This article was first published in the Newsletter of the London Natural History Society, No. 240 February 2016
A small select party met at East Grinstead Station and re-assembled at the Ashdown Forest Visitor Centre, near to Wych Cross. Here we were welcomed and addressed by our esteemed leader for the day, David Bevan, with an introduction to the history of the Forest.
Once a Royal preserve as a hunting forest, the ownership was handed down to manorial lords, but the commoners also retained rights in a situation similar to the New Forest. More densely populated in Mediaeval times, the area would have been a hive of activity centred on the iron industry with timber extraction, furnaces, mill streams and hammer ponds. Nowadays, Ashdown Forest is owned and managed by East Sussex County Council, with some areas in private hands. It is an SSSI for its wildlife, an AONB, and a Special Protection Area for birds including Dartford Warbler and Nightjar.
Geologically, the Forest once lay under the vast dome of chalk covering the South of England whose summit eroded to leave the North and South Downs as stubby remnants. It is mostly acid heath and bog with some wooded areas.
David led us on a short introductory walk to demonstrate the terrain with its scenery and wildlife, especially its botany. We saw lots of Purple Moor Grass Molinia caerulea, Mat-grass Nardus stricta, Heaths and Heathers Calluna vulgaris, Erica tetralix and Erica cinerea, Bracken Pteridium aquilinum, Bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus, Heath Rush Juncus squarrosus and the American alien Slender Rush Juncus tenuis. More interesting and less abundant species included Devil’s-bit Scabious Succisa pratensis, the Hawkweed Hieracium umbellatum, Fairy Flax Linum catharticum, and Eyebright Euphrasia nemorosa but we could not find the glandular Euphrasia anglica seen here previously. David was able to demonstrate the Rush Juncus × surrejanus, which being a hybrid between Juncus articulatus and Juncus acutiflorus has no seeds and is infertile.
He also showed us Autumn Hawkbit Scorzoneroides autumnalis in order to help us identify and separate this plant from other yellow composites.
The ‘best’ plant in this area however, which we found in some quantity, was Saw-wort Serratula tinctoria.
By now it was lunch-time so we drove a few miles to Stonehill to satisfy that need. The botanical target here was Autumn Ladies Tresses Spiranthes spiralis, which had had a good colony on roadside banks in recent years, but appears to be in decline. We found three spikes of this charming orchid, and in the excitement generated by this find, completely forgot to educate ourselves in the finer points of identification of the second of David’s three yellow composites, Lesser Hawkbit Leontodon saxatilis!
So we drove on again to Millbrook, and walked down through masses of Gorse Ulex europaeus into a soggy valley poached by cows and made almost impassable by thigh-high tufts of knee-knocking, ankle-breaking Molinia. Here some additional finds were Bog Asphodel Narthecium ossifragum, Round-leaved Sundew Drosera rotundifolia, Heath Grass Danthonia decumbens, Lousewort Pedicularis sylvatica, and the sedges Carex echinata and Carex demissa, but perhaps the most exciting and iconic plant of the day was the beautiful Marsh Gentian Gentiana pneumonanthe, of which we saw some 30 flowering plants.
The delights of the day continued with a visit to David and Barbara’s cottage, purchased in 1946 by David’s father, and eventually left to David and his two brothers in 1973.
We were entertained to a lavish tea where the carrot and chocolate cakes were outstanding, followed by a tour of the very interesting garden, some of which was natural, but also with too many plantings to fully list here.
Some of the plants seen were a white Betony Betonica officinalis, May Lily Maianthemum bifolium, Cyclamen Cyclamen hederifolium, Meadow Saffron Colchicum autumnale, and Royal Fern Osmunda regalis, Lady Fern Athyrium filix-femina and the American Western Sword-fern Polystichum munitum, planted by David’s father. One plant from the garden has even warranted entry into the Sussex County Flora. Originally introduced from Europe, the Willow Gentian Gentiana asclepiadea (also some white-flowered plants), has succeeded in spreading along the small stream at the bottom of the garden into the native woodland, and thus deserves recording as having arrived more or less by itself! The same is true of the Polystichum munitum which has also scattered its offspring along the stream, but has so far escaped detection by Sussex botanical recorders.
The third of the three yellow composites that David had nobly taken it upon himself to familiarise us with grew here, in his garden, namely Rough Hawkbit Leontodon hispidus. The important distinguishing features of this plant are its simple leaves with forked hairs, and its preference for an alkaline soil, confirmed by the nearby Quaking Grass Briza media.
With profuse and warmest thanks to David and Barbara for a particularly enjoyable and satisfying all-round day.