March: Steyning Downland Orchard

I wonder, living side by side with Covid as we have over the last two years, how many of you reading this, have found somewhere special you could escape to when everything became too difficult to cope with. Somewhere quiet and peaceful to enjoy some time out. Somewhere to just sit, relax, close your eyes, listen to the sound of the wind, feel grass beneath your feet.

A special place made for taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling.

Perhaps a walk through a wood took you to a shady clearing where there was a fallen tree to sit on where you could step outside yourself and simply enjoy the woodland around you.

Or, on a hike across the Downs, you found a grassy knoll sheltered against the wind where you could look out on the vast expanse of the Weald disappearing into the horizon and forget everything, or maybe you just visited a bench in a park again and again to sit and listen to the birds.

I have never really thought why, but the place I return to again and again is Steyning’s Downland Orchard, the younger sister of the Community Orchard that most people know and regularly walk through at the top of the Memorial Playing Field. It sits at the base of the Downs, just below the old Rifle Range, right on the edge of Steyning where town and countryside meld gently into each other.

I walk up from Mouse Lane taking the first track that leads up towards the hills. On the right is a field that for years has been used to graze horses. At this time of year, it is a tangle of long grass and brown dried seed heads.

On a summer’s evening, as the sun dips down behind the Downs you can stand on the edge and watch the long evening shadows fade into the dusk.

The locals call the track Nightingale Lane and from April onwards you can hear the nightingales calling from the dense overgrown thicket of trees and bushes that run its length.

Hidden from view behind the copse is the Mill Stream that bubbles out of the ground higher up and flows through Steyning along Tanyard Lane.

The orchard sits just inside the field where the track finishes and opens out into pasture land.

Steyning Community Orchard and the Steyning Downland Scheme have worked together to create this special place. There is a play area for children and since 2017 the orchard volunteers have planted twenty-two trees; heritage apples, pear trees, plums, a Greengage and even a Medlar.

It is a haven for wildlife; butterflies, bees, things that fly and crawl and burrow. There is a hibernaculum along one side of the orchard and if you are quiet and lucky you might see adders basking in the warm Spring sunshine.

This is kestrel and buzzard country. In the evening there are bats and you might just see a Barn Owl hunting across the Rifle Range.

The perfect place...
Early Spring. I find a stump inside the orchard to lean against, sitting in the grass, and close my eyes. It is warm and sheltered from the wind. I can feel the sun on my face.

There is the drowsy hum of a bee from the hedge and from far above there comes the mewing of a buzzard climbing into a clear sky, circling higher and higher on a thermal, up and up into a space where there are no worries, no stress, no anxiety; just peace and quiet and blue.
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