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Dawn and Dusk at Markstakes Common

When bluebells give way to bracken

I needed to get up there after a week away and was sad to find little new. The wood now with a dense canopy feels dormant and predictable. I used up three poo bags collecting 11 dog shits. The first 250m into the woods are becoming a ‘dog shit alley’. Does it matter? The woods can accommodate it. Should people know better. What is the answer? Bins? Signage? Education? Patrols? Threats? CCTV?

Simply shite

I only returned this evening as I was on the way back from the swimming club and sundown is at 9:05. I did a tour, enjoying honey soft glows on the tree tops and then bats. I tried video, even slow motion … one was flying a figure of eight circuit that included flying at me then away again.

Notable Ash

Spring has sprung

Markstakes Common

Just a day later, after heavy run and the sun out I would say that spring has fully sprung in Sussex.

Today the bluebells are out and forming a carpet, from a distance a blue sheen above the underlying green of the woodland floor. Though almost exclusively Hornbeam the tree canopy is a verdant bright green-yellow.

Hornbeam leaves

I search out familiar decayed stumped and fallen stems venturing right across to the eastern boundary. I video gently streams flowing. The paths themselves running south to north and north to south from the watershed are quagmires of trickling water.

Woodland stream after heavy rain

Those birch logs with the various jelly fungi show promise of a brain jelly; many of the parchment fungi or Turkey tail have rehydrated with the rain.

Curtain Crust

Jonathan’s Virtual Magical Markstakes Mushroom Tour 2023

Yesterday I made my 100th visit to Markstakes Common. I may have inadvertently drifted this way once or twice from Scarecrow Wood, but until late last April I’d never entered by the northern gate. On 25th April, last year, returning from Haywards Heath, I put the car into one of your infamous potholes just south of the Primary School, limped on, looking for somewhere to pull over, turned off onto Markstakes Lane and pulled over on Green Lane to change the tyre. Once done, pointing down Markstakes Lane anyway, I saw the wall, the farm gate, a wood beyond, a car pulled over … and no signs warning ‘Private Wood: Keep Out’. Impartial to a wood, I’ve been visiting Woodland Trust woods across Sussex for a couple of years, I pulled over, stepped through the gate, saw the stream, the mature oaks and not a lot more on that first ‘visit’. I put it down as somewhere to return to. A place to walk the dog, notable trees, Friends of Markstakes Common all came later. It was September or October before I started to take any notice of the mushrooms, or fungi, as I ought to call them.

Six months later, armed with six or seven books (referenced below), a list of websites (listed below) and a lot of visits and the number of fungi I’ve photographed has topped 100. Of these though 20% or so I am yet to identify, 20% or more I have probably got wrong. And I am yet to see what Spring and a bit of rain, and summer can produce. Of all the books I’ve assembled, the last one I acquired is my favourite ‘ Fascinated by Fungi’ by Pat O’Reilly. Within reason, I’m starting to wonder if I might find everything he has in here… in the woods and on the heath of Markstakes Common. I’ve use the app: AllTrails for some years. This is the ‘Fungi Tour’ I’ve mapped out.

Use this alongside the excellent resources from Friends of Markstakes Common: this is one of their maps showing the paths, different habitats and ancient trees.

In the last couple of months, I started using the GridRef App so most spots where I take a picture have a reference point, though in a wood a variable of +/- 5-7m only really gets you in the general spot – fine if your looking for a mature tree, not so easy if you’re looking for something that might be as small as a drawing pin. The important thing I have discovered is the need, once you have spotted something of interest, to revisit again and again, until you know where the spot is compared to the paths and trees. Just as importantly when it comes to fungi you then get to see how it develops and changes – which in itself helps with identification. Here I will mention the path, the ponds or a notable tree as a landmarks.

I’ve figured out a circuit, shown in the AllTrails map I’ve shared, that takes around an hour and a half to walk. Any such visit would entail lines such as “to see x or y, you’ll need to come here in late October/early November”, or “you’re only likely to see these after rain, and then only for a week, or two in February” or some such. This ‘virtual tour’ can jump back and forth through time and weather conditions. What follows is selective. Around 40 or so of 80, 90 or more fungi I’ve photographed and tried to identify.

Split Gill

At the north gate, straight in front of you, there’s a length of log, which at different times has some kind of crust on it (Bleeding Broadleaf crust perhaps) and currently, some dehydrated split gill hanging on from last December.

In September you might see this around this spot:

Panther Cap

Panther Cap, I am told, is highly toxic, I readily confused it initially with Grey Spotted Aminata. I didn’t appreciate at the time the need to pay more attention to the skirt and the stem growing from a volva or egg sack. I’ll pay more attention here when (and if) it reappears again this September. 

Sulphur Tuft 

Take the path to the right, heading south along the western path. Just a few steps and there’s a fallen mature oak with its roots exposed over there just to the right of the path. A colony of Sulphur Tuft appears from the soil among the roots of the exposed wood and in late November/December.

Within around ten days later, after a sharp frost and snow, they had rotted to black.

Continue further along the path, as it narrows and you just about tread on the next one.

Glistening Inkcap

This is a relatively small (as opposed to tiny), delicate, widely distributed fungus. It typically grows in clusters, as here on decaying wood – a stump and partially buried wood will do.  

The cap is initially bell-shaped and then flattens with age. 

Continue south on the path, onward towards the ancient beech trees (no.6 and what’s left of no.7)left and right of the path. 

I first spotted puffballs over there in the undergrowth, beneath some holly, towards the boundary with Furzehely Farm. This was the end of October.

While on the other side of the path, toward the stream which only runs after heavy rain fall, I came across this: Common Earth Ball.

Hoof Fungus and Beech Barkspot

The ancient Beech (no. 6.) with its large, fallen bough, in the tight folds of the base of the trunk there is Hoof Fungus, a modest one, squeezed in tightly … as well as Beech Barkspot.

At this point I like to make my way over to the veteran Hornbeam no.5. It’s a wonderfully characterful ancient tree with decaying good all around.

Variable Oysterling or a split gill ? 

I took this photograph on 13 January, during the period of flooding and very mild weather. And it quickly disappeared. I know now I should have collect a couple to examine more closely and to create a spore print. Perhaps someone can idntify it from this picture alone.

All I’ve seen since, on three separate occasions, has been a slime mould, twice on one of the most decayed pieces of wood on the ground, and more recently in the rotting wood on the trunk.

Slime Mould

In a matter of days, what starts as a foamy white blob develops a skin, dries out to brown and solidifies into a hard brown bun tha soon disintegrates.

Slime Mould, veteran Hornbeam no.5 (26 March to 9 April)

Slime mould appears on the most decayed, broken trunks and boughs around the wood.  

Continue south, towards Shallow Pond, to the mouth of the pond, and where for most of the year there has been a leaky dam, although it is common in many spots, you’re always guaranteed to see crust on one of the branches.

Crusts of many kinds can be found all over the place: bright orange, darker, paler – in curtains, veils, lines, ribbons, Turkey tails and more … but for now, here’s a spot, probably because of the water, where for now there is always some. I could show a set of slides on these alone. 

Onwards, to my first mystery fungus. A few weeks ago. I nearly stepped on this gelatinous mass. Two days I was out with a macro-lens, saw some more and and was surprised to find this going on: 

One to identify another time. Hoping it was the right thing to do I scooped up this mass of frogspawn and placed it in the water on the edge of Shallow Pond. 

Jelly ear can be found everywhere too, or at least it feels like that. It seems to colonise an entire rotting limb or decayed bough. Find one like this and show it to a child and you might freak them out. They can look very ear like indeed.

Markstakes Common is a place I enjoy visiting in any kind of weather. In December, when we had that spell of frost and snow, I decided to pay a visit and was rewarded with the delightful discovery of frozen jelly ears. Unlike other softer jellies, like the leafy brain, the ears survived the frost and only went into decay in the first week of April. 

Our goal is a modest looking, well rotted, moss covered log pile.

Shallow Pond Log Pile

There are often treasures buried within. Pay close attention. Really carefully. Some of the late-December goings-on here required a family effort on Boxing Day and some extra ‘young eyes’ : Bonnets, clustered woodtuft, candlesnuff, jelly bean … but the ‘jaw dropping’ moment was when I took a closer look at the tiny red/orange dots in the moss: 

Common Eyelash 

The inner surface of the Common Eyelash is covered with short, black, hair-like structures, giving it the appearance of eyelashes.  The outer surface is smooth and often brightly coloured, ranging from yellow to orange-red. 

And much more besides here:

some yet to be identified, like this tiny fungus in the depth of the log pile, a little larger than a drawing pin. This time I’ve gone back just to see what was going on and again, have been blown away by finding something so odd.

In autumn, this is one of several spots for the candlesnuff fungus, on the logpile and on small pieces of blackened wood around the pond. I’ve followed its appearance, like the tip of a knitting needle, to a piece of broken plastic, then it gains (Antony Gormley arms), and additional limbs, andis white from mid to tip, black at the base … and some it lasts, however much it might dry out until found by a slug and consumed, leaving the remains of a burnt match-like twig. 


For the sake of this tour, we now double back around the top of Shallow Pond.

But if you’re up for a bit more of a hike, head south over to the other side of the path, among the Hornbeam. If, before you approach the notable multi-stem Hornbeam there, you look back towards the path at a log pile close to where water seeps out into a stream. Ignore the logs, look at what I’d call more like a pile of small branches and twigs. This is where I spotted a red Coca-Cola bottle top, only to find on closer inspection, something entirely different: Scarlet elfcup. 

Scarlet Elfcup

Long gone, most consumed by slugs, I presume within days. Rare in southern Britain apparently? 

Just a little further along the stream there (only runs after heavy rainfall), there’s a long fallen hornbeam stem with a large smearing of witch’s butter.

Witch’s Butter

So, double back and circle the Shallow Pond. 

Slimy Beech Cap / Porcelain Fungus

It is here in October that you are likely to find the Beech trunk, from the ground to 16ft smothered in slimy beech cup fungus. Attractive in the first days, it soon poses and melts what I liken to copydex, the slimy, sticky, smelly kids glue. 

Slimy Beech Cap / Porcelain Fungus has a distinctive appearance with a slimy, sticky cap (especially when wet) that ranges in colour from orange-brown to reddish-brown.  The gills on the underside of the cap are initially a bright yellow-orange colour and eventually darken to a rusty-brown colour as the mushroom matures.

Cinder Fungus

There is a dead stump of Beech, 8ft or so tall with slime mould and cinder fungus. 

Cinder Fungus is a common-place wood-rotting fungus with a distinctive appearance, eventually developing a black, charred-looking exterior that resembles burnt wood. It is widespread across Markstakes Common, and in some instance covering old, decaying trunks and boughs of Beech, Oak and Hornbeam 

Artist’s Bracket fungus

Return on the path towards the deep pond, then head east (right if you’re heading north) to what was, I believe, notable Beech no. 7 in 2010, which fell a good 7 or 8 years ago. I saw ‘was’ because it took me six months of searching for it to think it had come down, something I was able to confirm (and should have done earlier) using Jacqui’s photo and Grid Point record, which unless I am mistaken pinpoints this stop. 

Anyway, it was noted that there were bracket fungi in a hallowed stem then, in 2010, these were still vibrant and present, some of them probably several years old. The rest of the tree is down, and hosting its own fungi. This is artist’s bracket fungus, also known as the artist’s conk 

They are hard, with a woody fruiting body that can be used as a medium for artists to create drawings

Turkey Tail

Further down the fallen trunk, there’s a branch that looks like the head of a rocking horse that develops a quite complete covering of Turkey Tail. 

On your right (south), theres a dead hornbeam that’s still alive. It’s not a famous tree, but maybe it should be. The broken branches on the ground and higher up are home to fungi, slimes, lichens, and mosses, while the top of the trunk has produced many successful shoots. I rather think, like that logpile by the Shallow Pond, that there is an entire world of fungi to explore there, but as several look like slime moulds and crusts of various kinds, I’ll leave these for a future foray. 

There’s a kids’ den with an abundance of jellyear on the large decaying oak bough it rests against.  This is worth a visit in October/November after heavy rain, and in March/April too. 

As you head towards the notable Beech with its companion oak, there’s a stump here that develops a considerable amount of Turkey Tail (or some crust or other!) 

I then head towards the footbridge over the woodland stream (that flows from the south) to the ‘land of the birch polypore. They are abundant here and present right across the woods wherever there is decaying Birch.

As well as these, blushing bracket: Flat and woody, becoming darker with age. Apparently it can be used as sandpaper, and historically as a firestarter. 

Join the path and once again head south, past the Beech with the apt mushroom cut into it, to the spot where a shelf of stacked smoky bracket appears later in the year, and may or may not break off or be broken off. 

Then head south again, we’re doing a loop to the edge of the wood, then doubling back along the eastern boundary. Here on a large, long fallen oak bough that I first spotted Oyster mushroom. Also on the barely living, rotten-through oak, which is covered in cinder fungus; when you look for it, I hadn’t noticed it before so maybe it’s because it is early spring, it is to be found everywhere.

What is this? 

Onwards to Oyster Mushroom 

Onwards, and the logs on the left is where I first spotted King Alfred’s Conk, which is also present right across the wood. Candlesnuff fungus also appears around here. 

Having emerged from the woods, take the path, always a muddy quagmire after rain and for many days afterwards, through the Heather Glade where I inadvertently lifted the tiniest, most delicate Heather bonnet (he thinks) when working there in the glade with Friends of Markstakes. 

Seeing them together, I can see which might be a bonnet, a parasol, or a parachute. 

Then, we head south to visit the wonderful ancient Hornbeam no.22. This was where I saw ‘split gill’ for the first time.

Unless I am mistaken, ‘Split Gill’ comes in many forms, and though there is a colony of it on this fallen branch or stem, I want to take us off to the far south-east edge of the Common, to say ‘hi’ to ancient Hornbeam no.22.

Quoting Pat O’Reilly:

Small, bracket-like, hairy/like wet felt, sometimes tinged purple (the best) as here, but beneath the cap are radial gill-flds, each of which is centrally split. In prolonged dry weather the gills close over the fertile surfaces of the fruiting body. Rehydrating when moistened by rain, which causes the gills to reopen, and exposed to the air, spores are released. Split Gills can survive several such cycles (p.230 Pat O’Reilly)

Double back on the east path, by the boundary, returning north towards the gate… and possibly three types, including jelly brains.

And corals galore… 

Also here: Fool’s Funnel:

Duck into the woods to find a long fallen, moss covered beech, with a dead Hornbeam companion and a younger Hornbeam that has exploited the tree’s demise, where I first spotted and was amazed by Porcelain, but home to others:

Green Elf-cup…

Finally, having doubled back on the path by the smoky bracket and walking towards Notable Oak 13 there is a spot along the left hand side of the path where Amethyst has been found.

And many, many, many more besides: especially the more normal looking ones. 

References and further reading:


Mushrooms. Collins Gem. All you need to know about …

Fascinated by Fungi : Pat O’Reilly

Foraging Pocket Guide: Marlow Renton and Eric Biggane

Mushroom and Toadstools. David Pegler.

Fungi Swatch Book: The Woodland Trust 

Fantastic Fungi : How Mushrooms can heal, shift consciousness & Save the Planet : Editor/Contributor Paul Stamets

From Another Kingdom. The Amazing World of Fungi: Edited by Lynne Boddy and Max Coleman

Fungarium: Curated by Katie Scott and Ester Gaya


Collins Fungi Guide: The Most Complete Field Guide to the Mushrooms & Toadstools of Britain & Ireland: Stefan Buczaki, Chris Shields & Denys Ovenden

Fungi: Bran Spooner and Peter Roberts

Entangled Life. How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures: Merlin Sheldrak

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World: Paul Stamets

Woodlands: Oliver Rackham 


To be added 

MyCoPortal > ​​https://www.mycoportal.org/portal/index.php

Short Slide Presentation > https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1hzI1nktZoUEl7k5aqEjRolplHzGlkh-qEZYLFiChza4/edit?usp=sharing

Extended Slide Presentation > https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1TgUnwjWpdbo3lS5xnFqwxG9K21ld9fLOaRik7B8QS2M/edit?usp=sharing

Life Drawing at Charleston

I’m in the Hay Barn life drawing at least 10 times a year and have possibly done 50 or more of these in the last six years, yet I also pack to go with trepidation, as if I will be doing a tightrope walk across the Grand Canyon and will forget how to keep my balance.

With the restaurant closed we take lunch. As usual I scrape some of last night’s lunch into a tupperware box, add some rice, take some soya milk, decaf: coffee and water.

Materials include: wallpaper backing, A3 sketch pad and a small sketch pad. I also took watercolour pencils, pastels, a large variety of pencils and charcoal. The rest I leave to the organiser Silvea Macrea-Brown: easel, drawing board and clips … and providing a model.

Liz is back

Liz inspired me last summer to move my art into the garden and start producing additional works based on the sketches made during these life drawing sessions. I took a long a display book containing some of my early efforts a printmaking too – featuring her.

There’s a pattern to the session. Arrivals between 9:50 and 10:05am for a 10.00am start. Chairs into a semi-circle, set up, some introductions and small talk: hello Susie, Ken, Charles, Lucinda, Laura etc: hello Silvia. Good to see you again Liz.

I tape three layers of wallpaper backing paper to a drawing board; this is how I start. three, four or five fast sketches on the single sheet just to ‘get my hand it’ – something might come out of it, something bold with a sense of movement and mood, or not.

Just relax. I tell myself. Let go. Follow the advice. Be bold, be fast, use my left hand.

Not wax crayons today, but something more sophisticated: pastels. I soon learn that they don’t have the rigidity of a child’s wax crayon. I break most of the box and get as much pastel onto me as I do the paper. That, and as I get through the sheets I smudge a lot.

I think I’ll go back to wax crayon! I can be more brutal with the movement. And this two tone thing might work better. I can’t see if I got much from this exercise other than warming up my hand/shoulder and brain. I like some of the colour combinations though.

These poses were around 3 minutes each.

For a short spell I used a fancy Japanese biro I got from Lawrences – it behaves more like the Lamy fountain pen I’ve used before. Saves on paper; I get a few drawings per page.

And as I show above, I try drawing with my left hand for a few minutes. Had I stuck with this a little longer it is surprising how quickly the non-dominant hand can pick up where the dominant hand left off. There are advantages to this – it frees up the mind, opens up the subconscious, offers you the unexpected.

I then revert to the larger sheets, each drawing complete in around 2 minutes. My aim is to create something simple and expressive that I can use in larger format, as a print. maybe a mural on a wall. I like to think big. One drawing per page, using, for want of a change, watercolour pencils, sometimes as a pair, rather than sketching with a soft HB or large pieces of charcoal.

The longer poses rarely work for me. I become too fiddly and exact. Perhaps I should be drawing large. I’m not good at slowing it down, even though my taught methodology was the three hour pose with a great deal of measuring and careful, exact placing of the image on the page. Not today, not today. Maybe instead of one 35 pose I should break it into 10 poese, or certainly 6 or 7.

Lunch was before or after these. We take over a large, Arthurian round table in the restaurant for an hour. I spent a good deal of time at talking to Liz about her music, planned travels to the Congo and ways to get more attention for her singing and songwriting.

Afterwards, it is back to the drawing-board – literally.

I took along my Liz Portfolio of chine collée prints I have made over the last two weeks. Silvea liked these and asked for photos. Liz liked them too so I let her pick on. She went for something simple – the blue block of colour over her torso in mid ‘qi-dong’.

Life Drawing at Charleston Farmhouse

A day sketching a life drawing model with coloured pencil, graphite and biro.

Playing the guitar and singing

Something on your “to-do list” that never gets done.

Resolutions since 2016

At least 8 years ago I made these new year resolutions of things to do. One, and they are interlinked, remains stubbornly undone. The guitar stand remains, its handy – the guitar (in its case) is in the shed. If I sing, it is with the guitar.

A life time ago, it feels, in a different place (literally) I sang the way I now walk the dog or visit a wood or take a walk by a river. I suppose.

I still have a swatch of songs, the lyrics and chords, all typed out in 1980 ahead of going off on my gap year which started in early December 1980 working the season in the French ski resort of Val d’Isere. As well as 20 or so pop songs: a lot of Bowie, some Beatles, Cat Steven, Simon and Garfunkel, I have my own songs written when I was 17/18. Happy teen songs, love songs and comical songs (not very good songs!)

I doubt I have sung, except once or twice in church, at a funeral or civic ceremony, for at least 10 years. Come to think of it, the singing stopped around the time I also, finally, stopped swimming. Are the two at all connected?

Will something get me started again? It used to be the case that I’d catch a tune in the radio, find a song street, and if the chords weren’t too onerous I’d give it a go. I should.

Is it having neighbours that has put me off? I’ve not performed for many decades. In my teens and twenties I busked and sand on stage. Or drinking waking that bored the household with calls to stop?

Once upon a time I travelled with a guitar to accompany my singing and a pad of paper and soft pencils to draw. No more. But looking on the bright side there is plenty here that I have done or still do.

I took up life drawing in 2016 and attend at least ten classes a year, initially at Sussex County Arts Club in Brighton, but now with Silvea MacRae Brown at Charleston Farmhouse. I’ve expanded this into large watercolours of the pieces created and since started print making at Bip-Art – I have work, glass, rollers and ink out before me.

Visits to France and learning French have slipped a bit but after a few trails with language Apps I settled on LingVist and have stuck at that for five years taking my vocabulary from 375 to many thousands – 2,500 or more words I know and have stuck from over 5,000 that I have studied. I’ve tired of the platform though and am thinking about a person/video based course picked up from Instagram. Perhaps. Other languages call!

I also got together with other French speakers twice a month in a group called ‘Rendez-Vous à Lewes’ – sadly we lost the habit during Covid-19 lockdowns and the dynamic has gone.

For five years I returned to dinghy sailing, owning a Streaker and competing with Newhaven & Seaford Sailing Club. I went out as crew on offshore boats and even crossed the Atlantic from Grand Canaria to Bermuda via Cape Verde. I sold my Streaker in 2021 and left the sailing club just this month – even though I could from time to time go out on Rescue Bot duties (I have the requisite Power Boat II licence). Other things fill my day – woods mostly! I’m in one most days. Somewhere in East Sussex.

Skiing does happen but has been ruined by a protracted legal battle with Clubhotel Multivacances and timeshares inherited from my late father who died in 2002. The family, five of us, have had to pitch in to pay ever increasing maintenance fees despite the flat being used rarely – and one flat never at all. That and the cost and appalling lack of fitness. Yet I will be in a set slope next weekend and have a month in the Alps planned for January 2024 to mark 30 years of marriage (skiing brought us together and we honeymooned in the Alps).

And then there’s Radio 6 Music. Not on the list but rather an illegible scribble for a song I must have liked. I’m habituated to listening to Cerys Matthews everyday Sunday and got a call out after Jane, my older sister died in April 2022 … and now there’s Craig Charles both are a ‘must listen’, ideally live, otherwise on BBC Sounds and often played two or more times over.

The Cockshut from Source to the Ouse

The Cockshut

Ever since the talk given by Marcus Taylor at the River Festival in September on the Cockshut I’ve been waiting for enough rain to have replenished the aquifer so that I could go on a hunt for its source. I was there yesterday (2 November 2022).

The Cockshut rises below Kingston Ridge on the eastern edge of Kingston village and enters the River Ouse on the other side of the Railway Bridge at the end of Ham Lane behind Lewes Recycling Centre. 

The word ‘Cockshut’, Marcus explained, derives from middle-age English to describe ‘netting used to enclose an area to trap snipe or woodcock’ – suggesting that what was once a large marshy area south of Lewes was used in this way as a ‘cock shute’. He offered some additional possible derivations of the name, but favoured this one. The marshiness and tidal flooding has now long since been managed by culverts and drainage ditches, though persistent heavy rain will still swamp the fields around where the Cockshut runs.

The Cockshut always has water in it, though where, when and even whether it flows is another matter. It rises from a spring, to quote Marcus ‘under a hawthorn bush’ just west of Stanley Turner Recreation Ground in a field on the other side of Spring Barn Farm towards Kingston.

On close inspection you find a hawthorn hedge rather than a bush, with the Cockshut appearing either side of a farm drainage pipe which allows access between fields for animals to two adjoining fields. After heavy rain there is a steady trickle of water under the hedge which runs towards a large busy farmyard. For a hundred yards or so the Cockshut and the hedge are synonymous, until it appears as a narrow stream for 50 yards and then goes through another pipe, again to allow access to the field and runs the length of the farmyard just north of a couple of fishing ponds. 

The Cockshut continues, contained in a straightened ditch or culverted its entire length next going under the Kingston Road now hidden under a dense bed of brambles and nettles or appearing between the low branches of shrubs and trees by the road. With barely any incline the lack of gravity appears to bring it to a halt and you have to wonder how the Cockshut can run at all. Signs point you back and forth along various South Downs Walks, including the Egret’s Way. 

For a stretch by the pedestrian and cycle path it is hidden in a wet ditch, before being culverted for a short stretch to appear along the southern perimeter of Stanley Turner Rugby and Cricket Ground.

Much of  the lower Ouse from here south to Newhaven flooded with tidal water making this entire area south of the A27 to the Ouse a marsh. Drainage ditches now abound and generally do the job and cattle are often on the fields. 

The Cockshut is its most enchanting around the meadow south of Stanley Turner, bordered as it is with mature, mostly pollarded willow and home to swans and moorhens. The Recreation Ground, parking, walks around the sports fields and onto the meadow make it a busy spot for dog walkers.

It also provides panoramic views southwest to the Downs and Kingston Ridge, south east to Firle, east to Mount Caburn and at various points north to Lewes Castle.

Mist fills the hollows in winter and rows of a variety of mature deciduous trees announce the seasons. By chance you will cross the Greenwich Meridian here as you join the Meridian Walk for a matter of a few steps: it runs north through Lewes (Southover, High Street, Landport and beyond) and south to Southease. Don’t let me paint a picture of tranquillity though, as the experience requires acceptance of the noise from the often busy A27 Lewes by-pass. 

The straightened length of the Cockshut that forms the boundary of the Recreation Ground was last cleared in 2013. Since then something of an avenue of willows has grown up through the sludge by the path around the meadow. 

There are Lewes District Council plans for the meadow and Cockshut to reduce the presence of parrot feather which is choking the water, slowing down and preventing flow. It outcompetes native vegetation and blocks light. The idea, once the funding is in place, is to create a wetland habit – to ‘put the wiggles back’ and to include a couple of ponds. These plans were shared in separate talks at the River Summit given by Peter King of the Ouse and Adur Trust, and Matthew Bird of Sussex Wildlife and Lewes District Council – details can be found on their respective websites. 

Planning Application SDNP/21/06027/FUL 6.8ha wetland habitat north of Lewes Brooks, including realignment of the existing Cockshut channel with the current route being infilled with spoil, a new channel created and groundworks creating a series of pools and raised areas. Construction of a bund to the southern boundary of the site. Alterations to access to the site and creation of a circular walk with bridge crossings and some areas of paved footpath. 

South Downs National Park Planning 21 December 2021

We might skip the history of the building of the Lewes bypass (unless others would like to enlighten me) and move on to Southover Sports Club, Ham Lane and the more intriguing 940 year old history of Lewes Priory. 

The Priory, was the First Cluniac priory in England, was built not long after Norman Conquest as part of the Rape of Lewes by William de Warenne who was also responsible for the Castle. Both the Winterbourne and Cockshut, more akin to small tributaries of the Ouse or tidal creeks, flooded with the high tide and gave access to the Priory and to town at the bottom of Watergate Lane, by low draft boats.  

The Cockshut and Winterbourne have flooded six times in 120 years. Persistent heavy rain on an already saturated chalk aquifer combined with a spring tide will do the job. In October 2000 a month’s rain over a couple of days combined with an incoming tide to cause flooding, as in 1911 and 1960. As I write the Environment Agency are completing repairs to the embankment along the Ouse from the A27 into town via the Railway Land, which should provide protection from the river, flooding again – though it won’t stop rain falling across the Downs pooling where it gravitates –  the length of Winterbourne and Cockshut.

The other side of the A27, the Cockshut, straightened with a narrow path alongside it, is little more than a wide, water filled ditch, with a preponderance of parrot feather, dense beds of nettles, and until removed a year ago and burnt, a patch of invasive Japanese knotweed. There is access to Southover, the Priory Ruins and Convent Field and the path offers pretty views of the Castle,, though it is considerably blighted by the traffic that thunders back and forth along the dualled A27 Lewes bypass as it races between the Ashcombe Hollow and Southerham roundabouts. 

Though easily followed via Ham Lane the Cockshut is barely visible and not accessible behind dense overgrowth just north of the Lewes Waste Recycling Centre – its journey ends through a sluice in front of concrete legs of the railway bridge which carries trains between London and Brighton to Eastbourne and beyond via Lewes. It is always covered in assorted graffiti tags and urban art.

By walking under the bridge onto the water meadow you can walk into town along the Ouse into Town to the Railway Land and enjoy views of distinct white chalk of the Cliffe. 

Water is not working and the water companies are entirely to blame – yet they pay out generously to executive and shareholders

Feargal Sharkey – guardian of UK Rivers (and all round cool guy, songster, musician, environmentalist and campaigner)

I guess you missed the ‘lively debate’ on Radio 4 Today this morning on the despicable state of our UK rivers. We learnt about the exploitative behaviour of privatised water companies, paying out £75bn in dividends rather than spending the £60bn required investment to fix leaks, provide adequate water treatments, plan for and build reservoices and even build then operate desalination plants.

There was a gripping six minute exchange in the debating ring that can be the BBC Radio 4 Today programme at its best. If you put Chris Packham, George Monbiot, Bob Geldoff and Ian Paisley in a blender with a pint of rain water from Northern Ireland and a splash of English Chalk River you get the 21st century Feargal Sharkey.

After several sharp rebuffs Sharkey had Mike Keil (Senior Director of Policy, Research and Campaigns at the Consumer Council for Water) agreeing that consumers could not “tolerate water companies that behaved unsustainably and damaged the environment”. Keil started out on a ridiculous PR spin learnt no doubt from nearly seven years working for Severn Trent Water. He selectively quoted ‘the good bits’ from research saying that the “Sector was not failing, customer survey, with basic water service, 91% satisfaction, but, some issues: charges, trust, 

This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve caught Feargal Sharkey at his best –  in full flow taking the UK water companies to task about their appalling treatment (or failure to treat) water they take from our rivers. As a teen I loved the ‘Undertones’, but not all musicians and singers keep at that task for the rest of their lives (Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones excepted). 

None of us should have to tolerate raw sewage in our rivers – but the water companies far from limiting emergency outflows to flood conditions repeatedly, you could see constantly, flout the rules and let raw sewage into rivers – which lines banks and spills out into the sea.

Feargal Sharkey accused the water companies of exploitative and unsustainable practices and called on George Eustice (Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to issue an enforcement order to water companies to comply with a series of exacting orders or face a fine of 10% of their annual turnover. 

Mike Kiel initially sounded like an apologist for the water companies, making a deliberate and frankly ludicrous spin with the line that “Sector was not failing, that customer surveys showed that customers were 91% satisfied with “basic water service” … this is based on research he/they commission and interpret for public consumption. He is hardly an impartial observer being the product of the water industry working for Severn Trent Water for nearly six years. 

Feargal Sharkey was impeccable in his response: extraordinarily reserved by saying that he took “a completely converse view” – a euphemism to me as I would have been rather more blunt and Anglo-Saxon in my response. Well versed in telling the truth to the PR spin, he explained that water companies had experienced “decades of underinvestment and profiteering by water companies”. It has been their “failure and mismanagement” which has brought this crisis upon us. Water companies, he explained, dumped sewage into our rivers for 6 million hours – that’s the sewerage issue, and now we are facing a water shortage. Water companies have given out £72bn extracted in dividends, yet they are saddled with £60bn of debt. To my ears this reads like asset stripping; running the water companies down, paying out maximum dividends, paying executives exorbitant sums and leaving far, far too little for investment in improvements – the very purpose of their existence. Feargal pointed out that between them just three senior water company executives got paid £10m between them.

It has been a catastrophe for rivers, lakes and trout streams, he explained. As a monopoly they can only be held to account by a regulator which is toothless (my words). 

George Eustace, Feragal explains, has been writing  letters to Sunday Papers asking the companies to behave nicely. Rather, he should  (grow some balls – my words) and hold them to account.

Feargal says what we consumers should be making clear, that water “bosses should not be rewarded for failure. That there should be a link between salaries and what they deliver for people and the environment”. This is missing.

The waterworks are “about as Victorian as our roads are Roman. Water companies have a statutory obligation to build, operate and maintain sewage systems capable of effectively dealing with all of the effluent in those systems”, said Sharkey. He went on to explain that OFWAT argues that the water companies have had all of the funding required over the last 30 years to make the funding possible for the improvements that are required. Rather water companies have reduced their spend by over 40% and that is leading to the catastrophe we are now facing both in terms of sewage and water supply. 

Feargal added that “London is now No.9 on a list of the 10 cities most likely to run out of water along with the likes of Cape Town, Jakarta, San Paolo and Mexico City”. We have indeed become a ‘third world country” (my words) – not thanks to the Tories, Thatcher and leaving the EU. 

Water companies have paid out over £72bn in dividends; perhaps they should have spent more of that money on fixing their leakey infrastructure. 

The answer according to Feargal Sharkey is that George Eustace, who has the power to issue an enforcement order, should do so – this is a clear legal instruction to the companies to do exactly what he wants and when he wants it done – any failure to comply with that instruction he then has the power to fine them up to 10% of their annual turnover.

Listen here >

Life Drawing at Charleston with Silvia MacRea Brown

I attend with trepidation. It’s not like singing. Imagine singing and finding for the first half-hour you are out of tune and that on a bad day there will be a lot of duff notes. Or is that just indicative of my lack of experience, that I should be drawing every day. That’s how the college student does it: all day, most days down at the studio. You have to train the connection between the brain and senses, the arm and the page.

Getting ready the night before would help; I don’t. Rather I’m making lunch, looking for paper and deciding how much clobber to take from first thing on the day of the class. I cannot transport my ‘studio’ to Charleston so some choices have to be made. I could turn up with a packed lunch and a smile and be able to enjoy the day: everything is provided, easels, materials, coffee and snacks. All I need is enthusiasm and a willingness to make mistakes, to listen to constructive criticism and to keep having a go.

We aim to start soon after 10.00am. The fifteen minutes before hand easels and boards and large wedges of paper are transported from Silvia’s car.

Setting up in the Charleston Hay Barn – the model’s point of view. (CC BY SA-3.0 J F Vernon 2022)

Charleston is closed to the public on Monday and Tuesdays so we have the place to ourselves – though the office is open and someone comes over to help make sure we have all that we need and the chef comes into the restaurant to order and take deliveries and prepare food.

we used to meet in Charleston Farmhouse itself; not in the studio space used by the Bloomsbury group (that would have been cool), but in a small alcove. That could only take a handful of people. I have no idea at all how I heard about the session; this would be November 2016. I’d been attending sessions in Brighton at the Sussex County Arts Club a few times a week for several months. Did I hear about it from someone there? Did I learn about it on a visit to Charleston? Or pick something up online when I was searching for something in Lewes? I know I was getting fed up of going into Brighton but found the life classes in Lewes were booked up.

There were twelve or perhaps thirteen of us today. I got myself tucked over to one side as out of the way as I could be while still able to get a clear view of the model.

Set up. Blurred as I tried a panoramic image on my phone. That’s my whiteboard on the left hand side. (CC BY SA-3.0 J F Vernon 2022)

The last couple of sessions I’ve taken a large whiteboard; I like the scale. I tape a section of wall paper lining to this with the intention of putting all the initial doodles and sketches together. As the model, it is Ruth today, will move slowly through a series of many short poses I like to try to fit them all onto the one page.

I use Crayola wax crayons; I don’t think wallpaper liner deserves pastels. I would try pastels if I had a large enough piece of cartridge paper – perhaps. Though I have found I can repeat the exercise, ‘copying’ from this sheet to further sheets once I get home.

Ruth Moves – wax crayon on wallpaper liner (CC BY SA-3.0 J F Vernon 2022)

For half an hour it is like being in a library, or better still, like sitting a formal exam. You can sense the concentration. The model moves like Salome in front of Solomon – but in slow motion, a movement that from time to time pauses for a minute. We sketch feverishly; one artist attacks their page as if they are shoveling coal into a coal-hole, most pick away studiously with less vigour.

I make the first mark. I have three complementary crayons: bright green, dark green and black. I work from left to right across the page alternating colours. I then fill in the spaces with small doodles or larger sketches. Afterwards I reflect: next time I will think of the entire sheet as a composition with the model smaller on the back of the sheet creating a timelapse effect (I hope) where I have captured her around the room as she moves.

There is no stage, possibly for the first time to my knowledge. In the past the model has been on this platform under a large window. Once we brought the model into the centre of the barn. This brings the model onto the floor and closer to us. We can draw in the round, she can approach us. Our angle will change without us having to move.

There were then two short static poses: two ten minutes each I think. I should note it down at the time, but I don’t and by lunch time the order in which I have produced multiple sketches on different sheets of paper using different tools is lost to me.

This might have been where we are invited to do a couple of exercises: drawing with the non-dominant hand (in my case my left hand) and drawing from memory – simply not looking at the model (though later in the day she was rather elegantly covered in a translucent piece of chiffon).

We break to give the model a breather, to admire each other’s work, talk about it and share notes and practices. Silvia was keen for us to take a look at ‘I Live Here Now’ by Liza Dimbleby.

It reminds me of how I used to sketch in my teens and twenties, on the beach in France, in the bars in Val d’Isere and even on the chairlifts. And then it died away until recently. Certainly in my teens my mother had encouraged me to have a pad of paper with me all the time and I did.

Chairlift from La Daille, Val d’Isere, January 1991

We drink tea or coffee and eat biscuits. We get some air or disappear into the barn for a bathroom break (an experience in itself as The Charleston Trust invested into new gallery and restaurant space some years ago – all swish with oak and glass around a small courtyard – like the corner of an Oxford college, a small one, like St.Edmund’s.

Round three: more poses, of course, always getting longer and with length a chair. I think it was 30 minutes or so to begin with, followed by an exercise where we draw from memory – only looking at the page. What I find I do is I recall all the problem solving moments, the insights I gained, and the techniques I used at the time to position things, to use negative space, to use the window from and chair … I lack natural insight from knowing my anatomy and underlying skeleton. But I give it a shot – whatever I am invited to try I give it a go and learn something from it, from what works and what does not.

I’m aware of Silvia doing the rounds, commenting, suggesting and helping correct other students/artists. As my mother would do when she was around she appears at my shoulder but I’m unaware of her presence until she speaks. It is like a voice through an earpiece, almost as if your own subconscious is pointing out something you are failing to see: her head is too large and the neck couldn’t support it.

I don’t question this nor fret about the marks I have already on the page, I simply add more, drawing over what was there even if it risks my having what could look like a model with two heads, or a model who had moved her head and I’d caught both positions. I am not here to produce a finished piece, mistakes are necessary and they tell their own story on the page.

Then lunch. I had mixed up various vegetable/plant based casseroles from the fridge with rice – this is ample. I could vanish off to Middle Farm Shop, we have an hour. The cafe at Charleston is closed. Several of us gather around a large round table in the restaurant. Today I get to know Ruth, our model. I have drawn Ruth three or four times now over 8 years; you’d have thought I would have drawn her more often – once or twice a year. I rather think that if we have twelves sessions a year then we generally have as many models, maybe eight with some duplication.

The truth is when you draw you see shapes, negatives space, limbs, tendons, patches of light and dark – not the person. Is this my mistake? There isn’t time to get a likeness of the model. I can do that, but it is an entirely different skill and requires a long pose, or the same pose repeated in order to spend 3 or more hours at it. (Note to self, a regular Saturday or Sunday slot at Sussex County Arts Club would give me this).

Ruth, Coloured charcoal on paper. (CC SA BY-3.0 J F Vernon 2022)

Onwards to a long pose so Ruth lies down. A bench/platform is created from tables with blankets and cushions. We draw on. And once again, as it produced some interesting results and a lot of positive comment we are invited to have a go at drawing this from memory – after Ruth had got up and gone.

Ruth ‘from memory’ in a minute or so. Black drawing pen.

Tea. More looking at what others have done and talking approaches. I asked a lot of questions about adding colour and the problems I’ve been having with watercolour and pastels. Keep it simple. Just two or three colours was the tip I took and will apply once I am home.

And then a warm down of shorter poses to end the day.

I scribbled these onto A4 or A3 sheets in quick succession. There wasn’t the ‘flow’ we had with movement first thing. I kept at it hoping to get the essence of something but wasn’t overly happy with the outcome. I keep everything regardless and will file it away once I get home. Sometimes I see a shape, or a get a feeling for a pose later and have ideas of doing something with it.

Once again we compare drawings, talk tools and technique and eventually depart, a few staying behind to chat and help load the back of Silvia’s car with the easels, drawing boards, materials and paper.

Should disposable BBQs be banned?

Disposable BBQ

It’s been in the back of my mind having found local park benches burnt where I BBQ was placed, as well as ashes tipped against a fence and the sharp grill and foil ineptly stuffed into a litter bin.

Disposable BBQ’s lasting scorching to a park bench (Juggs Lane, Jubilee Gardens, Lewes)

This morning on BBC Radio 4 Broadcasting House there was a short item on banning disposable BBQs ASAP.

Helen Bingham from Keep Britain Today explained that as they reach 400 degrees they cannot be get rid of safely as you cannot pick them up or put them in a bin – ‘An environmental catastrophe”.

National Trust Scotland are calling to have them banned.

Craig Carter, London Fire Brigade said that sales of disposable BBQs should be banned. He is joining a petition set up by Toby Tyler whose 11 year old son Will stepped on the remains of a disposable bbq and was severely burned – so badly that Will needed skin grafts. 

The petition can be found here https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/618664.

The call in the past had been to “enjoy the summer responsibly” is this good enough; it only takes one or two careless or irresponsible users of these BBQs to result in considerable damage – even danger to people, wildlife and infrastructure.

Playing devil’s advocate I thought. Paddy O’Connell wondered if we were being killjoys, that common sense is enough.

From my experience (and occasional use of them down on the pebble beach at Seaford), responsible users douse their disposable BBQ with water before bagging it up to take home. 

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