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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

A New Year's Eve Journey: Whitehawk Hill, Woodingdean, Castle Hill, Balsdean, Rottingdean, Ovingdean

On News Year's Eve I wanted to take a solitary walk in the countryside as I wanted to be able to sustain my attention on natural objects, birds, country vistas, and buildings, to still my troubling thoughts about covid-19, as I was feeling particularly anxious as the news seems to be becoming death saturated again. I am never a great fan of New Year's Eve or New Year's Day; the nostalgic refection on the year always feels maudlin and the focus on new resolutions and things being better because the date has changed seems false.

The principle focus of my walk was Caste Hill Nature Reserve and the Balsdean area, as these areas have typically few walkers around, and its geographical features enable you to feel distant form the city; it feels as at times as remote as the Highlands, even though Castle Hill is only a few miles from the houses of Woodingdean. The route was busier than "normal", but by the time I got to the Castle Hill nature reserve I only saw a few other people in it. The countryside is a tonic for me; but I hold no Arcadian illusions of the perfection of the countryside generally or that there exists an idyllic location of unspoiled wilderness; as Poussin knew,

Poussin, Et In Arcadia Ego, "Even in Arcadia, there am I . 1737-38.

Erwin Panofsky suggested that this second version of the subject shifted the focus from a warning about the inevitability of death of the first 1627 version, to a contemplation on the past and a sense of nostalgia. Erwin Panovsky (19655) "Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition". Meaning in the Visual Arts. Doubleday Anchor Books. p. 295-320.

Leaving my house at 10.30: I remembered how he buddleia in our front garden, barren today, was full bumblebees in the summer.

Opposite our house, the footpath sign directs me to follow the path, through Craven Wood and Whitehawk Hill.

Flowers and shrubs from the back gardens of the north side of Rochester Street add colour and pattern to the path.

The patterns of seed heads made wonder if I should take up drawing, but I nver do.

The frost on the leaves at the bottom of the path through Craven Vale seemed to chime with the Zeitgeist.

The steps leading up Whitehawk Hill through Craven Wood are la transition from town to country; each time I climb them I look forward to seeing what Whitehawk Hill will offer.

When the leaves are gone plants reveal their architectural forms.

At the top of the hill nature was decorated.

The fog in the distance.

Metal in the landscape. The Whitehawk Hill TV transmitter with mobile telephony paraphernalia; bringing Christmas television to your houses, and mobile conversations, and texts, and Facebook posts, and Tweets, and WhatsApp messages, and Instagram images, and Google searches to your mobile phone.

The sheep on Whitehawk hill were reintroduced by Brighton and Hove City Council to return the landscape to its historic South Downs short-grassland habitat (created by humans through sheep grazing)

Over the sea from Whitehawk Hill the early morning fog is clearing,

Ice on the path; cracked by a footstep of someone unknown.

A "sheep lookerer" (a livestock volunteer for Brighton and Hove City Council) has cleared the ice off the water trough so the sheep can drink; behind it is one the council's water bowsers, which bring yellow cylinders to the green of council's Downs.

The patterns of ice intrigue me.

A Robbin crosses my path below the racecourse; reminding me that's its Christmas time

I stop to look at how the frost makes the veins in a leaf more visible.

I cross the Race Course

Looking from the path to the Falmer Road, above north Woodingdean, the fog over the downs lingers.

Cows graze, bringing us Bevendean Farm milk.

A Wood Pidgeon vacates his perch aside the path to the Falmer road. The RSPB estimates there are 5,400,000 pairs in the UK. It's familiar cooing call attracted my attention. The loud clatter of its wings when a Wood Pidgeon flies away is a familiar sound on my walks.

This Black-headed Gull (in winter plumage) in a field beside the path to the Falmer Road. According to the RSPB there are 140,000 breeding pairs in the UK, but 2.2 million birds winter in the UK. "Migrant" and "native" Black-headed gulls are indistinguishable. They feed on insects, fish, seeds, worms, scraps, and carrion. This one is eating worms.

This vista captured my imagination when seen through the view funder of my camera on its maximum zoom. The sheep at on the ridge is separated from the background by much more of the valley but appears next to the background down at this magnification. The angle and strength of the sun make the shadows of the trees at the field boundary seem more "real" than the tress themselves.

On the path to the Falmer Road the role of shadow in extending the life of ice is laid bare.

Crossing the Falmer Road I reached the South Downs way path. On the Lewes side of the road a farmer had placed a heard of sheep in a field of root vegetables; they were eating the leaves and some of the tubers. Something spooked the sheep and they all turned in unison, leaving only their bums to photograph.

Turning right (south) from the South Downs Way onto the Castle Hill Nature Reserve path, this "witches broom" was more visible in this leafless winter tree than when I walked this path alone last in Summer. I like having walks that I walk in all seasons; noting the changes brought by seasons is a source of pleasure for me. Witches’ brooms are caused by microorganisms, and are therefore technically a type of gall. It’s thought that witches’ brooms are caused by fungal, viral or bacterial activity, and occasionally insect activity. .. In a witches’ broom, the growth of a lateral bud – the buds that make twigs and side shoots – loses control and causes multiple stems to form in a tangled, disorganised manner. Multiple years of growth is required to create big brooms. The Woodland Trust.

Descending the Valley I noticed gorse in flower; I was surprised by this. When I shared this photo on social media, to check whether this was unseasonal, a friend told me of the old saying "When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season", as species of gorse flower all year. I enjoy walking alone; but I also enjoy discussing things I see with friends.

Lichen; "a combination of two organisms, a green alga or cyanobacterium and an ascomycete fungus, living in a symbiotic relationship" (lumen: The Eukaryotes of Microbiology.)

Animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies. An ancient Chinese scheme of classification, used Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) had used in his essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” (1941), cited by Foucault at the beginning of The Order of Things

In the valley of Castle Hill there was no-one else for much of the time. Being alone in nature is rare - especially as coid-19 has led to people rediscovering the well-being effects of nature. These is something magical about being alone in a beautiful valley and not hearing any traffic sounds nor seeing human habitation. Castle Hill is one of the few places near Brighton where this is possible. It feels an ancient landscape.

I knew this bird was too far away to get a shot, that would make it recognisable, so I focussed on taking photos that captured interesting compositions. Recognising and naming birds is enjoyable, but the aesthetic properties of bird photographs is as interesting as producing images for recognition guides.

Looking down Castle Hill the fields reminded me of colour-field abstract painting.

Mark Rothko. No. 3/No. 13, 1949. Oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art, New York

On the fence in the photo above, just further to the left (East) there was a Stonechat. Stonechats are beautiful. I have only ever observed them on fences, fence wire, or the branches at the top of shrubs.

Further West near the fence I saw a Meadow Pipit. I struggled to identify this bird, but I put a call out on Facebook for help form my bird-loving friends, and this lovely little bird was identified quickly.

The Meadow Pipit was facing a ploughed field, on the other side of the fence, which offered invertebrate snacks for many Black-headed Gulls:

and a feeding opportunity for what is I think a Pied Wagtail.

To the south of the ploughed fields was a field of root vegetables, I think turnips, in which sheep had been placed. The grass really was greener on the other side of it's fences.

Further down the hill, beyond the sheep, Herring Gulls were showing they don't just eat Herrings, they like a tasty worm too; as any Brightonian can tell you from seeing Herring Gulsl stamping on the grass to "fish" for worms.

Sculptural rusty farm machinery from days of the now-deserted Balsdean Village pull walkers back into the past.

Ruined barns, Balsdean. A pastoral gothic remembrance of the now ruined Norton farm.

This tree in Balsdean seemed almost perfect in its form to me. In the knowledgeable realm, the form of the good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty. Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to act sensibly in private or public must see it. Plato, Pamededies.

Near this tree is the plaque commigrating the destroyed church of Balsdean, probably erected between 1121 and 1147.

(This is the only photo in this post not taken by me. It is a photo by Rob Sarjant from his blog Balsdean Church – long man's walking guide to Sussex. The reason I did not take a photo was that there were four people standing round the plaque when I reached it; in these covid-19 times I did not feel it health or socially appropriate to muscle into their space to take a photo of the plaque.)

"Balsdean was a hamlet, which consisted of two farms, Norton and Sutton, more generally known as Norton and Balsdean. By the twentieth century, Norton Farm became uninhabited. However, Balsdean Manor house and two workers' cottages were inhabited until the Second World War, when the population was evacuated and the buildings were used for target practice by Allied artillery. These buildings, including the medieval chapel by then used as a barn, were never rebuilt and the people never returned. The only standing building in the valley now is a derelict post-war barn complex. Norton farm was used as a lunatic asylum (as it was called at the time) in the early nineteenth century. There is a modern farm named after the original Balsdean Farm on the fringe of Rottingdean, and from there most of the ancient farmlands of Balsdean are still worked. Part of the original sheepdown is now protected by the Castle Hill Site of Special Scientific Interest. Much of the former sheepdown, however, is now the site of the Brighton suburb of Woodingdean, the building of which started around 1918". Balsdean, Wikipedia, accessed 02/01/20

"But nothing is wholly lost". Pete Acroyd (2002). London: The Biography.

Balsdean's landscape, like Sinclair's London, feels to me like "a sign-system of accretions, a palimpsest" (1); when I walk through it my curiosity is piqued and I wonder what the lives of the famers, "lunatics" and artillery soldiers were like

This fallen tree trunk was still frosty at 14.50. News Years Eve was a very frosty day.

Walking from Balsdean up the unmetalled road that become Bazehill Road, rising above the 1937 Water Pumping Station, in the view toward Pickers Hill, long shadows formed.

Further in the distance, I saw geometrically ploughed fields, through the viewfinder of my camera on zoom

On the path which turns off the Bazehill track, just as the brow of the hill is reached there is a path leading to the back of Saltdean; on it lumps of frosty chalk shine in the twilight sun.

Walking down the Whiteway Lane (which is a path at that point) to Rottingdean, the Beacon Hill windmill was silhouetted in the low sun of the late afternoon.

From Rottingdean I walking along the Undercliff path to the Marina as the sun began to set.

I spotted a graffito near the Marina, seemingly by a local Picasso.

After the Marina I walked through the streets on Kemptown to my home. I walked past the Pride Cabaret, on the corner of Paston Place and St George's Road, built as a Mausoleum for the Sassoon family in 1892, in which Sir Albert Sassoon and other members of his family were interred; and St George's Church, corner of St George's Road and Abbey Road, designed by Charles Busby, and built between 1801 and 1830. During the 1830s. Queen Adelaide used the church as her Chapel Royal on Sunday afternoons, but insisted that a separate high-up Fishermen's Gallery be built so that their fishy smell was far away from her.

At the bottom of my road, Sutherland Road, running along Eastern Road, is Brighton College. The main buildings are in the gothic revival style by Sir George Gilbert Scott RA (flint with Caen stone dressings, 1848–66).; the tower was left unfinished and was only completed a few years ago. Sutherland Road starts at Brighton College and ends, 800 meters further north from Brighton College, where it becomes Queensway, where the Craven Vale estate is situated. For an upper 6th weekly boarder, Brighton College costs £41,970 a year. In the Crave Vale estate, 42% of children live in poverty (according to CPAG statistics), and many families are currently reliant on Food Bank parcels to survive.

(1) Brian Baker, ‘Maps of the London Underground: Iain Sinclair and Michael Moorcock’s psychogeography of the city’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 1 Number 1 (March 2003). Online at Accessed on 02/01/2020.



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