Monday, 2 February 2015

Mud, mud, mud, mud

It was no accident that in ancient times all the main trackways in Sussex kept to the high chalk ridges, and avoided the lower ground. Even the Romans kept away from the worst that the Weald (that vast clay-filled bowl that lies between the North and South Downs) had to offer.

The land between the Downs was in fact for the most part a dense forest of holly and oak. The oak provided stout timbers for wooden ships, and fuel for ironworks here and there (assisted by water cascading from a series of artificial little lakes called hammer-ponds that are still to be seen). The clay was good for brick-making. But carting iron and bricks any distance would have been a problem until the roads improved, which did not happen until the turnpike era. Until the early nineteenth century, roads were notoriously bad in Sussex, mainly because of the clay soils that turned to swampy mud in the winter. That's why even today most roads meander awkwardly from place to place, connecting the haphazard patches of firmer ground, and rarely go in a direct line. The pull of London has ensured that there are a handful of decent north-south roads, but there are few good ways to travel east-west unless you stick to the coast.

So for centuries the more rural parts of Sussex remained rather isolated, backward, and a refuge for alternative ways of thought and custom. A strange thing so near to London. Subject to the prejudices of landowners and the Anglican Church, it was possible for obscure sects rooted in the agricultural world to thrive in cut-off villages, and old chapels and meeting-places (usually small, some very utilitarian with tin roofs) used to be seen in some abundance. But by the 1980s these sects (such as the Society of Dependants - the Cokelers - see had mostly died out, as they have died out elsewhere, to become just part of Sussex history.

All because of the Sussex mud, that made even local movement slow and messy, and sometimes impossible. In his 1951 sci-fi novel The Day of the Triffids, the author John Wyndham has the hero Bill Masen look out one evening from Shirning, the stoutly-fenced-in farm he had taken over, on a hillside near what was once Pulborough:

I looked across the valley, remembering the well-drained and tended meadows that had been there. Now it was far on the way back to the wild. The neglected fields were dotted with thickets, beds of reeds, and stagnant pools. The bigger trees were slowly drowning in the sodden soil. 

That's how it would indeed be in Sussex, if ever a global disaster killed off most humans, brought civilisation to an end, and the survivors observed nature taking over once more beyond their enclaves of scientifically-cultivated land. Me? I'd have raided a gun shop, taught myself to shoot well (not primarily against humans), and would be ensconced in a large well-defended, well-equipped, and self-sufficient survivor community - one that suited me, and myself them, and had a role for me. No doubt as historian, photographer and archivist, just as Miss Elspeth Cary in The Day of the Triffids chronicled the growth and fightback of the post-disaster community on the Isle of Wight.

I set the scene in this way because yesterday (having mentioned the telephone box at Ebernoe in West Sussex in a recent post) I decided to go for a country walk on Ebernoe Common, which is an extensive tract of woodland and clearings managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. I have their leaflet before me now. It says:

Ebernoe Common is a superb example of a habitat almost completely lost from Sussex - a wood pasture, where cattle are allowed to roam freely within the woodland, feeding in the glades and under the trees...[it is] one of the most important areas of woodland in Britain...a National Nature Reserve, Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation. 

And it goes on to mention the Furnace Pond (local ironworks in the 16th century), the old brickworks (a scheduled ancient monument); the ancient trees, wild flowers, rare fungi and lichens; the sixteen species of tree-roosting bats; the buzzards, butterflies, and beetles. Well, I just wanted a nice walk. And in particular to test out my new black padded coat on a bright but chilly day.

Here is that very coat at home, with my other chosen walking clobber:

The ensemble. Ready to go!

At Ebernoe, I parked close to the telephone box, and walked through to the church, which lies hidden in woods. So the church sign has only a gravel track leading away...

...which you follow until the church appears. There's actually plenty of space to park here, if just wanting a walk on the Common. The church itself dates from 1868, and, far from being rustic, is built of multicoloured brick. It's surrounded by a low brick wall, to exclude small forms of wildlife from the graveyard. Inside it's rather attractive, not exactly the over-ornate interior I expected:

There were no distinctive monuments or tombs in the churchyard, but I noticed, almost hidden in the leaves, this little grave:

Scruffy. A beloved cat, or a small dog? Not very many pets are remembered like this, with a churchyard burial.

I walked on, down to the Furnace Pond. The sun was about to go behind a cloud, but for now it was still glinting on the water:

Almost a secret place in winter. There was nobody about, and I met no-one on my walk. Just as well - soon after, I felt in need of a pee, and had no qualms treading off the path, hanging up my bag on a branch, and squatting bare-bottomed in the woods, with only the wind for company. (No picture this time)

I continued, past a field barricaded against walkers bent on assisting or rescuing the horses within. A vets' notice warned them off. I thought it sounded rather defensive in tone:

In Sussex, horses are of course ubiquitous, and just as important as humans. They drink at the same pubs, and speak in exactly the same way as modern country folk. The vets clearly did not want anyone offering these fine beasts their freedom or a Sunday roast. Hence the barricade. And yet further on the public footpath crossed that very field. The entrance looked very wet and muddy:

But this was nothing. Although the grass inside was, to begin with, firm enough, it degenerated as I approached the far side of the field. I needed to pick my way very carefully. I hoped I could make the far gate before the horses came over. Oh dear! I was seen!

But the horses did not come over, for which I was thankful, because I had problems. The wet ground was becoming a swamp. A real test for my trusty Dubarry boots.

It got worse. How on earth was I going to get out of this field? My poor boots!

When you sink like this, mud suction makes walking very difficult, and without a 'third leg' - a stick or pole - you might lose your balance, stagger, and take a header into the mire. I nearly did, more than once! I seriously thought I'd be ruining my new coat on its first outing. More than that, I had visions of hurting an ankle or getting both feet stuck, and then what? Eventually I did make it to the fence, and, clinging to that, I slowly worked my way towards the gate. I was so glad to gain firm ground on the other side! It felt like a narrow escape from a ghastly death.

My poor, poor Dubarry boots! Surely they were now going to be spoiled for evermore? I was glum. Not a happy lady.

But it was all right. Dipping each foot in the clear water of a ditch easily washed the mud off:

And the boots were genuinely watertight. My feet had stayed warm and dry throughout. I recovered all composure. Here I am, about to drive home, and to follow, the boots once I'd cleaned them with warm water and a cloth at home:

Next time: I'll take a stick along!


  1. The coat and hat looks well together, I have a similar coat but shorter but the collar is forever covered in make up ( I do wear a fair bit ) I must remember to wear a scarf wrapped round like you to keep the collar clean. I would have cryed getting stuck in that mud I'm glad those beautiful boots came clean - leah

  2. Thank you, Leah. I wouldn't wear my Dubarry boots on a long hike, but for a mile or two on a cold but dry day - or even in snow - they are very good. I'd hate them to get spoiled, and I can't now afford to replace them.

    I've only just begun to wear scarves again, after three years of spurning them. I happened to get - quite unexpectedly - two very nice ones for Christmas, and they have both become firm favourites for nippy weather. I wear no makeup except lipstick, so their possible 'save the collar' function hadn't occurred to me!



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