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Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Down all the days

“The downs! Yes, the downs are there, full sight in your window, in their flowing forms resembling vast pale green waves, wave beyond wave, ‘in fluctuation fixed’; a fine country to walk on in fine weather for all those who regard the mere exercise of walking as sufficient pleasure”.

They are. They are full sight in my window. This is where I live. This is where I work and write. This was how W.H. Hudson described the downlands in his seminal 1910 work A Shepherd’s Life. Hampshire in the UK has its good share of the chalk downs that Hudson so revered and those in the far north of the county are among the best. These downs are part of the much larger North Wessex Downs system scattered across Hampshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire.

The very northern edge of the downs is easily picked out by following the ridge of White Hill above Kingsclere, Watership Down (yes, that Watership Down) and Ladle Hill above Old Burghclere. Here, the downs end steeply and suddenly and you look north into Berkshire, towards Newbury and beyond. Pick up any geological map, old or new, and this ridge is sharply marked out where the light green chalk of the downs ends and the map gives way to the dark browns of the London clays to the north.

Because of their position and their looming presence in the surrounding countryside human history runs deep here. Edward Thomas the Hampshire poet that was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917 and is now commemorated in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey wrote intense and burning prose about the human relationship with the downs. He said of the walls of stone that the mortar was “mixed, as in all true buildings, with human blood. The spirit of the place, all this council of time and Nature and men, enriches the air with a bloom deeper than summer’s blue of distance.”

At Ladle Hill the iron age hill fort stands on the very northwestern brink of the chalk ridgeway and the very deepest historical reasons for its location becomes clear as it looks down to the valley and across to beacon hill and westwards towards Combe Gibbet. The slopes today are bisected by hedgerows but there are places where, if you look in a certain direction you can still catch a vision of the downs before the enclosures; open downland stretching away to vanishing points lost in the folds of the valleys of chalk streams.

For some this landscape, with its grazing pasture is too comfortable, bucolic and pastoral. It doesn’t have the wildness or sharp edges of the fell country, the majesty of the mountains or the endless horizons and promises of the coastal landscape. But at the very top of the downs the exposed hawthorns are curved windward and the combination of landscape, wildlife and the changing seasons that makes this place, this doorstep wilderness, so special. Here the skylark sings in numbers still only dreamt of in other parts of the country and you understand what Edward Thomas was trying to say when he wrote that the skylark ‘…seems to be singing in some keyless chamber of the brain’.

While the now familiar red kite and the ever-present buzzards often patrol the skies during the day, little owl, tawny owl and barn owl, the ghost of the farm, are still here in good numbers, protected by large and well-managed stands of oak, beech and hazel . The hedgerows here are well preserved and are all bustle and purpose in the spring, alive with the sounds and movements of some of our most iconic and yet troubled farmland birds. Of the RSPB’s nineteen priority farmland bird species at least thirteen of them can be found in just this tiny corner of the Downs. Some of these have experienced drastic declines in the last thirty years, up to 90% in the case of the corn bunting. But here, where field margins and hedgerows abound, the familiar fishing-reel zing of the corn bunting and the urgent chatter of the whitethroat can be experienced in all their pristine surround-sound glory.

Even in Winter, where nature is at its most furtive and urgent, the downs hold more surprises. Short eared owls come here to overwinter, bobbing on their balsawood wings above the rank grass at the field margins. Large flocks of winter thrush, redwing and fieldfare pour in and out of the hawthorn trees and hares (another once familiar UK species that has suffered a widespread decline) are stunning against the white of frosted or snowy fields.

Here's to the chalk downs on my doorstep. Where talismanic bird song offers a beacon of how well we can live and work with a landscape that has changed little in the last two hundred years.

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