Rediscovering That Childhood World Of Adders and Lizards

I have been wandering around in Sussex this week enjoying late August and declaring myself on holiday whilst not really going more than twenty miles away from home.

I may not have covered many miles but I have been a long way in time travel. I returned, on a gusty cloud rolling day to Sullington Warren, an area of heathland just above the South Downs.

The last time I was here I counted my age in single digits and still thought that summers lasted forever.

My parents “took” a house here for the entire duration of one of those childhood summers and we children were introduced to a wild world where we were allowed to run as free as wolves in a landscape which I now learn is described as an area of outstanding scientific interest.

We weren’t very concerned about any scientific interest in those days but our eyes were opened to a new environment where our accustomed coastland chalky soil gave way to the alien inland sandy landscape where the ground was covered in heather broken up by pine trees and oaks.

We ran up and down hills not knowing that they were Bronze Age Burial Mounds or that the scattering lizards that played in abundance on the rocks would one day be a rare sight in these parts.

We were more entertained by the fact that their tails came off in our hands if you held them too tight. Do they grow them back like I was told? I hope so.

I didn’t see any the other day but apparently they are still out there. Maybe they remembered those incidents with their tails and kept out of sight.

We may have run like wolves but I doubt very much if we looked much like feral beasts in our short shorts and wellington boots, our uniform even on the hottest of days.

Wellington Boots were worn on the strict instructions of our father who after living in India was very concerned about snakes and we were all told that we could do anything we liked as long as we were careful about adders – Britain’s only poisonous snake. He told us that they were lying in the heather all around us and if we didn’t wear our boots we would almost certainly be bitten.

They too weren’t in much abundance the other day but they are still there and the thought of them made me wish I had remembered my wellingtons this time too.

Wading through our own boy-made paths, waist high in heather, sudden death, we thought, threatened with every footfall. It was a relief whenever found a sandy, root bestraggled path.

We survived and the only injury I sustained was nothing more than a poisoned knee caused by a malicious horse fly. I remember my father sterilizing a knife over a flame and cutting out the puss whilst I looked on in horror. It worked and I was running around again a few days later.

Our exploration, as in the nature of such things, roamed wider and wider until we found a place which I now know is called Sandgate Park.

It was a jungle and I am still not sure today if we were meant to be there in this exotic wilderness that you could enter through a gap in the hedge.

I remember it as an almost impenetrable mass of giant rubbery leaved plants with enormous poisonous looking flowers. We hacked our way through using our snake-killing sticks and laid claim to a new kingdom.

Today I found out that Sandgate Park was a private estate and that the large house and exotic park had been left to crumble when its last owner, an old lady died, in the late 1940s. Previously it had been a grand plantation, in the Victorian manner, of exotic plants from around the world. One of those plants was the Rhodendron Ponticum which we now regard as a weed which encroaches and destroys some of our sights of outstanding scientific interest. Left to its own devices, it quickly turned the orderly plantings of Sandgate Park into a crazy jungle.

To us it was a paradise plant and I still, in my naivity, wonder, guiltily, at the magnificence of its blooms.

I am told that the park is now open to the public, well the parts that weren’t turned into sand quarries or “nice” residential housing. A band of enthusiastic conservationists have largely won the battle with Rhododendron Ponticum too but I can’t believe that they have annihilated it entirely.

I was tempted to go back this week to see that forbidden world and retrace my wellington-booted footsteps through the jungle but some things are best left in the mind and I am sure that Sandgate Park is an excellent place but something is lost when other things are gained.

I remember a lake too, hidden to view until you stumbled on to it, and nearly in to it, it was a place of childhood legends and, to my delight, I found a photograph today proving, at least, that that is still there. It is known, I see, as the Hidden Pond – somethings never change. I wonder if there are still newts and frogs there too.

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