There something about being outside in Winter that just feels so refreshing, with the sunlight bouncing off the water, crisp leaves underfoot, and that pinch of cold air, kept at bay with a warm coffee and a woolly hat. I feel incredibly lucky to manage Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve, where I get to experience all this daily… well, apart from when it rains, and I hide indoors!
One of my favourite all year round views is from the top of the Reserve, looking south from the Devils Humps towards the sea. The clouds are often below you in Winter, and you can watch as they drift across, over the ancient yew grove and sleeping chalk grassland, cloaking the valley in mystery.
It makes me wonder how many people over time have sat at the top and watched the world go by. Kingley is full of history and legend – from the Bronze Age burial mounds, to the yew grove being planted after a battle with Vikings, historical sheep grazing when the land was first settled, to the Canadians using the valley to shoot live rounds in the World Wars. So many people have come and gone, and the land has so many stories to tell, if you take the time to watch and listen.
The burial mounds where I sit are a great place to visit and are steeped in history too. Dating back to the Bronze Age, some say they were communal burial grounds, whilst others say they held Kings. Either way, they were pillaged in the Victorian era when grave robbing was the “in thing”. Now they are the perfect place for a picnic, a proposal, or just to sit, as I am now. But they are under threat.
You may notice the chalk is starting to appear in deep furrows, and steps are being worn away into the side of the mounds. I must admit, it is so much easier to walk on the grass, especially when it’s raining, but as we do, we are quite literally eroding our history.
Not only this, but the burial mounds, of which there are 4, sit within chalk grassland. Chalk grassland is created from hundreds, if not thousands, of years of grazing by livestock, to keep scrub such as brambles and hawthorn at bay. This type of habitat is now incredibly rare; it’s thought rarer than rainforests, with over 40 different species being found in just one square metre. Many of them cannot survive in any other habitat. This erosion of the burial mounds is slowly destroying what little remaining grassland these plants and animals have.
But what can we do about it? Sticking to the designated bridleways if you are on a bike or horse (keeping off the burial mounds and surrounding grassland), walking the same way as others up the burial mounds so as not to erode more grassland, and keeping your dogs on leads so that the sheep can continue to graze in peace will all allow the grassland and history to be maintained. That way, we can continue to sit and watch. I know I said my favourite time is Winter, but Summer up here, with the butterflies and bees flitting from flower to flower is something truly special. Maybe I will sit awhile and dream of those days too.
Kingley Vale NNR Reserve Manager,