Pevensey Levels

The Pevensey Levels are a large area of reclaimed land in Sussex. Over centuries a shallow tidal inlet was progressively drained and turned into farmland. Still today there is an atmosphere of otherworldliness and impermanence about the landscape, which is criss-crossed by large dykes or ditches that drain the soil. There are very few houses beyond a few scattered farms, unusually for Sussex. The main population is made up of cattle and sheep.

Snuck in a couple of Belle Tout Lighthouse on the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters on the way back to Brighton, innit.

Ash

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Another of Britain’s biggest trees, similar in stature to the Oak, is the Ash. Its limbs are straighter, its shoots burst from the parent branch in strangely geometric opposite pairs and its frond-like leaves seem almost alien in this land of broadleaves – almost as though some survivor of a more ancient age still stands among us. Like the Oak it is a large, heavy-limbed tree with deeply fissured bark. In many cultures it is seen as protective and nowhere more so then in Norse mythology where the World Tree Ygdrassil is an Ash tree found on an island in a lake containing the World Serpent. Ygdrassil was so mighty it reached from the depths of the lake to the very heavens, its limbs reaching out over the world it protected and its trunk providing a means of transport between the Nine Worlds with messages borne by a squirrel from the serpent at its base to the eagle high in its crown. The rivers of the world flowed from the antlers of a deer which ate Ygdrassil’s leaves. The Anglo Saxons knew the Vikings as the “Aescling” or Men of Ash.

In British folklore the tree retains its protective qualities. It is often seen as protecting the purity of wells and a spoonful of ash sap would be given to newborn babies to ensure good health. If a child became ill, a cleft would be made in an ash tree and the naked child would be passed through, the cleaving being bound after the event, so as the child healed, the tree healed with it and the two became linked for life.

Ash was one of the most-worked trees in the woodlands of old. Preferring the less acidic soils it grows with enormous vigour, growing quickly and in great proliferation. Indeed it is often seen as something of a pest. Its wood is strong and flexible, giving it a vast range of uses for the woodsman and carpenter alike. Shepherds used it to make their hurdles to contain their sheep, joiners used it to make frames (it was said a joint of ash wood would bear more weight than any other) and its elastic nature made it the first choice for many tool handles, especially for axes; the natural give in the wood absorbing the shock of repeated blows as a tree was cut down or logs split. Wheelwrights prized Ash for use as the fellowes, or rim of the wheel, its forgiving properties allowing it to ride over rough terrain without splitting. Axles were also made from Ash because of this.

The Latin name for Ash is Fraxinus, which means “firelight”, but unlike Oak which was associated with cataclysmic fire from the skies, the fire of the Ash was often a far more domestic affair, it being known to be the best firewood, even to this day. It will burn green or seasoned and burns well for a long time.

In times of war spears and arrow shafts and sometimes even bows were made from Ash. Indeed a poetic Anglo Saxon name for a spear was “aesc”. Both Odin and Thor had spears made of Ash.

Ash was often coppiced and this can continue a tree’s life almost indefinitely, the stools growing to considerable widths. If not coppiced the trees would be left to grow to full maturity before being cut for use in the many ways described above and more. Our ancestors must have been in awe of this most useful of trees and it is possible to imagine how such a tree could become seen as a great protector as in very real ways that’s just what it was.

In 2012 a fungus called Chalara and also known as Ash Dieback was found in the UK for the first time. It had been widely known across Europe since 1992. The fungus causes lesions in the bark, the death of leaves and the reduction of the crown of the tree. Once a tree is infected it is usually fatal, either the tree loses so much of its leaves it is no longer able to photosynthesise, or it is so weakened it can be killed by other pathogens. Already over 90% of Ash trees in Scandinavia have been killed and similar numbers are expected to die in the UK. However, ash grows so rapidly and so freely there are high hopes that even after such a strong attack, tree numbers will eventually recover from naturally resistant stock. Let us hope so. After all, how will the Gods move between the Nine Worlds if Ygdrassil is dead?

Hot Men From History

Look everyone! It’s John of Austria!

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Don Juan de Austria

Now, what’s most extraordinary about this particular beauty, apart from his sartorial choices, is the fact he was an illegitimate son of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The Habsburgs, of course, being the most famous royal practitioners of inbreeding that Europe has ever known. Charles V, it is fair to say, was not a looker. It just goes to show that having children with someone from outside the family for a change can make all the difference. Here’s Charles V and his Habsburg Chin in all its glory.

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Everyone in Europe had that hairdo at the time

Back to John, though and I think we need to talk about his choice of clothing, don’t we? From the waist up, every inch the soldier, but from the waist down, I think it’s fair to say, things take a different turn. For a start, that enormous pink poofy thing he’s got on appears to hide an alarming discrepancy between his hips and his legs. How do they actually connect? I mean, I’m not saying he’s got bad legs, far from it, it’s just that they also appear to be impossible. And aside from that, I’m not sure I’d recommend riding into battle in that get up. Or even sitting on a horse, to be honest. Your top half might be nicely protected against bows and arrows and all that business, but think of the children, for gawd’s sake.

Also, stop banging that cat on the head with that stick, it’s beginning to look cross.

Darwell Wood and Reservoir

The path fell steeply away at my feet as I entered Darwell Wood and I was quickly deep in the quiet, dreaming woodland. I could see on the map that I wasn’t far from the reservoir, but I couldn’t see it. My heart sank a little and I wondered if it would be the same as Weir Wood Reservoir, where only the barest glimpses of the water can be caught from the path and a high fence prevents getting any nearer. The path brought me to the long, gently winding incongruous sight of a covered conveyor belt, running through the trees: there are gypsum mines in these woods and the conveyor stretches for just under 5km between them. Turning away, the footpath drops once again and suddenly, to my delight, I could see the water through the trees. Fighting my way through dense willows, I emerged on the shore. What a beautiful place. I didn’t want to leave, but leave I did and looped back round through the woods to the car.

Ashdown Forest

Ashdown Forest is a former hunting preserve in East Sussex and is now one of the largest areas of open access land in the South East of England. More open heath, riven with winding streams than dense woodland, the “forest” part of its name refers to its status as a hunting ground, from the original Norman French meaning of the word. Having said that, it does have woodland and that’s where I mostly was today.

Oak

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Like a mouldering but still proud old man, Britain’s most famous tree species stands head and shoulders above all others in the national consciousness. The Oak is revered for its strength, its stature and its grizzled, gnarled permanence. From the earliest times, the Oak has been associated with the most powerful gods – with Zeus and Odin – its height – often bringing it in range of lightning strikes – brought it a strong connection with fire, as though its branches, reaching to the skies, were in communion with the very gods themselves. We can only wonder today at how the sight of a mighty Oak erupting in flame as a tempest raged about it must have impressed itself upon the imagination of the people who witnessed it – a people still utterly bound to the natural world, their lives inescapably entwined with the elements. When life and death were so easily at the mercy of these extraordinary forces, we can quite see how these great, powerful trees that stretched into the heavens can have taken on a godlike aura of their own.

Oaks are often known in folklore as the King of the Woods and its myths and personae seem unquestionably male, but in many ways the Oak can also be seen as a mother – a giver of life. No other tree of the British Isles supports such an array of living organisms as the Oak, from mosses and lichens, to insects and other invertebrates to the birds and small mammals that feed on them and ultimately to the higher predators that live on them in turn. Every tree is an ecosystem – a whole world in itself – and that can be no truer of any tree than the vast Oak.

In the 1st Century AD the great Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote of a Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe that he reported was happening in Britain. Mistletoe was revered by the Celtic people who inhabited the islands and their druids; and none more so than that which grew on the Oak tree. With great ceremony the druids would climb the tree, cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle, throw it from the branches and catch it in a white cloak. Two white bulls would be sacrificed and an elixir made from the plant, which was believed to cure infertility and to counter the effects of poison. In ancient times, mistletoe was seen as magical because it remains green throughout the winter and its mere appearance – an alien lurking in the branches of its host – must have given it an air of great mystery and power.

As a mighty Oak ages, it often enters a “stag-headed” phase, where the highest branches die off and the crown of the tree moves down, the transportation within its vascular network thus becoming easier. As this happens, the circumference of the tree increases and its great girth begins to cause problems for the tree as a whole. The bark can no longer contain its bulk and it eventually splits, exposing the wood within to the elements. Soon, water finds its way in and the tree starts to rot. As the interior breaks down, the outer, living part of the tree then grows roots into itself and consumes the decomposing wood within. The heartwood having long-since died, the tree can sacrifice the strength it gives for its continued life. In the end this process leads to the outer part of the tree splitting into a ring of smaller trees but all still growing from the same old roots. In this way an Oak can live for many hundreds of years.

No other tree has been so extensively used in medieval building and in naval construction. The strength for which it was revered became inextricably linked with a vision of a powerful nation protected under its spreading boughs and still today, while protected from over-felling, it is a highly sought-after wood for many purposes, from framing houses, to building furniture and even to warming us as an excellent firewood. In the wheelwright’s workshop, it was used to make the spokes of a wheel, such was its straight, strong grain and its resilience under compression. From common people who were married under the boughs of Oak trees, to the the royals like Elizabeth who received news that she was Queen beneath one and Charles II who hid in one to evade capture as he escaped the country after Worcester, there is no tree that can rival its complete entanglement in the national imagination. This great living godlike plant is a portal both to the heavens and the vastness of the universe and to the tiny worlds of the minute creatures that inhabit its darker recesses. We would do well to retain the reverence our forebears had for this glorious tree.