RICHARD WILLIAMSON If you go down to the woods then avoid the scissor man

We’re coming to The Mens and The Cut’ I used to shout to my tiny children years ago as we sped through Sussex in the old open Alvis car.

I had not the slightest idea they were then petrified with visions of ‘the great long-legged scissor-man’ in Struwwelpeter who would come out of the woods and cut off their thumbs, not to speak of tall Agrippa who would drown them in the dark forest streams that run through the woods.

I was merely pointing out we were driving through an ancient forest on the road from Petworth to Billingshurst which was now a nature reserve.

This week’s walk tracks through the trees and my photo shows a lovely sylvan scene as you come out of the forest into the marvellous flower meadows at Badlands, an old name denoting difficult to cultivate or move across. Nothing to fear – except perhaps the mosquitoes.

Yet there is always a sense of other times, here, of history, perhaps unkind things, almost a haunting.

The Canadian troops trained here in the second world war 
for the raid on Dieppe on 
August 19, 1942 and everywhere you see little pits and hollows under the trees where they must have practised with bombs and digging slit trenches.

Also it is a dark place because the trees are so tall and the gullies where the streams tumble down their yellow ravines are steep and slippery.

That apart you will soon appreciate the wealth of wildlife. Spring flowers and birdsong are over now until next year, but the season for autumn colours and fungi is fast approaching.

Clumps of holly bushes make winter sanctuary for woodcock, the hollow trees give nest sites for stock doves. Woodpeckers drum the dead trunks for the beetle feast inside.

I watched white admirals gliding serenely in the shafts of sunlight as the females looked for honeysuckle leaves on which to lay their eggs. Somewhere in the high canopies of the oaks the purple emperors would have been sipping honeydew as they prepared for their courtship dances and then egg-laying on the willows.

Badlands meadows are managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust with its ‘Hit Squad’ when these retired able-bodied men and women pull bracken which would otherwise destroy the sheets of wood betony, agrimony, dyers greenweed, hardhead and wood trefoil.

That in turn would destroy the grassland butterflies there such as ringlet, meadow brown, gatekeeper and small skipper which I saw last week as I planned your walk for this week.

It is a strange place as far as English woodlands go, more like what these used to be, so we find them unusual. No wonder a prominent public figure resigned his presidency of the trust many years ago when he saw what they were doing with their woods.

He was a traditional forester and thought the whole lot should be cut down and replanted with proper trees. The unkindest cut of all, that would have been.