Hey! Hoi! Hupla! It is Spring! There are bluebells! It has, therefore, become essential to set forth on a jolly stroll so as to look at them. Now, my original plan had been to do my usual walk from Burgess Hill to Plumpton via Blackbrook Wood, but the good conductors of Southern Rail had other ideas and went on strike, rendering Plumpton Station inaccessible by train. Due to this unexpected happenstance, I was forced to change my intended route and settled on starting at Wivelsfield and ending at Burgess Hill, this route taking one also through West Wood on the way to Blackbrook Wood. I had never been to West Wood before and it turns out to be lovely and if it hadn’t been for the striking train conductors, I would never have found it, which just goes to show that collective organisation of the labour force has benefits throughout society.
Now then. First of all let’s get over any sniggering you may wish to do at the name “Wivelsfield”, no I’m not sure what a wivel is either, nor why one might want them felt, but let’s move on. Upon exiting the station, turn right on Leylands Road, if you’ve come from the Brighton direction, you will pass under the railway. Those coming from the Far North, like Haywards Heath or somewhere, will not get to experience this joy. Or at least, I suppose you could just pop through the bridge and back again if you really want to, but I’m not sure why you would if I’m honest. It’s a just a bog-standard railway bridge and wholly unremarkable. Proceed to the big junction you can see ahead of you and turn left onto Valebridge Road. After a little while there is a signed footpath on the right – the first that you will encounter. Follow this between the houses and straight ahead where it crosses a road until you cross a stile and into a meadow.
The path then heads slightly off to the left and is easy to follow. At the other side of the field, you pass through a gap in the hedge and then along the side of the next field with a hedge on a bank to your left, when I was there it was smothered with bluebells and stitchwort, which was rather lovely of it. We know how to tell the difference between English bluebells and Spanish ones, right? The flowers of English bluebells are all on on side of the stalk, making it bend over at the top in a charming fashion, while the brazen Spanish ones have flowers on all sides and, thus, stand upright in a most unseemly way. I mean, it’s not their fault they don’t know how to behave. Despite this obvious poor behaviour, they are beginning in places to out-compete and widely hybridize with their English compatriots and how you tell them apart I couldn’t venture to say. You’re probably best off throwing your copy of the Wild Flower Key at it and running off screaming.
Follow the path ahead which becomes a private road past Ote Hall, which is written in that fancy writing on the map that means it’s well old and posh and stuff. Where the road turns to the right, you will see a footpath straight ahead, which you should eschew, favouring instead one that turns half right and goes over a stile or through a gate or something, the path then sticking to the edge of the field on your right, marked by a hedge.
Now, I think we’ve come to that stage in life where we really need to have a little chat about hedges. In the old days, before my old Dad was born even, fences were a very uncommon sight on farms. “But how”, I hear you cry, aghast. “How did they control the livestock? Were the cattle and sheep running hither and yon, rubbing shoulders with the horses and causing mischief in the barley fields?” Why no, they were not. They were kept in place by hedges. Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen a cow, but I’m guessing you probably have. Big things, cows, as I’m sure you will agree. Hefty heifers and, erm, bulky bullocks. “How”, you may be given to wonder, “did the often spindly, gappy-looking hedges one sees about the place ever stop half a ton of beef from going anywhere?”.
The answer lies in the amount of labour available on the fields before the advent of mechanisation. Farms could often support dozens of workers in various roles and, during the winter when there was less to do on the arable fields, the hedges would be laid. The stems of the hedge plants would be partially sliced away on one side and then the whole plant pushed over to about a 45 degree angle. Hazel stakes cut from the woods would be hammered in upright along the length of and inside the hedge and the cut plants weaved through the posts, the tops of which would be bound with plaited thin hazel or willow withies. This created a hedge much thicker and stronger than one left to its own devices. Strong enough, even, to give a bull second thoughts – and bulls are fairly unlikely to have first thoughts, let alone second ones.
This thick hedge not only stopped beasts of the field from scattering willy nilly about the countryside; they also provided habitat for birdies and small mammals and wild flowers grew along their edges. They often linked areas of woodland, giving a corridor for wildlife to move across the landscape out of sight of predators, such as barn owls. Between the wars, however, the tractor and combine harvester came to farming and the workers weren’t needed. Huge farms could, for the first time, be run by a mere handful of people. A tractor with a mechanical augur on the back can drill holes in the ground and put a fence up in no time. No-one laid hedges any more and all the wildlife that depended on them is ebbing away from the countryside.
But what’s the difference between a hedge and a hedgerow? More on that later.
At the end of the field, the path goes around the right-hand end of Great Otehall Wood and then left with the wood on your left. You should now be in a long narrow field and the path leads diagonally across it to a footbridge over a stream. Cross the stream and follow the path ahead until you reach a road, which you head more or less straight across, the footpath slightly to the left of the one you’ve just left and obvious, leading down beside and fenced off from the grounds of a house, you will soon enter a scrubby bit of woodland. Of no great age for the most part, there is some older hornbeam coppice dotted about and a few older oaks that show every sign of growing in an open aspect, rather than in a woodland. Large trees that have grown in woodland tend to grow tall and straight to reach the sun, while those grown in the open are often shorter, but their branches spread out from much nearer to the ground, creating more of a domed shape. Turn left.
At the end of the wood, the path becomes a road in front of some beautiful old cottages. I had intended to take the second path on the right into West Wood, but I got a bit over-excited and turned right too soon at the first footpath and found myself in a field, so turned left there and followed the edge of the field until I went over a stile and onto the bridleway I had been intending to take. Turn right here, into the woods and follow it all the way through. I have no idea as to the ownership of this wood, but there were no signs saying “PRIVATE” and there were many clearly well-used paths through it, so… So long as you keep going in the same direction as the path, which follows the right-hand side of the wood you should be fine… What I will say about this wood, though, is it is truly beautiful and packed with ancient woodland indicators, as well as carpets of bluebells and anemones. Really lovely. You can find out more about how to spot ancient woodland in my post on that very subject here.
At the end of the wood, you will be able to see fields through the thin band of trees you are now in to your left. Ignore a path off to your left that crosses the field, which came as something of a relief, as that path was hellishly muddy on the day I was there, and follow the path leading slightly to the right and stay in the trees. After a short while you will come to a track which you turn right onto, past houses. The track will bring you to a road, where you turn left and then immediately right and into Blackbrook Wood. There may well be cars parked at the entrance, which has a short wooden fence and a footpath sign.
Blackbrook Wood is one of my favourite woods in Sussex, bursting with ancient woodland indicators, like extensive hazel and hornbeam coppice, midland hawthorn, wild service tree, field maple, wood banks, stumped trees, lovely sinuous edges and, of course, more carpets of bluebells and anemones.
If you follow the main footpath through the wood, you will come to a gap in the woods with a gate leading into a field between Blackbrook Wood and another wood and giving a wonderful view of the Downs. Streat Hill is the highest point on the ridge that you can see. Follow the track (which is often very muddy here) on through the second wood. At the end of this track, if you turn right you are then in what is probably an assart hedgerow.
Aha. Ahahaha. Hedgerow. What’s the difference between a hedge and a hedgerow? Very simply, a hedgerow has trees in, which a hedge doesn’t. A hedge is generally a planted thing, often made up of all the same species, and tended in the way described above to make an impenetrable barrier. Hedgerows tend to be made up of many different species and include large trees. As a rule of thumb, the more woody species present in a hedgerow, the older it is. Each different species adds about a hundred years, so by counting the number of species it is possible to estimate the age of the hedgerow. In the case of assart hedgerows, though, these are remnants of older woods that have been left behind when fields have been cleared and may, therefore, constitute a thin strip of ancient woodland in their own right. This one has wonderful banks of primroses, bluebells, anemones, stitchwort and early purple orchids in the spring.
Return now back the way you came. Once you re-enter Blackbrook Wood after the gate with the view, do not on any account turn left on the first path down to a second track. Neither should you turn right along this track through more hornbeam coppice. You certainly shouldn’t follow this to a set of metal gates leading to a road, then turn right on a path that leads back into the woods and I can’t believe you’re even thinking of turning left at the end of that path and following another path back to the entrance you came into the woods by. Shame on you, this is private property and there are signs to say so.
Once you emerge back onto the road, turn left and cross the end of Spatham Lane and follow the marked footpath on the other side. Follow the path along the right-hand side of a couple of fields and then right, through the gate on the other side, ignoring a bridleway leading off to the left of the gate. You will now be in a fenced-off path with cottages behind an apple-tree containing hedgerow on your right. Turn left over the stile after a short while and cross the large meadow, walking to the right of the trees on the middle of the field. Cross the railway line on a brick bridge and continue walking in much the same direction. The path should be discernible on the ground. There are wonderful, expansive views of the Downs here. You will end up in the corner of the field and through a metal gate onto a fairly busy road. Turn left across the front of a house and then right along a track opposite the house.
Follow the track ahead, which after some horse paddocks becomes a path through an area of fairly recently planed oak woodland and over a stile into a field, the right-hand edge of which you follow until you reach a private road, which you follow ahead. Straight over the next road and along the driveway of Weald House, just past the entrance of which you will see a stile into a field, with a water tower prominent. Climb the stile (or maybe it’s a gate, I can’t remember, but whatever) and turn left, down the hill, through the hedge, straight on across the next field, over a wooden footbridge through another hedge and over a stream, straight ahead again up the other side and you will come to the railway line, where you turn right and walk along the well-made path to Burgess Hill station.