planted ground with meadows and formal planting of trees themselves around the edges of a few private dwellings with large gardens or paddocks. 

The large trunks that came down on 16th October 1987 make fascinating features: how the tree recovers into a set of trunks creating dense cover. 

I am becoming familiar with the Woodland Trust bridge and signage – subtle and robust, with spots where a dedication has been left after a bequest or donation has been made to support the work.

It is a cliché to say a photograph does not do justice to the scale, depth or contrasts in the landscape here. Let alone what you hear and smell. I love to breathe in the wood, to listen to the drizzle of leaves falling and the trickle of a stream. Sadly, road traffic and jet are never far away – Gatwick is close enough and the A23 / M23 is within earshot too. 

I’d love to know what these huge, flat sand-bag-like mattresses are. My untrained eye thinks it is to limit the swamping of ground where a few 200 year old trees stand – the soft ground would quickly contribute to their being felled by the next storm.

Onwards into avenues of older, tall, broad and improbable trees – the kind of woodscape that so deserves protecting however small the stand. 

Where the public are bared, or the wood opens up the uneducated may think this is destructive; it takes a useful information board such as this to put you straight. It can also excuse the sound of two-stroke chainsaws and other machinery.

More on Williams’s Wood from the Woodland Trust  >https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/media/47129/4595-williams-wood.pdf 

I also invest, belatedly, in a set of Ordnance Survey Maps. I haven’t the energy to turn what should be a 1 hour to 90 minute slow exploration of a wood into a 3 hour trek across open fields.

Church Covert, Slaugham 18th September 2021

The Woodland Trust, Slaugham, West Sussex

The Chequers Inn, Slaugham and village, West Sussex

I love an ancient tree, but in this case you’ll find it in the churchyard rather than the adjoining walk. 

A couple of sheep paddocks have been planted. The result feels no different to taking a sports field and planting trees, albeit they are well chosen and nicely laid out and as they mature will create a tiny patch of woodland with broad walks – a place to walk the dog. Though local dog walkers here prefer to dodge round the back, over a broken, non-Woodland Trust, bridge, to perambulation around or near to a private lake then out the other side.

As I learnt the trees were planted recently (in tree terms I would say this is within the last 25 to 50 years). It was part of Woodland Trust’s ‘Woods on Your Doorstep’ project where local residents got involved (and perhaps stump up some of the funding through fundraising and council grants). This idea appeals to me for ideas residents have in Lewes to return some of the land in and around the town to woodland. 

I followed this route at first, and other dog walkers taking it and as a result doubled back past a mansion converted into flats and the ruins of the 400 year old Slaugham Place before stumbling upon a gated entrance to Church Colvert. By far the best place to start and end this walk is in front of the St Mary’s church in Slaugham – there is a pub opposite.

It is an attractive hamlet in the Sussex High Weald with narrow roads, dips, twists and turns. It is a pleasant escape from the A23 though not far enough away to escape its noise. 

Slaugham, West Sussex cc OpenStreetMap

Though in a hamlet it feels quite urban, with overhead power lines, public and private paths, gates and fences, the ever present A23/M23 and planes coming in and out of Gatwick overhead.

Trees I learn from the Church Colvert Management Plan from the Woodland Trust were planted over winter 1997/98 – these trees and some ‘natural colonisation by native trees’ make up what we now see. 

Brede High Woods, Cripps Hill 17th September 2021

Woodlands Trust

A ‘proper’ wood and a fair hike to get there too, at least for me from Lewes. A 53 minute journey took over an hour and a half. I was trapped in Lewes and the western edge of East Sussex thanks to contraflows at Earwig Corner out to Ringer/Uckfield to the north east and along the A27 to east Eastbourne at Drussilla’s Roundabout and Polegate – and thus it will be for many months to come.

I’m calling this my first ‘proper’ wood because of its scale 647 acres is far larger than the woods of between 11 and 25 acres that I have been to so far. There is a car park (ample during the week, though I am sure they struggle in better weather, weekends and holidays). An intrepid regular announced to a friend that he was doing the entire circuit; I asked him how long this would take. ‘3 hours to 2 ½ hours he told me’. My intention was to spend 1 ½ or so – to see how I got on and whether Evie could take it. We took 3 hours to do the circuit with only a few diversions along the way.

I only have my phone and the Woodland Trust ‘Yours to Explore’ guide. I take a photo of the map in the car park and default to Google Maps from time to time to help spot me locally. I know I should be coming out with an Ordnance Survey Map and a compass. I haven’t even downloaded the compass App to my phone. Nor have I read the Woodland Trust Management Plan which would give me the most thorough insight into what the wood is all about, and where it is going over the next 5 to 25 years.

Simply because I like to be alone I went in the opposite direction of the fellow who set off ahead of me; I knew that this would see me walking in parallel to a busy road to begin with before cutting down towards the lake. 

Vegetarian Boots

Out early the dew got through my ‘Vegetarian Boots’ – these must be replaced. A spray on ‘waterproofer’ has not worked. What I have here is a canvas fabric that looks like leather with a metal toe-cap – they are sturdy, but not waterproof and make my feet sweat. 

Picture This

I have in my pocket a swatch of Woodland Trust ‘leaves’ but quickly defer to Picture This to familiarise myself with the tree, the shrub, the plant: Scotch heather, sweet chestnut, spruce at my first stop.

Coppicing or birch and conifers 

Along the way I learned some lessons about coppicing, first birch, later conifers – the aim to return as much of the wood as possible to ‘ancient woodland’. 

I’ve started to ‘collect’ images of benches and markers featuring dedications. It would interest me to know if the public would like to know more, or if the relatives of those remembered in these dedications would like to know more about the person or people? It could be their relationship with the land and this wood, rather than a personal biography or details of any contribution. Do I look into it further? Local newspaper archives might say something, for example, or some details were sent to the Woodland Trust.

As I walk I keep a general eye on the time and the position of the sun – I’ve always felt I had a great sense of direction and for this walk I know I am walking four sides of a rectangle – more or less. A lake is always a focal point and there is a large one here – somewhere. 

Should I be wandering off the path from time to time? I love to follow a watercourse, see how fallen trees have brought regeneration. It is noticeable right across this corner of south east England, especially on the higher ground or close to the sea, how many trees went down on 27th October 1989. I was at The School of Communication Arts, London and we came down a few days later to spend an afternoon taking a brief from a school for special education needs students in Brighton – the collapse of mature trees along the Old Steine in Brighton was devastating. 

I’ll pick up litter when I see it – within reason. I am aware that dog’s can wee on dropped litter and the a cup with shit in it is a thing – as if chucking a Mcdonalds coffee cup into the trees is somehow achieving something. When I find a can or cup or dog or bag of poo in a tree I assume this is some truculent fellow walker rather than the person who dropped the litter. 

We made it to the lake.

Then onwards. Having got this far and preferring a circular walk I decide to press on. Evie is content and finds plenty to do along the way – her hip is holding out and so is mine :

And onwards around the lake – the reservoir dam is my goal, though it will have to be given a wide berth. 

The quality of the paths, and the bridges and steps is commendable and as I pick more and more Woodland Trust woods it is crucial given that my left leg (hip/knee/ankle) is unreliable. These walks are in part a way to build on muscle and maintain motion without having to go to the gym, or to routinely cover the set of exercises provided by a physiotherapist. I understand that muscle will provide greater support that has been lost during lockdown when 500 steps a day rather than 5,000 or 10,000 was my norm.

When I return to these woods some of these landmarks will be my visual guide to place me either side of the lake.

We make it onto a single-lane road by the reservoir and use it to bring us in front of the dam and back to the woods. 

We stumble upon Seven Acre Woods and follow the polite notices around their home, grounds, visitor encampment and Kidz Woods. Though currently closed, I quite like the idea of a night or two here to relax in the woods rather than having to ‘do it all’ in a 3 hour hike.

By now we are starting to flag; thankfully I have a bottle of water. Evie has plenty of opportunities to take a dip in a stream and have a drink too. Only over the last 15 minutes, with the sun out, and on an uphill climb does she hand behind a little. My hope is that I don’t find myself an hour from the car and needing to carry here – she is 13, but appears to thrive on this kind of outing (as do I).

The last stretch back to the car in the East Gate Carpark. A 3 hour amble, that might have taken 2 ½ hours or less had we not slightly lost our way and I had not taken so many detours into the woods to explore. There was no picnic break. 

A bench dedication and its view:

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