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Cuckoos, Woods and Earthworks

Chase Wood
Chase Wood.

It was so good to get away. I’d been in Brighton a bit too long and unable to break free of it because of the lockdown restrictions on travel. Last week we drove to Dorset and spent three nights in a lovely, spacious artist’s studio in an area of rolling hills, earthworks and rookeries. The birdsong was amazing. Two chilly mornings I stumbled out of my dreams at 5.40am on to the frosted grass of the garden to record the dawn chorus:

Chaffinches, blackbirds, robins, a pheasant, rooks – we were beneath a rookery. I’ve wondered what it must be like to sleep beneath a rookery ever since I read about Roger Deakin sleeping out in Wildwood. Rooks do quieten down at night.

We watched the moon waxing, becoming bolder in its silence with each passing night as it loomed towards full; a pink supermoon, a blossoming planet. Now it’s time has passed and it’s waning once again.

One morning I set off alone up Pentridge Hill above the village. ‘Pentridge’ means Hill of the Wild Boar; from pen for hill and twrch for boar in the old Celtic language of Britain.

Pentridge Hill
Approaching Pentridge Hill. From the top there are sweeping views of farmland and woods with the occasional brilliant yellow triangle of oilseed rape.

The wind had a distinct chill that made my eyes stream. Far off in the pines ahead of me I heard a cuckoo. It seemed to beckon, so I followed. I followed it to the western edge of the copse of trees, through gorse and bracken. I scanned the tree branches all around. Cuckoo, cuckoo now came from a tree along the southern edge. I followed the call up, along, over and through, weak sunshine sending out long, shape-shifting shadows.

Pentridge Hill
Spring morning shadows on Pentridge Hill

It was close by but I couldn’t see it. With the wind blowing and the light wavering through the branches, the call of the cuckoo now haunted me from the east. When I walked to the east of the hill it sounded from another copse of trees, far away. The elusive bird!

They say the call of the cuskoo means spring is on its way. For some, hearing the cuckoo for the first time in the year is a sign of increasing wealth, especially if you turn some coins in your pocket. ( I didn’t have any coins in my pocket, only a mangled feather.) For others it is a more omenous sign of impending storms, hunger or death. Apparently the 28th April is known as ‘cuckoo day’ in Cornwall. There seem to be plenty of other ‘cuckoo days’ too.

Pentridge Hill was the site of ancient Mesolithic and Neolithic settlements. There is so much evidence of ancient people in the whole area of Cranborne Chase – long barrows, tumuli, a cursus, Roman roads and dykes. We had some fascinating conversations with the studio owner, who told us about the local archaeology and archaeologists in the area. While out walking she said she’d found a Neolithic flint axe head. Treasure indeed!

The studio and garden are full of artistic touches – life drawings, paintings and sculpted heads. The owner kindly gave me a roe buck skull to add to my collection and for me to draw. I made a few other natural finds.

We went for walks in Garston Wood, a RSPB nature reserve known for its marsh tits and spotted flycatchers. We heard coal tits calling, sounding like squeesy bottles. We then walked on to Chase Wood.

The next day we visited nearby Martin Down Nature Reserve with its strange humps and scrubby down, its skylarks and wheatears with their flashing white rumps. It felt ancient, but I couldn’t really put my finger on why. Perhaps it was its old, worn, threadbare carpet look. We walked a little way along Bokerly Dyke and tried to locate Grim’s Ditch, a prehistoric earthwork, but only found an area of grass a slightly different shade of green to indicate where it could have been.

I’m now thinking about the land above and below, its folds and seams, its hidden treasures, its deep past, its future, it’s bones.

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Woodland Dawn Chorus

For a book I’m writing I wanted to experience the dawn chorus in both the city and the countryside. In February I sat on my balcony and listened to the city birds waking up the day. Now it’s April, I chose to get up before sunrise yesterday morning and visit Butcher’s Wood on the outskirts of Hassocks with my partner Kevin.

We set off at 5.45am in the mists and when we arrived we parked in a suburban road of bungalows, cherry blossom and magnolia trees – all now in bloom. The sky was lightening rapidly as we made our way along the railway line footpath to the wood.

The woodland floor is now carpeted with wood anenomes beneath oaks, birches, coppiced hazels and hornbeam trees. I noticed lesser celandine, bluebells just coming up and dog violets too. The wood was already alive with song and the sun was yet to rise.

Butcher's Wood
Wood Anenmes in Butcher’s Wood.

I recorded birdsong along with the passing trains heading into Brighton or up to London. I expect the birds sing more loudly here as they have to compete with this extra noise.

On the audio you can hear a persistant nuthatch, a wren, a chiff chaff, blue tit, great tit and a train passing.

I love the shapes of silhouetted trees with their bare, zig-zag branches against the eggshell blue and salmon sky; some birches bore misty crowns of newly emerging leaves and the hazel understory was yellow-furred with drooping catkins.

Sunrise in Butcher's Wood
Sunrise in Butcher’s Wood

We wandered into a field edged with blossoming blackthorn and blanketed in a milky fleece of mist. It felt colder than inside the wood so we retreated back into the trees.

Misty Field at Sunrise
Misty Field at Sunrise

A while ago I was searching for images of papercuts and came across one I like very much called “Night Gathering” by Ed Pien. There’s something quietly mysterious about the indistinct figures in the lattice of branches. What are they gathering for at night? Why in the trees? Are they children? The figures merge with the tree. It’s an amazing work of art.

Night Gathering by Ed Pien
Night Gathering papercut by Ed Pien

According to his website, “Pien is not entirely sure what it is about trees that allure him and why they are recurring motifs in his cuts, but they speak to him of childhood adventure, of birth and death, and of fear and the unknown.”

My own art adventures with trees and forests continue with more altered books and box frames. Trees, woods and forests mean a lot to me. Within a wood my imagination can branch and grow. In a forest I feel protected in a complex web of secrets I wish to fathom. So often I have a longing for a secret place, a shadey forest retreat beneath the arms of a towering oak, or simply a forest in my mind.

Here is ‘Through the Forest’, which is currently on sale in my Etsy Shop. I hint at fairy tales with this altered book.

Through the Forest Altered Book
Through the Forest Altered Book
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