I have been exploring recently. The balance of where I spend my time has shifted, with less opportunity to walk the familiar areas around my home and the neighbouring farmland, and a greater focus on an area at the northwestern reaches of my patch. Since July of this year I have had a new job, working at a family run plant nursery on the edge of a local village. Stedham is everything you would expect of a West Sussex village. A central green, a primary school with arched windows and a bell, cottages with shy windows and dry logs stored in the porch. The River Rother winds around the northern edge of the village, woodland and heathland wrapping around the south, whilst in between mature trees and gardens are tucked behind hedgerows and stone walls. .
Today our walk started in School Lane, where the winter-naked hawthorn bushes and glossy green ivy opposite the pub were populated with hungry blackbirds picking off the shrivelled berries. A sharp movement caught my eye. A firecrest was working the branches and picking minute insects from the underside of the leaves.
We indulged in our favourite pastime as we walked; piecing together our dream house from the potential properties on offer along the lane.
Squadrons of starlings roved in scouting parties from the golden sycamore of the village green, their chatter sparkling in the chill air.
We took a right turn, past the church, which sits in a commanding position above the main road accompanied by its stony congregation of headstones. A venerable yew tree, containing a hollow womblike space within, wraps its roots around the graves.
Once past the church, Mill Lane bends left, between clipped beach hedges and equestrian fields. At last we reach the property the lane is named after; Stedham Mill. We can only dream of owning a house with such an enrapturing view, although if we were so fortunate, it is likely we would never achieve anything as we wasted hour upon hour just watching the river. The hillside opposite is cloaked with autumn hued trees; countless shades of copper orange with occasional brush strokes of grey or evergreen. An effort has been made to tame the river; a weir stalls it’s progress downstream, releasing the determined water in a rushing torrent to run and skip over rocks and rills beyond the dam. A grey wagtail bobs in to inspect the oxygenated flow, hoping for insects to be flushed from the mid-river vegetation.
Signs informed us that the meadow we entered upon crossing the ford had been planted with wildflowers. I must return in the spring to see whether this unlikely winter-bland sward yields any results. A hazel tree reminds me to not be so sceptical; nature is resilient as shown by the profusion of catkins already well developed and waiting for the cold months to come and pass. The alders that grow on the river banks are also adorned by catkins, these give the trees a distinctive purple haze, darkened by the addition of small cones and damp stems. A spray of pink campion still valiantly attempted to add a splash of summer colour to the scene.
Moorhens paddled in the shadows beneath the overhanging bushes. Small birds, mostly chaffinches, dropped to drink using a partly submerged willow as shelter and steps to bathe. A stained glass patterning of fallen leaves gathered around the stems and branches that broke the rivers slow flow. Goldfinches kept to the tree tops, feeding amongst the alder cones, their tickling songs like diminutive bells ringing as they flit. A female bullfinch issued its plaintive call.
We listened and watched for a kingfisher, hoping for a whistle or flash, but today it was not to be, they must have been fishing another section of their serpentine territory.
As we reach the bridge, having looped back on ourselves, the church bells informed us that it was 11am. Despite their nearness behind the trees, particles of damp in the air and the closed sky muffled and dulled their voice.
We crossed over the river once again and turned right on the New Lipchis Way. The river here is wide, slow and heavily vegetated on each side, giving it something of an air of a ‘wind in the willows’ slumbering backwater. Blackbirds continued to appear, like punctuation at the end of every sentence of steps along the path one would swoop low through the trees, tumble from a holly bush, or shatter the peace with its agitated alarm call. Where overhanging branches have protected the path from recent rains the fallen leaves retain their colour, carpeting the path in a rustling crunching matting of orange. To our left, large grey trunked trees, beeches and oaks, stepped up the hill. Green ferns sprung from where centuries of autumn leaf detritus and emerald cushions of moss had created a soft layer over the sandstone. There must have been many roots of cow parsley hidden below the leaf cover and soil, as tender green fronds were shooting despite it being late November. Our path steadily and gently climbed, a glimpse through the trees on our right showed the river increasingly far below. Eventually we parted company with the river completely, the bridleway we were following runs a new route perpendicular to the river, so that our way and the river’s form two edges of a wide grassed field. A mistle thrush rattled, supposedly foretelling approaching rain.
Mud underfoot commanded attention, before a metal gate, a cobbled winding path, and we emerged onto Iping lane. A soft, easily missed ‘seep-seep’ call identified a small flock of thrushes flying west, as redwings; migrant birds from the far north east. The lane was wearing a profusion of old man’s beard, the fluffy seeds of the wild clematis.