The Life of William Ruskin Butterfield – Curator of Hastings Museum

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Preface

This article is in draft form as I will be gathering more information about the life of Butterfield and his compatriots. I will also hopefully be interviewing the current curator of the Hastings Museum, which holds large boxes of old papers dating to before 1900 for the Hastings and East Sussex Natural History Society.

Draft Article

Queen Victoria was born on 24th May 1819. From 1822 onwards the bones of the dinosaur called Iguanodon were turning up in quarries and excavations in Sussex and Kent. In 1829 the first Neanderthal remains were found in Germany. Queen Victoria was crowned in Westminster Abbey on 28th June 1838 – the Victorian era had begun. She ruled the British Empire for 63 years and seven months and died 22 Jan 1901. During her reign people were waking up to nature. There was a huge movement of naturalists, amateur archaeologists and other lovers of nature all trying to be first to discover something new. Furthermore, the proof that something existed was best ensured if it was shot and stuffed.

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 and died in 1882, aged 73. During his life he changed the way we think about evolution. At the same time as Darwin was publishing Origin of the Species (1859)  and The Descent of Man from Apes (1871), an equally clever and observant man, Alfred Wallace (1823-1913), published his own evolutionary theory in a joint paper with Charles Darwin in 1858. These findings cause a ferment of argument and ridicule and even today in 2021, the mechanics of evolution are still being teased out.

Our hero, William Ruskin Butterfield was born in Bradford in 1872 and later trained and qualified as a schoolteacher. Considering the discoveries of the dinosaurs, the skulls of early human lineage and the amazing ideas behind evolution, he must have felt strongly that he was living through the most exciting age of discovery that Man had ever experienced. His character soon emerged as a young energetic idealist, full of hope and good intentions. He was keen to surround himself with the great and the good, not for fame for himself, but to ‘get things done.’ It was getting things done that eventually killed him.

In 1894 at the age of 22, he came to Hastings and took up residence at 4 Stanhope Place, St Leonards-on-Sea, near the sea front, not far from the Victoria Hotel and the writing room of novelist Rider Haggard. In 1895 there was a major Chess Tournament held at the Brassey Institute, said to have the ‘strongest chess field in history’. In Butterfield’s mind, maybe the elitist nature of Hastings made him feel he was in a hot spot of intellectual glory. Judging by the course of his life from then on, he was determined to be at the centre of all things clever.

The Brassey Institute, located in Trinity Passage in Hastings, was the idea of Earl and Lady Brassey. William Brassey MP for Hastings was knighted in 1881 and made an earl in 1886. So they too were keen to ‘get things done.’ They had sailed round the world between 1876 and 1877 on their yacht The Sunbeam, collecting items suitable for a natural history museum. This must have impressed Butterfield because he soon got to know them. The Brassey’s encouraged Butterfield.

Famous scientist and inventor of electric current generation, Michael Faraday had been to Hastings in 1831 and it is likely that he supported the foundation of The Hastings Literary and Scientific Institution formed in 183. However, rather than join this august society, Butterfield and others began a new one in 1893 – the Hastings Natural History Society (now the Hastings and East Sussex Natural History Society). Butterfield was a powerhouse of a man and a serious amateur field naturalist, but he could be easily fooled. His enthusiasm made him naïve.

By 1905, when he was 33 years old, he had proved his worth and had developed useful connections with Lady Brassey. He was appointed as the Curator of the Hastings Museum, at first located in the Brassey Institute building. Back in those days it was vital to get to know people – make good contacts – even better if they were upper class. In 1907 the remains of the early human pathway called Homo Heidelburgensis was discovered in Germany, making for more exciting reading by many naturalists.

In 1908 Butterfield was in direct contact with Lord Rothschild who had his own museum at Tring in Hertfordshire. In 1909 Butterfield became the librarian of Hastings Library also located in Lady Brassey’s building. The museum grew, mainly due to his hard work in developing a local interest across south-east Sussex in natural history, archaeology, and the arts.

He was deeply involved with the collection of birds’ eggs and the shooting and stuffing of birds from all over the world. The Victorians shot or trapped birds with a variety of weapons – for example. Punt guns, air guns and catapults and they put down traps, nets, and wire snares to catch their specimens. Some died naturally and were found after a ‘hard frost’ or having flown into telegraph wires.

Butterfield became an identifier and recorder of wildlife. Even before he came to Hastings, he had purchased a book (in my possession) titled The Sussex & Hants Naturalist – Volume 1 dated 1893. He signed his name inside the book, as did two other men who also owned this book – W. E. Helman Pidsley and Thomas Parkin – both avid collectors of birds’ eggs including the extinct Dodo and Great Auk. Pidsley was the author of The Birds of Devonshire dated 1891. Pidsley was also in correspondence with Lord Rothschild concerning the discovery of valuable birds’ eggs. In the Volume 1 I have here, are adverts for drills to extract the contents of bird’s eggs so that they can be added to collections. There are also excited comments in which hunters delighted in ‘Shooting a Sardinian Warbler near Hailsham.’ There are also pleas from collectors asking people anywhere in the world to shoot birds that were needed to fill gaps in otherwise comprehensive collections.

Parkin, who has his crested bookplate inside my bool, was the greatest collector of the three. He was born to the Reverend John Parkin, vicar of Halton, Hastings, and his wife. He tried to become a vicar, then tried barrister, yet did not succeed in either aim. However, as an ornithologist, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Historical Society in 1845. He was the co-founding president of the Hastings (and East Sussex) Natural History Society and he helped Butterfield to form the Hastings Museum. He had served in the Royal Cumberland Militia, held a Master of Arts degree and was a justice of peace but even so he found time to travel around the world, perhaps emulating Darwin, and Wallace. He sailed to Australia via the Cape of Good Hope in 1887, then on to New Zealand and Tasmania. Upon his return he visited Spain, North Africa, and France before settling back down in England and he died in 1932. The letters these men wrote to Lord Rothschild at Tring are preserved in the British National Archives.

Once again to consider our hero Butterfield. During this period before the First World War he had developed many contacts with a group of people who were trying to find out if England was the true birthplace of Man. Darwin had suggested that Man was descended from apes. Queen Victoria’s empire was so large that it is said the sun never set upon it. To have such a magnificent monarch and such an amazing empire, must mean that Britain was paramount and the humans who had developed in that great country must be the finest specimens of humanity – the peak of creation. It followed that the bones of the early wonders of Britain could be found – and what better place for human origins than Sussex?

In this group of friends of Butterfield were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Jesuit priest Teilhard du Chardin, and a solicitor from Lewes called Charles Dawson. Dawson was the founder member of the Hastings & St Leonards Museum Association and also had warden/conservator responsibilities at Barkham Manor. He had made many discoveries – thanks to some hard work digging at Piltdown in east Sussex, Dawson had discovered, so he said, the absolute proof that Man really was born in England – and most thankfully – in Sussex, not Germany! To paraphrase William Blake…and did those feet in ancient times…?

By 1929, John’s Place Mansion in Hastings was purchased by the Borough Council as the new home for Hastings Museum. The reference library was relocated to the old museum building and the town also now had a lending library thanks to Butterfield’s endless efforts.

Back in 1886 there had been a Colonial and Indian Exhibition and the artefacts from that great event had been obtained by Lord Brassey. When he died the bequeathed the items to the Hastings Museum and Butterfield worked unceasingly to develop what is now called The Durbar Hall. It was said of him that he was unable to delegate responsibility and this overdrive eventually killed him. First, he became exhausted and ill even though he was arranging an exhibition for Lord and Lady Brassey, called The Voyage of the Sunbeam. He died suddenly on March 24th 1935, at the age of sixty-two years.

The Damage to Butterfield’s Reputation

Because of his naivety and his passion for discovery come what may, Butterfield was an easy target for tricksters. Here are some examples of how he was too keen for his own good.

After Butterfield’s death, the Piltdown Skull was shown to be a fake, along with all the other discoveries that Charles Dawson had claimed. Scientists began to investigate the fake skull material – a mix of orang-utan and human bones with artificial age staining. Authors speculated about the case, wondering who else could be involved in a conspiracy to defraud.

In 1955, Francis Vere, who,  in his book, was trying to defend Charles Dawson, accused a male farm labourer – a Barkham Manor site worker with the unusual name of Venus Hargreaves, of being the culprit who had ‘salted’ the spoil heap of earth where the Piltdown bones were ‘discovered’, allegedly by Teilhard de Chardin who gave them to Dawson.

Later, another author, Professor Guy Van Esbroek of Gand University (Ghent in Belgium), suggested in his 1972 book, Pleine lumiere sur l’imposture de Piltdown, that Venus Hargreaves had been given the false mix of ape and human bones by Butterfield. He had then hidden them in a gravel bed spoil heap of excavated earth for Charles Dawson to find, thus undermining Dawson – because Dawson had previously slighted Butterfield. Certainly, Dawson and co-explorer Sir Arthur Woodward were paying Venus Hargreaves to dig for them. As work progressed so interested photographers of the time took shots of Hargreaves working on the site, together with a ‘ferocious goose’ that kept visitors at bay.

Van Esbroek’s rationale was that Dawson had found Iguanodon dinosaur bones in a Hastings quarry and had rapidly taken them to the Natural History Museum in London rather than giving them to his ‘good friend’ Butterfield for Hastings Museum, so Butterfield had paid him back for his ‘betrayal.’ How did Butterfield know that Dawson had found Iguanodon bones? Van Esbroek claimed that it was a chance remark by Teilhard de Chardin overheard by Butterfield that ‘gave the game away,’ showing Dawson up as being a traitor. This has been confirmed when, in 1965, letters were published showing that on 1st July 1909, Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin wrote to his parents about a trick played on Butterfield – un aventure assez comique.

After Butterfield died, Hastings Museum became tainted by all this, because when his rival Charles Dawson predeceased him, Dawson in his Will left a large number of items to Butterfield to curate in the Museum. Later when the Piltdown Hoax was discovered, all these items were the suspect and the same ‘Dawson infection’ trauma occurred at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. Every item touched or donated by Dawson had to be re-checked.

Another incident in Butterfield’s life also highlights the problem of his character. My history teacher at Hastings Grammar School was Mainwaring-Baines who took over Hastings Museum as its next curator when Butterfield died. He was told upon appointment that Butterfield was ‘bizarre.’ In fact Butterfield was too keen to help naturalists, and insufficiently wary of the mendacity of others. This incident was called The Case of the Hastings Rarities.

The Hastings and East Sussex Naturalist Society, founded by Butterfield in1893, worked on the basis of publishing annually the ‘finds’ of dead birds and other creatures brought to them. Over the period of 1892 to 1930 a very large number of rare birds began to appear in the Hastings area, causing great excitement amongst naturalists. Why was Hastings so blessed with these amazing discoveries? What was happening to change nature so that flocks of rare birds were flying along the south coast from all over the world, only to be shot in this corner of Sussex? Within the Society, often it was Butterfield who recorded the birds and William Parkin who identified them – sometimes their roles were reversed with Butterfield doing the identification. Who brought these birds to Butterfield and Parkin is not always known but much later more than 500 birds identified or recorded by the Society were struck from the record as being false sightings – admittedly later some were reinstated because there were real new sightings of a few rare ones – but in the main, The Hastings Rarities were no more.

So what had been going on? It was simple. The local Hastings taxidermist was receiving birds from all over the world and stuffing them. They were passed to Butterfield to identify or record. He and Parkin did so by assuming that they really had been found in the Hastings area. That was what they were told by the taxidermist. If Butterfield and Parkin had taken the time to think – how is this possible? – then all the subsequent derision would have been avoided, but being Victorian Naturalists, ever-keen to discover something new and publish, they failed to spot a massive number of hoaxes.

When the Piltdown Hoax was discovered, this caused Dawson’s cousin A. P. Chamberlain to claim that Butterfield had been falsifying his Society’s bird records. To protect his cousin, Chamberlain reminded Dawson’s accusers ‘of recent press articles on suspected ornithological frauds on the Sussex coast about the same period’ – as Piltdown.

One final incident shows Butterfield’s naïve character in the full glare of sunlight. When Conan Doyle told Butterfield that an Iguanodon bone had been found in a quarry near Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s home in Crowborough, north Sussex, Butterfield jumped on his bicycle on 13th May1911 in St Leonards-on Sea and cycled up hill and down dale, all the way there to see the alleged bone – and then cycled back – a round trip on an early form of bicycle of 56 miles. But the whole trip was caused by not by a deliberate trick of Sherlock Holme’s creator but by the incessant desire of Butterfield to see unusual natural things – even if a mere rumour.

Conclusion

Butterfield’s over-enthusiastic and sometimes hot-headed character made it possible for him to get into trouble – but was he also guilty on one or more occasions of falsifying natural evidence?

Taking the case of the Piltdown Skull first of all, I do not think he was involved at all. If he had been the guilty party rather than Dawson, then he would probably not have advised Dawson to send his skull discoveries to the Natural History Museum for inspection. However, he did ask for a copy of the skull for Hastings Museum. On 20th December 1912, he wrote:

‘I am venturing to ask whether a plaster-cast of the skull and jaw discovered

in Sussex by Mr. Dawson could be made to the order of this Museum. The

discovery has interested me very much, and I am anxious to have here, if

possible, a cast of the specimen.’

Lastly, what about the Case of the Hastings Rarities? It seems that although Butterfield was accused of importing foreign birds and passing them off as local rarities, in fact people were killing birds in Europe and bringing them to Hastings in boxes of ice. They were then given to the taxidermist and gunsmith George Bristow who had a shop in St Leonards. He then ‘believed’ that they had been found in Hastings and Butterfield and Parkin had believed Bristow’s assurance and listed them as amazing rarities. This was discovered in the 1960s when the publication British Birds Edition 55 re-evaluated on pages 299 to 385 a collection of so-called rarities then in the collection of a man called Nichols. Five hundred and ninety-five records were deleted, and sixteen bird specimens were removed from the list of birds ever sighted in Britain. As mentioned above, a few of the sixteen were later accepted as true because these rare birds were turning up after all.

I do feel that despite his bizarre reputation, he was not dishonest but could be easily fooled due to his energetic determination to ‘get things done’ and that is what killed him.

Friends of Combe Valley Newsletter No. 3

Spring is on its way – but the wildlife has already sprung a surprise!

Here are two new additions to the the 3,000 other species in the Valley – Egyptian Geese and a White Stork.

Egyptian Goose – Alopochen aegyptiacus
White Stork – Ciconia ciconia
This White Stork has flown in from the Knepp Valley collection – West Sussex
Egyptian Geese were introduced as ornamental birds – and have now gone wild.

The number of wildfowl in the Valley reached 1,000 and 200 Shoveler Ducks (Anas Clypeata) were seen on Crowhurst Lake – a nationally significant amount. Four sea-going Scaup Ducks also landed on our fresh water flood causing Twitchers to twitch!

Local History

Friends of Combe Valley have been very busy indeed, running the Warden Service, staffing the Cafe at the Discovery Centre and reporting pollution. We have also been busy researching local history.

It seems that in the period 1932 to 1934, Sir Alan Cobham, the daring air ace, wrote to Hastings Council asking them to clear an area at Pebsham for an aerodrome to convey fruit and vegetables from France. During the preparations, a digger driver unearthed a Norman Longboat, complete with ‘Dragon’s Head’ prow. Noted historian Kathleen Tyson has pointed out that Flemish traders came to Bulverhythe Harbour in the period 1000 AD to 1100 AD and therefore the ‘Dragon’s Head’ could actually be a Dacian Wolf Head which the Flemish used when copying the Normans. You can see a Dacian Wolf Head in this image from the Bayeux Tapestry.

Bayeux Tapestry by unknown makers – Wikimedia Commons

So what happened to the Longboat? Well, the Council were alarmed that the discovery might delay the building of the aerodrome, so they told the digger driver to re-bury it. It was then reburied, it is estimated – near the join of Tier 1 and Tier 2 of Bulverhythe Recreation Ground. Pebsham aerodrome was then built on Tier 2.

Could this Tier 1 wet site at Bulverhythe be the hiding place of a Longboat?

But the story does not stop there – because firstly, some local residents claim that when Tier 1 floods in winter, the Norman Longboat eerily rises up – its prow can be seen – and then as the spring weather arrives so it sinks back down. To make matters even more complicated, an avid local historian claims that the Longboat was buried under a concrete raft in the car park of the Waterworks near the A259. Plainly if this is true it cannot ‘rise up’. So Friends of Combe Valley asked the County Archaeologist, Neil Griffin, about the best way to preserve it. He replied that Hastings Borough Council would need their permission to build more than 10 houses on the site and so if planning goes ahead for the 192 homes, then a full desk and onsite check has to be made by the ESCC County staff. No planning application has yet been made. Nevertheless, Bulverhythe was an early medieval harbour with tidal fish traps so there may be several heritage boats to be found.

Sad Story of a Spitfire CrashUpper Wilting – Monkham Wood

We are coming soon to the Victory In Europe Commemoration on 8th May 2020 – VE Day – and we all have seen films showing the sacrifice that so many made to keep us free. During the Battle of Britain, we lost a young pilot who was shot down near Upper Wilting Farm. Here’s the story but with a request to be careful when walking there:

Walkers are reminded that the area of Monkham Wood and Monkham Mead next to Upper Wilting Farm, Crowhurst is sensitive as it is the location of the World War II fatal crash site of a Spitfire shot down by a Nazi fighter on 30th October 1940 at midday. The aircraft was flown by Pilot Officer A. E. Davies. It is legally protected by the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 and the crash site is monitored by the Ministry of Defence Business Services Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre, Innsworth House, Gloucester. Full details of this and many other World War II incidents, including fighter and bomber crashes and V1 rocket attacks in the Valley vicinity will be published in the next Friends of Combe Valley charity newsletter. VE Day 75th anniversary is on 8th May 2020.

More background to this incident: A member of the Hastings Area Archaeological Research Group found the following report of wartime memories:

‘Mrs Pelling remembers life as a child at Wilting (called Wilton on 1813 maps) during the war years of the 1940s when air raids were common and almost every farm in the area had its own war incident. In the case of Wilting, a plane crashed at the southern end of Monkham Mead about October 1940 during the Battle of Britain.

The crash was witnessed by many people in the Crowhurst area and although the remains of the aircraft were removed by an Aircraft Historical Society, it has left its mark – a shallow depression.

Spitfire – Wikimedia Commons

Not surprising after this distance of time – not all the recollections tally exactly but it seems that the aircraft, a Spitfire, was shot down by cannon fire from German fighter one Wednesday morning.

The pilot was seen trying to get out of the plane as it fell but was killed by the impact of the crash. The plane itself fell apart during the descent and one of the wings fell off into Hollington Park.

Mr G Drew who lived nearby was one of the first on the scene and pulled the pilot’s body from the stricken aircraft and wrapped it in sacking.

Later the poor man’s family came from Coventry to collect the remains, while the authorities collected some pieces of the Spitfire.’

Visit of the Deputy Chief Constable – Jo Shiner

Will Kemp, DCC Jo Shiner and some friends walking their dogs

On 10th January 2020, we were honoured to receive a visit to Combe Valley by DCC Jo Shiner of Sussex Police. She met the Wardens, saw Upper Wilting Farm and the Greenway and Crowhurst Lake. It was a fine sunny day and so lots of walkers were out with their dogs and she and her staff officer Police Sergeant Martyn Waterson were able to stop and chat.

David Dennis, Will Kemp, PCSO Daryl Holter and DCC Jo Shiner

Also accompanying us was PCSO Daryl Holter, the Sussex Heritage and Wildlife Crime officer. We discussed the vandalism and motorcycle theft and burning taking place in the Valley but also the wonderful opportunity to strengthen community metal health by getting people to know and walk in the Valley.

DCC Jo Shiner talks to a budding police officer – maybe!

Crowhurst Footpath

Every winter the section of the 1066 Trail from Crowhurst Cricket Ground near the Plough pub to the open fields and Crowhurst Lake, becomes a morass of mud – and more recently two parts of it began to slip down into the Powdermill Stream, causing someone to fall into the brambles.

Mud, mud – inglorious mud!

Previously, East Sussex County Council had explained that since they had over 2,000 miles of footpaths (the same distance as the roads in East Sussex), they could not afford to repair the very muddy section. However, now that ESCC footpath engineers have studied the path, they agree that action IS required. So, as soon as the path dries sufficiently, then temporary repairs will be made – and then in 2021-2022 financial year, the whole path will be properly and safely repaired.

Natural winter-flooding at Three Bridges on the 1066 Trail in Combe Valley

They did also point out that the 1066 Trail is not part of the national trail network – although it does connect to it – but is in fact a path devised by Rother District Council. In the longer term it may be possible to build a bund across the Valley to permit walkers to cross the Combe Haven in winter. At present the crossover points at Three Bridges are deep in the flood and impassable.

Redundant Power Cables

During the late Spring, Power Network UK engineers will remove the redundant electrical cables, telegraph pole and switch boxes from the Bulverhythe Path – and also the power cable that is hanging from the cliffs at Galley Hill.

The old GEC power unit now owned by Power Networks UK and to be removed soon.

Crime in the Valley

Sadly, there are people in our community who want to wreck the Valley or misuse it in a criminal way. Here are a series of photos showing you the kinds of things that are happening – fly tipping, vandalism, stolen motorbikes and other matters now under police investigation. Please can you report anything suspicious to us via the Warden contact email –

team@friendsofcombevalley.co.uk

Fly tipping at Pebsham
Fly tipping at Pebsham
Vandalism at the Discovery Centre

Cleaning Up Combe Valley

We were setting up a comprehensive clean-up campaign but Coronavirus has made life complicated – so please follow our Facebook page @CombeValley to see the latest situation. At present, volunteers are called for to help us clean up the Bulverhythe Recreation Ground area on Saturday 4th April at 10.00 ( for two hours) meeting at the Discovery Centre in Freshfields.

Stolen and burned bicycle at Bulverhythe Recreation Ground Tier 2

History and Wildlife Presentations

As soon as we know when the Coronavirus emergency has come to an end, we will be giving local history and wildlife presentations at the Discovery Centre cafe. The first presentation will be The History of Bulverhythe, followed one month later by The History of Crowhurst. Please follow our Facebook page to see when these events can go ahead. Friends of Combe Valley members may come free of charge and non-members will be asked to pay £5.00 including tea/coffee and biscuits. These presentations by David Dennis are likely to start at 7pm and last for around 1 hour to 1.5 hours The scope of the presentation will cover, the origin of the landscape, Ice Age, Stone Age, Iron Age, Roman occupation, Norman invasion, Medieval history and modern history of each area – including World War I and II. The third presentation will be a detailed look at the seasonal wildlife of our lovely Valley.

Woodland Trust Season CheckNature’s Calendar

The Woodland Trust is carrying out research into when seasons start and how much change there is due to global warming, sea level rises and other factors that might affect animals and plants. If you are the kind of naturalist who records the first sighting of a bee, or butterfly, or the dates that flowers open in Spring – then this survey is for you. Here’s the link:

https://naturescalendar.woodlandtrust.org.uk/?fbclid=IwAR3b_T115s_6wSdCeb-fc-oX1RKs5EpumKP5Mat03pwNDzvAKK9fgVSrOJw

Goodbye for now – and thanks

Thanks for reading this newsletter and supporting our charity which is dedicated to the preservation of landscape, wildlife and education of the public. The next newsletter will give more details of our schools tree-planting and wildlife education programme – and two new websites we are developing.

All the very best to all of you – and please stay safe.

David E P Dennis LCGI RAF

Trustee, Fundraiser and Warden Co-ordinator

team@friendsofcombevalley.co.uk

Unless otherwise stated under a photo – all images are copyright of David E P Dennis 2020

Friends of Combe Valley Newsletter No. 2

AGM

The first Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Combe Valley national charity 1163581 is to take place on Friday December 13th at 18.30 hours in the Discovery Centre, Freshfields Road, Bexhill TN38 8AY

Discovery Centre Cafe, Freshfields Road, Bexhill, TN38 8AY – Free Parking

All members are invited. Voting will take place for the election of the Chair and Trustees. A number of organisations with interest in or responsibility for the Combe Valley Countryside Park, have been invited by letter.

Valley Familiarisation tour for Rother DC Chair

Chair of Rother District Council – Counsellor Terry Byrne visiting Pebsham Lake

The Chair of Rother District Council, Cllr Terry Byrne accompanied me on a tour of Combe Valley on Thursday 5th December. We visited Pebsham Lake, Upper Wilting Farm, the 1066 Trail at Crowhurst and viewed the locations of Little Bog and Decoy Lakes and Adams Farm.

Warden Service

I attended a meeting at the Police and Crime Commissioner’s office in Lewes on Monday 2nd December. I gave a briefing on the Warden Service and met many people who shared our interest in preserving wildlife and landscape and helping the public to be safe. I also met a group patrolling the South Downs National Park on horseback, a group helping people with sight impairment or blindness to receive newsletters by sound recording and another group who were working on a re-wilding project with schools in Hastings. The Police and Crime Commissioner talked to us all and a reporter from the Brighton Argus interviewed us. The meeting was videoed. FoCV thank the PCC and Chief Constable for the £2,500.00 donated to help us keep Combe Valley users safe and wildlife protected.

Warden Service equipment

Part of the police and PCC funding can be used for the purchase of equipment to remove dangerous items such as bags, barrels, shopping trolleys, tins and fly tipping rubbish from valley locations, some of which are difficult to reach. Long telescopic poles (of up to 24 feet) with claw grabber ends are being purchased. We hope now that a major clear-up of the Valley will begin. Wardens will also be issued with waders and first aid kits. A Lone Worker health & safety policy is being established.

Website

Natural annual flooding – the view from the 1066 Trail crossing point at ‘Three Bridges’

It has been difficult for people wanting to become new members or to support our efforts to join or donate. FoCV will be setting up a website with information on our activities and also a payments page for membership and donations, using PayPal and the bank BACS system. Data Protection laws will be implemented in full.

Projects

Following a conversation with FoCV members at a meeting last month, I have been discussing a landscaping and re-wilding project with Rother DC Chair and a senior planner. The concept is finding favour and will be further reported on in subsequent newsletters. The next stage is to identify the landowner(s) – that is now underway. The following stage will be to submit the detailed plan with diagrams to the CIC for approval by Cllr Ruby Cox and the CIC contracted management organisation – Groundwork and to the landowner, if it is not Rother DC.

The project will be aimed at volunteers and schools who would like to help to plant trees and shrubs, to develop reed beds in two new lakes, to make a woodland trail feature and sow wild flowers suitable for pollinators. New habitats for butterflies, insects and birds will be developed with specialist advice from Sussex Wildlife Trust. The proposed project sites will be the area surrounding the Discovery Centre and the edges of the woodland at Tier 2 of Bulverhythe Recreation Ground. The existing sports field and facilities will not be affected. The projects will be funded by grants from organisations supporting tree planting and wildlife enhancement.

Crowhurst flooding

You can see from the two pictures above that the Powdermill Stream has burst its banks on occasions and Environment Agency Flood Warnings have been posted for Crowhurst Village three times in the last month (Nov).

I have been to see the Crowhurst Environmental group for 2.5 hours of detailed discussions to elicit their view of the Park development and preservation of wildlife areas and the natural winter-flood landscape. The Crowhurst group wish there to be minimal interference with the ‘wildness’ of the landscape and are not in favour or ‘urbanisation’ into some sort of beautified parkland. During the meeting it was plain that Crowhurst residents have great concerns about flooding. They explained that they were worried that if the Tier 1 housing estate flood plain management scheme went ahead, it would make it even more likely that Crowhurst cricket ground and local housing would become flooded again. This is because the Powdermill stream is slow to drain away, as it has little gradient and the Greenway edges do not prevent the stream from bursting its banks, as can be seen in the photos. No member of the Ambiental flood consultants or any member of Hastings Borough Council has yet been to reassure the Crowhurst Environmental Group or the local residents of Crowhurst.

Flood plain building meeting

There is to be a meeting with Hastings Borough Council on 13th January 2020 at which group representatives from FoCV, Bulverhythe Protectors and Hastings Urban Design Group and others will be invited to put their point of view.  However, it will not be possible for any group to see or comment on the final plans of the flood remediation scheme as they have not been completed. Therefore we do not know where the earth or concrete banks or bunds are to be located, nor we do we know where the balancing lakes and non-return valves are to be placed. However, if the plan is refused by the Environment Agency or by the Secretary of State for the Environment upon Appeal, then what could the Tier 1 site look like? Here is the original concept diagram when HBC pledged to keep a ‘green space’ between Bexhill and St Leonards.

CIC and Groundwork meeting

There is to be a joint meeting of FoCV, the CIC and Groundwork on 21st January 2020 at the Discovery Centre at which the initial overview of the Park development plan will be discussed. More details and timing will be published in the next newsletter.

Seaside clean-up

We hope to organise beach clean-up sessions covering the long shoreline inside the Countryside Park boundary. We will be calling for volunteers.

The CIC and Groundwork have direct responsibility for a very big shoreline (see map below).

Dog waste-powered streetlamps!

It is now possible to buy machines that burn dog-waste and turn it into methane which then powers streetlamps. Smaller burn units might be purchased to place at the end of main footpaths so that dog-walkers could use them to burn the waste bags rather than leaving them hanging in the bushes.

Wildlife seen

Here’s a gallery selection of wildlife seen in the Valley in the past month.

Also seen were Long-tailed Tits, Buzzards, Little Egrets, Pochards, Devil’s Coach-horse beetles, Peacock butterflies and a Grebe. If you would like to report a sighting then you can log it on the board in the Discovery Centre.

Insect identification

The iridescent ground beetle (Carabidae) seen being attacked by rare types of wolf spiders at Three Bridges has been identified as…  Poecilus versicolor 

Invitation to contribute to the Newsletter

Readers of this newsletter are very welcome to submit a relevant article or a letter for publication, following moderation by the newsletter editor.

Leave a light on – security

We hope you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year – and don’t forget to leave a light on when you go out enjoying yourselves.

Kind regards

David

Rudolph in Lapland

Text and all photos copyright 2019 David E P Dennis LCGI RAF

Fundraiser Friends of Combe Valley National Charity 1163581

Friends of Combe Valley Newsletter No 1.

3rd November 2019

Combe Valley Winter Flood 27th October 2019

Introduction

Welcome to the first edition of our Valley Newsletter. I will send it out, not monthly or weekly but whenever there is something important to communicate. Please ‘like it’ so that you always get a copy whenever it is published.

Filsham Reed Beds

There is some confusion about the long term maintenance of Sussex Wildlife Trust’s (SWT) Filsham Reed Beds SSSI. Facebook has an article saying that there will be a 10-month long programme of improvements, including the removal of willow, cutting of reeds and restoring the lake in front of what used to be the bird hide but is now a wicker fence.

Filsham Reed Beds – the clogged-up lake – 15th October 2019

However, a senior executive at SWT has written to me telling me that this might not happen after all.

Here is an extract from his letter:

‘With regard to reedbed management, we do not believe a significant increase in resource or effort to create more open water would increase the ecological diversity of the site, as current habitat management is evidentially increasing ecological diversity, and as such we are confident that we have a strong ecological mandate for continued practice.

The aesthetics vs ecological benefit of open water vs reedbed is something that could continue to be communicated through interpretation including education events and literature. The focus on small-scale, sustained and sustainable effort to increase diversity within a manageable area must be set against the disadvantages of short-term capital investment that could achieve short-term visual effects, but could not be maintained over time without long-term input of extra resource and effort.’

I have written back to SWT CEO Tor Lawrence to obtain clarification of the two contrasting pieces of information. Lake or no Lake that is the question?

Solar Panels

Hastings Borough Council has been working to put solar panel farms into Hastings Country Park, and onto farmland it owns at Upper and Lower Wilting Farms. However, there is now a new development in this saga.

Before Amber Rudd MP resigned as an MP during the recent and seemingly everlasting Brexit fiasco, she wrote to the Chair of Hastings Borough Council telling him to stop putting the solar panel farm into Hastings Country Park and instead, put them on top of the Combe Valley Tip site. I managed to get hold of a copy of that letter. It explains that over 1,500 people in Hastings wrote to Amber protesting, so she took the line of least resistance and suggested the panels be dumped onto us and our Valley. However, I am told that this idea is now ‘dead’ and that Upper Wilting and Hastings Country Park are back in the frame.

Rare Creaturesand where to find them

Combe Valley is not well known nationally. It still has many areas where no close examination of the wildlife has taken place. When out walking please do report anything you find which looks unusual. You may have seen the beetle and spiders I found last week. We still don’t have a name for the beetle but we know now that the wolf spiders are fairly rare.

Valley-wide Communications

Conversations with people on the various committees and organisations have revealed the view that a better forum is needed for the Valley. At present we have FoCV, CIC, Groundwork, HBC, Rother DC, ESCC, Crowhurst Environmental, Bulverhythe Protectors, the farming and local social communities and the rural police patrols – but it would surely be better if once in a while we had a Valley-wide conference for the betterment of the Valley, its wildlife and landscape. Please let me know how you feel about it.

Footbridge at Harley Shute

When you walk up from the back of Filsham Reed Beds to Harley Shute Road, you come to a pretty poor patch of land with a gate onto the road right by the very narrow road bridge over the railway. You then have to take your life in your hands to cross over to the other side, to get onto the big metal bridge near the school. I have suggested that a footbridge be built at this point so that those walking up from the bottom of Filsham Road area near Judges Postcards can use the South Saxons path as a route to Filsham Reed Beds without being run over. The bridge would need to curve in an arc from the patch of trees to the scrub land above the Reed Bed path. A HBC counsellor is looking at the idea.

Reedswood Road Footpath

This dangerous path from the housing estate to the Filsham Reed Beds path is in a sorry state. I have asked ESCC if they will repair it but they say it is not a county path so the answer is no. It might be possible for FoCV to raise funds to repair it – but it would need some input from the people who live on the estate who use it as an access point to the Valley.

1066 Trail National Footpath

We now come to an important project – the attempt to make the 1066 Trail into a footpath that can be used by people in wheelchairs. Part of the Trail at Three Bridges is flooded. The path from Crowhurst Cricket Ground is so muddy as to be dangerous. I went to Wales to the Cors Caron National Nature Reserve to study their 40-year life weatherproof trackway (see photo). They have six kilometres of this. To put one kilometre of this track (with passing places) down for wheelchairs from Bulverhythe to Filsham Reed Beds would cost £350,000 inc VAT.

A similar cost would have to be paid for the Crowhurst to Crowhurst Lake greenway track. Ambiental were asked by me on 31 Oct if there was any reason why this track would interfere with their riverside bunds, if the housing development did go ahead – they said no, the concept of a trackway was fine.

To reach Filsham Reed Beds would require a side bridge to the existing river bridge to keep the trackway on the same level.

In the central Valley at Three Bridges the flood water gets to be three to four feet deep. Rother DC Chair Terry Byrne has suggested a stabilised Pontoon Bridge to connect Crowhurst to the southern slope. This type of bridge always stays just above the water level regardless of its depth.

So gradually the idea of connecting up the paths to enable people with disabilities to move about is taking shape. Please let me know what you think about these ideas.

Landscaping Improvements near the Discovery Centre.

The area nearer the Discovery Centre has a lot of fly tipping,

but it also has a woodland corridor with lots of insects including many ichneumon wasps.

We could plant more trees and sow wild flower meadow seeds to encourage more wildlife, especially pollinators. I am asking Rother Environment Department to help us clear away the fly-tipping rubbish (see photos). Please let me know if you would like to help me landscape this area to make it beautiful.

Fishing in the Valley

There is an absolute legal ban on fishing anywhere inside the Valley Park. Of course, if you are on the Caravan Site bank of the Combe Haven then you are not inside the park, but if you are on the Bulverhythe side then you are banned from fishing. The police have been asked to arrest anyone fishing in any lake, stream or river but they also say it is up to ESCC to put up signs telling the public that fishing is banned. Illegal fishing and the leaving of rubbish goes on at Little Bog Lake, Pebsham Lake and Crowhurst Lake (see photos).

The Combe Valley Warden

Because of the damage done in the Valley by vandals – the burning of the reed beds, the cutting of fences, smashing of bat boxes and bird hide panels, the police have begun to take a very close look at what goes on in the Valley. FoCV have been awarded £2,000 by the Police and Crime Commissioner and I have put in a bid to the Police Community Fund for another £500.00 for equipment for the Warden. PCSO Julie Pearce-Martin and PCSO Daryl Holter are the Rural and Heritage patrol officers.

The Deputy Chief Constable Jo Shiner, her PA and staff officers will be visiting the Valley in November. I am working to set up the Warden Service soon and will be letting you know how to volunteer for the post – which will be a completely volunteer post but with a small monthly allowance. A set of safety equipment will be issued to the chosen warden together with patrol area information. This is entirely a FoCV project not connected to the CIC, groundwork, Sussex Wildlife or any other organisation, so the Warden’s reports will come to us but then be shared where appropriate. The money is ring-fenced and spending will be inspected by the PCC.

Walking for physical and mental health & car parking

The police have asked me why it is that so few people are seen out walking by them when they do their Valley patrols. In a recent tour around by police, only one dog walker was seen during a 2.5 hour trip. People have commented to me that the reason few people walk the Valley trails is that there are no large car parks. The lack of car parks is being discussed by Rother DC and I hope to be able to give you some news about it soon. I also hope that soon we can start to co-ordinate some guided walks for qualified walk leaders so that they can take over and safely increase the footfall.

Tier 1 Housing Development

The anti-flood mechanism final details are not likely to be revealed until at least January and formal planning permission will be sought in the Spring – April or May we think. One puzzle is that if Ambiental put a non-return valve into the river – how will the fish that come through the valve when it is open, be able to get back upstream – they are not leaping salmon?

I am sure that a great deal more about the deeply complex plan to stop flooding on a natural flood plain will come to light over the next weeks, but HBC must remain in ‘purdah’ until after the General Election. Ambiental staff told me that This project is quite a challenge compared to our usual industrial estate flood prevention work – but we will not propose anything which will not work – as if it failed, then our reputation as a company would be ruined.’

Well, that’s the end of the First Edition. I hope you will ‘like’ and ‘follow’ this newsletter. Kind regards and all the very best. David.

Text and photos copyright 2019 David E P Dennis LCGI RAF

Fundraiser Friends of Combe Valley National Charity 1163581

A Wonderful Walk in Dorset

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Looking back down to Lulworth Cove from the cliff path to Durdle Door Rock Arch

A Jurassic Coast Walk

Next spring or summer – or if you’re brave enough, in winter – go to Lulworth Cove in Dorset, England and walk over the cliff paths to Durdle Door rock arch and back. It will make you fit and happy. You’ll get to breathe in some clean sea air. Lay down in the clifftop grasses and absorb peace and tranquility. You’ll see kestrels hunting and (in summer) hundreds of butterflies including the beautiful Marbled White. There are huge views to Portland Bill from the clifftops – and good shops and cafes next to the car park in Lulworth Village. In summer – get there early as the roads are jammed later, on sunny days.

Once you’ve parked your car, walk down to the beach. You’ll pass the public toilets – always useful before you start on your walk over the cliffs. There’s a stream to see, ducks and some lovely thatched cottages…

Lulworth Thatched Cottage

Lulworth Cove is part of the Jurassic Coast where dinosaurs hunted each other. Over millions of years, the sea has carved an almost perfect arc out of the chalk, making a beautiful a harbour anchorage for small boats.

Lulworth Cove – Bringing home the Catch

Take a stroll around the water’s edge and look at the Jurassic Cliffs with their amazing geology.

The Jurassic Cliffs at Lulworth Cove

Once you have visited the cove and cliffs, turn back up to the car park at the top of the village and begin your walk to Durdle Door Rock Arch.

Path from Lulworth Cove to Durdle Door

Walk up nice and slow – taking in the views and the wildlife. Sit down every now and then to admire the developing landscape view and get your breath back. It’s a good idea to wear walking shoes and to take a drink, a snack – and a rain-cape just in case of a shower.

Once you reach the top of the cliff path, the views are terrific! You’re looking out across the English Channel towards Portland Bill promontory.

The view to Portland Bill

As you climb up and walk down to Durdle Door Rock Arch, you’ll kestrels hunting and lots of butterflies in summer.

Kestrel hunting on Lulworth Cliffs
Marbled White Butterfly (Melanargia galathea)

Now it’s time to walk slowly down to Durdle Door. Pace yourself because you will need to come back up the path again to get back to your car – unless you have a friend with a car who can pick you up at the end of the first walk stage down in the dip. But if you do the walk in both directions you will feel proud to be so fit! Go for it!

The side of Durdle Door opposite to the famous rock arch
A Jurassic geological paradise

Have a good look at the remarkable geology of vertical planes in the cliffs. Then walk over the rise to the famous rock arch.

The famous Durdle Door Rock Arch

Now it’s time to walk back over the cliff path to Lulworth and back to your car. You’ll be a little more tired, so have plenty of stops. You’ll see – in spring and summer, lots of boating activity – coastal tours by motor launch – and kayaking.

Kayak tours below the cliffs of the Jurassic Coast at Lulworth and Durdle Door

If you look back towards Durdle Door and over it, into the distance, from the cliff top, you’ll see the next section of the coast path – to Bat’s Head.

Dorset’s Jurassic Coast – Bat’s Head and Bat’s Hole with Portland in the distance.

Back down you go. In summer hundreds of butterflies will accompany you.

Small Tortoiseshell butterfly (Nyphalis urticae)
Lulworth to Durdle Door – the Jurassic coast path milestone

Then say goodbye to Durdle Door – but keep your fond memories – and photos! Slowly wander down to the village for a meal, or coffee and buns – and do some shopping too. You will notice how the car park has filled up. So the key to this magnificent walk is – start early and leave – either before the rush home – or after they’ve all gone!

Say goodbye to Durdle Door
The car park at Lulworth Cove – enough room for everyone – but narrow roads in and out.

Enjoy! I certainly did.

David

Route details:

You can take all day over this route and take a picnic. There and back it is around 2.6 miles and if you never stop it will take you around 1 hour and 10 minutes there and back – but what’s the rush? Geology – scenery- wildlife – picnic. Slow down and be thrilled by it all.

Photography attributions:

All photos by David E P Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF.- the author, except for:

Durdle Door Sunset and Durdle Door aerial shot: these two by Saffron Blaze – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18972825

Saffron Blaze, via http://www.mackenzie.co

Wild Goose Chase

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Combe Valley in East Sussex, England is a winter-flooded landscape where many geese (Anser white and Branta black) come to parade in their flocks. So I thought it would be a good idea to have a blog post on geese – a beautiful kind of wildlife that we take a little for granted. Please let me take you on a wild goose chase!

No-one in the scientific world has yet managed to fully categorise geese. Many oddities are seen. There is a basic goose shape which is different to that of a swan or other large water bird – but there are also ‘swan geese’ and ‘domestic geese’ – and then there’s the Alopochen! (photo above).

The blue-eyed Emden Goose (below) shows the basic domestic shape. It is a pure white domesticated variety which often goes wild – and here is one that has flown to Five Lakes, near Maldon in Essex to wander about on the golf course and make the players wild too. It is moulting and has chosen to stand on the spot where swans have been moulting. Some scientists say that the difference between real geese and birds that look or behave like geese is that real geese moult at one time and season whereas some goose-like birds don’t moult at all. But this may not be the whole story.

If we look at this white bird in close-up, we can see the typical domestic squat shape – shorter body that a swan – a bulky bird with an orange-pink bill and pink legs and feet.

So here’s your first mystery. Compare the Emden with the Coscoroba Swan to see some body similarities and differences. No-one is sure if the Coscoroba is a swan or a goose.

Compare it with the Screamer – a bird that some people think is closely related to the very primitive Magpie Goose. The Screamer is not a goose – it is magnificently strange!

So where did geese come from – how have they evolved? We have seen evidence from China that some small feathered dinosaurs developed wings and over time evolved into birds. It is thought that the original ‘goose’ was a Chinese bird – perhaps evolving 10 million years ago in the Miocene period. But we cannot yet fill in the following gaps for all birds that might be geese:

The scientific classification of geese – Goose cladistics, has only managed to produce clarity in these categories:

  • Kingdom: Animalia (Animals)
  • Phylum: Chordata (Backbones)
  • Class: Aves (Birds)

Order, Family, Sub-family – not clear – even in 2019 – still lots to do!

Wikipedia tells us that: The three living genera of true geese are: Anser, white/grey geese, including the greylag goose, and and all domestic geese; Chen – white geese (often included in Anser); and Branta, black geese, such as the Canada Goose. However, some ‘geese’ are similar in appearance to shelducks and the Magpie Goose (below) is so ancient that it predates most geese.

So there really is a confusion and more research is needed. The cladistic study of geese is not complete by any means. I have put a chart at the bottom of the article to help you see how things are developing scientifically.

One type that does look a bit like a shelduck is the Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegypticus). Still with pink legs and a squat body holding the typical ‘goose’ shape.

Here’s a shelduck for comparison…and a slideshow below

So what is the connection between a Shelduck and these Egyptian Geese in the slide-show below?

All ducks, geese and swans belong to the family Anatidae. But the Egyptian Goose is all by itself in the Alopochen family – the other birds in this family are all extinct. It looks like a Tadorna shelduck but it is not a shelduck and also not a goose at all! That is why this article is entitled Wild Goose Chase – because investigation are still going on into its DNA, which appears to have some very primitive elements in bird development. In England we have called it a ‘goose’ because it looks and acts bit like one – but instead it might be a duck! No-one is sure!

What other exotic-looking geese are there? Well here’s a beautiful one – the Bar-Headed Goose – it is pretty obvious why it has that name.

Another goose – the Canada, is very well defined and very widespread.

Canada Goose honking in Combe Valley, East Sussex, England.

A goose with beautiful and unusual neck markings – the Brant or Brent, is seen here in the sea off the coast of Bosham in West Sussex.

The Greylag Goose (below) comes to Combe Valley in great numbers – and 80 of these geese have been seen taking off at once on February mornings from Crowhurst Lake. These geese forage and nest in the Valley.

Comparison of a Greylag Goose with a Swan – with Canada Goose in the background.

Greylag – A successful breeding family in Combe Valley

Slideshow – Greylags flying and honking

So it is time to try an analyse what we know and what we don’t. Here’s my best shot at the types of geese that we are sure of, and the types of birds that look or behave like geese that we are not sure of. Is anyone reading this capable of resolving the mysteries still remaining?

Geese Analysis: (Anatidae – Swans, Geese and Ducks) (Recently extinct or prehistoric fossils of early geese types not listed.)

(1) True Wild Geese – White – Anser

  • Bean Goose (Anser fabalis) subspecies: (Anser fabalis rossicus)
  • Tundra Bean Goose (Anser serrirostris)
  • Middendorf’s Bean Goose (Anser Middendorf)
  • Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus)
  • White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons) subspecies: (Anser albifrons flavirostris)
  • Lesser white-fronted Goose (Anser erythropus)
  • Greylag Goose (Anser anser)
  • Snow Goose (Anser caerulescens)
  • Emperor Goose (Anser canagicus)
  • Ross’s Goose (Anser rossii)

2. True Wild Geese – Black – Branta

  • Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
  • Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis)
  • Brent or Brant Goose (Branta bernicla) subspecies: Branta bernicla hrota and Branta bernicla nigricans
  • Red-breasted Goose ( Branta ruficollis)
  • Nene Hawaiian Goose (Branta sanvicensis)
  • Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii)

3. Not Wild Geese at all: Called a goose but not really a goose!

  • Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus) – might be a shelduck
  • Magpie Goose (Anseranas semipalmata) – too primitive to know what it is really
  • Cape Barren Goose (Cereopsis novaehollandiae) – might be a swan or a shelduck or goose
  • Orinoco Goose (Neochen jubata) – probably a shelduck
  • South American Sheldgoose (Chloephaga) – probably a shelduck
  • Spur-winged Goose (Plectropterus gambensis) – related to shelducks
  • Blue-winged Goose (Cyanochen cyanopterus) – might a goose, a shelduck or a dabbling duck
  • Pigmy Goose (Nettapus) – linked to Cape Barren and Spur-winged ‘goose’ types
  • Solan Goose (Morus bassanus ) – really a gannet

4. Domestic Geese (Anser anser domesticus)

 and Hybrid types = most descended from the Greylag or Swan Goose

  • Canada + Greylag cross-breed
  • Domestic Emden
  • Toulouse Goose
  • Swan Goose-type domestic

A huge list of domestically cross-bred geese including Fighting Geese can be see here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_goose_breeds

I am not a goose genius. If you have any information that shows that progress in final identification has been made, please let me know. Please follows this blog for more on wildlife. Kind regards. David

Photography in this article: All photos copyrighted by David Dennis except Magpie Goose image – Djambalawa at English Wikipedia.

Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Crowhurst Churchyard – a little piece of heaven

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Death and Life in a Country Churchyard

By David Dennis

In England, there are at least two Crowhursts with a very old Yew Tree – one in Surrey and this one in East Sussex near Battle. Before we learn about the magnificent King Harold 1066 Yew Tree and the other beautiful Crowhurst trees, let’s find out about St. George’s Church, where this enormous yew is located.

As M. E. Newman says in her little guide ‘Some Notes on the Church and Manor of Crowhurst’ (1971):

‘The church was first mentioned in the year 771 in the charter of King Offa of Mercia. The village was then called Croghyrst.’ Offa gave some land to the Bishop of Selsey to build a Saxon church here and then Robert Count of Eu and the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury Llanfranc rigorously enforced ownership after the bloody Conquest, in which the Crowhurst area was laid to waste by William the Bastard.

Yew trees can seed themselves naturally or be planted for a specific purpose. A human settlement can form around a naturally occurring yew tree or a yew tree can be deliberately planted to form a focus of community importance or worship.

Unfortunately, no-one seems to have been able to determine for sure, why or when the oldest Crowhurst Yew was planted and so we need to dig down through history – which is always fun.

There are several old and new yews here in the Parish Church of St George: without much ado you can view a few new yews it’s true (couldn’t resist that), and two older ones planted most probably on the orders of Sir John Pelham, who paid to have part of the pre-existing Saxon and 12th century enhanced to its present form church building, in 1412 or so. Then we come to the eldest yew here – and various sources give dates from to 1,250 years to 3,000 years.

Often yews were planted on sites of pagan worship and then Christian activity began to incorporate existing trees in a reverential way, rather than chopping them down This reverence was maybe, to entice pagans to believe in Jesus because it is said he died on a wooden cross. In fact the current priest incumbent Father told me that he thinks yews were planted by worshippers not for arcane druidic reasons but simply to provide greenery ready for Palm Sunday services.

This whole area has a truly wonderful history. Twelve thousand years before, Stone Age hunters sat on the shore of Combe Valley below where Crowhurst is now situated. Some had walked for more than 100 miles – from Dorset. Combe Valley was then, like Pevensey Levels, just the sea. You can imagine many hunters coming and sitting for an hour or so knapping flint to make knives, scrapers and arrowheads – these beautifully crafted items have been found here. Their descendants continued to hunt and occupy the area, developing into Iron Age cultures easily because of the massive amount of iron in the rocks stretching from Crowhurst to Beauport in Hastings. 

Iron was mined in the south-east of England long before the Romans came, but when they did invade they had already had a belly-full of the Druids who worshipped and used the yew tree as a source of magic and poison. The Saxons certainly lived here, King Harold owned Crowhurst and is said to have had a manor here at Wilting at the top of the hill above Crowhurst village. A case has been made that William the Conqueror’s fleet sailed up Combe Valley to beach below Upper Wilting farm near modern Crowhurst recreation ground – but this has been discounted by some experts because of evidence of silting and longshore drift at the time of the invasion.

However, the theory that best fits the facts in my opinion, is that of Kathleen Tyson in her book ‘Carmen Widonis – The First History of the Norman Conquest’. This theory sites the landing and battle near a once sea-flooded estuary near Icklesham, not that far from modern Battle. My own discovery supports her ideas. The traditional historians mistranslated the early word ‘Apuldre’ to mean ‘hoar apple tree’ whereas in fact it means Apppledore, not far from where the Vikings sailed with 230 ships and attacked Castle Toll in the sea marshes. Updated versions of books describing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now use Appledore not hoar apple tree – so the message is getting there slowly. Anyone who looks at Kathleen Tyson’s maps of the coast in the year 1066 will soon see how things became confused later.

A lot more work needs to be done to prove to English Heritage that the current ‘Senlac’ is not where the battle took place after all! It really took place at ‘Sandlache’ (Sandy Loch) near Icklesham. This was – back then – a very large but quiet estuary big enough for 770 ships. It would have been madness to land soldiers (and horses) on beaches with crashing waves – as Julius Caesar soon found out.

Laying to waste was a bloody business in which humans and livestock were killed, forests burned and farms destroyed. It is possible that King Harold’s Danish right-handfasted wife Edith Swan-Neck lived at Upper Wilting – and that one scene in the Bayeux tapestry shows her being burned out of her home along with her boy child – never to be king.

Thankfully the old Yew was spared – after all, the Normans were Christians. For those who think the Yew is 1,250 years old then the planters must have been Saxons not Normans. Planting a yew is usually done when then slow-growing sapling is 8 or 9 years old, so the tree and the early church building might be a simultaneous enterprise.

For obvious reasons of hatred, the Domesday book never refers to Harold as King, but as Earl Harold – who owned Crowhurst. Once he was dead, the overall landowner of church lands here has been the King of England until 1412, though the Walter of the Fitz-Lambert family managed it first for the Count of Eu from the Domesday Survey until the 12th century. Then an ancestor of Walter Fitzherbert – Walter de Scotney (originally Escoteni), was given stewardship by Richard I after the Third Crusade, although Walter forfeited it in 1259, having been found guilty of a crime.

And it was a humdinger! – Walter de Scoteni (then called), was tried and hanged, at Winchester, for administering poison to Richard, Earl of Gloucester, and William de Clare, his brother, the latter of whom died on 23rd July 1258 at Retheford in Scotland and was buried at Durreford Abbey.

Sir John Pelham, coroner of Sussex, Treasurer of the Exchequer and Royal Swordbearer was then given Crowhurst to own in perpetuity by Henry IV in 1412; Pelham built the present parish church.

To find out if our Yew could be as old as 3,000 years we need first to see if there are any such yews that old – and we find that in Wales there is one that is claimed to be 5,000 years old. On 8th July 2014, the Daily Express revealed:

‘…they say the tree in St Cynog’s churchyard, at Defynnog near Sennybridge, Powys, is certainly Europe’s oldest living thing. The yew tree is more than 5,000 years old, from the era 3,000BC. It started growing nearly 500 years before the Pharaohs built the Great Pyramid of Giza. And it was a sapling at about the time work first began on building Stonehenge. The 60ft wide tree’s age has been revealed by experts who carried out ring dating and DNA analysis. It could be the oldest living tree in the world, a title currently held by a bristlecone pine in California known to be 5,063 years old.’

So what is the girth of the Welsh giant? The Express reveals that:

‘“It is so old that it has split into two halves, one 40 feet wide and the other 20 feet wide.

“It’s DNA has been tested by the Forestry Institute and its ring count is 120 per inch, which makes it over 5,000 years old.”

This means it outranks its nearest British rival, the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire Scotland, which is said to be up to 5,000 years old.’

However, this ‘dendrochronology’ of yews is slightly suspicious, as some experts say that big yew trees don’t make annual rings?

So the Welsh tree has an approximate diameter of 60 feet. How about the Crowhurst Yew? How big is it?

Well, in 1680 it was measured to be 27 feet in girth at 4 feet from the ground and 33 feet in girth at ground level and in 2012 it measured 30 feet and two inches around with the tape measure 18 inches above the ground.

Tony Hindson and Lesley Elphick who measured it in 2012 explain that  has grown 2 feet and 10 inches (86 cm) in girth in the last 332 years so that is 2.59 mm a year, but it increased its growth rate to 3.44mm a year between 1879 and 1894 because it had been damaged – which spurred recovery. The Ancient Yew Group say that any Yew tree with a girth of 23 feet should be older than 800 years. So combining all the factors about growth rate and damage we come to the conclusion that the tree is at least 1,300 years old – not 3,000 years old.

In the much-praised book on the conflict between Harold of England and William of Normandy, Hope Muntz tells of a treasure buried nearby whose location was known by Harold’s reeve at his manor of Crowhurst. Because the reeve stayed loyal to his Saxon king, he was hanged from the Great Crowhurst Yew. The trouble is – the tree by then would only have had a girth of 10 feet so could not have been that imposing. But where is the treasure of Crowhurst now?

In 1669 Evelyn Silva alleged that the Yew  had a diameter of 10 feet and as most schoolchildren know, we can calculate its girth then using the formula: C=piD = 31.42 feet. In 1842 it was reported to be ‘flourishing’ at the topmost branches. Then in 1870 it was claimed to be 33 feet around – but gradually through storms it began to split and the top of the tree is past its best – like we would be if we were over a 1,000 years old. Twenty years ago it had a health & safety check and a fence was put around it to stop people from climbing up its temptingly convoluted and amazing branches.

Please note that all the photographs of the yew tree above are of one tree only – the King Harold – all parts connected to the roots in one massive structure – an awesome survivor.

There are more large yews and some huge oak trees in the churchyard too – it is a quiet place full of butterflies and moths, with wild flowers and well as commemorative bunches. Here for example is a magnificent holly.

And here’s a great oak…

Crowhurst also has a direct descendant tree of Joseph of Arimathea’s Holy Thorn at Glastonbury – but that’s another story!

If you have enjoyed this article please ‘Follow’ this blog – there’s lots more history and wildlife information to come. Thank you. David

St George’s Church, Crowhurst, East Sussex, England

Article copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Combe Valley Warden

Combe Valley Countryside Park is a nationally and locally undervalued heritage resource containing almost 1500 acres of wildlife habitats, including woods, meadows, marshes, lakes and pools, willow carr, reed beds and beachlands – and 2,500 known wild and plant-life types/species – but much is still to be discovered. It is winter-flooded – adding to the richness and complexity of the landscape. It has a proven archaeological history covering 10,000 years.

Friends of Combe Valley (FoCV) is a national charity – number 1163581. It has a Board of Trustees – Peter, Rebecca and Will. I (David) raise funds for the charity and have been delighted to have been awarded £2,000.00 by the Police and Crime Commissioner for Sussex from the Community Safety Fund for a warden service.

An ideal warden

A woman or man who has time to spare, who loves Combe Valley and knows its paths and ways. Ideally someone retired who can go out on short or long walks without a regular pattern – in all weathers and seasons – and report back to the Trustees and the Friends of Combe Valley Facebook page (@CombeValley) on a range of factors covering the areas listed below and – receive a small amount of pocket money each month (perhaps £100.00 or more) for doing so:

  • Vandalism and graffiti
  • Fallen trees and flood-risk to walkers
  • State and safety of paths, bridges and boardwalk decking
  • Wildlife and habitats including bat & bird boxes and seaside
  • Schools liaison
  • Farmer communication and livestock safety issues
  • Fly tipping, pollution and environmental damage
  • Preservation of local heritage.

The person chosen by the Trustees will need to be fit, carry a fully-charged mobile phone with phone camera, a first aid kit, water and torch, be DBS cleared to work with children and be first aid trained (current certificate) to cover emergencies when walkers are found in distress. They will need a basic understanding of mental incapacity in case they are called to support police seeking lost persons who may be ill. They will also need to have full awareness of tidal dangers and quicksand areas on the Park beach frontage.

The warden will be expected to liaise with the Sussex Police Heritage and Wildlife Officer and can expect to be interviewed periodically by the staff of the Police and Crime Commissioner who will be checking on how the grant is being spent. They will also liaise with the Countryside Park Community Interest Company (CIC). This is an independent body not connected to our charity.

Both the Friends of Combe Valley and the Police and Crime Commissioner will give full publicity to the warden service.

Frequency of dates and times of patrolling will not be given to the public for obvious reasons. All paths and locations will be covered but known problem areas will be visited more frequently.

Filsham Reed Beds (above) and Combe Haven river winter flooding (below)

The Friends of Combe Valley Charity Committee will meet shortly to discuss the detailed operation of the scheme and to decide how applications for the warden role may be made to the Trustees. Further details will be published here in the blog.

Please ‘Follow’ the blog to receive updates. Please also comment on the general concept, especially if you think of something that needs protecting that is not included in the above list of patrol factors. Thank you.

Friends of Combe Valley National Charity works to preserve wildlife, landscape and local heritage and to educate the public.

All photographs copyright David Dennis 2019

The Heron – A superintelligent messenger

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Once upon a time when I was younger, I was walking near Force Jump Waterfall in the Kentmere Valley over in the eastern Lake District. A grey heron glided into a marshy field and began to look for frogs. It was the first time I had been so close to this bird. Then it died. It just fell down in a collapsed heap. Obviously, I was dismayed – hand to mouth. It raises questions about the deaths of large birds. Not many people ever see a large bird die a natural death. Maybe a ghillie in the Scottish Highlands might see a naturally dead eagle once in a lifetime, or a walker might find a dead Great White Egret in the Somerset Marshes, but to be there when one dies on the spot – that is a very rare event.

This eerie occurrence gave me the impetus to study the heron in life and in myth. Here are some things I’ve learned about this graceful and fascinating bird with a wingspan of 6.5 feet, only a few inches less than a Golden Eagle.

Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea) are in the family Ardeidae which includes egrets and bitterns.  ‘Ardea’ in Latin means ‘heron’ and ‘cinerea’ means ‘resembling ashes’. They eat fish, frogs, rats and all sorts of other food. They ‘operate’ on the seashore as well an inland. They sit in the tops of trees, stalking through marshes, often standing and staring for many minutes before striking their prey.

They have invaded urban civilisation, flying over the rooftops of housing estates in Worcester Park, London for example, or sitting on the roof of a caravan at Chichester Harbour. They are becoming like foxes in their integration with human society.

Watts, George Frederic; The Wounded Heron; Watts Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-wounded-heron-13235

Over the past 4,000 years, herons have been hunted by humans for food, feathers and sadly, also for sport. The painting above, The Wounded Heron by George Frederic Watts, 1837 (Watts Gallery) is in the public domain.

In Combe Valley, East Sussex, where I do much of my wildlife photography, there are many herons. It is a rare day, rain or shine, when you don’t see one. In our winter-flooded valley you can see six at once all patrolling the pools and lake margins. So what are the legends behind the reality? Are there any herons in literature or Greek myths for example? Well, certainly there is one in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – it is called a ‘handsaw’! Shakespeare causes Hamlet to say in line 1460:

‘I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.’

And yes, there on page 158 of the Penguin edition of the Iliad, the goddess Pallas Athene (Roman equivalent = Minerva) sends a heron to guide the Greeks on the right path at night – Odysseus and his men could not see the heron but heard its cry in the dark. Then Odysseus praised Athene for saving him for her ‘special love’. Because Athena is the goddess of wisdom then the heron became to be known as a very wise messenger – a superintelligence.  So next time you think you are watching a heron, remember that it may also be watching you, and perhaps reading your thoughts.

Those of you who love Dartmoor will be pleased to see this internet page dedicated to the Dartmoor heronry: http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/heron_moor.htm

A heronry is a colony of perches and nests – we have one in the tall trees near the end of the old Bexhill to Crowhurst railway viaduct site not far from Three Bridges and the 1066 Trail…here:

The Grey Heron lays a clutch of 4 to 5 eggs in one brood per year between January and May. Obviously because our valley floods in winter, this site is ideal for them being right at the side of the greatest flood section of the Combe Haven river – ready for plenty of common and marsh frogs in spring. Herons use the bridge handrails and perches to stare down into the Combe Haven in the early morning.

In Japan, the heron is thought of as representing calmness, determination and above all – patience. It is a solitary bird, in the sense that it does not regularly flock-feed like an ibis or avocet, but slowly stalks – attracting other hungry herons who may join it at random. Juveniles have spotted necks and no crest feathers, and their heads are pale grey rather than the black of the adult bird. Their beaks are black but turn to orange daggers as they grow.

Herons are masters of aerial flight, retracting their necks and hunching up in flight but using their huge wings to brake when landing in the marshes. When the heron looks down into a pool it must be able to see and therefore recognise itself. I have never seen a heron try to eat its own reflection. Its cry – for us and Odysseus too, is said to sound like ‘fraink’ followed by a rattle and a croak.

In China, the heron is seen as a good luck wish – ‘May your Path be Always Upward’ and white herons helped souls to get to heaven. In Egypt, the heron becomes the world creator – the Bennu Bird, Lord of the Jubilees, linked by rebirth to the Phoenix legends of Herodotus.

So we should be pleased and proud to live near so many herons and I am sure you all get great satisfaction from the peaceful observation of this superintelligent messenger as it hunts the doomed frogs of Combe Valley.

Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Red Kite in Sight – Sheer Delight

By David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

If you love Wales and are interested in poetry, you may have heard of the early Welsh poet Dafydd-ap-Gwilym. He flourished from around 1320 to 1370 AD. He was born at Brogynin and died probably from the Black Death.

He is said to be buried in Strata Florida Abbey in West Wales although in the 1600s, another place 20 miles away, tried to claim his body.

Many years ago, my wife and I set out to find Strata Florida Abbey and see his grave, as his poetry was so beautiful – and also fun – because much of it was about chasing girls. We drove up from Bexhill towards Shrewsbury and then travelled into Wales on narrow winding roads – across mid-Wales, and as we did so we saw our very first Red Kite. These lovely birds nearly became extinct. They were hunted to death because they were scavengers. A small set of breeding pairs remained in this remote part of Wales. Then they were introduced into other parts of Britain – for example, the Grizedale Forest.

Now you can see Red Kites (Milvus milvus) in Combe Valley. The last sighting was 6 June 2019, so I am told by someone who lives near the Valley. I have seen three flying in circles above Three Bridges on the 1066 Trail a few months ago (2020). The RSPB state that there are so many that they cannot be counted in population surveys. The UK is the only country where the population is increasing. In some countries they have been reduced by 50% or more.

However, If you travel up the M40 to Oxford Services you will see them on many parts of the route in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire and when you get to the service area to park they will probably be scavenging in the bins.

It has to be said that the fact that we have buzzards, kestrels, marsh harriers, hobbies, sparrowhawks and hunting owls as well as Red Kites in the Valley is a great sign that these animals at the top of the food chain can all find enough to eat.

So what do they eat? The answer is just about anything edible: mice, voles, shrews, rabbits, weasels, mink, young hares, fox and badger carcasses, earthworms and your sandwiches! So please try to find out when watching them, what sorts of foodstuffs they have in their beaks. We don’t often see any voles or shrews when walking. There is a population of weasels in Fore Wood, Crowhurst but they have not yet spread to the Valley.

Red Kites bond for life and start breeding at around two years old or slightly younger. They make their nests in the forks of big trees and lay between one and three eggs. So please also look out for possible breeding nests – or let us know if you think they come into the Valley from elsewhere.

Red Kites are very capable of aerobatics. They are lighter and more manouevrable than a harrier. The RSPB have reported frequent groups of ten hunting and up to 40 feeding naturally. On some Welsh farms, they feed the birds each day and hundreds can be seen circling and landing.

It is an exciting time in Combe Valley, with all sorts of new wildlife discoveries. Pete Hunnisett and Combe Valley Nature colleagues are doing an outstanding job of tracking down a wide variety of plants and insects and I am doing my best, too. The results we find show that the Valley is pretty healthy – but there is some fly tipping and the Combe Haven river is in a poor state in parts being blocked by fallen trees and rubbish. It could be a lot healthier and the better it is as a river so the more wildlife it can support and then hopefully more Red Kites and other creatures will be able to feed successfully.

The 25,000 breeding pairs to be seen in Europe at present represents 95% of the total world population. If we could start to see breeding pairs in our Valley, we’d be delighted but maybe the other raptors would not be!

I watched a pair of wheeling crows attacking a buzzard over the ‘Tip’ area last Thursday. The crows won – so too much competition is not good when food is scarce. Please keep a sharp eye out for these lovely Red Kites and drop me a line if you see one – photos? Even better!

One of Dafydd’s poems is about the wind – but it could equally be about the Red Kite – here’s the last verse of the Poem ‘Wind’:

Go up high, see the one who’s white,
Go down below, sky’s favorite.
Go to Morfudd Llwyd the fair,
Come back safe, wealth of the air.

kind regards

David

Keeping track of local raptor sightings in Combe Valley

Last sighting 6 June 2019

Previous photos – long range telephoto – 22 May 2018

Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF