The Start of Something

The other day, I was in a wood so beautiful I almost lost my way.

The water is black, not with shadows but with depth, and a steady flow tumbles over limestone. The sun is low. A bright carpet of yellow caresses the earth and, for a moment, everything is where it needs to be.

Except for one thing. Time.

Untethered and unstoppable.

In this perfect place, the world spins in a kaleidoscope of neon brights. The snap of my shutter. Trip-trap. Almost does it. A kind of peacefulness floats and eddies and swirls in the air. With a sniff, I breathe in a heady sense of freedom but my oxygen, this life-blood, will escape,  even if it is in the form of a long sigh that I try to make endless like the perpetual flow of a stream. If only this feeling of contentment might rest in my hand like a warm smooth stone of reassuring weight then I could tuck it into my pocket, a lucky talisman to carry with me on my journey, whatever might happen, wherever I may go, but is that wanting too much? All around me in this wood there are only leaves, a hundred thousand leaves, and like all the infinite moments of time, they shift like one being into something infinitesimally beyond my reach.

Paths are elusive in the glory of what might be but forced to look for what once was, I feel my way forwards. Beside a footbridge, a mother and daughter stand close, heads tilted towards each other. A smile warms their lips and they listen to my story and hear how I search for a signpost, a three-way signpost. Yes, they say, seemingly unsurprised, and with a guiding hand on my arm, the mother points to a stream on my map. They include me in their nod and see me strike out in a true direction, back over the narrow, rickety footbridge to where I first saw them, mirroring each other’s posture. I wave goodbye, warmed by their happiness.

And then it is my turn. An anxious dog owner spirals in ever-decreasing circles and the ghosts of the path are written in the tightness of her smile: the yell of a labourer, the thud of an axe hitting a tree, the smell of burning charcoal, the sting of smoke. Her eyes smart and when she asks for my help I lift her up in the palm of my hand and I set her high on the banks.

Arrows of light lift fallen leaves. All is bright and held in time. I shall return here to this place where everything is illuminated but for now I must be gone.

WM Blog Mayfield Woods leaf © Deirdre Huston



Writing, Sussex Landscape and the ‘Archaeological Imagination’.

The magic of the Weald © Deirdre Huston-2

This week, I have been thinking about landscape, time and stories. In mist and sunshine, I paced out an eight mile walk around Battle. There, or thereabouts, The Battle of Hastings was fought and today, we look to contemporary sources such as The Bayeux Tapestry and the chronicler, William of Poitiers, to understand what happened. But how else can we make sense out of the past?

When I walk through the natural landscape, I draw a fictional map that transcends time to locate what happened where. Am I trying to pull together juxtaposed fragments to make a cohesive pattern? Perhaps this is where story-telling becomes important because in the simple telling of a narrative structure that has a beginning, middle and end, we make sense of our complex world. Sometimes it’s the small details that matter. With each step up Blackhorse Hill, the weight of my camera bag increased and I wondered how a soldier might feel carrying his weapons up or down a hill. At Crowhurst, I reached out and touched the peeling bark of a yew that experts believe was planted in Saxon times. The tree was hollow and, as a child, I would have imagined climbing inside to travel back in time. I wanted to see things happen for myself and, today, I enjoy writing historical fiction, in which, as a writer, you are trying to witness the past from the viewpoint of a fictional character.

I am writing the introduction to a walk around Burwash, where Rudyard Kipling lived at Batemans. It suited me to wander without having too many set ideas and I knew only that this landscape inspired Kipling. Today, I worked out part of my guidebook route passes the place that inspired Pook’s Hill. In Puck of Pook’s Hill, Kipling creates a magical being, Pook who entertains two children by weaving stories about the past. The elements of landscape and the disjointed nature of time and how we make sense of the past in our story-telling are all wrapped up in the guise of a children’s story. Any walker will recognise an enduring sense of Sussex landscape in his writing.

Here are three stanza’s from ‘Puck’s Song’ by Kipling.

‘See you the dimpled track that runs

All hollow through the wheat?

0 that was where they hauled the guns 

That smote King Philip’s fleet!


(Out of the Weald, the secret Weald,

Men sent in ancient years, 

The horse-shoes red at Flodden Field, 

The arrows at Poitiers!)


See you our little mill that clacks, 

So busy by the brook? 

She has ground her corn and paid her tax 

Ever since Domesday Book.
See you our stilly woods of oak,

And the dread ditch beside? 

0 that was where the Saxons broke,

On the day that Harold died.’
Puck of Pook’s Hill is littered with recognisable elements of our contemporary landscape and I was fascinated to learn more about how Kipling connects Sussex landscape with different points in our history. My research soon turned up the idea of ‘the archaeological imagination’ for ‘This is a past not heard but seen; a past fragmented, tactile, mute, on whose excavated fragments a re-creating imagination must play.’ Donald Mckenzie’s introduction to OXFORD WORLD’S CLASSICS edition of Puck of Pook’s Hill by Donald McKenzie on the Kipling Society website: is well-worth reading if this interests you.