From the centre of town, a causeway runs, perpendicular to the main street, from busy road to quieter river. Originally the Tudor approach for the now ruined Cowdray House, the raised path today is popular with local towns people and dog walkers, and still provides a safer route when winter rains fill the low flood meadows either side. The damp fertile soil of these flood meadows is enriched and hoof-hollowed by summer grazing of cattle, but by this end of the year the cattle have been taken to drier pastures and already chill water glimmers between the rush clumps. A barn owl used to hunt here, but it has been many years since his ghostly apparition has bothered the voles that squeak between the rough grass and tussocks.
Despite the plastic bottles, cans and crisp packets that huddle beneath the squat bridge halfway along the causeway, and the varying volume of the traffic from the main road and adjoining car-park and bus station, the Cowdray Meadows are often rich in wildlife.
Multi-stemmed willows, linden trees with baubles of mistletoe in their crowns, and sepia-tinged alders crowd the meadow margins and shade the bank-sides of the River Rother that borders the north and eastern ends, often lending its waters to the seasonal floods.
Beside the bridge, a small scattering of willows grow with their feet in the meadow floodwaters, the rushes maturing taller and ungrazed between them. Stonechats are a regular sight here in the winter months, but there is no sign of them yet. I remember an early morning, when the sun shone low between these trees on a pair of roe deer browsing. When it reaches another bridge, this time one that crosses the River Rother and meets the ruins themselves, the path drops down off the causeway, along the edge of the meadows and around the base of a small hill. Atop this hill, under the roots of gnarled chestnut trees are the remains of a Norman castle which has lent its name to the mound; St Anns Hill. Other steeper paths climb up this hill and lead over the top back into town, whilst across on the opposite bank, the polo lawns roll away to a fringe of woodland and distant chimney pots. Russet foxes sometimes slink through the woods, or sunbathe on the low stone castle walls on quiet afternoons and jackdaws and grey squirrels quarrel over crevices and rain-worn holes in the trees. Great giants of fallen trucks rest on blankets of chestnut cases, lulled asleep by the soft "hoo" of stock doves. Blackbirds often chatter in alarm from the bushes, swooping low across the river.
This time, as I walked, all was still and quiet, except for the robin who sang from a willow by the gate. The low, early morning sun back-lit each grass blade and rush-clump, setting the ice sparkling. Jack Frost had the flood meadows and the trees tight within his cold grip; only the river could not be halted in its ever persistent race to the sea. It will still be flowing and gurgling, ripples tumbling over themselves, even now as we chat. Perhaps the deer have come to the shallow edge at the bend to drink the cool waters. Or just maybe, an otter hunts the glistening fish, in the cold shadows beneath the tree roots that reach out from the eroded soil. We shall look for footprints in the soft mud next time we visit, and see if we can interpret the story they tell, of the night-time life of the river and its meadows.
St Ann's Hill, the constantly murmuring river, and indeed the ruins of Cowdray house with its mistletoe-topped linden trees and rush-studded flood meadows, are only a few steps from the town centre; the shops and car-parks, the bus station and the traffic lights of pedestrian crossings. And yet they are an oasis of calm, a world of nature I look forward to sharing with you, that is made special by its very 'ordinary-ness' and it's proximity to everyday life.