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Pooh Country and the High Weald

Spring Morning

“Where am I going? I don’t quite know.

Down to the stream where the king-cups grow –

Up to the hill where the pine-trees blow –

Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know.”

from When We Were Young by A.A.Milne

Childhood books Pooh © Deirdre Huston

The High Weald Area of Natural Beauty is rich in history, literary connections and ecological habitats. For Day Walks on the High Weald, I’ve been researching a trail through ‘Pooh Country’, close to where A.A.Milne once lived, but if you can’t wait , Walk 4 in Sussex Walks  crosses ‘Pooh Bridge’, visits Hartfield and meanders along the edge of ‘Five Hundred Acre Wood’ . The wider landscape of the Ashdown Forest and High Weald helped inspire the much-loved collaborative works of A.A.Milne and E.H.Shepard, and, I’m interested in how we are undoubtedly influenced by our store of cultural references when we walk through the landscape.

E.H.Shepard, who was also responsible for illustrating the anthropomorphic figures in The Wind in the Willows, was a prolific painter and, like Milne, sometimes resented the fact that he was so well known for his children’s works but I wonder if they realised the extent to which their words and pictures would shape future generation’s perception of the natural landscape?

Look around the ‘enchanted places’ of the Ashdown Forest.  A wooden bridge over a Wealden stream? Think of Pooh Sticks. An oak tree? Does it have a door? Who might live there? And can Tigger bounce high enough to reach the lowest branch of a Scott’s Pine tree? If we are thinking about the stories,  we might consciously ask ourselves such questions, but Milne gave us much more. To my mind, the stories embody the landscape with a feeling of freedom, encourage us to question the world we live in and suggest we rise to challenges. They underline the importance of community because whether it is an interconnected ecosystem or a group of friends, without support, isolation is bleak. Winnie the Pooh was also one of the first to highlight the importance of honey and the ‘plight’ of the bumble bee!

In landscape photography, sometimes people feel a ‘good’ image is judged by the number of likes and key types of image are popular in online trends: pastel sunsets, blocks of ice on an Icelandic beach, long exposure seascapes and impressionistic ICM images all tend to meet with positive reactions but if we’re not careful, we’ll end up with a narrow view of the landscape. Why not look inside yourself to see what representations of the world you have squirreled away in that cultural store?   How about taking an image of a clump of trees or trying to capture the simplicity of a Wealden stream? The line between the ordinary and the extraordinary is a thin one.

An ordinary stream © Deirdre Huston

 

 

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A Route-tester’s Diversion

‘You refer to ancient documents or ways of life as a way, presumably, of reminding readers that this land has a long history and that our appreciation of it is greatly enhanced if we imagine our ancestors living out their lives on these very fields that we are now walking over. I couldn’t agree more! For example, I read your comment about “this ancient cobbled path” (Waypoint 5) and initially I looked at the mere trodden earth beneath my feet and thought that I must be missing something or that you had indulged in a bit of wishful thinking. Then I saw the occasional small stone appearing above the earth, and then another, then a stretch of them, and the whole thing came alive to me. Suddenly I was back hundreds of years and imagining carts laboriously making their way to market, slipping into ruts, being urged and heaved out of them, men cursing the terrible road … and so on. If the men had lifted their heads, what would they have seen around them? Neat fields? Woodland almost everywhere? Is anything that we see today similar to what they would have seen then? I would like to think so.
The detour continues! There is a poem called “Going, Going” by Philip Larkin in which he laments the way that the England he has always valued and loved is vanishing. It’s perhaps not his greatest poem but there are two lines in it which echo round my head whenever I’m on one of your walks. They are:

“The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs”

Just that – but, my goodness, they capture the essence of what many of us treasure about England. Can I try your patience for a moment longer, just to linger on those words? “The shadows” – yes, England is a land of shadows. England is not Crete or even the south of France with its blinding sun and arid landscapes, beautiful though those can be. England is a land of gentle sun, of dappled sunlight coming though trees down long and twisting lanes. It’s a land of long shadows cast in summer evenings when everything is still. Then there’s that word “meadows”. Larkin doesn’t say “fields” because meadows are gentler, lusher, quieter, less utilitarian. Things are peaceful in meadows. There’s often a suggestion of water in meadows (a stream running by, perhaps) and taller, greener grass (and perhaps flowers too). Finally, the “lanes”. Well, you get the idea by now! I could go on for hours about the beauty and strong emotional pull of our country lanes. As for guildhalls and “carved choirs”, well, they don’t figure in these walks but they are part of what makes England England. These five simple features of England are quite definitely “English” rather than Scottish or anywhere else. Other parts of Britain have their own beauty but it seems to me that Larkin has perfectly caught the quintessence of England in these few words. I keep them in the back of my mind as I walk and I felt they were much in evidence in this walk. Detour over!

Many thanks to Gosta Luthman for testing the Wealden Woods and River Medway route and for giving me permission to share his thoughts on the walk throughA High Weald Meadow © Deirdre HustonA Woodland Glade © Deirdre Huston this blog.

Why Not Join us to Test a Route?

Goodness! Two months since my last blog post and what have I been doing? Family ‘stuff’, hospital visits, 80th birthday celebrations and, of course, plenty of walking! My eldest son and daughter are home from university and they too have run the gauntlet of restless cows and belligerent brambles to join me in stepping out along ancient tracks to reach a destination. They are both far fitter than I am but even for them, walking is an excellent way to further improve fitness and stamina.
I’ve also enjoyed the tranquility of walking alone, observing seasonal changes in our countryside, and the simplicity of ‘being’ in a manner which often eludes us as we weave our way through the technological maze of everyday life.
The upshot is I now have almost 14 circular routes nailed to the page. The unique and  distinct area of the High Weald is becoming a familiar friend: timber-boarded homes and imposing oast houses, sheep farms and wheat crops, pitted woodland, open heath, rolling hills and sandstone outcrops. What are my favourite moments? The stony approach to an ancient culvert in Strawberry Woods, a deer who watches our steady progress or the rugged coves of a little known country park? Only time will tell but I’m glad my adventures are not yet over.
If you would like to join us, I need volunteers to test out my walks. I send you directions and a map then you follow the walk and let me know if you have any problems with the directions. You may want your own Ordnance Survey map for that area, whether in hard copy or on your phone through Ordnance Survey Mapping Online. I have found the GPS on the latter to be invaluable in tackling any navigational problems. If you are interested, please see my next blog post for a small detour by experienced route tester, Gosta Luthman.
Walks Needing Testing

Cadborough Cliff, Tillingham Valley and Rye. 8 miles.

West Hoathly, Ardingly: Water, Water Everywhere. 12.8 miles

Staplefield and the Ouse Valley Viaduct. 10 miles.

Woodland Tranquillity: St Leonard’s Forest. 10 miles

A Cliff and Glen Walk Through Hastings Country Park. 10.6 miles ( Lots of climbing!)

Benendon and the Rural High Weald. 6 miles

Classic High Weald: A Circle from Picturesque Tenterden. 9.5 miles
If you are interested in testing a route, choose one of the above and email me at enquire@deirdrehuston.co.uk. The book is due for publication with Vertebrate Publishing next spring so there’s plenty of time to get out and about but summer is an ideal season to explore the outdoors.

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Dogs and sheep: meet my new best friend, Misty.

We were out walking in sheep country this week. My dog, Saffy, is a well-behaved cocker spaniel but I put her on a lead if we’re in a nature reserve or around farm animals. She knows how to look invisible in a field of cows and does her best not to out-stare sheep and I’d say, as a veteran guidebook researcher, she’s pretty experienced around livestock.

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Like most outdoor dogs, she has moments when the lure of a pheasant or the trail of a rabbit is too hard to resist and she has a doolally five minutes. In nature reserves, there may not be obvious animals or birds but I don’t want her to disturb nesting sites. As a pet owner,  it’s a good idea to be familiar with how your dog’s breeding might affect their behaviour in the countryside: even the friendliest pet can be unpredictable when their natural instincts are aroused and a few cocker spaniels have a tendency to chase cows and sheep so I take no risks. Where she needs to be under close control, I always put her on a lead. If a problem arose in a field of cows, I would drop the lead as a cow is unlikely to chase a person provided they stay calm, and Saffie would certainly reach the nearest exit faster without me, but, in a field of sheep I wouldn’t let go.

Sheep attacks have been on the rise, causing distress not just to the animals but to the farmers, vets and other hikers. Sheep are easily brought down by a dog, which will often injure or even kill it. The owner themselves is often shocked to see their lovable dog behave savagely and horrified to find themselves powerless and unable to stop the slaughter. It’s a year round problem but in spring, sheep are most vulnerable, perhaps pregnant or having just given birth. A dog running loose in a field can cause panic, injury, early labour and fatality for ewes. Nobody wants to be the owner left saying, “But I didn’t think my dog would ever … ”

So, imagine my dilemma when a young border collie appeared in a field of sheep. It must be the farmer’s dog, I thought. A tractor rumbled in a nearby field and the collie looked over her shoulder and lead us towards the next stile on the High Weald Landscape Trail. Saffy, who was on her lead,  and I followed quickly, both thinking it would be a good idea to leave this dog behind. We’ve met our share of protective dogs and this one seemed to be showing us off its property albeit in a good-natured way. I closed the gate quickly but like a magician, Misty popped up on the other side and, with a friendly grin, leapt up to lick my hand. Another field of sheep and, this time, Misty authoritatively jogged off to investigate a few corners. Huddles of sheep jogged out of her way but didn’t seem alarmed. Again, I assumed she was the farm dog.

She followed us beneath stiles and gates, through hedges and over a footbridge. In one field, our trail was unclear but Misty knew the way. Goodness, I thought, this is a big farm.

And then we passed a house and the man looked askance at Misty.

“Isn’t she the farm dog?” I asked.

“She’s from a neighbouring farm,” he answered, “I hope she’s good with sheep.” He hurried away.

Suddenly I felt responsible. We’d almost reached town and I wondered what to do if she kept following us. I couldn’t leave her loose among the sheep and truth be told, once upon a time, I’d quite fancied a border collie as a pet before I discovered their tendencies to herd children, become bored and need oodles of daily work or exercise. Still this dog had a lovely temperament and if she needed a home …

Then, I discovered a collar and tag beneath her ruff and, within minutes, was speaking to the owner who asked if I could stay with Misty until she drove round. She sat beside Saffy but then wandered again and I was relieved when the farmer appeared. He advised me he’d seen the owner walking round and also said he’d observed us walking through his fields earlier and wondered what was going on. His Land Rover boot was packed with his own team of dogs who were off for a swim. Misty was duly reunited with her owner who thanked us: the dog’s friendly nature was something of a problem and she has a tendency to wander.

Saffy looked relieved to see the back of Misty, and as we headed wearily for our car, I had to agree, that perhaps, another dog would be superfluous.

Misty © Deirdre Huston

Why the High Weald – and a new guidebook – beckons.

I am delighted to have been commissioned to research, write and photograph a new book: Day Walks in the High Weald. This is not my first guidebook. It is, in fact, my fifth but like children, each book is no less special and involves a journey. The interesting stuff that goes on behind the scenes in the making of a guidebook happens off the page and this is the journey that I want to share.

Join me in my exploration of Sussex and Kent as I capture images and experiment with photography, as I encounter places and people, and enjoy new experiences with friends and family. Join me too as I learn about the literature of the outdoors. The landscape of the High Weald is ours and awaits discovery.

I write fiction too and have recently graduated from the MA Creative Writing at Bath Spa. The MA has rekindled my desire to learn – about myself and about my place in the outdoors, about how literature and landscape interact and to share my love of the natural world with others in a way which goes beyond the strict confines and word count of the guidebook.

I may have some preliminary knowledge of an area or go out to investigate unfamiliar parts of the High Weald beforehand but my plan is too research each route by myself, write up the directions and capture shots of the landscape. I look forward to some peace and quiet but more than that, to the experience of being alone in the landscape. It is a feeling which is hard to match and which brings home our relationship to this earth.

One of my motivations for wanting to do this guidebook is physical. I love my yoga, Nia dance, cycle loops and daily dog walks but I’m far too comfortable writing at my desk, easily distracted by the lure of the screen and the hum of the fridge. I am also conscious of a hunger to seize the moment. Recent years have forced me to come to terms with the aging of my parents and the inevitable reach of mortality until I now appreciate how my own time here on earth is limited. What better way to banish such shadows than to walk 200 miles, explore new territory and see what adventures I can find?

My ever-faithful assistant and cocker spaniel, Saffie, will be at my side. She sees her role as threefold: she guards the camera bag, chases rabbits in circles and proves to all doubters that there is no such thing as an old dog but will she be a help or a hindrance?

Let’s hope this guidebook will bring much enjoyment but remember, life is often found in the small details and the ordinary, the gaps between the words and the elements beyond the picture. Let us see what we can find.