If you knew the Weald of Sussex only from looking at its place on a map of England, you would never guess what it was. Squeezed between the outskirts of London to the north and the rim of coastal towns to the south, heavily crossed by trunk roads and railways, with some sizable towns within it, plus a giant international airport, what would it look like but a slab of post-industrial suburbia, a place whose deeper meanings were hidden under a busy, scarred, modern, utilitarian surface?
Even when you drive through it, met at every turn with the signboards that line the main roads, you would not get to feel what it was. No, there is only one way and that is on foot, away from traffic and its noise, allowing quietness and a sense of the past to come seeping up out of the ground beside you.
Choose one of the many hidden and sunken lanes that crisscross this damp and tree-thick country. Any large-scale map will suggest them but choose one that sinks down into an unvisited valley. Immediately the place closes over you. Often the clay walls of the lane are moss-lined, in spring wallpapered with primroses and wood anemones, pushing down through the bluebells and woodspurge, coming down to a little tree-roofed stream that is creased into the clays and sandstones of the country.
Much of that deep, damp, wooded lowland of the Weald is almost abandoned now, the coppiced hazels, hornbeams, and ashes neglected for decades so that each stem from their ancient stools is now a full-grown forest tree, which here and there has crashed out in winter gales to lie horizontal among its neighbors.
These woods – and this is the most wooded part of England – grow steadily darker as the summer thickens, and that beautiful concealed cool of midsummer shade is what Rudyard Kipling loved in the valley of the river Dudwell near Burwash where he lived:
Even on the shaded water the air was hot and heavy with drowsy scents, while outside, through breaks in the trees, the sunshine burned the pasture like fire.…
The trees closing overhead made long tunnels through which the sunshine worked in blobs and patches. Down in the tunnels were bars of sand and gravel, old roots and trunks covered with moss or painted red by the irony water; foxgloves growing lean and pale towards the light; clumps of fern and thirsty shy flowers who could not live away from moisture and shade.
Kipling came here after an adventurous life in India, America, and South Africa, looking for a place in which he could exchange vast imperial distances for something narrower, deeper, and older, a swapping of the giant horizon for the deep well of ancientness. He could not have chosen better.
I do not know of a landscape that is so full of the suggestions of the past. This may be because modernity has abandoned so much of it, allowing the woods to return to a wildness they have probably not had since the Dark Ages, leaving the old handmade structures to moulder – not only the lanes, but the woodbanks that once protected the young trees from the deer, the coppice stools themselves, the interfolding of field and wood, the remote abandoned ponds once dammed for ironworks, the pits where the farmers dug down for the limy marl to sweeten their acid soils.
I first came to live here thirty years ago, on the run from London and looking for a refuge, a place where my wife, Sarah, and I could make a life. We found a small, run-down dairy farm, out in the rather rough country on the borders of Brightling and Burwash. It was called Perch Hill, meaning stick, or pole, hill – the high clay soils of the fields were good for growing little but the coppiced trees. It was the best decision of my life: the poverty of the farm had preserved most of its essential forms, its woods and fields. All we had to do was strip out the concrete and corrugated iron, put back some of the hedges, plant some trees, and find a rich and precious place gathering around us.
It is in large part a deserted country. Mechanization and the dominance of distant markets mean that it no longer needs to be occupied as it was when this landscape was made, in the great surge of population in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the weather was better, there was no frost in May, and the people here were pushing out even into the marginal land that the Weald has always represented.
You would have to go to an equally poor, undeveloped, and still handmade country such as the valleys of eastern Transylvania to find an atmosphere alive today that in any way resembled the historic Weald. I had read about the wonderful Transylvanian meadows, not yet destroyed with herbicide or too much nitrogen fertilizer, and so one spring went with Sarah to look for the flowers. What I hadn’t expected was to find a country that was inhabited in ways that suddenly struck all kinds of echoes with what must once have been life in the Sussex Weald. The forms are strangely the same – wooden farmsteads, hedged fields, the cultivation of the meadow, a place of cattle, the well-used forest – but the most surprising part of Transylvania for a Sussex man is just how busy it is in every corner: in early spring, when the snow has gone, the whole world around you there is filled with people plowing, hoeing, axing out the dead wood from the pollards, leveling molehills, cutting bean sticks, planting beans, raking old leaves, putting out dung. Women walk at the heads of the horses, the men behind with the plows. Pastures are scoured with ox-drawn dredges, plowlands broken up with horse-drawn harrows. The final cartloads of the previous summer’s hay, which have been standing all winter in stacks out on the meadows, are being taken back to the barns before the cattle are let out onto the spring grazing. The only sound on the road is the oiled creak of the cart axles as they pass. No day is more wonderfully spent than in loading hay onto one of those carts, riding it home to the barn, and forking it up into its summer shelter.
Once seen, smelled, and heard, that thickly peopled world starts to make sense of the Wealden net of lanes and woods and narrow shaws, the strips of often coppiced trees that divide the fields. No machine was involved in the shaping of this. All tools were hand tools, all work handwork. Only the mills – like the ancient creaking structure at Bateman’s that still grinds corn with the power of the Dudwell that is led to it in long shallow leats – were not driven by muscle power, animal or human.
The key ingredient was handwork. The Weald, whose beauty consists in its having been handmade, still bears the memory in its bones as a place of deep poverty and hard labor. Try digging a posthole in the clay or even burying a pet or a dead lamb in the corner of a field and you soon know how intractable the land is: the deep Wealden lanes were mostly impassable all winter, or would have needed a team of oxen to drag a wagon through their clag, and hardly a day of sunshine passes before that stolid stickiness transmutes into an equally unaddressable concrete. No one who could have chosen to farm elsewhere would have opted for these difficulties.
Everyone was subject to the tyranny of work. One ancient parishioner in Burwash in the 1850s described her life as a girl at the end of the eighteenth century:
When I was sixteen years old I was had out, like a cow, to the market, and any farmer who wanted a servant come and choosed one. [In the farm where she went to work at Wadhurst] I’d churning twice a week, and cheesing twice a week, and brewing twice a week, beside washing and baking; and six cows to milk every night and morning, and sometimes a dozen pigs to feed. There were four men lived in the house, and I’d all the bilin’ to do – the cabbage and the peas and the pork for their dinners, besides all the beds to make.
She was paid a shilling and sixpence a week and at times would begin work at four in the morning, ending at midnight.
Intractability and the need for intense, body-wracking work created this landscape of interlinked privacies, a part of the world honeycombed with human life, the shaws planted with hornbeam, for its strength and its ability to make the best of hot-burning charcoal; ash for the all-important lightness for the handles of rakes or scythes; oak for everlasting robustness, to make the thatched houses, barns, and byres of which each separate farmstead consisted. Historically, fields were tiny, often no more than one or two acres. And farms were equivalently small, often no more than twenty or thirty acres, with a few cows, some pigs, and chickens. Oxen were the draft animals of choice, but this was farming on the scale of gardening.
Some acres were sown with wheat or oats, but the two great living products of the Weald were timber and hay. Much as in Transylvania now, it was a world that needed wood for its structures – not only the buildings but the fences around gardens and cattle yards, the hayracks, the hen coops, the pigsties – and which relied for sustenance on grass. It was a world built on hay, that steady transfer of nutrients from summer meadows to winter byres, without which the whole system would have collapsed. If you can still find a farmstead which retains its old buildings, you are really looking at an interfolded cohabitation of people, cattle, and grass.
Perhaps that is why, even with modern machinery, the hay harvest in July still feels like the deepest connection with this old world. “Haying,” as it is called, on the same principle as “wooding” or “lambing,” is the climax of the year, the point around which everything else turns. It is a moment when a grass field delivers up its riches, at first lying sleek and glossy like hanks of hair on a barber’s floor, then baled and carted home as ingots of summer goodness. You won’t find Sussex farmers getting starry-eyed about this haying moment, but there is something magical about well-made hay. “Look at that,” Fred Groombridge, an old Brightling farmer, would always say to me when trying to sell me a bale or two of his hay. “Put your nose in it, Adam. You can smell the summer sunshine in it, can’t you?” Fred always looked at me with one eye closed. “Why’s that?” I asked a friend. “Because he’s thinking with the other one.”
It is a story of intense locality and short horizons, this field being essentially distinct from that one, and a beautiful rich local language derived from the Saxons after whom Sussex is named to describe it: to get muddy in the Weald is to be slubbed up; to work out a problem involves stirring it about a bit; the twiggy lengths falling from a cut hedge are the brishings; a fence post is a spile; a sickle is a swop. I think most of those words are on their way out now, but even twenty-five years ago when I went haying with Fred and his friends, that was the language they used, as old as the woods, older than the hedges.
“The wooded, dim blue goodness of the Weald” Kipling called it in a memorable phrase, but that romantic sense of a lost world seen at a distance is probably more a reflection of Kipling’s own state of mind when retiring to Bateman’s from the world than what this place would have been like when fully alive. Luckily, the great historians of localism in the Weald, David and Barbara Martin, have unearthed an account of everybody who was living and working in Ninfield in 1702, household by household, occupation by occupation, family by family. It is an annotated poll tax return, and what it reveals is a tiny, complex, nearly self-sufficient world of farmers, all of them part-time, with other occupations adding to the family finances. At the bottom end of the social scale are landless laborers: a sheepshearer, a “collier,” meaning a man who made charcoal, some carpenters, and two butchers. Many of these poor men had nothing but a small garden in which to grow their vegetables and several of them lived entirely on their own. Nevertheless, Ninfield in 1702 had its own shoemaker, glover, weaver, tanner, and two tailors. This was a place that was not only fed and housed from its own land but clothed and shod from it.
Rising in the social scale, above those bottom strata in which most farms were under fifteen acres and some under five, came the skilled craftsmen – a wheelwright, a miller, a carpenter, and a “bullock leech”– the cattle vet. Finally, a cluster of larger-scale men, with above fifty acres each, and variously classed as gentlemen and yeomen, the richest of whom farmed more than 400 acres. He had three servants living in his handsome Queen Anne house at Lower Standard Hill (now known as Luxford House) but like nearly everyone else in the village had no adult children living with him. This was a hard-won life, even for the relatively rich, and grown-up children had to be pushed out into the world.
Nothing could be more obvious than that this world has changed. Even in the thirty years I have known it, the Weald has lost much of its local distinctiveness: its ways of life, of speaking and thinking, of making a living, the connections to local stockmarkets (most of which have gone) and local abattoirs (ditto) have all become generalized, less distinct, less Wealden.
Those changes feed through into the economy. Of nearly 50,000 jobs in Sussex, barely 600 are now involved with the land. That figure has fallen by 400 in the last ten years. The average income for a lowland grass farm in England is £9,400 a year (plus the subsidy, whose future is uncertain), which in itself is enough to explain why young men and women are not going into farming. None of us likes the idea of churning twice a week, cheesing twice a week, or brewing twice a week, making the hay by hand, coppicing the hornbeam for our winter warmth, feeding pigs, or milking cows morning and night. It would be ridiculous to hanker after the material poverty of the past. Even in Transylvania, the same processes of delocalization are underway.
And so what are we left with? Only a landscape full of hidden corners and the lingering suggestion of the life that created it, the orchid meadows that have survived by chance or because one farmer valued a flowery summer enough not to “improve” his grassland; the woods, as Kipling wrote, that “know everything and say nothing,” the consolations of a place which you have to walk through to know it, to encounter its memories through the soles of your feet.