7.5 miles (12.1 km), approx: 3 hours
I start this walk from the Downs Hotel in Woodingdean. You can stay on the No. 22 and get off at Balsdean Road if you like, but there’s a Co-op on Warren Way and I am not a man to pass up the opportunity of an exotic new Co-op. So this walk starts with that awed moment as you first enter an unfamiliar Co-op. “Where will the crisps aisle be?” “Will there be any of the posh sandwiches on offer?” “Do they have self-service tills?” All these questions and more run through your mind as you step through the hallowed portals, membership card clasped to the bosom. My tastes for the finer things in life now thoroughly sated, I then walk up Warren Way and Balsdean Road.
Opposite the end of Balsdean Road is a metal gate, which can be squeezed past (it’s marked as a public footpath on the map) and leads up between houses on the right and a play area on the left. I know it’s tempting, but you must resist the opportunity to sit on one of them rabbit on a spring things, beguiling though they are. All that bouncing back and forth and such. NO! Leave these items of devilry and continue up the path with your head held high. At the top of the path, turn right at the crossroads and walk along the path with gardens backing onto it, peering through the fences and going “Ooh” where possible to do so without being noticed. Beware on this path, as there is a more than average chance of being mown down by a cyclist, some posh bint on a horse or severely mauled by a yorkshire terrier, one of which left my dignity and my turn-ups in tatters.
After a couple of hundred yards or so, which should probably be in metres these days, but just deal with it. THEY’RE VIRTUALLY THE SAME ANYWAY. You will come to a gate and will see two paths ahead of you. The right-hand chalk path is to be avoided. I am told that dreadful things happen to those who tread that path. You could end up in Rottingdean for a start. No. Take the left, grassy fork that leads gently downhill and round to the left. Follow the bostall all the way down to the bottom of Standean Bottom, where several paths meet in the shade of a few large ash trees and take the right-hand path, almost doubling-back on yourself.
Unfortunately, much of this walk leads through cultivated land, so wildlife is much reduced. Until the 1940s, the traditional method of farming on the Downs was grazing sheep, but with the coming of cheap lamb from New Zealand, the bottom fell out of the market for UK sheep (which is an entirely different thing to the bottom falling out of an actual sheep, which can happen and an alarming thing it is for all concerned, as I’m sure you can imagine) and grazing declined. With the coming of war, much of the dip-slope of the Downs was ploughed up for the first time, destroying 95% of the chalk grassland in the UK. These crops, then, have to try and grow on strongly alkaline soils and require huge amounts of man-made fertilisers to even hope to survive, but such was the desperate need of this country to try and provide food during rationed war time.
Did I say “dip-slope”? Why, I believe I did. “Is it time for a quick lesson in topographical nomenclature” I hear you cry? Why yes, I think it might be. The Downs are broadly separated into three bits. The dip-slope, scarps and the cap. Basically, the dip-slope, far from being an incline covered in taramasalata, is the more gentle slope leading towards the sea. The scarps are much steeper and face the Weald or the rivers, having been carved out by melt water or, in the case of the rivers, by wind gaps. A wind gap is not, I am distressed to report, an inter-prandial opportunity to break wind, but a gap in the Downs worn away by the effects of weather. In between these, on the top of the Downs, is the cap. Most of the Downs have a very thin soil over the chalk, but the cap has an extra layer of clay with flints. My former lecturer tried to explain this using an overly-convoluted metaphor involving jelly and stirrup-pumps filled with custard (which frankly brought up more questions than it answered), but just take it from me that some of the clay from the Weald has ended up on top of the Downs and we’ll all get on with our lives.
Now, where were we? Ah yes, walking along a gently undulating path which will, eventually, come to a gate, through which a path leads to the left. Follow this path down a hill and up a hill, pass some shrubbery and you’ll come to a footpath sign and a wide chalk track leading up to the top of the hill on your left. Follow that, past the peculiar things dotted along the edge of the path, which are either some kind of satanic offering, or – rather more boringly – way-markers for when it snows. Past the barn at the top of the hill and the path becomes a concrete track, which after a few hundred yards turns ninety degrees to the right. At this point, I walked a little way straight ahead and over a stile into a field, where all of East Sussex was laid out at my feet. Lewes, Mount Caburn and Firle Beacon can all be seen and, on a clear day, you can see for forty miles or more. An excellent spot to enjoy a Co-op sandwich if ever there was one.
Once you’ve had your fill of this view – and on the beautiful May afternoon I was there it was hard to tear myself away – retrace your steps to the concrete track and follow it gently downhill. After a fair while you’ll reach a crossroads with your way ahead through a gate and over a low hill. A sign tells you that you will pass over the meridian, which is tremendously exciting, I’m sure you’ll agree. The path will bring you between fences and gardens and then to a tarmac lane. There is a sign here bearing the legend “To The Pub”. Follow it. Always follow signs that say “To The Pub”. The road leads down to Rodmell and the Abergavenny Arms. Cross the main road, stop in the pub if you wish, and then follow the road to its right. You will pass the Monk’s House on your right, former home of Virginia Woolf and now a National Trust property. Soon you’ll get to walk alongside the bit of river she drowned herself in! Hooray!
The wide track is easy to follow. There are some charming pylons to admire and some ditches full of things that live in ditches. Take a moment in this sudden flatness to turn and look back at the scarp of the Downs behind you, on top of which I, your dear guide, once ate a salmon and egg sandwich that was on offer in Woodingdean Co-op. Ah, the mysteries of life.
At the end of this track is a large bank crossing your path. Climb up this bank by all means, but don’t walk straight ahead, or you’ll fall in the river and suffer the same fate as Ms Woolf. Turn right along this bank until you reach a bridge, which you cross to get to Southease station. When I arrived at the station, I was being followed by a middle-aged couple, the gentleman of which loudly declared, upon seeing the station: “What’s this then? Some kind of car park?” they then boarded a train to Seaford, which says everything you need to know about Seaford.