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The Winterbourne from source to the Ouse, Lewes, East Sussex

The Winterbourne is a fascinating seasonal stream cum ditch, often in a culvert which runs through Lewes from a little East of the town out along the A27 Brighton Road to West, entering the River Ouse next to the Linklater Pavilion. Its history and geography were explained in an illustrated talk by Marcus Taylor, who has lived in Lewes since the late 1960s, taught Geography for 35 years and was a trustee of Friends of Lewes for a decade. 

The word ‘Winterbourne’, we learn, describes what is, for much of the year. A dry channel most of the year. It is a stream or brook that is literally ‘born again’ in the winter once the water table has risen high enough –  though it failed for two years in the late 1980s and some years will be late to run, and early to run dry. Living close by for the last 15 years I can record that the Winterbourne has run, even flooded occasionally, though never earlier than December and then sometimes lasting in flow through to early May before drying out completely for the rest of spring, summer and autumn.

The source of the Winterbourne is somewhere west of the Newmarket Inn. The spring is illusive – it is somewhere in a ditch between the A27 and the railway in the lowest lying land that drops down from the Downs north and south. It is only obvious when the water table is high.

Anyone travelling regularly on the A27 will be familiar with flooding between the Ashcombe Roundabout and Newmarket Inn, for short spells these days after intense rainfall (early September 2022) or every five or so years in December after a longer period of rain when the water table has been saturated. 

In the 1960s water flooded the Brighton Road and was photographed flooding off the Downs in a torrent.

From an inauspicious start in a hard-to-find spring, followed by a short section of ditch, the Winterbourne, in short order, somewhere around Ashcombe Hollow, is channelled under the A27 dual-carriageway, the roundabout and Bright to Lewes rail line, only to reappear intermittently (if at all) as a stream or ditch between the Brighton Road into Lewes and Hamsey Riding Stables. It finally emerges from a large drainage pipe or tunnel next to Houndean Allotments.

The banks of the Winterbourne are dark and damp enough to favour ferns. On the right the oh too close A27 dual-carriageway thunders by; at one spot (there must be others unless everything is funneled in through this one spot) the A27 run-off drains into the Winterbourne.

On the opposite side are Houndean Allotments. This year there was some water flow along the higher reaches of the Winterbourne from 17th October.

Onwards under a canopy of leaves in summer you might spot the four strange sculptures before you get to a patch of lawn and Lewes Pigeon fanciers.

Once again, the Winterbourne is channelled under the Brighton to Eastbourne rail line, only to emerge close to the detached houses along Glebe Close, running in a ditch by the road opposite the WInterbourne Stores and over the back garden fences of houses along Winterbourne Close. 

The Winterbourne then runs along Winterbourne Lane, close to the road and verges on its northern bank and abuts to the rear gardens of Winterbourn Close to the south. At the foot of Delaware Road there is a measurement station.

The Winterbourne then runs under Bell Lane and along Winterbourne Mews.

Sadly there is an issue with garden and household waste being dumped over the back of garden fences here and fly tipping from the lane.

This is another stretch of road often prone to flooding with rainwater quickly pooling in the south-westerly corner of Bell Lane Park exactly where there is a pedestrian crossing.

Bell Lane looking north to the Cemetery

The Winterbourne is culverted on two sides by concrete and walls behind the stone or flint walls of the Cemetery on one side and Bell Lane on the other. 

Historically Bell Lane has flooded, turning it into an impromptu lake on one occasion in the late 1960s. There were floods the length of the Winterbourne through to St Pancras Stores and beyond in October 2000, and before that in 1915 and 1911. 

There is another measuring station where the Winterbourne leaves Bell Lane Park where these ia an impressively old pollarded willow bricked into a garden wall.

As it passes through the south of the town the Winterbourne is either culverted or covered. Grills at various places where the Winterbourne enters a tunnel collect flotsam and jetsam and are from time to time cleared by the Environment Agency.

The Winterbourne is culverted for the last stretch of Bell Lane, going under the houses at St. Pancras, emerging for a short section by St Pancras Stores, then disappearing under St Pancras Road. This is site of some historic photographs of flooding at the beginning of the 20th century.

It then passes under The Course, under Southover and Western Roads Schools and sports fields only to re-emerge in Southover Gardens where it is a feature of Grange Gardens.

It then passes out of sight once more …

Where the Winterbourne enters a culvert on the way out of Southover Gardens

… passing under Gardens Street, the houses of Tanners Brook and the old Market, then under the Railway Station and lines to London/Eastbourne only to re-emerge just north of the rail line to Eastbourne, in an area that once included a manor house and formal gardens, the line to Uckfield with numerous sidings – it is now collectively the Lewes Railway Land Wildlife Nature Reserve, which includes the former gardens and pond of Leighside House. 

The Reserve consists of five distinct sections: a wet wood (former Leighhouse Gardens), the Heart of Reeds, the developing meadow created where the railway sidings were most densely packed, the former allotments, the river bank and the water meadow. 

The Winterbourne passes through the former gardens of Leighside House with its restored pond and viewing platform to the north by the entrance from Court Road and then winds its way towards the River Ouse which it enters via a sluice just to the south east of the Linklater Pavilion. 

In March each year grey mullet can sometimes be seen in. a large shole by the spot where the Winterbourne joins the River Ouse.

And so, for now, ends my story of the Winterbourne, which can only be followed by adding stories of these who lived beside it: those keeping horses in the fields alongside the A27, people who have an allotment in Houndean, the pigeon fanciers and sculptor, the dog walkers and runners, those with gardens abutting the Winterbourne, use Bell Lane (recreation ground), living on Rotten Row, St Pancras and the Grange, along to Southover Gardens – its house, cafe, Sussex Arts & Crafts gallery and annual skittles show, to the station and beyond to the stream’s terminus in the Railway Land Nature Reserve with its hub, the history of the old railway sidings and Leighside House and gardens, the Linklater Pavilion and the constant activity it attracts.

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You Can’t Cuddle a Fish

Peter King of the Ouse & Adur Rivers Trust  is an enthusiast for rivers and their landscape, the Adur and Ouse in Sussex in particular. At the River Summit held in the Pavilion as part of the River Festival hosted by the Lewes Railway Land Wildlife Trust and Love Our Ouse. He gave a fascinating talk on the work that is required, the work that has been done and the work that needs to be undertaken to improve the Ouse , to help return some of it to the way it was naturally, centuries ago – before people came along to exploit it, tame it and pollute it. 

Peter King of the Ouse & Adurs Rivers Trust talking at the River Festival, Lewes

“You can’t cuddle a fish”

Part of a display of fish drawings coloured in and annotated by children at the River Festival

“You can’t cuddle a fish”, he said, apologising that trout and eels may not have the appeal of otters or behaviours, but their health is a good indicator of a healthy river system. 

We have made a mess of our rivers across the British Isles over the centuries and the Ouse is no exception.

  • 85% of all UK rivers are failing to achieve a ‘Good Ecological Status’.
  • Only 19% of water bodies are good for fish … 

Human pressures: exploitation, containment, extraction and discharges have all caused problems. There has been an impact on the landscape and ecosystems affecting, resulting in damaging invasive species and the ability of native species to survive.

Peter made a compelling case for our doing far more to address the problems and improve the condition of our rivers. 

Regarding the single issue of discharges, he persuaded us that whilst Southern Water has 123 discharge points, and is clearly responsible for sewage discharge, that there are over 1,200 discharge points in the River Ouse catchment, and that as well as legal trade waste there are too many illegal discharges and therefore an urgent need to review permits.

“Put the wiggles back”

Having gone through the science, indicated the level of detail of surveys, worried us about multiple historic and ongoing problems, Peter also proposed fixes, showed how much has been done, how much more there is to do and tried to end on a positive note. That we can ‘put the wiggles back’, mitigate against flooding, improve habits and ecosystems, work with farmers and other businesses and landowners. 

Lots can be done, he explained, and illustrated some of the initiatives taken from the grandest engineering works to put meanders and pools back where straightening and canalising has occurred and removing locks where the river had been contained to form a lake for shooting ducks, to smaller, more modest improvements like adding logs and gravel to slow the flow, or putting in groynes and branches where sediments can collect. A visit to the higher reaches of the River Ouse downstream from the Ouse Valley Viaduct showed where this kind of work had been undertaken.

Branches pegged into the river bed to create a slight meader and pooling

We can all do our bit too. “The first flush of rain creates 80% of the pollution” – we can slow this run off with rain plainters, or with more space, a rain garden. 

Peter concluded on an upbeat note convincing us that it is not all bad news, there are plenty of stunning bits of the Ouse to enjoy.

He invited us to volunteer with the Ouse & Adur Rivers Trust; tasks include: tree planting and river clean ups, river maintenance, monitoring and much more.

Peter.king@oart.org.uk

Publications

We realised there were gaps in the information available for certain Natural Flood Management techniques and measures. With the help of our partners we have produced a range of nationally available, printed and online materials which will help others to deliver NFM with more confidence. 

These include :-

Focusing on Flow in SussexA Woodland Trust case study and related reading.
Sussex Wildlife Trust > ‘How you can help with flood management

A CaBa case study

Rewilding Britain on How Rewilding Reduces Flood Risk
Rain Garden Planters from East of Eden
Stormwater or ‘SuDS’ Planter

Companion Trees of Markstakes Common

I can’t find much written about so called ‘companion trees’ in the world. We marvel at some of the contorted shapes trunks create as they appear to bounce off each other and imagine the relationship is symbiotic: I’ve come to believe that this is not the case. Whilst horticulturalists and gardeners may speak of ‘companion’ planting, this is not the same as two or more trees or shrubs competing in the wild for light, water, nutrients and a footing.

Oak and Birch ‘companions’ Markstakes Common July 2022

Visiting Markstakes Common often over the last few months I have come to know the area reasonably well and with the aid of a map created by the Friends of Markstakes Common in 2011 I can pick up some, though certainly not all of the 34 ancient trees one or two of which have notable companions.

It would appear that dominant tree survives, more often birch over everything else, with oak and hornbeam in a close second place, followed by birch while holly, though often abundant, becomes leggy or where there is little light simply dies away. To my eyes birch trumps all others, though it depends clearly on which tree gets a 10 or 25 year head start. It is also clear that where both trees are able to survive their ‘companionship’ my last many decades. Of course in depends very much on the context as to which tree may weaken and fail.

For example, this birch and oak, both of which continue to thrive – although the holly tree identified in 2011 has clearly died back and since tried to reestablish itself with little success: it is barely a bush.

Around the wood, on closer examination as many as 1/5th of every mature tree shows some element of companion growth at some time. The overwhelming pattern however is that the companions eventually fail … leaving a hollowing, rotting trunk, or breaking off and falling to the ground.

These ‘messy’ companions and the amount of dead wood littering the woodland floor is a feature of a natural deciduous wood. It is litter that in a warming climate must be distinctly vulnerable to fire especially where a visitor is careless or thoughtless.

Lake Wood, Uckfield – early summer visit

Lake Wood, 12 June 2022

I am still a few months short of visiting Lake Wood across all seasons. My first visit was on 19 October. I wonder if I was making a visit after a busy summer season before a clean up, or after a warm summer weekend as I couldn’t help but note then, as I did today, on the discarded coffee cups (Costa), beer bottles (Budweiser), vodka battles (Stolichnaya), crisp and sweet bags. Since that trip I have been prepared to collect some litter so long as it doesn’t require gloves or anything larger than a large poo bag … I have filled a shopping bag on one occasion, and then again a bin liner.

Solutions to such problems of litter, graffiti, a few fires and frequent abandoned deposits of dog waste are welcome. I rather think it starts with trips to the site with local primary school children on litter picking and other trips so that in the decades to come they want to take care of the place. 

Lake Wood (panorama view) 12 June 2022

But please don’t let me put you off – the litter and graffiti is low-key. I’d like to say it is idyllic, and visually it is indeed a treat for the eyes to enjoy a late 18th century early 19th century landscaped garden in the style of Capability Brown. Idyllic for me, however, requires minimal interfering noise from traffic hurtling along the Uckfield Bypass, or negotiating at speed the chicances – despite poor visibility around Rock Road, which takes up two sides of a triangle – so 2/3rds or more of the perimeter of the wood.

Parking, and especially departing the lay-by here requires nerve as from both directions, both hidden corners, vehicles can emerge at speed and they are never sympathetic to find you pulling out. 

Something needs to be done about noise pollution and behaviours which I struggle to deem ‘anti-social’ so much as ‘lazy’, ‘thoughtless’ and ‘unsympathetic’ – people who can’t be bothered to take their litter home with them having walked in with an energy drink, MacDonald’s milkshake or Wild Bean Coffee. Certainly the take away outlets need to do more to advise and educate their customers – indeed, I think local councils should demand that such outlets as a condition of their licence have clearly visible and well communicated posters regarding litter and the environment. 

Rock Road entrance to The Woodland Trust, Lake Wood

The current signage that relies on a collection of icons that misunderstood or ignored is not the answer. Or use emojis … at least apply a language that is in common use. Actually, I have come to understand that a lot of signage attracts its own problems by providing confusing, multiple messages. Just two would do: take your litter and dog’s shit home. Digital might help.

This is what I made of Lake Wood in March 2022 > https://bit.ly/3xG3v5S 

Lake Wood and The Woodland Trust Mission

Whenever I visit a Woodland Trust wood I go to the Woodland Trust website, read up on it (no matter how many times I have already done this) and download the Management Plan which, as the name suggests, is a dry, practical description of the space, its opportunities and problems and the plans for the immediate 5 years and then 50 years hence. Few of us visit these woods unless as children are likely to care – another good reason to develop interest and love for the woods at the youngest age. I’m thinking age 4 and up – though I can’t see a local nursery, even a primary school, visiting given the health and safety risks of a deep, boggy lake and rocky outcrops, let alone fallen trees and decaying trunks. (Which to my mind age ten sounds like bliss).

Lake Wood, AllTrails 12 June 2022

I would like an illustrated map. The above is what I produce on AllTrails.

Nothing overly revealing if the ancient trees and some habitats need to be protected, rather than advertised to the world, but a map matters for habitats and paths. And here, as in many woods these days, people treat a track/path or ride as a guide or point of reference and eagerly venture off into the woods whatever the time of year, emerging and blossoming plants. 

The Woodland Trust Mission

All management plans open with this statement: 

To realise all the environmental, social and economic benefits woods and trees bring to society, we:

  • Create Woodland – championing the need to hugely increase the UK’s native woodland and trees.
  • Protect Woodland – fighting to defend native woodland, especially irreplaceable ancient woodland and veteran trees; there should be no loss of ancient woodland
  • Restore Woodland – ensuring the sensitive restoration of all damaged ancient woodland and the re-creation of native wooded landscapes.

I’m learning as an elected town councillor for the Green Party (any surprises here?) – that wishing for everything even where there is a conflict of interests, that delivering a generous management plan such as they requires wider collaboration, positive communication and engagement with the very group that is always the issue when it comes to the environment – us! People! 

Lake Wood, Uckfield 

From the Woodland Trust Management plant I read that this is a “3 acre spring-fed lake created from an earth dam”. It includes ‘aramatic outcrops of Cretaceous Ardingly sandstone covered in mosses, lichens and ferns’ – indeed it does, though in places every inch of the stone has been carved into with a knife or chisel so that Gary can declare his love Courtney. 

This is ‘a semi-natural woodland’ – ‘although much of it was extensively modified in the late 18th and early-19th centuries in the style of Capability Brown by the enlargement of the lake and the planting of exotic trees and shrubs’. Indeed. Though Capability Brown couldn’t see 250 years ahead to the space coming into public ownership and the burgeoning time engulfing the garden with the modern essentials the residential dwelling: easy access to the countryside and roads that allow you to drive at the greatest speed possible for that road. 

We learn that “Trees planted at the time included beech, lime, horse chestnut, sycamore, coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and Monterey pine (Pinus radiata)”. I am too early in my woodland journey to be able to identify some of these readily. I have learnt that both mid-winter and mid-summer offer valuable indicators. I am starting to visit woods with a mind to picking out just one tree at a time until I know it. 

Some of the trees sit like giant bonsai on the tops of the stone outcrops overlooking the lake. This, the huge specimen trees, some touching 60 or 70ft I am sure, the twisting hornbeam and the views onto the lake, as well as discovering its steps, tunnel and boat house dug into the stone are all fun. 

We learn that the October 1987 hurricane took down a lot of trees here. Many have been left in situ have well and truly bedded down. Many have produced an abundance of new shoots, or support ‘companion’ trees and shrubs – others will rot down over 100 years or more. 

We learn that ‘​​the northern part of the site is largely overstood mixed coppice of hazel, hornbeam and sweet chestnut with semi-mature birch with oak standards’ – which is also where, if I recall, there is the densest carpet of wood anemones I have seen anywhere. 

Over the next 50+ years

 “Many of the existing over-mature trees will have died or been windblown but another cohort of mature trees will have been recruited as potential veteran trees across the site”. 

Areas with a light tree canopy tend to have a ground flora dominated by coarse species such as bracken and bramble.

There is a Woodland Trust to ‘connect people’ with woods. 

However, I would like to see parts of the woods close to trampling feet, dog mess and littering. I cannot see how any space on the edge of a rapidly growing urban area can otherwise protect its intrinsic value. Volunteers are already involved, so if there isn’t a ‘Friends of Lake Wood’ there needs to be one.

The site has a WT access category A: high usage site, regularly used at all times of year with more than 20 people using one entrance every day. There are 2 pedestrian access points from Rocks Road although parking is very limited.

There is ‘anti-social behaviour including litter, fires, camping, swimming, boating and vandalism. I’ve never seen boating, swimming or boating, though the odd fire is lit – the constant problem is litter. Today’s haul included the usual sinners from takeaway outlets McDonalds, Costa and Subway as well as bottles of drink (beer, Coke, water, milkshakes, a yoghurt) and sundry bits of sweet paper wrapper. Last September or October I filled an entire shopping bag with the remains of a large alcohol and energy drink fuelled picnic. 

Graffiti on a 230 year old birch, Lake Wood, 2022

There’s lasting damage to the trunk of a 230 year birch which now features a large wrap around penis and balls. I think an arborist is required here. Soap and water? Careful picking away the affected bark? A strong detergent or a power hose would surely risk killing the tree? 

The sound of aeroplanes coming into London disturbs the peace frequently enough, though nothing is shocking as the first time (and last time) you sit outside at the The Hurlingham Club and have a 747 jet land on your head … every 7 minutes. 

Noise Abatement

The management plan says that the 19th century sandstone wall will be replaced by a wire fence when it fails. This unfortunately has been done and what is left is a large gap which filters the noise of traffic on the busy raised Rock Road. The ‘Slow’ signs here are ignored – with people stopping in pop-up lay-bys left and right of the road the speed limit ought to be dropped to 30pm and traffic calming measures put in place.

As for the Uckfield-by-pass …

Why should any through traffic be allowed to blight the lives of the local residents? Speeds should be reduced with signage to explain why and better noise screening put in place.

Ash

Markstakes Common : June 2022

I came to Markstakes Common today looking for a noted ‘ancient’ ash which according to the map is hidden away in the north-west corner of the Common close to Furzeley Farm. It took me quite a bit of meandering around as you can see from my AllTrails to find it, not least because there are several other Ash in various stages of growth or decrepitude, with one or many stems in the same area. All no doubt from the original tree?

The 160 year old Ash in Markstakes Common, June 2022

This 3-stemmed ash had a girth of 302cm in 2010, which to my reckoning makes it around 160 years old. 

The Observer Book of Trees

I turned to the Observer’s Book of Trees (written in 1937, revised in the 1960s and reprinted – my copy, in 1972). The language is redolent of Wilfred Ewart who was writing before the First World War I and used references to the Classics. Here we read that the ash is the ‘Venus of the Woods’ for its ‘grace and strength of a goddess’. I don’t see this myself, not hemmed in my brambles, bracken and nettles and unable to view the tree from the cut lawn a few metres away over the boundary.

I have taken to giving the trees I visit regularly names based on their approximate year of germination. Growing since around 1850, and traditionally female, I was thinking I’d call this Ash ‘Victoria’ (the Queen rather than Beckham) – although Victoria covers a reign of several decades) or perhaps ‘Crystal’ as the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace opened in 1851. For now ‘Crystal Ash’ it is.

The Observer reminds the reader that a tree’s character is very much down to its context, that hemmed in by a forest a tree is significantly different to one growing in an open meadow or hedgerow. Weather has an impact too, through its history, notably the significant storm of October 1987 and the more recent storm of some impact in February 2022 – a tree may lose a branch, be tipped off centre or be felled. We now have climate change to content with too: with hotter dry summers in southern England, and storms that are potentially more powerful with greater rainfall. Trees that were pollarded will have many stems if they have since been left. A tree has an impact on everything around it too, potentially starving out plants of light and nutrients or providing support to a bank with very deep roots. 

Ash, according to the Observer ‘was used where iron and steel have long since supplanted it’ (p.95)

As I am still at the start of my journey of recognising and understanding a multitude of trees I take note of its ‘leaflets’, which I read are ‘late to arrive and early to leave’. Initially I thought the ash tree leaves were distinct, only to find there are other quite different trees which might have fewer or more so called ‘leaflets’.  This is when the winter tree with is black leaf-buds is so handy. It also explains I’m sure why the Markstakes survey was done in January 2010, not in spring, summer or early autumn.

I am yet to see any of these trees in summer, having started my visits in autumn. I know I need to look out for distinct flowers and in the case of the Ash, the seeds or ‘keys’ with their singed ‘spinners’. 

I learned from the Observer that the Ash only produces seeds that germinate in its second year, matures at 40+ years, and has a natural span of 200 years. And a bit of history – they were coppiced to make oars, axes and hammer shafts. 

Woodland Visits : When I go down to the woods each day …

I use Waze or Google Maps and check advice from The Woodland TrustFind A Wood‘.

When I visit a wood for the first time I look at the following: parking and signage, nature, variety and age of trees, the varied habitats and undergrowth, a note on birds and animals, as well the amount of human interaction or intervention, from fellow visitors, to historic and current land used. A wood on an urban fringe is used in different ways to an isolated wood or a wood that is popular and frequently visited; being southern England it is difficult to escape noise from air-traffic or roads. I also think about the signage and in some instances proximity to a pub! There are some great woodland walks that have a pub attached, that welcome dogs and don’t mind muddy feet.

I’ll note how easy it was to find in the first and to park. In some cases ‘getting there’ is part of the pleasure as there are some steep banked roads think with woodland plants in spring or with dense, overhanging trees in summer through to autumn.

In some cases it has taken me two or more visits to figure out where best to park, either because the entrance is off a residential street or off a road where there is no immediate parking at all. 

I use AllTrails once we set off. 

I usually have our dog with us so I check if there is any signage about dogs. And depending on ownership, time of year I check any information board regarding keeping to paths, sheep, working in the forest and other matters. Following UK Gov The Country Code appears to be a good idea all round for me.

Then I’m off, intent on following or finding a circuit with no doubling back.

I try to clock the trees, types and age and the flora and fauna depending on the time of year.

I’m not great with birdsong and find it hard enough to spot them to make the connection.

I take pictures constantly, usually relying on my phone but where I want close ups taking a Sony DSLR with a macro lens. 

I take notes in ‘notes’. 

The experience includes what goes on underfoot – so the state of the ground and the presence of boardwalks or bridges: Wellies cover all wet weather and sturdy shoes the rest of the time.

I’ve been using PictureThis to identify plants on the move.

And then I try to sum it up, at first just a few sentences and pictures shared in AllTrails. I would hope to write it up later more fully with reference to a Management Plan, where there is one; they are readily available for all Woodland Trust Woods. 

I love a gill or stream: hereabouts they are often seasonal, shallow and unchallenged – in ancient woodland allowed to flood and dam. I love patches of water too, from small ponds to lakes and reservoirs. These all add to the woodland experience.

As I get to know ‘my’ woods I then return across the seasons, more often in spring as things change rapidly from February through to the end of May – here on the South Downs, with visits to the Low and High Weald. 

Whether or when I write it up follows, starting in a Google Doc, uploading to a WordPress blog then adjusting accordingly with keywords, tags and captioned images. 

Hempstead Wood, East Sussex 

Wood anemones, wild garlic and bluebells at their very best.

Picking my way around the woods of Sussex and having often visited the Woodland Trust Woods around Uckfield: Lake Wood and Views Wood, as well as Buxted Park I thought I’d try others from the handy Woodland Trust ‘Wood Finder’. This is how I found myself driving through ‘old’ Uckfield and out towards the east and Framfield along Sandy Lane. This was mid-April (12th April). I have been back several times since (13th, 28th & 29th April and early May: 1st and 2nd)  – alone, with our dog, with family and friends. There is often no one around; sometimes a solo dog walker. There are stick dens scattered about so clearly kids come here at weekends or holidays. It is a short walk from Uckfield and easily reached by road. 

Location of Hempstead Wood, west of Uckfield (cc OpenStreetMap 2022) 

Leaving Uckfield you soon find yourself on Sandy Lane which is in itself a delight, with steep banks covered in bluebells from mid-April to mid-May and mature trees overhanging the road. If you know someone who has mobility issues who would like to see the woods in spring this is one of several lanes around Sussex which do the job. 

Hempstead Wood is ‘ancient woodland of the low weald’ (Woodland Trust) and would once have formed part of an ancient wood that stretched right across Sussex to Kent. Indeed many place names are indicative of a ‘clearing in the woods’. 

There is parking off Sandy Lane for four cars at most: there is a sign asking that the farm gate is kept clear. 

Hempstead Wood is a private wood. Bikes are not permitted and access for them has been restricted by new fencing. There is a rough track packed with rumble and in places deeply incised by the rain that runs steeply down the east side of the wood; the entrance to the woods propper is via a smart stile on the right some 170 metres down the lane. Signs restate that this is a private wood and asks that people stick to the paths; there is also a sign banning bikes.

In spring there are a number of clear stages in the wood marked at first by  wood anemones followed by wild garlic before it flowers and then by bluebells and before the tree canopy encloses all.  

The wood anemones bloom early to create an ever denser speckled carpet of white and then the flowers disappear quite quickly as leaves appear on the trees. 

Bluebells follow at first forming a dense matting of leaves before the distinctive flowers emerge and stretch a foot or more above ground. 

Bluebell bulbs are easily damaged by trampling by footfall and dogs. This means that they can’t produce enough energy to flower and reproduce in subsequent years. There is a request to stick to the ‘path’ but with multiple paths around the wood these can be hard to define; sadly there are many additional paths being made through the bluebells which could in time cause fragmentation of the colonies.

In mid-April the wild garlic had not flowered.

A week later flower stems with tear-drop-like bulbs emerged, finally opening  into a chandelier of small white flowers at the beginning of May. 

The wild garlic here is extensive and covers the damp banks of a seasonal stream that runs through the wood. There are multiple similar beds of wild garlic in many of the woods I have visited, with leaves appearing as early as 11 February on the High Weald. 

Sadly, there has been some severe cropping with a scythe in patches. 

Whilst Woodland Trust woods permit foraging and guidelines are provided; namely, picking only a few young leaves from any one plant, here in a private wood this ought not to be going on. 

Finding wild garlic on sale in local markets is a worrying trend.

A circuit around Hempstead Wood might take 45 minutes; this can be extended by adding a short walk onto the meadow above the Uckfield rail line then back to Spring Lane. There’s an option here to cross the railway line and head into Buxted Deer Park beyond. 

As well as the wood anemones, bluebells, wild garlic and tree canopy there are a few early purple orchids, cuckoo flowers and primrose. On different trips we have seen a jay and woodpeckers. 

I’ve only seen this sign up in one place, Brede High Wood (early in the season when there were no bluebells to see at all). I rather think these are needed elsewhere otherwise, where they have the resources, owners will fence of the only ‘right of way’, which in some cases can be quite brutal with barbed wire fencing keeping walkes to a single, narrow and well-worn track. 

For all walks I use the App ‘All Trails’ and for plant and tree identification I use ‘PictureThis plant identifier’. 

I only discovered Hempstead Wood in April; most of the woods I visit, Woodland Trust and others around Uckfield, Blackboys, Tunbridge Wells and Hastings I have been visiting since December 2021, some since October. I have therefore had the chance to see them in late summer, autumn, through winter, early and now late spring. Other woods, heaths and parks visited include: Little Foxes Wood, Lake Wood, Views Wood, Moat Wood, Kiln Wood, William’s Wood, Beechwood Mill and Brede High Wood, as well as Buxted Park, Laughton Common Wood, Chailey Common and Markstakes Common. 

Further advice and information

Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland

Natural England – The Countryside Code (link to PDF) 

Forestry Commission – New Forest Fungi Code Q and As

Scottish Natural Heritage – Scottish Wild Mushroom Code

British Mycological Society

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Lake Wood, Rocks Road, Uckfield early Spring

I’ve returned to Lake Wood every month for the last six months of so. This has allowed me to see the area through the changing seasons and weather conditions; wet, dry, cool and cold. There has been no snow this year and little frost.

The plus side to this walk is the landscaped grounds around the lake with its older specimen trees (around 150 years old) and the gradual ‘re-wilding’ thanks to the work of The Woodland Trust. The down side is its popularity at weekends and during holidays, with likely litter and the noise from the busy Uckfield by-pass and Rock’s Road.

In previous posts I’ve referred to the Woodland Trust Management Plan; this is always a great place to start. You are spoilt for detail on what is to be found, the work done to date, then short and long term management plans. Few of us will live the 50 years to see these come to fruition. Who knows what climate change will have done to adjust this planning by then. This year spring has sprung at least a week early. The wood floor has been dense with wood anemone’s for a while.

I use AllTrails religiously, even when I have done the walk several times. This walk took us closer to the A22 and traffic.

The broader views across the lake have changed little over the last few months.

Closer up, in the shallows of the marshy ground, there are signs of Yellow Marsh Marigold and rushes.

The next visit will take me outside the Lake Wood managed area either across the open meadow towards Longwood Gill and Shemanreed Wood or across the A22 to Butcher’s Wood. Sadly, both are likely to suffer from noise pollution from the A22. We’ll see!

Moat Wood in late Autumn 21 November 2021

My first Woodland Trust Wood 10 weeks ago and one I have returned to a few times since; it is a short drive, it offers a short walk with a variety of terrains, parking, a village shop and pub serving Harvey’s Best. Even the drive there is magical as the old Roman Road from Ringmer to Halland is an avenue of orange and red horse chestnuts.

My trip this afternoon was to capture the late sun glowing yellow onto autumn leaves. Arriving at a little before 4 O’clock I nearly missed it as the days are fast shortening and some low cloud on the western horizon cut the sun off early.

Moat Wood and East Hoathly mapped my All Trails

Knowing my way around I aim for the Church car park to take a loop through the church, passed the primary school to the allotments, then into the woods via the remaining conifer stand towards the moat to get the silhouettes of trees and any remaining colour before pushing through the hazel brush onto the road and back into the village.

St .Mary’s Church, East Hoathly

The light is bright across the church but I’m also eager to get down the path to spot the startling orange of the chestnut in the hedgerow by the road into East Hoathly.

Autumn colours on the oak and hedgerow on London Road outside East Hoathly

I’m not suitably confident about my tree silhouettes so already wish I’d gone a lot close to look at the leaves. I am sure to be corrected if I have this wrong.

London Road Oak, East Hoathly

I’m walking our dog Evie who is on her lead; I’ve come off the footpath to get close to the trees so we double back into the woods. I’m struck how much difference a few weeks can make. The difference between the deciduous trees and undergrowth that have mostly lost their leaves and the plantations.

Scots pine plantation planted in 1969 making these mature trees 50 years or so old.

Since 1987, on the back of the October hurricane which took down a lot of the deciduous trees these pines have been thinned, a practice that will continue here, as it does across Woodland Trust woods in order to restore woods to their deciduous native origins.

A Woodland Trust wood is well signposted at the entrances, where there is usually a sturdy gate or style and in the wood itself there are benches dedicated to those who have made a bequest or where a family have left something to the Trust.

A bench dedicated to someone who loved the woods

I return to these benches as a fixed and unchanging reminder of where I am – even if I also have All Trails live to tell me where I am, and now used like a digital compass.

Moat wood has a number of mature oak; the intention is to allow these to mature over the ‘very long term’ (50 years and beyond), with only minimal intervention as trees fall, create a break in the canopy and other mature.

I tend to find myself in the same spot each time I return so can in due course create ‘before and after’ shots between the seasons and show and timeline between spring, summer, autumn and winter. Lack of rain has reduced the moat to a soggy mud.

In other places the soggy flat ground and a strong wind has tipped a few younger trees over; unlike the trees of 1987 which were replaced, these will be allowed to rot or regrow where they are.

My trip this later afternoon ends as it gets dark and a visit to the King’s Head for a pint of Harvey’s best by the fire.

Costells Wood, Scaynes Hill Saturday 20 November 2021

Costells Wood is owned by The Woodland Trust and is a site of so-called ‘ancient semi-natural woodland’ which is made up of ‘wooded heath and gill woodland habitats associated with the High Weald’. ‘Wooded heath’ (I looked it up) is a catch-all term used to describe a kind of landscape in the south of england that is made up of woods, heath, hedgerows and farmland more typical of the 19th century than the 20th while a ‘gill’ is a brook, burn or stream, often ‘deeply’ incised into the soily ground.

In England I rather feel that ‘deep’ here simply means you can’t step over it, though a running jump may do the job. It is deep enough to lose a cow, but perhaps not a skyscraper: this is Sussex after all, not Colorado. 

There are three interconnected ‘ancient woods’ here, Costells, Henfield and another one whose name escapes me. Included are a couple of small ponds and some wooded heath. I used the App All Trails to find my way around, pick out paths and monitor my slow, meandering progress. 

It doesn’t look or feel so ancient – this is not Jurassic Park; the trees are largely under 100 years old, with a lot of younger undergrowth where rhododendron has been cleared or the trees are being coppiced. 

The ‘ancient’ is used technically here to describe woodland that has been constantly used or known as a woodland since the 1600 – but 400 years of woodland use does not mean that any trees are this old. A handful are big enough, I’ve not measured them but would say 250 years is possible. An expert can correct me but I suspect the gale of October 1987 and disease have taken down older trees, whereas woodland management since 1996 when the Woodland Trust took over has seen invasive non-native species, conifers, rhododendron and laurel removed. 

The wood has also been designated an area of wildlife importance. Not living locally I’ve not experienced the wood at night so I would be unaware of this. In any case, the ever present sound of cars on the Lewes Road into Haywards Heath, regular flights overhead in and out of Gatwick and one entire side of the wood made up of a housing estate makes the area far less wild than is required to attract much wildlife. Dogs and walkers take some blame, though their presence is welcome, and I have to wonder what domestic cats get up to here. Where the south of the area is bordered by the busy Lewes Road (A272) , to the north there is a row of power line known as ‘Bunny Walk’ where the land below has been cleared and is cleared regularly to protect the cables – it lived up to its name. 

The entire area and all its paths could be covered in under 2 hours; I’ve made three visits in many months and came here a couple of times ten years ago when my son was playing football for a local club.  It is an isolated patch which risks being hemmed into even further by housing development. The 10 acres to the south is privately owned with a fenced off path through it. It is easily accessed from the village hall car park and blighted by the main road. I rather suspect the recent sale will see three or four very large executive homes appearing on its borders – just like the other such properties on the Lewes Road into Haywards Heath. 

Two large housing developments were built on the other side of the road between 2018 and 2020 which will increase the number of visitors and therefore regular disturbance, presence and impact of domestic pets and litter. 

My walk today took me from the carpark on Scaynes Common down a cul de sac past two grand homes and down an avenue of trees.

The avenue of trees down along the footpath to ‘Bunny Walk’ from Costells Lodge and Silver Birches

It is easier to park in the Scaynes Hill Millennium Village Hall car park and use the entrance off the sports field. The rest of the wood abutting the housing is fenced off with access restricted or banned. 

Quoting the Woodland Trust Management Plan directly I can expect to find ‘oak and occasional ash standards with hazel, birch and hornbeam coppice’ and in spring ‘pockets of ancient semi-natural woodland ground flora such as bluebell and wood anemone’. As well as ‘alder flush woodland’ in the gills, with ‘carpets of mosses and ferns and the occasional and scarce alder buckthorn’. 

‘The most notable stand type is the wooded heath area with open-grown oak, birch and Scots pine with a ground flora of heather, bilberry and bracken’ which the Woodland Trust advise is ‘a scarce habitat in lowland England’.

The ‘understorey species are typically hazel and rowan, with occasional holly and alder buckthorn with a dense layer of mosses, liverworts and ferns carpeting the streamside areas’.

Repeated visits will have me pick things out one by one and in time I should get to know my plant types well; I really need to go on a guided walk with an expert. September to November has so far had me experience late summer, autumn and early winter. There has yet to be a frost; unusually there have been only a couple of spells of heavy rain. The ponds are low, the paths largely dry though wellies are recommended given the many patches of well-trodden mud. 

I removed some litter, the usual culprits: energy drinks, disposable coffee and a take-away … 

A regular visitor to Haywards Heath I will try and make a stop here every month, or at least every other month until I have covered all seasons and weathers. I want to explore Henfield Wood, though a short foray gave me the impression it was made up of a lot of barely penetrable coppiced hazel. I wonder too where the Sussex Ouse Valley Way would take me.

The Sussex Ouse Valley Way using Google Maps

If I am here for long enough I wonder which field, meadow or paddock will be given up to housing. We have to live somewhere, and rather than apartments in town us Brits do love our houses with a tiny patch of front and back garden and a place to park the cars.

References

The Woodland Trust Management Plan for Costells Wood 

Wooded Heaths in the High Weald 

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