8 min read

Weekend Ramble: Woods Mill Nature Reserve

A sisterly stroll through ancient forests and waterways, overlooking heathlands and the South Downs.
Bluebells at Woods Mill Nature Reserve

As is often our ritual, my sister and I arranged a small ramble during her day off work (something we try hard to maintain, to build relationship, and support our mutual love of the outdoors) yet the forecast for this particular weekend was not looking very promising. What has been an incredibly wet and cold May this year, has led to many days of continual stop-and-start rain - of layering up and packing coats away, of wearing the ‘hardier’ boots, just in case. It was important to me to at least try, knowing that the rain tends to come in spells - and to keep myself accountable with my ‘Artist’s Walk’ for the week. I had been clinging to the idea of exploring local nature reserves for some time - not often being able to do so, either because of the lockdown or through lack of personal transport. Since this was a favourite pasttime of ours, Emma quickly obliged. We agreed on Woods Mill Nature Reserve, part of the Sussex Wildlife Trust (their headquarters infact) and I packed my 'crackpac' in anticipation of a slow and restorative wander - vegan sausage roll, chocolate hazelnut-butter cups, a ‘walker’s favourite’ apple, and a flask of under-brewed decaf coffee.

Tying-in another longing of ours, we started our journey by driving to nearby Findon, and stopping at our favourite place - The Coffee Camp. It had been so long since we had stepped-foot inside; to immerse ourselves in the wooden panelled-walls, the rustic lighting and of course, the smell of strong, fresh coffee - it was an incredible joy. With a paper bag stuffed with slices of banana bread, we carried our little cups of coffee to the car, and fidgeted with the Satnav to help direct us to the nature reserve. Before long, we had found ourselves there at the car park, stopping to drink and catchup on the last week or two. As we chatted about our lives, I caught the flash of something golden - and then spotted the red face of a goldfinch, sitting on a conifer branch. Though I hadn’t even opened the car door yet at this point, I was already breathtaken to see this beautiful bird so clearly - one that had been quite elusive to me - only ever catching suggestions of it, or flying gracefully across the cover of my son’s copy of ‘The Lost Words’. The richness of colour of those little feathers blew me away; that so much brightness exists so truthfully and free in the world.

Encouraged before I’d even properly adjusted my boot laces, we met the main sign for the nature reserve and decided to follow a circular route around - going in the opposite direction to some other visitors. We were met instantly by the little eco hut, of the (closed) Horsebox Cafe, composters and bug hotels. So many of the more ‘human’ structures of this site were painted by Jane Mutiny - this talent and dedication, the attention to detail - only proved how much of a relationship this artist has developed with nature, to capture the wildlife with so much character and vitality. We found some stepping-stones in amongst swathes of English bluebells, ground ivy and tall beech trees - and I caught my sister almost frozen in her tracks. As I turned to view her eyeline, I spotted the big brown eyes of a deer, as it fled out of sight into the undergrowth. Despite the site not being open to dog walkers, sadly some other visitors came tumbling through a trail near us, with a dog clearly aware of the deer - barking and uneasy. I watched as I saw the deer try to jump its way though the bushes, and realised that there were infact two of them - one with short beige antlers - both so pure and soft; those snowy-white spotted markings of the young. My heart was in my mouth as I watched these incredible creatures find their way to safety, out of sight - moved to tears at this rare opportunity. Like meeting with life force itself; I was awe-struck, on a primitive, ancestral, human and non-human level. Feeling overwhelmed at how much wildlife had already crossed my path in just ten minutes or so, it felt like I was connecting with nature on such a deep level that I don’t think I can even express it in words here. Though I am passionate about nature on my doorstep, of community allotments and observing the world through my window, it was an entirely other experience to meet other beings in their natural habitats - to do nothing but stand still in quietness, receiving that moment. I am of course, keen to see if I can replicate this experience outside my back door, as much as in a vast, open moorland - to tap into this ability in urban environments, to help others access it who might otherwise never have the opportunity.

With tears in the corners of my eyes and completely shaken alive, we went to observe a small pond (most of the site here is a disused mill, with abandoned waterways and milling stones dotted around the forest). We stopped to identify campion, white dead nettle, wood anemone, primroses and more ground ivy - the latter smelling somewhere between mint and lemon balm, and so incredibly fresh, that I will forever relate that smell to the just-rained-on forest of that reserve; of walking beside so many other creatures and feeling like I was a quiet part of it. I stuffed a few sprigs of the ivy into my mustard jacket pocket before we relished the sight of the bluebells, stretching out in every direction across the forest floor. I noticed some ‘natural hedging’ following the footpath we were walking (something resembling willow weaving) and there, scurrying along the top of these old sticks and branches, was a wondrous, furry little water vole. Though it wasn’t tame, it also didn’t seem to be afraid of us - simply going about its life, a little like the deer had been trying to do; and it made me grateful to be able to share that ground with so many of these living things. We came across the (closed) bird hide and it took a lot for me not to try and find a way in - I LOVE hides; the quiet space, simply to observe nature in silence - could there be anything more perfect than that? We strode across wooden bridges that were releasing their wonderful resinous, cut-wood smell due to the rain, stopping to absorb the swirls of water plants and interesting currents below us, that were amalgamating in certain areas where debris collected in corners and ridges. We followed a trail round to a heap of collapsed building stones - suggestions of floral carving in these rocks nudged at the idea of something more ‘refined’, which of course is exactly and coincidentally the purpose of a mill. We passed families sharing lunch together under a natural tarp tied to the trees, then stumbled upon a circle of cut logs, where we stopped to drink weak coffee from my flask - myself fashioning an extra cup from an old cardboard tube found in the depths of my backpack (amazingly, it held!). As we spoke quietly, blackbirds, blue tits and robins all flitted between us and overhead in the canopy - magpies in the distance cawing at nests, and the occasional bumble bee often getting confused by my pollen-coloured attire.

We came to a large gate that opened out into a lush green field, edged with old birch trees and others I couldn't identify - looking at the nearby map, it suggested there was a longer trail here which circled back round to the car park eventually, but we decided we would save it for another visit; to finish the smaller route we had started. Just then, we came to the main lake, stopping at one of the edges to peer inbetween the lillypads and reeds; spotting small rust-bellied fish that hung serenely in the dark green water. A nesting swan was busy pruning its nest in preparation for its babies, and we soon realised we had completed our journey, whilst rain began to fall between the reeds and create one of the most beautiful orchestrations of sounds that I’ve heard in a long time. Not feeling ready to stop (I had paused momentarily to voice that I kept getting this overwhelming desire to stay; that I felt such a part of this place somehow) and so we walked back on ourselves a little, to check we hadn’t missed anything. We found another gate leading on to a beautiful heathland, with the South Downs as a backdrop - something we vowed we would return to, and explore the larger trail when we had more time. I watched St Mark’s flies hanging in the air, hardly being interrupted by the pattering raindrops, and it felt truly difficult to prize myself away from this scenic immersion - a feeling akin to the beautiful landscape of the Malvern Hills that I used to reside in; how much I got to know the curvature of the hills and fields on a weekly basis. It was reaffirming, revitalising, spacious and fresh. As we found a small flint path that wound its way around another lake and smaller fields, back towards the car, I could feel myself lulled - every step more nourishing; what I thought was sheer tiredness and the need for rest was infact pure relaxation and peace, of a warmness that exhaustion just doesn’t provide (the latter, a much colder experience). We drove away, and a blue jay flew by the side of the road - often a sign of reassurance to me, like many birds often are. We knew we would return, and this is what so much of my recent writing (and wandering) has been proving; that with every experience stepped into - every action taken - immediately more opportunities, more ideas (more creativity) flows in, with force. I am fascinated to learn more about the mill that used to be here, to watch this beautiful place change with the seasons, and to explore more of the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s other locations.

I started this blog to try and put words to these nature/ life experiences, of the relationship I am fostering between my self and nature - and this is why I picked the word ‘creaturely’ - to speak of that commonality, that life energy inside me that I can see, feel and hear when I stand amongst other parts of the ecosystem; of how much it shatters difficult emotions as well as creates them. This connection goes deeper than human relationships to me, yet encompasses them at the same time - it isn’t something I have to nurture (more a coming home to). It's just so innate in me; what I wake up in gratitude to experience another day of, of what brings me home to my self even in the darkest of days, and what I see when I look into the bright blue iris of my son’s eye. This allegiance is lifelong (it always has been) and it gives way to me needing to raise its voice, to be its voice, more than ever - why I finally opened myself up to sharing; to have my message to share. To give this back to others via my words; hopefully creating a safe and immersive experience, to be welcome - to find some sense of family, footing and home. I hope that every reader feels they can take space alongside me here - in every word gathered.