The changing Sussex countryside

David Johnston - Sussex Wayfarer
David Johnston - Sussex Wayfarer

David Johnston celebrates his enduring love of the changing Sussex countryside with his new book A Sussex Wayfarer’s Nature Notes.

The book brings together David’s diaries of his walks with his wife over the years in a portrait of a landscape he loves and the great characters he has met along the way.

“A Sussex Wayfarer’s Nature Notes covers much of the Southdown’s National Park including such places as Harting, Compton, The Mardens, Stoughton, Iping, Bepton, Elsted, Emsworth Harbour, Singleton, Treyford, Petworth, Idsworth, Funtington, Heyshott, Lurgashall, Cocking, Midhurst, Chilgrove, Bignor, Graffham, Amberley, Slindon, Steyning and many more places, right over to as far as Clapham, Patching, Saddlescombe, Firle and Winchelsea. In all, 147 villages and hamlets are mentioned in the book.

“Sue and I had been going out walking in the countryside for some years, and seeing so much countryside and because of my great affection for the country, I felt I had to record it. I never had any idea that I might make a book out of it, but I started to keep a diary. It was just for us to be able to look back on all our wonderful country walks in later years, really because we were observing so much in the way of wildlife, birds and flowers and so on.

“I was brought up in the country from about the age of eight or nine years. My mother was absolutely brilliant. It was like a verbal tuition she gave me. If she saw any flowers, she would tell me what they were. She never actually sat down and taught me. She would just tell me. She would just say. When we heard a bird singing in the hedgerows, she would tell me what it was. And so I just started writing a diary in 1987...”

It was a countryside soon to go through dramatic times.

“There was the big storm in 1987, and I was shocked to see all the stark devastation in the whole of the countryside around where we were, so much destroyed in the fierceness of the storm. We were mostly walking around towards Compton and the North Mardens and towards Harting way. And even right down to the coast, there were a lot of boats wrecked. The next day we managed to get through to Chichester and in some of the parks all the trees were down. You just couldn’t believe what you were seeing.”

Long-familiar walks were suddenly very different, as David recorded in his diaries.

“It took a month or two before people started clearing the debris, and that was heartening to see. They worked jolly hard to clear it, and within a year, it was like you hardly noticed it had happened - unless of course you knew the countryside very well. Nature regenerates itself. It is all a natural way of life. But as the diary went on, I started to record the people I knew and also the people that we met on the walks. I thought it would be good to include them in a diary that would have an interest in the years to come.”

Among the characters, he remembers in particular Mr Timlock, of Sutton, now deceased: “He was sitting in his garden with a pint of beer, looking the image of absolute pure contentment. I got talking to him and he had worked on the Barlavington estate. He was a gardener as was his father before him...

But it is not all about continuity. There have been notable losses in the countryside scene.

“A lot has been eroded. I was awake at 4am and I was listening to the dawn chorus. I just woke up and realised that the chorus just didn’t have the strength and the furore it had had before. That must have been about 2000. I think habitats have changed. But I also think, my personal view, is that the hawks have been very damaging for the songbirds...”

David’s book is available from bookshops and also directly from David via email on david.rg.johnston@googlemail.com, price £8.50.