African Lessons, Retold in Sussex

Christian would love this…

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Above: From Railway Land Nature Reserve looking to the chalk cliffs of Lewes, East Sussex.

“In the war, Grandad was in the RAF and his plane crashed into the jungle in Africa. He thought he was doomed after being injured and bitten by a snake, but he was found by a tribe of pygmies. By sheer luck, Grandad was also short (at 4’8”) so they connected with him and looked after him. Because Grandad couldn’t get back to his RAF base, he stayed with them for two-and-a-half years and, during that time, the jungle pygmies taught him everything they knew about living in the jungle, and all about the animals and plants.

“When he finally came back to England, being in the jungle had been a life-changing experience for him. I was about 11 when he took me under his wing. I was only with him for about a year, but he passed on all the information he’d learnt from the pygmies, so that I could understand and enjoy the countryside a bit better. I took it all on board and have carried his lessons in my head for the past 50 years. I wasn’t sure that people would believe Grandad’s story, but now, suddenly, seems the right time to start passing his knowledge on to others, especially youngsters, as Nature’s had such a positive impact on my life.”

My son, Cameron, aged eight, is listening wide-eyed to this fantastical, yet true, tale as told by naturalist, Steve Homewood. Although, Steve modestly refers to himself as an ‘ordinary man who enjoys being out in the countryside’, he’s more than that. I ‘met’ Steve via Twitter and asked him if he minded me tagging along on his daily walk, so I could notice nature from a naturalist’s point of view. Little did I know that usually Steve refuses offers to walk with others, preferring solitude.

Steve suggested Railway Land Nature Reserve, in Lewes, East Sussex, when I mentioned I’d be interested in exploring a ‘watery’ environment which I knew little about. Cameron, after hearing me talk about the walk, decided he’d like to come along too. “Perfect! Bring him along, so important to teach the kids,” replied Steve to my request.

“The world is now yours, Cameron,” Steve continues, after telling the African tale, “and you’ll inherit it when we’re all gone and it needs looking after. To be able to do this well, you need to be able to understand Nature. So, tonight I’m going to teach you a few things that Grandad passed onto me:

‘Noise shouldn’t come from you, it should come to you.’

‘Don’t just hear things… really listen.

‘Don’t just look at things… see them and understand what’s going on.’​

We start our walk during the early evening, a time of day which Steve’s grandad (nicknamed ‘Billy’*, but called Harold Victor Mason) described as the ‘magic hour’ when the wind usually drops and the animals come out. Early morning is also the ‘magic hour’. “You mustn’t make any noise louder than a whisper, otherwise you’ll break the spell and scare all the animals away,” Steve tells us.

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Above: Thin-lipped mullet enjoying hydrotherapy in the River Ouse. A lamprey attached to the fish in the foreground.

Before entering the Reserve, we stand on Cliffe Bridge, in the town’s centre, and Steve shows us our first ‘secret’: five thin-lipped mullet which are feeding at the edge of the River Ouse (which is currently on an ebb tide and, is here, eight miles from the sea). “Come with me,” he then says excitedly and off we go to see a special spot. In a patch of clear water, Steve shows us where he noticed thousands of these mullet congregating in the second week of February. The clear water is where the icy cold, chalk-filtered, spring water runs from the River Winterbourne into the muddy river. Last year, he put a camera into the spring water and realised that all the fish were injured in some way: bitten by seals, covered in fungal infections or had on them lampreys hitching a lift. He continued to observe and saw fish staying in the spring water, until their wounds were healed, and then they returned to the muddy Ouse.

[Steve was on BBC SpringWatch in 2016, explaining this ‘murmuration of mullet’ and he became a minor celebrity in Lewes — watch out for little lost ‘Nemo’ in the film.]

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Above: The reed beds of Railway Land Nature Reserve seen from the hillock

​The next ‘secret’ to see this evening was the hard-to-see Reed Warbler — again, the African connection. We enter the Railway Land Nature Reserve which was once, as the name suggests, the train depot for the Lewes to Uckfield line (culled by Beeching) and left to the people of Lewes when the landowner died. The reed beds were planted and are now home to a huge variety of wildlife, which live in the reeds, the water and around the edges where the layers of spent coal from the steam engines makes burrowing very easy.

While taking in the view at the top of a spiral-wound hillock, Steve tells us we mustn’t wave our hands around as the reed warblers are very shy and startle easily. We can hear them, and a cuckoo, but they remain hidden. As we listen, Steve picks the top leaves from a nettle, pitches them between his fingers and, much to Cameron’s surprise, pops it into his mouth. “Too far gone,” he says, “don’t try them.” I should mention that Steve is also a forager and later on the walk he tries the top leaves of the blackberry, but these are too far gone as well. “The first little shoots taste of coconut.” Cameron and I make a mental note for early next Spring.

Steve gives Cameron another tip, which I’m sure he’ll try: “You can tame almost any creature — slowworm, snake or tiny bird — if you put it into your shirt top pocket for about two hours. It can hear your heartbeat and is nice and warm, which reminds them of being cuddled up to their mum or dad so they begin to see you as their parent… but don’t try it with an adder. I used to put snakes in my pocket to scare the girls at school,” he confides.

We suddenly realise we are breaking all of Grandad’s rules and we descend the hillock in silence, and make our way onto the path. “Mostly animals are so scared of humans because (just like us now!) we’re so loud and we rush around and it frightens them. But creatures get to know you if they see you often enough. Say if a fox comes around that bend in the path ahead — what would you do?

“You’d stop dead, stare at it, probably point at it and says, ‘Look, Mum, a fox’, which is just the behaviour of a predator. The fox would be off like a shot. What you have to do is:

  • look away immediately,
  • turn to one side and start to yawn,
  • maybe scratch your ear,
  • pick some grass and pretend to eat,

The fox then knows you’re not a threat and it will stay and watch you for a minute and you can slowly get your camera out, point it in the right direction and click. By then, he’s seen you staring at him and he’s gone.

“If you spot an animal you want to sneak up on, first stick your finger right into your mouth to make it wet, stick it up in the air and see which side feels cold. [Cameron and I join Steve as he demonstrates.] The cold side shows you which direction the wind is coming from, so you need to get yourself upwind of the animal. If a fox is downwind of you, he’ll probably smell your flight/fight hormone which you’d give off when you see him and he’ll disappear. If you’re upwind, the fox can hear and see you, but he can’t smell you, so often he’ll disappear and in a few minutes he’ll reappear downwind, having trotted round in a big circle, so he can smell you.”

Unsurprisingly, we meet no foxes. “We’ve been far too noisy — chattering like reed warblers. But I’m so excited about meeting someone new!” Steve tells Cameron.

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Above: Reed warbler amongst the reeds, captured by Steve.

​But we do see several airborne reed warblers as we make our way quietly along the path which meanders through the reed beds. Steve tells us he’s been looking out for the secretive birds for eight weeks and has only taken three reasonable pictures of them within the reeds. “You can tell where they are as the reeds will waggle about when they move. And if it’s windy, try swaying from side to side so they can’t see you stand out. But these birds are very hard to get to, and we don’t want to disturb them.” Cameron and I have heard our first reed warblers, so that’s a fine evening stroll.

Then we hear our first cuckoo of the season and Steve tells Cameron about the cuckoo’s brazen manipulation of the poor reed warblers — he takes over the nest, turfing out the warbler’s eggs, and sits squawking until fed by the hood-winked parents. Cameron can’t believe it when Steve then tells him about the magpie (when Cameron spots one) who used to be known as the ‘thieving magpie’ on account of their stealing wedding rings left on the ledge of an open window while the women did their laundry.

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Above: Cameron and Steve — with the signed Secret Railway Land.

These tales, told with passion, are what ignites young minds. As we sit on a bench, Steve shows Cameron pictures he’s taken in the past of the reed warblers, which are in a self-published book: Secret Railway Land. Then follows stories of horse whispering, bird’s nests, kingfishers, young foxes hiding behind a leaf and thinking you can’t see their bodies, bear’s grease hair improver, ‘whizz-bang’ pirate bombs and ammonites. It really is the stuff of children’s fairytales and we’re both spellbound. Steven signs the book for Cameron, as a present.

“I used to come here when I was a child and talk to the old people. They passed their stories on to me and they fired my imagination, especially when they told me about soldiers using the site for bayonet training where animal guts from the abattoir were stuffed into sacking and hung up on a scaffolding for the soldiers to charge at. It got them prepared for the horrors of war.”

I think the reference goes over Cameron’s head, luckily, and looking about today, the scene is peaceful with a few dog walkers enjoying an evening stroll. The sun is setting and the insects lazily buzz above our heads. The only unnatural noise being the police siren which screams out from the nearby A26. “Wonder if we’ll hear the frogs?” exclaims Steve. “As it gets close to night, they really start to kick off when they hear a siren as they think it’s a predator. Have we got time to go and find them, and a grass snake if we’re lucky, in the water meadow?” he says, looking at his watch. “I know a patch of water channel where we might find a snake.”

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Above: Grass snakes can be found hunting for frogs and fish in the water channels which criss-cross the meadows.

​Off we set, thoughts of school-night bedtimes set aside. As we walk I ask Steve about his background and am surprised to hear he was a dental technician for 30-odd years, working in surgeries all over England and Scotland, making bridges, braces and implants. Like many who are Nature lovers, Steve got fed up with being indoors five to six days of the week and when he had to have two knee operations, which saw him off work for two years, he vowed enough was enough. “I decided to reinvent myself and turn my hobby into my job, so now I give a variety of nature-related talks (alongside painting and decorating which pays the bills). People tell me I should do nature walks, too, and charge people money but I just can’t because Grandad would turn in his grave! I also turn down many requests for walks, as I don’t think most people ‘get it’ — but I thought you did from what I read about you,” he tells me, with a smile.

Unfortunately, we don’t find any frog chorus nor a grass snake as the farmer has removed the footbridge which leads onto the water meadows — the boisterous young cattle roaming about are obviously too ‘over-friendly’ with walkers. “I’m sorry we didn’t see anything exciting,” apologises Steve, as we turn for home. “You never know what to expect when you spend time outdoors. Sometimes you see tiny things, like Lacky moth caterpillars, and you can spend hours watching them, as they group together en masse, making their web tent and you wonder how on earth they communicate with each other. Or you hear a song thrush and marvel at the complexity of their song. It’s the best song. They are clearly declaring their patch and saying I can sing better than you, but there must be more to it than that.”

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Above: Grass snake, as photographed by Steve.

​I wonder if there is a spiritual side to Steve’s connection with nature, but I don’t broach the subject. Instead I ask him if he knows about my brother, Christian Velten, who’s been missing in Africa for 14 years. “Yes, I was touched to hear about your brother, when I read about him, especially after my grandad was gone for so long. HE did not want to come back — as he was having a fine old time — and he couldn’t phone anyone or just walk out of the jungle… the Congo was a mad old place. He was there for the best part of three years and his mother and wife had no way of knowing where he was. But he reappeared. So, live in hope, Hannah.”

This almost makes me cry. I ruffle Cameron’s hair as I know Cameron thinks a lot about the Uncle Christian he’s never met. Christian is a zoologist/adventurer, so I can just imagine him and Cameron taking walks together… one day.

Suddenly, just as we have finished talking about Christian, Cameron shouts (yes, shouts, after all Steve’s told him!): “Look, it’s a baby chick!” We both stop and peer into the dark undergrowth (goodness only knows how he spotted it) and there, staring straight at us, is one of those ‘thieving magpies’ we’d been talking about. It made our night, and Cameron’s too, as he declared himself a “proper naturalist now”.

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Above: Baby magpie lurking in the undergrowth; left the nest too early.

​He’s been bitten by the Nature bug. Hooray. I hoped this walk with Steve would ignite something in him — it most certainly has. We now have Steve’s photographic exhibition pencilled in the diary (21st May 2017 — see details below) and on the way home he asked when would we go back out with Steve to find the frogs and snakes. Job done.

As for myself, I am beginning to rediscover a different side to Nature; one which I knew as a child growing up on a farm with Christian. Be silent. Listen. Hear. See. Observe. So much is revealed. Thank you to Steve who reminded me of this.

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Twitter: @homewood_s

Email Steve for talk requests — foraging, connecting with nature & fishing:

Steve’s books — including Secret Railway Land — can be purchased here:

* Rudyard Kipling named Steve’s grandad ‘Billie’, after the character Billie Fish, the little Gurkha lost and found in Afghanistan in Kipling’s story The Man Who Would Be King.

Spiritual Grief Healer, Writer & Speaker. Working with my brother-in-Spirit, Christian, to inspire and empower grievers to fly free.

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