Published by David Bangs, 2018, 396 pages
Pbk £30 ISBN: 9780954863821
Review by Marion Shoard
In A Freedom to Roam Guide to the Brighton Downs, published in 2008, David Bangs, a long-time resident of the Brighton area, amateur naturalist and access campaigner, took his readers through every stretch of chalk downland in the Sussex Downs between Shoreham and Lewes, describing in detail the topography, history and natural history in an informative and engaging way.
Ten years on, Bangs has come up with his second book, covering an area north of the Brighton Downs. It has been well worth the waiting. In The Land of the Brighton Line he describes in detail the many features of interest he has found during countless expeditions in this stretch of hidden, relatively little-known terrain. It extends 15 – 17 miles on either side of the stretch of the London to Brighton railway line from just north of Redhill down through Gatwick and Crawley to the escarpment of the South Downs behind Brighton. Dorking lies in the area’s far north-western corner, Oxted in its north-eastern corner, while Lewes to the south-east and Upper Beeding to the south-west are just outside.
Firstly, Bangs sets the context. He examines the ways in which this section of the Weald has been shaped by geological forces as well, since prehistoric times, as social and economic ones. There is much on recent landscape history – battles over conservation and securing access for walkers. He explains who owns this land now and what is likely to happen to it in the future.
In the second part of his introduction, Bangs examines the main types of landscape characteristic of the area – meadow, old pasture, moor and heath; rivers, streams, ponds and other waterlands; and woodland (with additional chapters on the forests of St Leonard’s and Worth, and the area’s oldest and biggest trees). His depth of knowledge is greatest in natural history but Bangs is a true polymath, writing with passion and scholarship on geology and history too. His book is studded with fascinating and beautifully-presented photographs, maps and diagrams. He has clearly assembled many of the maps and diagrams from scratch – showing, for instance, the location of the area’s main (mainly private) estates, planning designations in the area, and the location of all the wild service trees in Cowfold or the veteran and ancient trees of Balcombe Down and Paddockhurst Park in Worth Forest.
This is no dry, anonymous catalogue – it is enlivened by recollections of discoveries here made with his mother and later his partner and grandson, as well as Bangs’ own poems – prompted, for instance, by turning up at a farmhouse and asking to see a rock reportedly found in a local stream bearing the imprint of an iguanadon’s foot, and his sadness at the decline in numbers of cuckoos heard calling in the area in spring.
After 160 pages of context-setting, Bangs devotes 200 pages to a detailed examination of 16 sub-areas he has identified. Here, he describes a wide range of features of interest and explanations for their survival, ranging from a Dissenter chapel to a particular place-name or flower-rich meadow. Particularly enticing are his descriptions of gills – the mini-ravines which cut through the area’s diverse geological formations and are bordered by steep, linear woods. Here, undisturbed and boasting their own microclimates, relict plants of the Wildwood survive, such as coralroot bittercress, hay-scented buckler-fern and small-leaved line. Very rare elsewhere in Britain and indeed Europe, this part of the Weald contains more than 1,200 gills. Bangs helpfully lists, with grid references, the 15 he considers would most repay a visit.
Bangs does not offer his readers suggested walks – he tells you what you might find and leaves you to make your own way there, even if that involves bashing through the scrub. Yet it is hard to think of another field guide which more whets one’s appetite to set off and explore a piece of our homeland that you’ve never even heard of.
Copies are available through the website.