'Context' - A Blog
The wide oaks of the of a clay soil dotted along a lane (from the painting 'Doing the Firewood', in the Landscapes and Farming Gallery)

Walking on Clay

04/12/2020
On the difference in landscape between clay and sandy soils
I seem to have some kind of draw towards a clay soil. My childhood home in Guildford, Surrey was on a light sandy loam. In my teen years I went out walking a lot. Almost all those walks started and ended by climbing the North Downs with its sticky clay cap over chalk. Most of the walk would be beyond in the light easy soils of the Greensands.

As the friend who I walked with and I got older, we gained the use of the car to start our walks a little further afield. Mainly we used this advantage to go further along the delightful Greensand valley of the Tillingbourne, or explore a different stretch of the Downs, usually only starting around the end points of where our walks from home had extended to. Sometimes we would go up to the great Greensand ridges, with their fantastic views south, across the seemingly vast and woody lowlands of the Weald, with the South Downs just discernible in the distance.

There were a couple of occasions though that we went down into the Weald and walked there. It was always in the evening and the difference in the landscape had a palpable effect on the feel of the walk.

Many of the tracks were wide and rutted, but not muddy, ruts set hard for summer, unlike our sandy walks. On the sands the paths were often set in narrow declivities between deep banks, worn down by years of use and erosion. It seemed in the Weald as if the paths wore sideways, widening as users kept trying to skirt round last year’s deep rutty mess.

The absence of the deep bank sides to the paths gave the walks a more lazy air (perhaps it was partly the warm summer evenings). Where the holloways of the sands seem to urge you onwards with their focused direction, the winding around summer fields and hedges of the clay seem to incline towards a more lingering manner.

The oaks of those lands also stick in my mind. There were fantastic oaks around the sands, but the oaks here seemed different. They were still the southern English oaks (Quercus Robur), but they stood out in a different way, dotted along the hedgerows at seemingly almost regular intervals, they felt like they had bigger wider more open branching structures, with big long spreading branches. I don’t know if that is a thing caused by a different soil, or sub strain, or just a perception caused by the mood of the landscape, or a different viewing angle.

Those walks of my youth were formative. Mainly we carried on walking in our familiar haunts crossing from the chalk clay to the Greensand and back. But I had now tasted the claylands, little knowing just how much clay soils would just keep appearing for me in the future.

At the time I never really thought about the shape of the countryside much. I knew it was a great place to be, but little thoughts of its embedded histories or formation really occurred to me. I had little understanding of how the nature of mud and its people influence the shape of landscape. Or how landscapes shape people.

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