If you drive down the A23 to Brighton, you cannot help but notice the huge, dark bulk of Newtimber Hill suddenly rising ahead of you after you pass under the bridge at the Albourne junction. It’s a sight that has cheered many a weary heart after a long drive home, because when you see it, you know you’re nearly back to Brighton and before you even get there you’ve got the option of sampling the delights of the M&S at Pyecombe Services. The hill is an unusual one on the Downs because it’s wooded and most of this part of the ridge is fairly bare of trees. Indeed only a hundred years ago there was hardly a single tree to be seen on the hills, most of them having been cut down thousands of years ago; intensive grazing ever after keeping any new trees from growing. It was only after the Great War that it became cheaper to import lamb from New Zealand than to rear our own and grazing started to stop on the Downs, leading to new growth. In general it is better to keep the grassland, rather than let scrub grow up as this grassland is rare and supports many endangered flowering herbs that would be unable to grow in shady woodland. The woodland on Newtimber Hill, though, is different.
Much of the woodland on the northern flanks of the hill are ancient woodland. Some of it is regenerated woodland that regrew after the aforementioned cessation of grazing. In fact you can almost tell when looking at the hill from a distance. The newer woodland shows us an almost smooth, green covering. All the trees are about the same age and they are mostly ash, so they’re all the same height. In the older areas, there are many different species, including ash, beech and even some small-leaved lime leftover from the original forests that grew on these slopes. Because the climate is generally cooler now than when those forests first grew after the last ice age, small-leaved lime doesn’t germinate as well as it did then, so some of these trees can be very old indeed. In fact there’s one small-leaved lime tree on Newtimber Hill that may be as much as four thousand years old. It has been coppiced many times (cut down and allowed to regrow into useful poles) and now looks like a ring of large trees, the trunks all growing from the same roots – making the whole thing one single tree.
Besides this incredible tree, the woods are also home to another remarkable natural wonder, this time a beech. In 2015 a beech tree near the bottom of the hill was declared Britain’s tallest native tree at 144ft.
Newtimber Hill will always have a special place in my heart. It is owned by the National Trust and administered from Saddlescombe Farm, just the other side of the hill. I have spent many hours as a volunteer on the Devil’s Dyke Estate, of which Newtimber Hill is a part and it was here that I truly learnt the simple joy that conservation volunteering can bring. When you have spent as much of your life as I have believing yourself to be entirely useless, the effect of doing good work with good people that has palpable results at the end of the day is immeasurable. As I wander the many winding paths in the woods today I still remember places where I cleared a path, or cut some scrub, or that time I delivered crucial biscuits to the wardens working up on the top of the hill. I remember when we made a bonfire so big we could throw whole trees on it (we weren’t cutting the ancient bits down, don’t worry) and when we discovered that great crested newts had returned to a restored dew pond right on the top of the hill – miles from the nearest water. How did they get there? We can only guess.
At the foot of the hill is a narrow road called Beggar’s Lane that winds through the trees, from which steps lead up into the woods. Concrete at first, they soon give way to simple mud steps held back by wooden risers. Even after all these years I am never quite sure after the first couple of hundred yards which of the myriad paths I am on, but they are all beautiful. Sometimes winding along the contours, sometimes suddenly snaking up dozens of steps before meeting three other paths all leading off to new, secret places. In the spring there are carpets of anemones and bluebells and many other woodland flowers and you are surrounded by ash, beech, lime, hawthorn and hazel that has been coppiced and worked for thousands of years.
Eventually, inexorably, the paths always seem to lead upwards. Higher and higher through the trees until suddenly they emerge onto the bald, grassy top of the hill and when you look to the west, there in front of you is one of the best views in the South East of England. Dyke Hill, Chanctonbury Ring, Cissbury Ring, Bignor Hill and Glatting Beacon are laid out as your eye follows the Downs and then away on the horizon to the north west stands the dark, whale-backed mass of Black Down – the highest point in Sussex. On a clear day to the north you can just see the North Downs, almost beyond the horizon and even the Hog’s Back, a hill in Oxfordshire, some 60 miles away.
On the western part of the hill, the steeper slopes are mostly bare of trees and here you can find some of the best chalk downland in Britain. Studded with tell-tale anthills that prove this land has never been ploughed up, the grassland is home to an incredible variety of flowering herbs and the rare butterflies and other insects that live on them. Near the bottom of this slope is a grove of another rarity: juniper bushes. Needing to drop their seeds on bare ground and then experience two harsh winters before germinating, these fussy shrubs grow in sudden profusion here in one of their few sites in the area.
And finally, to the south, nestled in its hollow and looking almost as naturally placed as something that has grown there lies ancient, wonderful Saddlescombe Farm, which perhaps I shall write about in greater detail in the future.
All over the hill there is evidence of man’s long relationship with it. From the ancient coppiced trees, to man-made dew ponds and chalk pits. There are strip lynchets, evidence of early arable farming around the North Laine (laine means field) and there have been hundreds of findings of worked flints, in one case a pile of knappings that showed the clear outline of a pair of legs belonging to someone who had sat on this same hill that we walk today and worked here thousands of years ago. What did that person look out and see? Perhaps they were making the axes that first cleared the forests and created this uniquely beautiful landscape.