We’d booked as we read Wilding. Rather Michael started reading Wilding to me, as our morning ritual in Magnolia in Lockdown days. It was after Overstory, and we were full of trees. Isabella Tree (such a memorable name) was all the rage soon after, as Wilding became Radio 4’s book of the week. I think it was Candy or Zoe or Saskyia who recommended it to us.
For a book of non fiction, a self – or rather land – discovery story, it was compelling, well written, and inspirational – it inspired us to get here. It didn’t hide the mistakes that they made along the way from 2000 to today, as well as the mantra that echoed with my own small bit of re-wilding, in my 5 acre woodland, the difficulty of ‘sitting on our hands’. What they learnt was whatever what appeared to be a natural disaster, there is a natural re-balancing that takes place. Out of the ‘bad’ thistle came the arriving of the ‘beautiful’ painted lady.
An immediate sensation, exiting the parked car and making our way to the go-down, was the abundance of natural flowers growing in what would have been an herbaceous boarder – full of scabius, dog rose, ladies bedstraw, as well as ragwort. Ah ragwort, I remembered a chapter on this.
Arriving dead on 3 we had time to breath in, look out and walk the yellow walk, a modest 2k.
We walked out. Yellow route. We didn’t realise then but the tight yellow route explores the southern part of the 3,000 acres of Knepp, the part most wild. Indeed we saw all major beasts that first walk: a herd of fallow deer, the long horn cattle, a couple of Tamworth pigs, and the Exmore ponies. The land, enabled by these natural balancers, amazed me. The hedgerows were a celebration of blackthorn these days full of sloe berries, as well as briar, with an occasional maple, that all merged into the field, full of bosoms of bramble. Walking along field edges, from thickets ponies emerged, and the long horn pushed passed, breaking branches in their wake. This was how the land was.
The fields are yellow, with common fleabane, the Ragwort was just going to seed. Beside rippening red and black berries of briar and blackberry.
We are glamping in a yurt – the first time for both of us – the Turtle Dove, chosen as it’s was the Turtle Dove that was the litmus paper for the success of Knepp – their arrival and staying two years in to the re-wilding. It is spacious and light, the bed more than comfortable, the sheets luxurious (Heals I noticed), and we never spent enough time in it to really appreciate it’s detail, latticework of wood, circle of light at the top. It was far too hot on that first night, the bucket of wood ordered would not be needed for a fire, we repaired immediately to the field kitchen.
We are in a field, with shepherds huts, 2-3 other yurts, and further down a field of tents. There is plenty of space, like on Holkham beach. Communal to us all is the kitchen, and here we gathered to cook, and naturally exchange. ‘Like Youth Hostel days’ one said. We’d purchased some venison burgers and a steak from the go down, to sample the meat of the land. Michael and I cooked together, I nervous of over cooking, Michael nervous of frozen inside meat. It was dry, a bit chewy but very tasty, nicely complemented with the red merlot. A family of mother father and daughter engage us in conversation, also their first time here.
Knepp philosophy is rooted in Rackhams Woodland Pasture and the African Bush. Charlie, I gather from Wilding was bought up in South Africa, and there are strong echo’s of that land here. The Go Down, tin roofs, meandering footpaths made by animals as they move from food source to food source, savanna, and big beasts of animals wondering freely, which we must be aware of as we walk. It was the next day, walking the red walk, coming across a field of long horns grazing by the gate I was aiming for, that I felt that heightened sense of being among large beasts not felt since I walked in Africa.
That night I hardly slept. I felt so awakened by this experience. I opened and started to re-read Knepp.
Wood Pasture, of course, came from Rackham. It was Oliver Rackham in the 1970’s that dispelled the myth of England being a carpet of woodland, rather a mix of ‘wood pasture’. an area of grazing land with trees.
I never found the Knepp Oak that started it all. It is beside the Castle and out of our bounds. ‘This is the problem, Ted said to Isabella Tree. ‘We never think of whats going on below ground. The tree we see is just the tip of the iceberg’ We did the roots no favours with repeated ploughing and the traffic of heavy combines power harrows and seed rills directly under the oaks constantly assailing their roots.’
Oh wonderful Suzanne Sinard, who in the 1990’s unearthed the connection between trees underground, that I first heard of in Overstory, then later through her book, The Mother Tree, and finally through Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees.
The 12 k red walk
I lost the red route sign right at the start and landed in a field of long horns, some suckling their offspring, and after feeling their lack of interest in me, had to shin over a fence to land in Sallow Lane. Here I rejoined the route, arriving at Knepp ruin, a fine tower standing on high ground beside the marsh river, now meandering. A dozen or so ponies were enjoying the rich grass beside the stream. Under a dead branch of an oak, nicely left, to the ‘estate Parkland’ of the park, and in the distance, Knepp castle, the present family seat of the Burrells. Oaks with brackets seeping the juice they had funneled from the cambium of the tree. Passed the Mill house, and a large damn of water, where a Grebe dallied with a couple of swans.
Arriving at the village of Shipley, the contrast rises a chuckle in me. Clear close cut lawns, a man cutting his hedge at head height neatly, a woman pruning her roses. I was reminded of Tinks telling me how Bob, her grandmothers gardener, disliked all that they were doing at Knepp, far too untidy.
The church, completed soon after 1150, with squat square tower and attractive graveyard attracted, and indeed inside the tombs of former Sir Charles Burrell. Slate tablet to John Ireland (d1962), the composer. Alabaster effigies of Sir Thomas Caryll (d1616) and his wife with their children kneel or lie on the tomb-chest.
Fascinating windows, turn of the century: One by CE Kempe 1893 in memory of the Burrell family and one by by T W Camm and dating from 1922 depicting the Annunciation and includes the Shipley windmill at the base. Unsual names of those fallen in the war of Terculius Perry, Brian Honey Bird.
On the route to the windmill we passed a plaque to Hillaire Belloc, and learned much about him we did not know, which was not much beside Matilida who told such terrible lies. We – because I drove back here with Michael later, and we dallied here. Originally French, he lived and died here 1906 to 53. He loved singing, drinking Sussex ales and taking up unpopular causes. Every christmas he invited all children from the village to his home. Oponent of capitalism, dreaded socialism, deeply religious who scorned piety.Never took himself too seriously. When I am dead, let it be said, his sins were scarlet but his books were read. Neither of us had heard of The Four Men, is eulogy to Sussex
On the way back I saw it with my own eyes: A bosom of bramble out of which grew a sapling oak, protected and healthy. Kept seeing roots of trees – down Greens Lane – and ways through hedgrows create by animals moving freely.
Our final evening safari, with the enthusiastic and lovely Tagen, started with looking up to the stork, nesting high above the stables on an ash tree. The story of Ragwort re appeared, one saying, it should be renamed ‘Summer Gold’.
As we stop by our first field she reminds us to imagine this as a field of Barley, as it once was. No targets, no management plan, we saw how the animals shaped the land. The cyclical comings and goings of nature. First nettles and thistles, now fleebane and ragwort. The Sallow enabled by the pigs, who love to borrow and spread it. The beaver project. A hightlight was seeing the spider wasp:
The wasp spider is a very large, colourful spider that is a recent arrival in the UK from the continent and has slowly spread over the south of England. It builds large orb webs in grassland and heathland, and attaches its silk egg-sacs to the grasses. Mating is a dangerous game for males; they wait at the edge of the web until the female has moulted into a mature form, then take advantage of her jaws being soft and rush in to mate. However, many males still get eaten during this time.
We saw a few oak brackets Pseudoinonotus dryadeus, and I was asked if it was threatning to the tree. I thought not, but now read Oak bracket is parasitic, mainly on species of oak. Spores enter through wounds in the tree’s bark, causing white rot and decay of the trunk, eventually making it prone to toppling.
That night, getting up for a pee in the grassland, the sky was full of stars, the road relatively quiet, a slither of a moon.
The morning walk was along familiar tracks, seeing new views. The cohabitation of beasts, the gentleness of the long horns, the ancient quality of the land, which works.