4.24 miles (6.8 km) – About 1 ¾ hours, but see below.
This walk starts from the village of Litlington in East Sussex, which is not served by public transport, as far as I’m aware. The No.12 from Brighton or Eastbourne stops at Exceat for the Seven Sisters Country Park and it’s an easy walk from there to Litlington via the road, the Cuckmere River or through the forest.
Although this walk says it’s only an hour and three quarters, when I did it I was out for about three hours, partly because there’s some lovely places to sit and smoke contemplative roll ups, but mostly because the whole point of this walk was to go and have a look at Lullington Heath, which is Access Land and can be wandered about on at will, so the instructions only tell you how to get there and back again. The rest of your time may be spent gaily tripping hither and yon through the heather. Did I say heather? On chalk downland? More of that in a bit.
Just to the north of the church in Litlington (if the church is on your left, you’re going the right way) there is a bridleway leading off to the right, through a farmyard. Go up there. It turns diagonally to the left, marked by a post, past a barn and then turns right onto a chalk track between hedgerows. Follow this path until you get to Lullington Heath.
Well. That was easy to explain.
Oh wait, no, there’s more. You will get to a junction of bridleways and a Natural England information board welcoming you to the Heath. To the right of the board is a gate, through which is Winchester’s Pond, an 18th Century dew pond. We’ve done dew ponds before, right? And you remember it all, yeah? Man-made ponds dug to collect rainwater for sheep to drink? Well anyway, this is a particularly lovely one and there’s a bench upon which to sit and catch one’s breath while enjoying the vista. Having just read the information board which said there were newts in the pond, my companion for the day said he could see one – pointing in the vague direction of the pond. After a certain amount of “No, you idiot. There. By the big reed.” I spotted what he was pointing at and, with a small whimper, raised myself from the bench to get a closer look. On closer inspection, what we’d thought was a newt turned out to be a rather handsome grass snake, which was lovely to see. In all my years of wandering about the countryside, I’d never seen one swimming before.
From here we headed vaguely north east and wandered about to have a look at the heath.
So, what’s so special about Lullington Heath? Put simply, it is the largest and best example of Chalk Heath in the country. And just what is chalk heath? Well, now. In general, there are three types of plants, with regards to the soil types they’ll grow on. Generalists, which will grow more or less anywhere, calcicoles, which like to grow on alkaline soils, such as chalk and limestone and calcifuges, which grow on acid soils such as sand and sandstone. Heath is a community of plants that grows on acid soils. The observant amongst you will have noticed that the South Downs are made out of chalk. So why are there acid-loving plants growing on chalk? Basically, at the end of the last ice age, the water from melting glaciers flooded over the chalk and wore it away until it exposed the underlying clays of the Weald. Such was the ferocity with which this water surged across the landscape, it washed some of this clay up onto the top of the chalk and deposited it there, making a clay-with-flints cap on top of the Downs. Clay is slightly acidic and this was enough for acid-loving plants to get a foothold. Chalk Heath was once fairly common on the Downs, but due to over-grazing it has almost all disappeared.
In many places it is possible to see where there would once have been chalk heath, as the one calcifuge that continues to grow in those places is gorse, that enormous prickly bastard with the yellow flowers and a scent of coconut. Chalk heath is rare because it can be killed both by over-grazing and under-grazing. Over-grazing will trample and otherwise remove the delicate plants, which are barely clinging on in that environment at the best of times; while under-grazing will allow the gorse to take over and shade out those same little sensitive fellas. Only with the right level of grazing can chalk heath flourish, which is what Natural England are attempting to achieve at Lullington. Besides heather and bell heather, over 250 species of plants (both acid and chalk loving) grow on the heath, around 100 kinds of birds visit and about 50 nest there. Only about a third of the heath is actual heathland, with the rest being chalk grassland and scrub woodland.
Scrub is something a lot of people put a lot of effort into getting rid of. It is regrowth – mostly of common hawthorn, ash and sycamore – that has grown up since grazing became less common on the Downs between the wars. It shades out smaller plants and destroys the grassland. However, there is a place for some scrub on the Downs as it provides habitats that would otherwise not be present, particularly for nesting birds.
Once you’ve had enough of mimbling about on the Heath, follow the track you came in on until you reach a bridleway on your right, which leads down and round a long, sweeping corner. Eventually, you’ll go through a gate and into Friston Forest. Although, as a Forestry Commission forest, much of Friston is rather boring pine plantations, this bit of it is actually rather lovely, with a great deal of mature beech growing on either side of the broad track. Go straight on at a meeting of several paths and a few hundred yards later take the narrower path into the trees on your right. After 200 yards or so, you will come to a gate into a field. On the day I was there, there was a profusion of early purple orchids just before the gate. Follow the fence to the bottom of the field where the path becomes a chalk track and follow that all the way back to Litlington.
Once back to the road, a right turn will bring you back to the start point and will take you past Litlington Tea Gardens, which is well worth a visit, should you fancy scones, clotted cream, jam and tea while sitting in a shed – and frankly, who doesn’t?