Getting my Hands Dirty: Mapping a Rewilding.

Let’s face it. Things are fairly tough out there right now so I thought I’d write you a good news story. Here goes….

When I’m working, I often sit in my studio and listen to the radio. Before these times of chaos, when the virus took up less immediate headspace, I used to become frustrated when I heard news of the climate emergency (as you might have realised if you regularly read this blog!). I wrote emails, shared articles and demonstrated – hoping that my actions would change minds and move mountains. If I’m honest, I was never too convinced it would make much of a difference. If I’m honest, I thought hands would (ironically) need to get much dirtier if we were to change the world. It now looks like Corona is doing that for us. Perhaps the following story gives some hope about how communities can come together to rebuild something after disaster. 

Sompting is a tiny village sitting at the foot of the South Downs National Park in Sussex, England. There’s a church and a village green and a herd of sheep. Once upon a time there was a local country fair that happened every year pulling in all the folks from the surrounding fields. There’s also a large housing estate, an industrial estate and a recycling centre that is slowly being decommissioned. The centre leaves an area bleak with toxins and forbidden to the casual explorer.

The old Broadwater Brook springs high in the hills above, running through chalklands of orchids, eyebright and cowslips.

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The Sompting Estate – source of the Brook. Photo by Graham Horn.

In the 30’s, the stream was culverted once it reached Sompting Village, forced into concrete tunnels, under the recycling centre. Year by year, the poisons there leached into the water until, when the brook finally left the culverts, it was as toxic as the land above. The watermint and mallow wouldn’t grow and the fish and dragonflies stayed away.

That was how it was until last year when the Ouse and Adur River Trust took on the project of rewilding this urban chalk stream (known as the EPIC project which stands for Enhancing Places, Inspiring Communities). In 2019, a ditch, perhaps only a mile in length, was dug next to the recycling centre and the water was channelled away and out into the wild light once again. Community volunteers were crucial in planting thousands of trees, laying hedgerows and sowing a wildflower meadow. When I originally wrote this post, it was still ongoing – people were still arriving, offering their time, getting their hands dirty. Slowly, the ditch filled with water, the plants began to grow and the frogs and the newts returned.

For my own part, I was asked to create a map as signage and also for the website (with interactivity) which you can see here. Using a technical flat plan and satellite imagery, the map was sketched out and then hand painted in watercolour, gouache and acrylic ink. It shows the stream, pathway, wildflower meadow and also a smaller map of the general location to put the brook in context. Below are the initial concept sketches.

The map is patterned with flowers and wildlife.

And the title lettering is based on a Victorian font to reflect the history of the location.

Who knows where we’ll be in the late spring of 2021, but perhaps the rewilded chalk stream and the Sompting Brooks Trail will be ready.  The community will be able to watch the bird life from the willow hide or follow the green oak sculptures to the seating area. From the community-designed bench they’ll be able to sit quietly and listen to the breeze in the reeds. Or maybe they’ll take part in more hands-on activities like scanning the fields for neolithic flint arrowheads with Worthing Archaeology Group or counting harvest mice with the River Trust itself.

I was really pleased to be involved with EPIC. Somehow, it felt like an action that was more direct, more visceral, a way of getting my hands more dirty than usual. My habitual railing against environmental neglect felt like a fruitless task but in this case, I could see the physical results of our group activity. The brooks grew from an empty mud building site into something showing signs of life (-I know for a fact that the waters are teeming with tadpoles right now.) Online visitors are finding the map and becoming aware of the project – updates and photos are still being shared for those stuck at home. Volunteer numbers will grow once again when the coronavirus pandemic has calmed. Come next year, maybe we can join them in hunting for flint arrowheads and harvest mice too. The brook has come alive again.

Ultimately the message of this story for me right now is that, even if the world is looking bleak and toxic, if we pull together in small ways, we can rebuild eventually. We can come once again into the light.

If you live anywhere in Sussex and, in the future, fancy getting your hands dirty with me, sign up here to get involved with the Sompting Brooks Trail. May be it’s a little hope for the next few years that we all need. 

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