Ditchling Beacon

In the early morning light of a cloudless day, the mist holds the valley and almost overtakes the high chalk downs, dense and dew-soaked. Only at the beacon, does the sun break up the flow into puffy white plumes with landmarks edged, partially exposed and then covered up again in a slow moving burlesque of elegant curves and rounded hills. The deep valleys, unfathomable and neverending.

The heavy beef cattle stand still by the fence and blankly watch the world pass by; others sit and chew the cud in dumb appreciation. On the open access land, the copses of hawthorn Crataegus monogyna and elder Sambucus nigra harbour familiar birds all singing from the bush tops: chaffinch Fringilla coelebs, yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella, blackbird Turdus merula, robin Erithacus rubecula and dunnock Prunella modularis.

Then a woodcock Scolopax rusticola clatters through the sea-green branches and then another; both bolt silently over the scrub-covered slope, wings arched, comfortably plump, away into the mist. There are at least half a dozen that give up their daytime hiding place in the cattle-poached mud and wet grass, presumably having fed on the worms of the heavily grazed downland overnight.

A pair of green woodpeckers Picus viridis work the turf and bounce off on approach; one keeps watch from atop a dead tree in a shelterbelt of old, leggy elder. There is no new growth and it is slowly dwindling as it is all hard-grazed and trampled by livestock. Wrens Troglodytes troglydytes scold and chase each other in the few bramble Rubus fruticosus patches and wood piles of old fencing. Red-legged partridges Alectoris rufa run across the bald field. Starlings Sturnus vulgaris fly up into a huge beech, joining small streams of fieldfares Turdus pilaris and redwings Turdus iliacus, and a magpie Pica pica flicking its long tail; they are a murmuration before the flow down to the turf again.

A buff-tailed bumblebee Bombus terrestris struggles to move in the weak sun and cold in the blowing mist, gives up, buries its head in the turf and stops still. The wall of mist holds until mid-morning and then the rolling downs and the distant lowlands are laid bare; all so much less enticing in plain sight.

A single rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus stays above ground and looks at nothing much; blind and dazed with myxomatosis. The pedestrian traffic trudges the well-trodden, sticky South Downs Way in bright clothes and their conversations carry; theirs is far from the measured, springless walk of a skilled countryman. Little black bags of dog shit are strewn on the footpath or tied to the fence near the road. A gas gun fires two loud rounds that echo and boom on the far valley side. The mood of the morning is soon lost in the tetchy traffic jam of Sunday cars in the small car park and on the narrow road that runs up and over the down.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Adrian says:

    I wonder if those noisome redwings had been dust-bathing in dog shit?

    Evocative memories of the South Downs. Now I remember why I left for the Welsh hills!

    Tread carefully

    1. Steve Parr says:

      Thanks Ade, looking forward to you showing me those Anglesey fens one day soon.

  2. Ade says:


    you might want to check the definition of noisome …

    1. Steve Parr says:

      I did and it is a wonderful error, thanks! I will quietly amend.

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