On Sunday I escaped from work to ramble for nine miles on the Sussex Downs, chatting with my fellow walkers about everything from Ragwort to Hogwarts.
‘The Downs’ are a bit of a misnomer, as my poor old leg muscles will testify……..although the wonderful views are probably worth the pain of the Ups!
I walk with a small, private and very friendly rambling club who have an astounding knowledge of the many beautiful pathways right across the south of England.Â I found them on the internet about three years ago when I decided I wanted to walk more and didn’t really know how to start. The map location for the start of the walk was on the website and I turned up to a lane just by junction of two busy roads on a cold, February morning. I wondered where on earth we would walk to, being so close to the road. We set off across a field and for the next ten miles all we saw was woodland, beautiful countryside and tiny hamlets. They were such a friendly crowd and one lady told me that she was the conductor of the Brighton Welsh Male Voice Choir. Another man was an usher at Glyndebourne, so we immediately had an interest in musical things in common. I remember walking past a stream and looking at the snowdrops and feeling an overwhelming feeling of happiness – I was accidentally hooked on Rambling! My legs, which seized up on the drive home leaving me almost unable to walk to the house, felt rather differently.
With all the hustle and bustle of touring and concerts, I find that it really clears my head to get out into the countryside and enjoy a picnic on the top of a hill. This is a picture I took as we broke out the flasks following a couple of particularly steep climb….see what I mean about the view! So – this Sunday, we all met up at the National Trust car park at the Devil’s Dyke. This historic beauty spot lies just north of Brighton on the 100 miles of The Sussex Way – a trail which runs from Winchester to Eastbourne. As we set off down the hill, Geoff (who I always find very entertaining as he has a wonderful knowledge of local history and wildlife) pointed out the remains of the concrete foundations of Britain’s first cable car. It was built in 1894 and was a great attraction for Victorian day-trippers from London. TheÂ foundations are all that survives of the ride that took passengers across the 300m wide valley.
As we were walking, I spotted a caterpillar that looked like a tiger. I was told that it would eventually turn into the Cinnibar Moth which feeds exclusively on the ragwort plant. If you are a horse lover then you’ll know how dangerous this plant is for horses and other livestock. It is so poisonous that it can cause fatal liver damage. When the plant is green, adult animals seem to recognise and avoid it, but young animals can accidentally eat it and if it gets dried with hay then there’s no way to spot it and great damage can be caused.
Geoff had a marvelous story about the entomologist Dame Miriam Rothschild. He described her as being a formidable woman looking like a ‘galleon in full sail’.
She suspected that moths and caterpillars with highly coloured markings who fed on poisonous plants became toxic themselves. So she tested the theory by eating one. A little rashly, she chose to eat it when she was alone – and was only just discovered in time to be saved. I did some research on Miriam and found she really was a fascinating woman. The Times described her as “Beatrix Potter on Amphetamines”.
Here’s a quote from Miriam: “I was educated at home, my father hated schools and he hated public examinations, with the result that I never took any. And I was really completely uneducated, but at home natural history and science were part of every day life: it wasn’t a subject, we just lived it, and the first thing I can remember is having a bird as a pet and having white mice to look after and I grew up as a naturalist from the word go.”
Her Father,Â the banker Nathaniel Charles Rothschild, found more than 500 new species of fleas. Miriam’s six-volume catalogue of his collection of 30,000 specimens, which took her 20 years to complete, firmly established her as the foremost flea authority. Geoff gruesomely told us that she used to let the fleas feast on the blood from the back of her hand!
During World War II she worked hard to persuade the British authorities to admit more Jews from Nazi Germany and at one time she gave a home to 49 Jewish children. She also worked at the top-secret Bletchley Park, trying to crack the Nazis’ code.
When we weren’t climbing the steep hills (where everybody falls silent in an attempt to prevent their lungs exploding) I was telling Geoff about the flurry of excitement that my blog entry about Susan Boyle had caused Stateside. From the comments, it seemed that people were very interested in the actual process of recording albums. We soon entered some woodland and I asked what the flower growing under the trees was. (I try to learn at least one wildflower per walk). He answered that it was Enchanter’s Nightshade and in the next breath told me how impressed his sons had been when he showed them a picture of me with John Williams on my website.
The juxtaposition of the two – John Williams and Enchanter’s Nightshade set us talking about the sessions I did for the film Harry Potter, which John Williams had composed and conducted. Here’s a very interesting interview with the great man himself explaining the Harry Potter music, interspersed with clips of the orchestra playing it. Unfortunately it doesn’t say who the orchestra is and it does end a bit abruptly – well worth a watch though. The brass writing for the music from the Quidditch match scene is quite wonderful (more about that in my next post).
To be continued…….feel free to break out your flask of tea!