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.

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.

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



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.