On My Doorstep...

Pigdown Lane Slide Show

Although it may not compare with many of our local nature reserves for diversity of wildlife, Pigdown Lane in Kent, where I live, is not without interest and certainly has a few stories to tell. Being outside my front door also means that I inevitably observe the goings on here more than any other of my fields of interest if you will forgive the pun.

Pigdown Lane, about three quarters of a mile in length and only about a mile from Hever Castle, runs from Uckfield Lane to Wilderness Lane and owes its origins to those early Kentish settlers, the Jutes. This whole area was known as Hever Newtown until the mid 80's when a Hever address became fashionable and the Newtown appendage was quietly discarded.

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"Pigdown" - is a modern corruption of "Pigden", the den part being an Anglo-Saxon word for a clearing in the wood. Hence pig den was a clearing in the woods where pigs were kept...
"Pigdown" - is a modern corruption of "Pigden"...

"Pigdown" is a modern corruption of "Pigden", the den part being an Anglo-Saxon word for a clearing in the wood. Hence pig den was a clearing in the woods where pigs were kept. The original form is still retained in the Ordnance Survey map of 1892, which is an update of the 1840 version to accommodate the new railways. This indicates our pig den as the entire area encompassed within the triangle formed by Pigdown, Rectory and Uckfield Lanes.

Pigdown Lane itself. together with many other lanes in the area, was formed around the eighth century by the feet of thousands of pigs being driven in and out of the surrounding oak woodland to feed on acorns in the autumn and fatten before being slaughtered, and salted, to provide protein throughout the winter months, a system known as pannage. That the Jutes where big on pigs should come as no great surprise as their homeland, Jutland, is part of modern day Denmark which is still a major player in the bacon producing industry.

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The first building on the right - is a redevelopment of the old Dyehurst Stud...
The first building on the right...

Walking from the Uckfield Lane end, the first building on the right is a redevelopment of the old Dyehurst Stud. Prior to this an old barn which stood next to the road near to the new entrance gate was regularly home to a breeding pair of barn owls (Tyto Alba) and their offspring.

Tawny owls (Strix aluco)Strix aluco - The Tawny Owl... are now the most common owl in the district and can be heard calling on most nights during the breeding season. The little owl (Athene noctua) which had one of its introduction sites just up the road at Stonewall Park was once to be seen regularly in the early morning sitting on telegraph wires but I have not seen a single specimen since around the turn of the century.

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Next door stands another re-development - in this case of a 1930's cottage replete with it's own large pond...
Next door stands another re-development...

Next door stands another re-development, in this case of a 1930's cottage replete with it's own large pond, one of two to be found in Pigdown Lane, the other located in the vicinity of Pigdown Farm further along the lane. The history of these local ponds is a little confused. They probably arose incidentally when clay was removed and fired nearby to produce bricks and tiles for the construction of some of the older properties in the area, the oldest of which where built during in the fifteenth century. It is likely that they also served as reservoirs to local farms, providing water for stock, etc. Other smaller pits and pools in the locality are doubtless the result of fleeing German bombers jettisoning their payload as they ran for home during The Second World War. This was after all part of the famous 'Bomb Alley' and I am reliably informed that a Spitfire crashed in the field abutting Rectory Lane.

Many of the ponds in the area, like this one, are home to great crested newts (Triturus cristatus), as well as the more common smooth newt (Triturus vulgaris). Until the mid nineties the surface of this pond would be studded with the protruding heads of literally hundreds of common frogs (Rana temporaria)Rana temporaria - The Common Frog... during the breeding season while even my tiny garden pond would hold up to ten pairs. This all changed with the advent of the viral disease,'red legs' and more recently chitrid fungus (Chytridia mycosis). Populations to the west of the main road through Edenbridge and Stick Hill, however, currently seem still to be unaffected.

Most of the common damselflies and dragonflies are to be seen here during the summer months while the iridescent blue flash of the kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) is also no rarity. Grass snakes (Natrix natrix)Natrix natrix - The Grass Snake... are plentiful in the surrounding countryside and regularly visit the ponds in search of prey (these days predominately newts and small fish I imagine).

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The pair of semi-detached cottages opposite the pond - being quite interesting in that they are built of noticeably different brick...
The pair of semi-detached cottages opposite the pond...

These are the only properties on the eastern side of the lane. All of the other dwellings are sited to the west, with the pair of semi-detached cottages opposite the pond being quite interesting in that they are built of noticeably different brick. The one to the right is the older dating from 1805 while the left hand of the pair was added in 1815 when the son of the household took a wife. Coincidental reminders of the great battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo.

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The next terrace came into being around 1865 - when it was built, with the coming of the railway, to accommodate foremen and others of similar status associated with the construction works...
The next terrace came into being around 1865...

The next terrace came into being around 1865 when it was built, with the coming of the railway, to accommodate foremen and others of similar status associated with the construction works. The famous Markbeech riots broke out during this endeavour, when foreign immigrant labour (mostly French) was employed to undercut the indigenous work force employed in digging the Markbeech tunnel. Fighting broke out and was apparently quite fierce. No official record is made of any fatalities but local lore has it that the body of an unfortunate victim was discovered later at the rear of The Victoria Arms public house (now a private dwelling) at Horseshoe Green. It is also said that a small brick structure abutting the church wall behind The Kentish Horse was built to serve as a mortuary.

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The next terrace of white cottages is perhaps slightly older - and at a time when villages were more self sufficient than in this modern era, used to include the local laundry and a bakery...
The next terrace of white cottages is perhaps slightly older...

The next terrace of white cottages is perhaps slightly older and at a time when villages were more self sufficient than in this modern era, used to include the local laundry and a bakery.

Those who live in this section of the lane with compost heaps enjoy the company of numerous slow-worms (Anguis fragilis)Anguis fragilis - The Slow Worm..., which, together with a healthy population of hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus), assist with slug control throughout the summer months. Badgers (Meles meles)Meles meles - The Badger..., from local setts, also visit occasionally although of course they are no friends of the hedgehogs being one of the few species able to make a meal of one.

Overhead, from roughly the time of the millennium, we are more and more likely to see buzzards (Buteo buteo) circling as like the roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), which arrived around the same time, they continue to extend their range eastwards. Up to four may be seen at any one time as they ride the morning thermals on warm sunny days. Indeed my back garden is becoming quite a hot spot for raptor watching, with kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) and sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus) regularly gracing our skies and even the odd hobby (Falco subbuteo) or peregrine (Falco peregrinus) to be seen.

For many years jackdaws (Corvus monedula) would nest in one of the disused chimney pots on my house every summer until around 2004, after which they came no more, although there are still many around and about. I wonder if as they are a long lived bird it was the same pair and time or some other fate has simply caught up with one or both of them?

Most years the mellifluous song of the nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) is to be heard on balmy nights wafting across the fields, to be replaced by the insistent call of the cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) by day. Those other summer visitors the house martins (Delichon urbica) and swallows (Hirundo rustica) are still very much in evidence but seem to be getting fewer every year.

In winter many households put up feeders and attract most of the expected woodland and garden birds. A couple of more unusual visitors here include the marsh tit (Parus palustris) and, usually in colder snaps, siskin (Carduelis spinus).

We are also blessed with all three of our native woodpeckers. The great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopus major) is a regular, most likely to be seen on feeders to the front of the properties. It seems to like to have an escape route to the open countryside and woodland in clear view at all times. The green woodpecker, being more of an insectivorous ground feeder (loves ants), does not call in but by feeding throughout the summer this year (2009) my neighbour has managed to attract the illusive lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopus minor), which tends to stay in the high woodland canopy, to her front table on a regular basis!

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The fields extending from opposite the houses - to the farmyard are of particular interest. In winter moorhens from the pond venture far beyond their comfort zone into the open sward, only to scurry, half running, half flying, back to safety amid considerable commotion if disturbed...
The fields extending from opposite the houses...

The fields extending from opposite the houses to the farmyard are of particular interest. In winter moorhens (Gallinula chloropus) from the pond venture far beyond their comfort zone into the open sward, presumably looking for worms, only to scurry, half running, half flying, back to safety amid considerable commotion if disturbed. Great flocks of fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) and redwing (Turdus iliacus) also visit, while in summer herds of fallow deer (Dama dama)Dama dama - The Fallow Deer..., up to a dozen strong, emerge from the woodland at the far side, normally in the early morning or as dusk approaches.

It is not, however, the wildlife which engender such interest in these fields so much as their structure and origins.

Much of the area around Hever Castle, including many properties (identified at the time by their 'estate grey' finish), belonged to that estate until sold off in the early eighties and formed the 'home farm'. This locality, it is often stated, is "Rural England at its Tudor best" and the local hedgerows bear testimony to this.

The peripheral hedge to these four fields, abutting the lane, if assessed using Dr Max Hooper's hypothesis that: If we walk approximately thirty yards of hedgerow counting the woody species present (all rose species count as one) and multiply the number by one hundred and ten then add thirty, the resultant figure gives the age of the hedge in years (plus or minus a hundred years or so). When applied to these hedges this reveals them to be in the region of five hundred years old, setting them squarely in the first great or 'Tudor' period of enclosures.

Here's the conundrum: Such as remains of the hedges, which separate the four fields (mostly now replaced with wire sheep fencing), are much younger, when assessed on the same basis, being composed mainly of hawthorn. This places them around the second great or 'Georgian' period of enclosures when huge nurseries were established across the nation to accommodate the need for hawthorn whips or 'quicks' as it was known, for the speed with which it could create a hedge.

And the explanation: In the mid 1600's the search was on to improve agricultural output in order to feed the rapidly growing population. One Richard Weston left our shores at this time for the Netherlands, in part to escape the civil war but also to study their more productive system of four course crop rotation over our own three course with a fallow year. What impressed him was their use of artificial grass to fortify the soil and increase cropping potential. This 'artificial grass' was red clover, as we now know it. Its special talent lay in the ability to fix free nitrogen into the soil via root nodes as nitrogenous compounds now understood by every schoolboy as the nitrogen cycle.

After the war our Mr Weston returned to Britain, with stocks of the miracle plant. The system was famously taken up by Viscount Charles 'Turnip' Townshend among others. Many large estates experimented with the new rotation over the next century and my view is that before us here is Hever estates effort at what by then had become known as Norfolk Four Course, probably because many of its pioneers on this side of The North Sea hailed from that county.

Another interesting feature of the fields is that they measure roughly 220yds across. Many fields from this period are of similar scale as at this time oxen were the most common beast of draft and this was as far as a pair could drag a plough before being rested and turned to carve the next trench. Thus a length of approximately 220yds became commonly known as a furrow long, later corrupted to furlong. A term perversely associated with horse racing and little else in our modern world.

The hedgerow generally contains most of the more common plants that you may expect to find in this habitat. There are no great rarities here. Whereas you may encounter the odd glow-worm (Lampyris noctiluca) on the way up to The Kentish Horse in Uckfield Lane and a few common lizards (Lacerta vivipara) at the other end in Wilderness Lane neither is present on my home turf. A newcomer, since 2004, which is seen regularly in the lane, and is now very common locally, is the hornet (Vespa crabro)Vespa crabro - The Hornet.... Mercifully despite its huge size its is quite docile and will not sting unless seriously provoked. Bats of indeterminate species are also still quite common along this stretch and are pretty much guaranteed when out for a stroll on summers evenings.

At the other end of the Four Course fields, in the vicinity of Pigdown Farm, there are always flocks of sparrows (Passer domesticus), themselves now a bit on the scarce side, and plenty of wild hops (Humulus lupulus) together with a defunct oast house. Part of the legacy of another now long passed form of farming or perhaps I should say gardening as there are only hop gardens, never fields.

Once requiring the exodus of half the population of London's east-end to pick them the hop harvest is now long gone, apart from a few pockets, mainly around Paddock Wood. They lost out long ago to foreign imports and the fashion for lighter beers.

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At the bottom of the dip runs Dyehurst gill - which must have played a crucial part in washing away the wet soil which would otherwise have accrued here over hundreds of years...
At the bottom of the dip runs Dyehurst gill...

Past Pigdown Plantation the lane dips sharply and bends abruptly to the right at the juncture with Rectory Lane, which joins from the left. At this point the lane is many feet below the level of the surrounding fields. This is 'holloway' and clearly demonstrates the most profound effect of all those cleft pigs' feet that passed this way so many years ago. Each step collecting a tiny scrap of mud and loosening the surface so that, together with water erosion, aided by the falling terrain, the track was lowered over the years to its present level.

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Views to the left toward Lockskinner's farm - over a recently planted area of mixed woodland, with Chiddingstone village and Bough Beech reservoir lying beyond but tantalisingly just out of view...
Views to the left toward Lockskinner's farm...

At the bottom of the dip runs Dyehurst gill which must have played a crucial part in washing away the wet soil which would otherwise have accrued here over hundreds of years. Today it can still form a fierce torrent in times of heavy rain. In quieter more clement weather it has the feel of a small piece of tropical rainforest. I did once make attempts to walk along a section of it to have a look at the flora and fauna but only managed a short distance due to the density of the vegetation. I still suspect it may well conceal a few surprises and is certainly worthy of further investigation.

From here the final few hundred yards is all uphill to the junction with Wilderness Lane enjoying views to the left toward Lockskinner's farm, over a recently planted area of mixed woodland, with Chiddingstone village and Bough Beech reservoir lying beyond but tantalisingly just out of view.