Caught by the River

Ghost Forest

Alexi Francis | 4th September 2021

Writer and illustrator Alexi Francis traverses millennia as she wanders the sunken forest of Pett Level beach.

Wandering the beach I look seaward. It is early, the sun has not yet warmed the day and the tide is out, exposing a broad stretch of beach dark with rocks and matted seaweed. I walk out on to the sand, rippled and dotted with worm casts, jumping over streams of water seeping out to sea. I reach the dark mounds and look closely. They flake as I touch them with my boot. I prod a piece with a finger and find that it is spongy; it is wood, not rock. Soon I recognise stumps and fallen trunks all around in the sand, waterlogged and pockmarked with piddock holes. Everywhere there are piddock holes. The substrate around the trunks is grey clay, rubbery to the touch. There is no smell of peat, just the hint of salt in the sea air. I walk among the trees of a ghost forest.

This is the sunken forest of Pett Level beach, about 6000 years old. It lies east along the coast from my home town of Brighton. Studies have shown that alder, birch, hazel, alder buckthorn, yew, ash and willow trees once grew here, along with brambles, sedges, meadow rue, bedstraws and marsh marigold; a mixed woodland flourishing when the sea level was six metres lower than it is today. 

The high-pitched calls of oystercatchers ring inland from the sea’s edge. Through binoculars, I spot a peregrine perched on the cliff, surveying the scene in the weak sunshine. While I pick my way through the fallen trunks, I imagine what the forest must have been like in ancient times; the plants, the animals, the Mesolithic people. I imagine…


…It’s late afternoon, you step into the undergrowth where the cliff rocks have fallen. You know this place, its trees, its ragged loops of honeysuckle, its pockets of darkness. The willow hisses and springs back, closing behind you. In your hand you hold your spear with a head of flint, sealed and bound.

Now, you think of your family and your children’s children, those to come.

Now you must become deer; muscle, bone, antler, hide.

The forest is sodden. Leaf litter underfoot, pools and matted tree roots, clumps of sedges. A hoverfly thrums in a shaft of light. You leap the pools without a sound. You dare not make a sound. Shielded by willow scrub and leaning, moss-laden alders, you move deeper into the trees. Through the leaves you notice the shape of a nest, a knot of twigs and grass. Into thorns you reach fingers feeling for roundness in the mud-lined cup, and bring out one smooth flecked egg the colour of sky. Then another. You slip the eggs, still warm, into your pouch, while a thrush chook chooks in the cross-hatch of branches above. 

A deer has been here. Its presence lingers like exhaled breath in the chill spring air. Quietly you become tree in the shadow; watching, waiting, listening. There is a scent of rich earth, fungi and damp moss.


Watching and listening.

There are nibbled shoots and prints in the wet clay; a deer, browsing alone. You duck under branches, where red hairs have snagged on thorns, and follow the tracks through scrub into a damp clearing of willow and birch saplings, keeping to the edge. You carry with you your ancestors’ knowledge; how to track then trail a deer. How to know it, become it — you must become deer. You are more than hunter now, you must seek it out — splayed cleaves and dewclaws; running deer.

You glimpse a movement: a shadow shape-shifts into the russet form of a roebuck in the amber light. From behind an ash you watch the animal. Now you and he entwine. You know he will flee south, bounding towards the forest edge where trees give way to saltmarsh and the sea. You know you will lose him if you do not act now, your spear tight in your right hand. For a moment you think of your brother up in the cave in the cliff, waiting; of your family and your children’s children, those to come.

The buck stands alert, head up, breath steaming. He looks about warily. A blackbird startles from the scrub and flies through the undergrowth in a flurry of angry notes. You gently shift your weight from your front to your back foot, hardly daring to breathe. Heart racing, you raise your spear. The deer snorts, alarm rippling through his body. The spear flies and hits his right flank.

The sky spins in a kaleidoscope of colour. Trees wheel over as the earth rises up in a thud. Then silence. A skein of geese traverses the open window of sky, honking their homeward cries out over the primal expanse of trees.

All is quiet. He twitches. You look into his eye and caress his neck. Silk. How gentle, how soft his eye-lashes. He tries to heave up. Your hand on his shoulder now, his warmth against your skin. You feel his shudder, his slowing breaths leaving his blooded body. You glimpse the last dream in his eye, the emerald forest within, your own reflection. 

You take a moment to wipe the sweat from your brow. Your hand is shaking. The dark shape of a kite hangs high above. Your heart beats but you feel yourself sinking to the forest floor, hand still on the warm body of the buck. You stroke his newly formed antlers still in velvet. You will use those. You will use all parts of this beast. You carry with you your ancestors’ ways — how to gather the hind and front legs, place them over your shoulders. The forest has given to you, it shall not forget you. You will take the deer back the way you came, the forest closing behind you. A night hawk will fly over. Blood will drip from the nose of the deer. It will fall on the leaves of the marsh marigolds, whose bulbous flowers are just beginning to protrude above the saturated earth. You will walk through watercress pools and under branches, and you will hear the call of the woodcock, the hoot of the owl, as you carry your kill back to the cliff edge where the rocks have fallen. You will think of your family and your children’s children, those to come, and you will start to climb — splayed cleaves and dewclaws. You are more than hunter now.


I look up at the grey-beige cliffs fringed with woody scrub. I notice lines of strata in various shades, piles of branches on the beach where the cliffs have crumbled. They are eroding fast, up to a metre a year. Fulmars glide on straight wings in and out of cliff holes. I see the cave high up in the stratified rock where archaeologists found tools belonging to Mesolithic people. Perhaps it was your lookout, I ponder, perhaps you hunted here, down below. I think of you and I think of your family and your children’s children. I think of the forest that used to be and the forests we’re losing. I think of coasts changing, of land and settlements to be claimed by the sea as sea levels rise. 

I walk back across the sand to the little chapel of Pett and the car park.