Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2014/28 posted by hidden europe on

The equinox has passed and now a hint of frost dances by dawn on the more sheltered meadows. Restless stonechats are busy on the high heaths, where we stand and gaze on distant Wealden ridges fading into misty morning sunshine. This is one of Europe's finest post-industrial landscapes.

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Dear fellow travellers

The equinox has passed and now a hint of frost dances by dawn on the more sheltered meadows. Restless stonechats are busy on the high heaths, where we stand and gaze on distant Wealden ridges fading into misty morning sunshine. This is one of Europe's finest post-industrial landscapes.

Nowadays there are no noisy hammers, no sooty chimneys in the High Weald. Nor have there been for two hundred years. The last major ironworks in the region, that at Ashburnham, closed in 1813. The forges and furnaces fell silent, but wandering through the High Weald this week we were struck by the industrial legacy that still informs the landscape today.

There are old hammer ponds across the region. These ponds were essential to power the bellows and the hammers of the iron industry. Many of the narrow valleys of the Weald were dammed to create these ponds. These valleys, known locally as gills, are one of the most distinctive features of the Wealden landscape and the long, narrow lakes in those gills which were once so essential for powering local forges have outlived their original purpose. These old hammer ponds are - along with Wealden farmsteads, rich woodlands and ancient drove routes - part of the history of the Weald.

The ironmasters and woodmen have long gone, no longer do pigs pan for acorns and beech mast in the woods. The key elements which shaped the Wealden landscape are partly things of the past. Yet this is an evolving and living landscape. Wander into Kiln Wood by the village of Blackboys (where local faces once were black from soot) and see a fascinating ecological mosaic. The Great Storm of 1987, a hurricane that tore its way across the Weald, left its mark.

Ash and sweet chestnut are in decline, just as over the centuries other deciduous species have succumbed to disease. Hornbeam, sycamore and birch are taking advantage of spaces created by chestnut and ash dieback. We may curse the chalara fungus attacking our ash trees, but pests and pathogens are part of nature's way of moulding landscapes.

In spring, there is surely a haze of bluebells and primroses in Kiln Wood. Each season brings its blessings - and in the High Weald the equinox heralds a few weeks of dramatic autumn colours in the landscape.

A misty September morning slips into an Indian summer afternoon. A few miles away from Kiln Wood, the last of the year's dragonflies dances over the surface of an old hammer pond. An adder slides through last year's leaves, while overhead there is the dull roar of jet engines as planes slip slowly down towards Gatwick Airport. The High Weald is a remarkable cultural landscape in the heart of one of the most crowded regions of Europe. It changes year by year, yet in its sunken lanes, in its shaws and coppices, in its web of bridleways and footpaths there is the unmistakable imprint of a rich industrial history.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.