Stories from the Barn
A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands
A Sense of Place the Downlands
A Sense of Place
Seeking a sense of place, a home, is something many of us strive for. When the eminent nature writer, Robert Mcfarlane wrote in his book ‘Landmarks’, that to be parochial is a good thing, he meant for us to use the term in its true sense of the word. That is concerning the local parish and the immediate community. The way the word is used nowadays also carries with it the meaning of having a limited outlook or scope. It is a derisory word. McFarlane however talks to us about the power that knowledgeable of our own immediate space brings us. That there is a great sense of wellness to be borne out of becoming to intimate with the place we would call home.
Staying in the area in which you have been brought is often condemned as being a negative thing. Travel around the world has always been a much more impressive thing to be able to claim. However if these last few months have taught us anything, it is that home has much to commend it. That there are wonderful things to be observed close to where we live than we have realised.
Getting to know our local environments, the soil under our feet and the plants and animals that inhabit it can be a life changing experience.
Inspiration from the chalk down-lands.
The inspiration for Honey Bee Barn came from the chalk down-lands of Hampshire in which we are located. Although other geologies exist within the confines of Hampshire, it is to the chalk that we are drawn.
Walking out into an open space, away from the confines of a man-made structure is one of the most up lifting experiences you can have. Even better if you give yourself time to disconnect from the wires that physically and metaphorically bind us to our busy lives.
We are lucky that our open space is the South Downs where a green sea of whalebacks and diving porpoises breaks with a surf of chalk lines and paths.
As children the down lands were our playground and of course we all feel closest to the memories invoked by a happy childhood. Then as time passes, a landscape can get under your skin. If your family have, over generations, been part of a landscape, then you know that you walk where they walked. The sense of continuity can be a powerful and comforting experience.
Our ancestors had a well drawn sense of place.
Our ancestors had a detailed knowledge of their local environment. They knew the best routes to avoid a troublesome stream, the best route up a steep slope foot or horse. They knew where the springs were, where sodden meadows lay, the deepest soils, the straightest timber, on and on the knowledge went, shared and re-shared. But where is that knowledge now? Who now knows ten different words to describe chalk so that it might be put to best use or what wood to use for what. This is not now common knowledge, it is knowledge that we are in danger of losing.
My old granny was a country woman through and through. She was not steeped in the sentimentality of the countryside, instead it was something to be exploited and managed in order to sustain a living and she knew it backwards and forwards. Her knowledge kept food on the table when times were hard and they frequently were. But this old lady loved her land, it coursed through every sinew of her. I loved and was terrified of her in equal measure, ever conscious of the toughness of her both is spirit and soul. She had a country way about her and she taught us children to be part of the countryside ourselves.
“You’re of the chalk gal and that’s just the way it is”
We lived within walking distance of the Downs whilst to the north, in a marshy bowl lay the market town. Here the geology is entirely different, part of the Western Weald, a mixture of sandstone and clay strata. To the south and west of the town the geology abruptly switches. The chalk scarp slopes rear up, swelling roundly before dipping away to the south. This was our playground and this is our inspiration.
We turn our back on the north with its fir trees and heath lands and look to the Southern country. The chalk hills rise away, their north facing flanks seemingly impossibly steep in parts, little changed for thousands of years. The lower slopes where the soil is deeper and the tractors can get purchase, are fields of crops. The footpaths pick their way along the margins, along the hedgerows, a seasonal feast of bird song and food to be foraged. The going is a steady climb, in Autumn and Winter each footfall weighs heavier on our boots.
In the dryness of Summer, the ground is rock hard and flints jab out of the surface threatening a twisted ankle at every step. Knowledge of the conditions underfoot make the locals wary which path to choose. The path suddenly becomes steeper and the chalk shines through the brick makers clay. The way becomes treacherous, slick clay on chalk and flint.
The climb puts a virtual distance between life below and life above. No one lives on the steep slopes anymore, there is no cultivation. The grass becomes finer and grows in tufts. Juniper trees and yew trees put out roots like fingers, feeling their way to handholds in the chalk. On a hot summer day we children would stop and sit, wedging our feet against the trunk of these bent trees to stop us from skittering back down the hill. We ate our sandwiches and lay back and listened to the skylarks singing and peewits calling and sheep demanding to be heard.
And the smell, that clean, creamy smell of clay on chalk and the feel of the smoothness in our hands that dried out leaving our skin feeling dry and taut. This is a sense of place.
Those that came before us.
Lifted up and away from the lowlands, the world seemed a different age away. The air is always fresh with a small wind that lifts you all ways. There is a peace and calm made even more so because the world below can look so busy. Up here though, up here we are safely watchful like our ancestors before us.
This land is a semi- natural environment, one that thrives on the love given to it. Although now alone as we tread the chalk paths, our ancestors are close by. We are walking alongside the remains of large communities that called these chalk uplands home. The tops of the hills are scattered with tumuli, barrows and earthworks. These the remains of the people who lived here, thousands of years ago.
Shorn of their woodlands, the downs took on a new life, the grazing creating a unique ecology of chalk grassland. Here the fine grasses and flowers spring from every step. However without the attendant animals, the downs would revert to scrub and woodland. The herbaceous grasses and glorious flowers would be unable to compete. It has been a managed environment for thousands of years. Although the shepherd can no longer be seen sitting on a tussock of grass, the sheep are still here. They tug at the short grasses, altering the structure of the soil, a process critical to keeping the delicate balance of the ecosystem in place.
The dip slope reaches out to the southern coasts, almost as if the chalk is rushing out to embrace the element that formed it. From this direction came the threat of invasion. Little wonder then that our fore fathers raised forts folding around the contours of the hills. They threw up their pallisades and looked out across the miles of surrounding lowlands.
The Downlands do not respect mapped boundaries.
These chalk downlands are not unique to Hampshire though. They spread across the southern counties and standing on the hills, it is not possible to see where one county begins or another ends. We look out towards Dorset and Berkshire and across to Sussex but home, our sense of place will be forever Hampshire.