The South Downs in June! The turf swarms with flowers of all kinds, many a time I have walked along the escarpment on languid summer days where all one can see is the blue sky and the green grass dotted with colour and all one can hear is the buzz and hum of insects and all one can smell is the rich, sleepy scent of hot grass and clouds of pollen. On this walk it was an entirely different, yet not unpleasant experience.
A bank of low, uniform grey cloud slowly and lazily sank out of the sky and brushed its belly along the ground, bejeweling everything it touched with beads of microscopic dew. This fine mist-like precipitation was so fine it barely registered on my skins nerve-endings and my coat was unnecessary; up ahead the cloud was engaged in an intimate embrace with the smooth ridge of the downs. Not quite the summers walk I had anticipated.
After a long climb I emerged from the dank copse that grew up the northern slope and walked out onto the chalk grassland that the downs are famous for. I was stood a few hundred metres from the peak of Wolstonbury hill, an ancient fort overlooking the small town of Hassocks, all that is left of this fort is a shallow ring of bank and ditch. Despite being within a damp cloud suffering from vertigo Skylarks were fluttering across the slope calling from mounds or rising vertically as though on strings to scatter from a great height their perfect, liquid notes and phrases. Meadow Pipits did the same with their rapid trills that burst forth as the little birds glided slowly down on spread wings.
This cloud made for an interesting and different walk; I am used to staring up or into trees and bushes for birds or gazing at the view, now there was nothing but blankness in all directions but down. With my eyes having nothing else to look at but the ground and with all sound muffled by water vapour it was like walking in a shrunken world, a world where there was only the meadow, filled with flowers all dripping with cloud-juice.
Under my feet the meadow was alive; hundreds of round tuffets were scattered across the slope, each a city constructed by golden ants, these ants are the guardians of this floral world, eating plant-munching larvae, aerating the soil and pollinating the flowers. The thing with wildflower grasslands on the south downs is their density of plant species; 30 or 40 species per square metre is average with some sites topping 50. Not all were in flower on this walk but there were plenty to be getting on with and one thing that struck me was how many of them were yellow. The whole northern slope of Wolstonbury hill was glowing a vibrant golden yellow, looking closely revealed more colours and that the yellow was from more than one species.
Kidney Vetch, Bird’s-foot trefoil, Hawkweed, Agrimony, Yellow-wort, Ladies-Bedstraw, Black Medic – all wonderfully named flowers that contributed to the yellow haze on this hill, then there were others. Foaming patches of Dropwort, bunches of Dyer’s Greenweed, spikes of Yellow-rattle, low-growing clumps of Wild Thyme, the evocative perfume of Marjoram, a stand of melancholy crimson Hound’s-Tongue and delicate white fronds of Hedge Bedstraw.
Then there were the Orchids, hundreds of Common Spotted orchids of various shades from white to hot pink were growing randomly across the sward. Wherever I walked I would come across more, singly or in groups, their tall proud flower spikes standing regally above the other flowers. There is something special about orchids, even the common ones, they have a grace and beauty and uniqueness about them which elevates them above other flora. I found other species too; in the dark muddy wood I found Common Twayblade, a green-flowered oddity that looks rarer than it is, on the slopes of the hill hidden among the spotted orchids were a few treasures. A lone Pyramidal Orchid perched on a steep bank, graced by a picture-winged fly, then a few very delicate looking pale-pink Fragrant Orchids.
As I left the hill and wandered back along the track towards the train station the stubborn cloud finally decided to return to its lofty origins, the misty-drizzle cleared and the air grew brighter and warmer, a view over the wield suddenly materialised. I was not sure whether to be amused or irritated by this irony but decided that I had still had a great experience and one a little different from usual.