Life, they tell me, often goes in circles and so it is with this blog. When I first started writing about walking in Sussex I was inspired by the fact that I did not, at the time, have a car. The lack of a car by no means makes it impossible to enjoy the countryside, but it does make it more of a challenge. Especially if, like I do, you enjoy exploring new places. It is all too easy, when reliant on buses and trains, to find yourself walking the same, tired routes over and over and while there’s a lot be said for walking the same routes, especially at different times of the year – it can get a bit wearing nevertheless. So this blog started as a way to document the places I had found that could be reached by public transport, how I got there, where I walked and how I got back again.
Well, once more, I find myself without motorised wheels and, once more, some creativity and effort is required in finding new places to investigate. In many ways the experience becomes quite different when a little planning is needed. My tendency when exploring with a car was to drive around until I found myself somewhere particularly beautiful or unfamiliar, park up, fire up the OS app and see where I could walk. There are many benefits to doing this, but also many drawbacks. Almost every time I went out I’d find myself spending at least £20 on petrol and very often, even with the benefit of a motor, I’d find myself driving in the same places as I’d driven many times before, or I’d somehow never quite find a good place to stop. Sometimes I’d get home again without having walked at all.
On the other hand, of course, the great benefit of a car is that you can get to all sorts of places that public transport either renders entirely inaccessible, or practically not worth the bother. The challenge for the un-motorised walker is to find those places that are within relatively easy reach and yet still provide new and interesting places to enjoy. And while the whole thing may not feel quite as spontaneous as when you could just jump in the car and go (although, as I have discovered, it is entirely possible to run and catch a train on a whim at pretty short notice), there is a certain satisfaction to be gained from planning a trip and achieving one’s goals.
And it was very much in this fashion that I found myself at Pulborough station having decided to see if I could get up into the woods near Bedham by rail and foot. Turns out, not only can you walk to Bedham from Pulborough, but it is one of the most thoroughly beautiful walks in Sussex. This is not a walk full of grand views and wide vistas, although you do get a bit of that towards the end, but rather these paths find their way mostly through woods, or are lined by tall trees and hedgerows. In the golden light of autumn, as the leaves are turning, there can’t be anywhere much lovelier to stroll.
Pulborough itself sits on the hills just to the east of the River Arun, where it makes two great sweeps around the western and southern edges of the town, joined by the waters of the western River Rother at its first bend. From here the river runs south and is soon to punch its way through the Downs between Amberley and Arundel. The train line runs up this valley and through the gap in the chalk, but Pulborough does not sit on hills made of chalk, but ones made of sandstone. This is the Greensand Ridge, so named because, apparently, the stone, when first exposed to the air, has a greenish tint. The sandstones here are older than the chalk, but not as old as those that make up the High Weald. Because this is sandstone, the soils are light and acidic. Plenty of bracken and birch, pine plantations and and large areas of sweet chestnut coppice. Although the traditional woodland management technique of coppicing died out in most woodlands between the wars, sweet chestnut remains one of the few trees still economically worth managing in the old way. Chestnut wood is naturally rot resistant, which makes it much in demand for fencing, among other things and, of course, at this time of year, the trees are thick with chestnuts, ripe for the gathering and roasting.
On the way to the woods the route passes Pallingham Quay – a reminder that, once, the River Arun was a busy commercial waterway before the railways took that whole way of life away. The tiny settlement of Bedham occupies the centre of the walk, nestled in the trees with its little ruined school and church that once occupied the same, purpose-built building. Climbing over the ridge from Bedham, the views open out as the path gently descends back into the Arun/Rother valley, via the tiny village of Stopham with its 11th Century church, which is worth a quick visit. I always like to pop into the little churches I pass if I can. There is no greater link back to the medieval than these humble little buildings that have stood and been loved and looked after by local people for centuries. Similarly, the path then crosses the river by way of Stopham Bridge, another monument to the skill of the medieval stonemason, this time dating from the 15th Century. The central arch was raised in 1822 to allow the passage of bigger boats.
From there the path runs back to Pulborough along the edge of the Greensand Hills and the view across the Arun valley to the South Downs beyond is both very beautiful and the archetypal Sussex vista.
A few years ago, now, I was lucky enough to enrol to study Countryside Management at Plumpton College in the Sussex Downs. As part of the course I was required to find a suitable work placement for the first year and by a stroke of wonderful fortune I was able to get in first at probably the best such placement in Sussex: the National Trust’s Saddlescombe Farm. I have threatened to write about the farm itself on several occasions, because it’s wonderful. That day will come – but today is not that day. Today is, however, a day for writing about somewhere I’ve been intending to include in my blog for years. I suppose there are a few reasons why I’ve taken this long to get round to Devil’s Dyke on the South Downs near Brighton. Not least the fact that it is one of the best-known countryside sites in the South East and, therefore, it has been extensively written about by many authorities greater than I. Despite all that, it remains one of my favourite places and I am honoured to have spent a couple of years doing my small bit to look after it. Over those two years I came to know the Devil’s Dyke Estate – which stretches far beyond the immediate are around the Dyke itself – pretty intimately. Each discrete area deserves its own entry, but for now, here’s my two penn’orth on the mighty ditch itself.
One thing that one quickly learns about the Dyke is: never walk up the middle of it. It starts out beautifully gently, but once it’s lulled you into a false sense of security, the gradient increases rapidly, becoming an unforgiving slog to get to the top. Better by far are the paths that lead up the south side of the Dyke, or over the Downs on either side. One of my favourite ways to approach the Dyke has been to park in the lay-by on Saddlescombe Road at the top of the short hill that leads up from the farm gates. You start, therefore, on the lower slopes of Newtimber Hill, itself a wonderful place, with some of the best-preserved and most species-rich downland in England. The way down is steep and crosses a stile into what appears to be a hedge, but there is a path. “I helped put that stile in” I think to myself every time I climb over it. The path after the stile is ridiculously steep and I don’t recommend it after wet weather, because it becomes terrifyingly slippery and there’s not a lot to hang onto to stop yourself tumbling down it, or reaching the bottom by sliding down on your bum in an elegant fashion. On a dry day, though, it can be descended with care. The path at the bottom, if followed to the left, leads through the trees to the bottom of the Dyke itself.
Here, if you notice, the walls of the Dyke fall steeply on either side to reach the flat bottom of the valley and while the walls are covered with thin, poor soils, the earth that fills the bottom of the “V” is deep and rich. Over millennia, the soils of the steep slopes have been washed down into the bottom of the valley, where they have collected in deep, easily-worked deposits. Following the last ice age, it is in places like this that the first Celtic peoples to repopulate Britain made their settlements and grew their crops. The soil was easy to plough with their primitive tools in comparison to the heavy clays of the wooded Weald below them. Very little is known of these people who clung to an existence here. Their settlements were never very big and left little impression behind them. The Downs, being made of porous chalk, do not naturally collect rainwater. Any rain that falls on them seeps quickly away into the chalk, re-emerging as a line of springs all the way along the base of the north scarp of the Downs, where the chalk meets the impervious clay. There was, therefore, always this limitation on these early farmsteads. Any water for the crops, or for people and animals to drink had either to be carried from a lower spring, or collected in the man-made dewponds that were dug and lined with Wealden clay from the earliest times to a peak in the 18th Century, when sheep-farming was at its height on the Downs. One thing these people did leave behind was their drinking vessels, made from clay and decorated with impressions made by combs, the beakers of the Beaker People have survived to show us that, in these ages before written language: art flourished on the South Downs.
If, once one has emerged from the trees into the bottom of the valley, one turns right, there is a path that leads over a stile and steeply up into the woods on Dyke Hill, which separates the Dyke from the Weald. None of the woodland here is very old, being mostly scrub that has regrown since intensive sheep-grazing stopped on the Downs between the Wars, but it is still beautiful as the path winds among the trees and crosses a bostal that leads up from Poynings, made over centuries by the feet of shepherds and their sheep and the rainwater that ran in the grooves they had made. Eventually this path meets another steep path that heads straight up the hill in a long series of steps, before emerging from the trees onto the open hillside, affording wonderful extensive views along Fulking Escarpment towards: Truleigh Hill, with its radio masts, Chanctonbury Ring with its crown of trees and, even further, to Bignor Hill and Glatting Beacon away in the far distance; another superb place to walk.
The trees that the path emerges from here are mostly coppiced hazel, planted by the shepherds of old. Hazel, when cut close to the ground will respond by sending up new, vigorous shoots that grow into straight, pliable rods, which are useful for all sorts of things. The wattle latticework to which daub was applied makes up the structure of many an old house’s walls and it was also superb for weaving baskets. The shepherds would have used much of it for making hurdles – small gate-like panels for controlling the sheep when they needed to be held in a small area for a time, such as before shearing. These days hurdles are made of light aluminium in factories, but in days gone by, coppicing and hurdle-making were essential skills for a shepherd to possess.
While sheep farming remained the defining activity of the Downs throughout the 19th Century, another, new breed of people began to arrive on the hills: tourists. Nowhere received these new visitors with more enthusiasm than Devil’s Dyke and as our path leads up to the top of the scarp, we can see evidence of those early thrill-seekers. A wide, shallow trench runs from the top to the bottom of the hill, the path crossing it near the top. In the Victorian era there was a funicular railway here that carried passengers down to the Royal Oak Hotel and Tea Gardens in Poynings. The grand Victorian pub is still operating, the humbler little cottage directly behind it being replaced as the original inn when the new hordes of tourists proved too many for its small, low rooms.
At the top of the hill there stands another, modern pub. Few are those who commend it for its architecture, but on a cold and windy day it can still be a welcome sight, if not as attractive a one as the Georgian building that preceded it. Turn away from the pub, though, and look back the way you came and you will see what Constable described as the “grandest view in the world”… I mean, it’s a pretty grand view all right. You can see for sixty miles to the Hogsback hill in Oxfordshire, right across the Weald to the North Downs and the Greensand Ridge in the north west and to Ashdown Forest and the High Weald to the north east. To the south west, like a dark smudge against the silvery horizon lies the Isle of Wight and there are extensive views along the Downs as described before to the west and along to Newtimber and Wolstonbury Hills to the east. The grandest in the world, though? Perhaps Constable needed to get out a bit more – at least of this country.
As you reach the top of the hill you could easily miss that you have crossed into one of the largest prehistoric enclosures in Britain. All around the top of the hill is a roughly rectangular chalk rampart and ditch. Incredible to think that these walls were built by people using only the antlers of deer as pickaxes: antlers being the hardest tools known at the time. The enclosure can’t have been for a settlement due to the lack of water and it’s too large for a hill fort, like the one at Chanctonbury. It is believed that it was probably used as a corral for livestock.
Besides the pub, there are other scars on this hill that bear testament to the bustling place this was at its touristic 19th Century height, when trains from Brighton brought passengers in their thousands to see the Dyke and to enjoy the fairground that once stood here. A shallow, oval depression in the ground is all that remains of the bicycle railway, that allowed guests to pedal round in circles on bicycles that hung from a wooden rail above their heads and the crumbling remains of two concrete platforms mark the alighting points for the cable car that once powered back and forth high above the valley itself.
And this truly is the moment to appreciate the grandeur of Devil’s Dyke. Take the path that runs across the top of the “V”-shaped valley and look down the length of it to the hills at its end – Saddlescombe Farm nestling peacefully among them. Many suppose that this valley was carved out by some kind of glacial action, but in fact it owes its existence not so much to the glaciers themselves, but to their demise. During the last ice age, the glaciers came no further south than north London (East Finchley Tube Station, in fact). The Downs, at that time, were one enormous dome of chalk, pushed up by the same action that created the Himalayas and the Alps: the moment that the Indian subcontinent crashed into the rest of Eurasia. The chalk being highly porous, most of it was washed away when the glaciers melted, some ten thousand years ago, leaving just the very edges of the dome, now known as the North and South Downs. The Dyke, likewise, was made by a river of meltwater, mostly from the frozen tundra that made up the soils of the Downs in those days. The same action of water washing down continues to erode the dry valleys, of which Devil’s Dyke is the biggest, and the bostals deeper into the chalk.
Many are the legends told of this great ditch, as people of times past tried to understand its creation. The Dyke gets its name from a legend that relates how the Devil was digging through the Downs in order to flood the Weald with seawater, but an old woman, seeing what he was up to, lit a candle to fool her cockerel into believing that the sun was rising, which crowed lustily and scared the Devil away from the approaching dawn.
From the top of the Dyke, a path runs down the length of the slope on the southern side branching to the left from the South Downs Way. Take the right hand fork where the path splits as the valley turns to the left and cross a stile into a field. Follow the path straight ahead to where a stile takes you to the edge of Saddlescombe Road, opposite the farm gates. Turn left and walk along the verge to find a path that will lead back to the lower slopes of Newtimber Hill, just below the lay-by where we parked.
This walk can also be started at the Devil’s Dyke pub, where there is a large car park and regular buses from Brighton Pier.
There was something about it that had been niggling at me for days. Ever since the heatwave had broken there was, in me, a need to somehow experience the realness of the world. Those weeks of heat and dust and uniform light had seemed like another world and then, when the storms finally came, they had washed the parched earth clean and made it new again. But for one reason and another I hadn’t been able to be out in it and it seemed necessary, somehow, that I should feel the wind and the rain against my face. That this glorious reminder of our living world should refresh and reawaken me from my months-long torpor. The heat had stupefied me, dulled my senses and made me unwilling to get out and walk and if there’s one thing that defines me it is that I am a walker. I feel and experience the landscape by being in it. By facing the winds that blow over the hilltops, by slipping into the cool darkness of the underwoods and by following the ancient paths kept open by nothing but aeons of labouring feet that have walked before me.
Walking in adverse weather, of course, is an experience that brings those past days back in a deeper way than any other. In those times the countryside was a place of toilers who had little choice but to be outside in all weathers, and no hot bath to get home to. Or of travellers whose weary destinations lay not at the end of a drive in a heated car with music playing on the stereo, but only after many miles had been traversed, one step at a time. These long scars in the fields where the grass grows short, or not at all, that still lead the way are the result of all those feet. Those dragged boots of all those workers and walkers. To walk now for leisure can give us only the merest glimpse of what those fields and paths must have meant to those who travelled upon them in centuries past; but their paths are still here and my boots do follow where they once trod – and the ageless weather throws itself upon us now just as it did then.
However foolish it may seem, there is a connection with those workers and journeyers as one stands on the knife-sharp edge of a bostall as the rain sweeps in over the Weald. These sunken tracks are ancient, worn by centuries of feet, both human and ovine and deepened by the rain and the frost. Their existence stands testament to an earlier age of sheep and corn, those endless days where the sheep were walked up onto the wide open Downland pastures as the sun rose and led back down into the fields of corn at night, their manure, more plentiful in the hours of darkness, to fertilise the crops. And here, now, I stand too, looking out over the ancient network of fields and hedges, of woodlands and lanes. I look out and I see the old spires of the churches rising up from the thickly wooded landscape. Those old, crumbling buildings that have been tended and loved by countless carers over countless years. I stand and wonder how many have stood in this spot as I stand now and looked out over those fields and woods and steeples and villages. The rain lashes my face so I have to close one eye as it once lashed the faces of an innumerable line of human shapes that stretch into the grey, misty distance behind me. I do not work as they did. I can go home to a warm, dry home that many of them would not have had. But I can stand in their footsteps and remember them.
With all this in my heart, I went to a place that always calls to me in times of rough weather. I went to College Bostall, above Plumpton College, where I studied Countryside Management some years ago. The bostall crosses the larger Plumpton Bostall, deep in its trench and covered with concrete since the Second World War, and strikes out across the open side of the Downs, with the college itself at the feet of the hills. Near the top there stands a solitary sycamore, rushing and roaring today in the wind and the rain. As I stood on the top, the rain came down so hard I wondered if it were, in fact, hailstones. My boots filled up from the top down, so that every step sent small squirts of water back out over the brims. I knew, of course, that the car was nearby at the bottom of the hill and that I was quite safe, no matter how wet I got. I wondered what those old shepherds would have thought of me, standing like a fool and wondering at the curtains of rain that had come and veiled the view of far-away Firle Beacon that had been bathed in sunlight just a few moments before, like a bright island floating above a sea of grey.
In the end, though, of course, I returned to my car and my warm flat and those ghosts are just memories, or ghosts of memories – washed away in the rain.
Since developing an interest in photography a curious thing is happening to me. I find myself looking forward to winter. For all my life I have longed for spring during the cold, dark, rainy winter months and that season still provokes an excitement in me like no other. Indeed this new anticipation for winter is not a rejection of the other seasons, which all have their own glories, but a wonderful new reason to live and experience each season on its own merits and, in the particular case of winter, to appreciate the light.
Summer remains, of course, a wonderful time of long evenings and pub gardens and oh how I longed to not be knee deep in mud and water-logged meadows as I slogged about the countryside just a few months ago! It’s true that the actual act of walking is easier at the moment. No slipping down steep banks, or unexpectedly finding oneself with a wet foot after disappearing into a puddle you couldn’t even see under the fallen leaves. I remember well doggedly following the official footpath (rather than circumnavigating) across a sodden ploughed field in the Rother Valley, the mud clinging to my boots and dragging more and more heavily with every step. I almost wondered if I would make it to the other side. In the end I staggered back to the car exhausted… but elated.
The countryside is a different place in the winter. The great crowds of the summer are gone, even on the South Downs Way – the footpath equivalent of a motorway – and one can wander the paths and tracks almost alone. Whole days I have spent not seeing another soul. Even the farmers can’t do much and absent themselves from their rain-lashed fields. Fair weather walkers may think me mad to deliberately go out, staggering and slipping as I go, but there are rewards and the greatest of them is the light.
Summer light is flat and bleaching. Detail gets lost. Subtlety disperses in a landscape of high contrast. Of light areas and dark, with sharply defined edges. There’s no challenge to taking an ostensibly “beautiful” photograph when the sun is shining and the great cumulus puffs float against a deep blue sky – and there’s very little interest in it either. Anyone can go out in the summer, see a beautiful view and point a camera at it. Not everyone is prepared to trudge through several miles of mud on the off-chance that the sun might peek through the clouds for long enough to make a scene worth photographing. But for those who are prepared; those moments are among the best. To round a corner and suddenly find a shaft of sunlight is lighting up a stubbled field, the oak tree skeletons silhouetted against the sky. To stand on the shoulders of a deep valley and watch as the sun finds its way through heavy clouds, throwing dramatic crepuscular rays across the landscape. To emerge from a wood into a deep, still silence, frost carpeting the ground, while a stag grazes quietly. These are the moments that have, for the first time, made winter worth enjoying.
Now, of course, all of these things were happening before I got my camera, but its acquisition was the push that I needed to get me out there and experiencing it all. And a big part of the thrill is seeing things that many others do not. There is a great glory in being that lone figure – my coat wrapped around me and the collar turned up against the cold – standing and watching the rain sweep across the hills, the light chasing and being chased about the valleys by the clouds and those dark smears of precipitation. Only a summer storm beats those moments of exhilaration and yes, of course, this is England. I may be sitting in the middle of a heatwave this year, but rain in summer is not an uncommon thing: but even then, the light is not the same. With the sun high in the sky, the same effects are not felt as when it barely peers over the horizon – even at midday – and its light seems to spread over – almost through – the landscape, rather than shine interrogatively down at it. I haven’t even touched on the fact that it is easier and more satisfying to wrap oneself up and stride determinedly ahead in an effort to warm oneself up than it is to sweat beneath a glaring sun.
Shemanbury, Low Weald
Ringmer, Low Weald
Towards Brighton from Blackcap
Fog over the South Downs
Mist at Wilmington
So here I sit on a, supposedly, beautiful day, writing words about winter with the blinds drawn… and I have to admit that I am beginning to realise that, perhaps, I am not a fair weather walker. Perhaps… perhaps I am becoming a foul weather walker?
Somewhere to the north of Fittleworth in the Greensand Hills of West Sussex there lies, lost in the woods, a tiny, tiny little place that goes by the name of Bedham. The place is so small that it didn’t have its own church or school until late in the 19th century and when they were built, they were both in the same, small building – built out of brick and the local, golden sandstone. The little school/church didn’t last very long and now stands as a maintained ruin, lacking its roof and the lean-to side buildings that once stood. The walls have been prevented from falling into further decay with repointing and steel girders to hold up the precarious bell-cot.
I have tried to find out if there is a single name for these woods, but the internet is, thus far, silent on the matter. They stretch north from Bedham including areas with names like Hammonds Wood, Hoghurst Copse and The Mens. There are huge, ancient trees here including some glorious, vast, coppiced beech whose great boughs have grown over the thousand-year ghosts of the people that first cut these trees and harvested their wood.
There are paths and tracks through the trees – some easier to follow than others – but to make a circular walk out of it I struck away from the path and followed, as best I could, the streams to get back to the car. The day above the canopy was bright and warm, but I walked and scrambled in the cool, eons-long gloom of the trees. The gloom of the woods that becomes a portal to an older world. A gloom that has persisted in smaller and smaller pockets since the ice retreated 9000 years ago and the great primeval forests that once covered this land first grew. These are the woods that humans found when they first came back to Britain and where they made their homes. This is where they cut the trees and made their clearings and knew that the woods that surrounded them held both essential assets and hidden dangers. Boar and wolves and bears once lived in these woods and to leave the clearing was a dangerous, but necessary pursuit. European folk tales are filled with stories of woodland as a transitional, transformative landscape: somewhere the young girl or boy can go and be changed. They may not come to a good end, or they may triumph over whatever lurks behind the the trunks of the mighty beeches and in the thickets of holly: but whatever their fate you can guarantee that they will not be the same when they emerge once more into the human world of light and order.
As I walked I followed tracks made, not by humans, but by other path-finders of the forest – mostly deer, of which I saw several – always bounding gracefully out of sight before I could bring my camera to bear on them. The old human paths are, mostly, gone. Even some of the ones marked on the map have faded as the trees take back their gloom; but there are other clues here that speak of labouring men and women in years gone by. There are medieval wood banks here, built to mark the edges of properties, and coppiced beech with some hazel stools stand testament to lives at which we can only guess.
And deep in the woods there were surprises. A shelter built far from the nearest path. A clearing containing a shepherds’ hut. A bridge over one of the deeper ghylls – broken and twisted by the floods of winter, but still crossable with care.
There is always such a powerful feeling of walking among the fallen and disappearing past when you walk in these old woods. Some of these trees have long memories, but not so long that the old ghosts of past millennia won’t, in the end, pass fully away and be forgotten even by the ancient beeches – once kept alive by coppicing, they now grow old and fall in a ruinous, rotting confusion of limbs. An ancient way of life is passing from us. The spirits these trees once held have flown, only to be remembered by the few who care to know what our ancestral explorers, clearers and farmers once worshipped.
The day had been beautiful and I had missed most of it for one reason or another and, so, I set out in the car with no real plan as to where I was going. After an amount of driving aimlessly around in the High Weald (which is no bad way to spend an afternoon in any case) I found myself dropping down to the great expanse of Romney Marsh. Realising I was in Kent I, of course, first locked all of my doors before deciding to head for the coast. It was a good few years since I’d last been to Dungeness and as there really is nowhere quite like it, I thought it was about time for a revisit. There is, in England, nowhere quite as atmospheric and downright strange to walk as Dungeness. So much so that I am even prepared to travel to Kent to see it.
There is, to me anyway, something wonderfully romantic and beguiling about the relationship between Dungeness, Romney Marsh and the High Weald. The headland of Dungeness itself, of course, didn’t even exist when the Romans first came to our shores, but gradually, over the centuries, a shingle spit built up. This spit both protected the waters behind it and caused the silt washed down the rivers to build up on the seabed, thus creating what later became the Walland and Romney Marshes. The shingle spit itself grew so large that towns were built on it. Lydd is still much where it was first built, but the once-bustling port of Winchelsea was eventually washed away and re-founded on the hill where it sits to this day by Edward I.
There is something that really captures my imagination about the idea of all these soils being washed down the rivers and creating more land when they reach the coast. Of course, the land was artificially drained to create the large, flat fields we see today, but without the action of the Rother and the Brede, the Tillingham and Pannel and all those beautiful little rivers that rush between the hills in the High Weald, like the Dudwell and the Tidebrook, neither the marshes nor Rye Bay would exist. Without the protected waters known as La Chambre (Camber), the towns of Romney, Rye and Winchelsea would never have grown up to become the important medieval ports they became.
But just as the silts from the rivers were essential, so was this mysterious shingle spit that stopped the silt from being washed away by the sea. Why it grew where it did, no-one can precisely say, but it seems to be that this is a point where two processes of longshore drift meet. One washing from west to east along the English Channel and the other coming down along the North Sea coast and through the Straits of Dover. The meeting of the currents washes the two great masses of shingle together until they are enough to rise above the waves, where the first hardy plants manage to find a foothold among the unforgiving stones. Gradually, as they die, their decaying leaves help to make soil among the pebbles, and their water-questing roots help hold it in place. Over many long years this may one day become “normal” land, but for now the life of Dungeness is measured in hundreds of years, not the thousands needed, and it remains a bleak, mostly treeless place.
Having said that, though, the area teems with life. There is often a huge amount of variety in an area’s flora if no big plants, like trees or even taller grasses, can grow up and shade the other plants out and Dungeness is home to around 600 different plant varieties. Many of the insects, moths, beetles and spiders that live among them are extremely rare. Some of them are only found here and nowhere else in Britain. With the insects to feed on and the large lagoons of both brackish and fresh water, this is a hugely important place for migrating birds and the RSPB has a large reserve here.
But, of course, it is not just the geology or the ecology that make Dungeness what it is. Humans, too, have made an enormous impact. The nuclear power station cannot be avoided and it sits in its supreme, vast, jarring ugliness on the edge of the shingle and even in the fog of the day I visited its presence is always felt – looming darkly in the mists and sending an eerie hum out into the air, to mingle with the electronic tones sent out by the foghorn in the latest of the five lighthouses that have been built here over the years.
And just to add to the incongruity, around the power station, along the straggling road, are sheds and huts. Homes built of wood and plastic and old, upturned boats. The whole place has a feeling of impermanence: that the plants could be blown away by a strong enough wind or the shingle itself reclaimed by the sea at any moment, and these rambling, wooden buildings can only contribute to that feeling. This is a place between places. A place between the land and the sea. A place that is so surreal, it could almost not be real at all.
Yes, the day had been – and remained – beautiful inland, but as I approached the coast I began to see what looked like a line of clouds on the horizon. By the time I drove down the tiny road towards the power station, I was enveloped in fog. I almost considered not walking, but I pushed myself out of the car and was more than glad that I did. The power station could not be seen from where I parked near the new lighthouse, but after a short walk along the beach, it began to reveal itself to me, albeit never fully. I walked beside the great, murmuring beast and then took off inland across the shingle and through thickets of scrub – the trees are slowly coming here. One day this would all be forest if left to its own devices.
Fog on the horizon
The new lighthouse
the old lighthouse
The power station
As I walked, the sun gradually began to make itself felt through the thinning cloud, at first just lighting up small patches of shingle here and there. Despite the low light, this secret, lost world around me was full of colour. Blood-red poppies and startling blue viper’s bugloss surrounded me and when the sun made it through the drifting mists, the June grasses glowed golden in great strips along the ridges of shingle, formed hundreds of years ago by the waves when these ridges were at the very water’s edge.
Further and further I walked, each step on the shingle an effort and eventually I could see a long line of bright light along the horizon, growing wider and wider the nearer I came. I could see a domed building that the map said was a reservoir and beside it a tower. Something to do with nearby Lydd Airport? By the time I had reached them I was walking in full sunlight and the world seemed normal. I walked between large lagoons and watched the swans and ducks that swam on them and as I headed back towards the car, the mist closed once more above my head as the golden sun set behind me.
Look! A map! Exciting! Also, definitely hover over the pictures and click on them to get my hilarious and informative captions.
If there’s one place on all of the beautiful South Downs that I keep returning to, it’s the area around Bignor Hill in West Sussex. The jury’s still out on whether it’s the “best part of Sussex” (There’s at least six or seven “best parts of Sussex”. Maybe I’ll do a list), but it’s certainly one of the most gloriously rural parts of the long stretch of the Downs, allowing one to walk for miles without being disturbed by the sound of a car. A lot of the East Sussex Downs are, of course, very beautiful, but almost always there is a fairly major road at the bottom of the hill, or not too far away so there’s always that reminder going on in the background that the real world (Hmm. Maybe that world is unreal and the world of hills and woods is the real one?) is hurrying on and making sure you know about it. Newtimber Hill is achingly beautiful, but the constant roar of the A23 puts a definite dampener on it.
None of this is a problem at Bignor and, aside from the occasional car that makes it up to the National Trust car park at the top (following the old Roman Stane Street for part of the way), you are left to the natural sounds of Sussex: the birds, the wind in the trees, the people shouting at dogs… I mean, you can’t have everything. This is Sussex after all. It’s never going to be wilderness.
I’ve usually, in the past, done much the same walk every time I’ve been up the Hill; which is to loop around via Glatting Beacon and Barlavington Down and back across the Weald to the car, which I’ve tended to leave in Bignor village itself, or (as I did today) at the bottom of the hill on the road up to the car park. Today, though, I thought I’d explore around a bit more, so I parked at the bottom of the hill where there’s space to leave the car while still leaving enough room for others to use the passing space and, at first, took my familiar route to the top. As you walk up the road you enter a wonderfully deep bostall and just after that section, before the road bends sharply to the right, there is a track leading off to the right. It’s not an official path, but this is all access land and part of the National Trust’s Slindon Estate, so we have the right to roam on it. This beautiful track leads through the trees to an actual public footpath (where there is a wonderful view over the fields, peeping out from under the eaves of the wood). Turning left the footpath leads fairly steeply up the hill, rejoining the road a hundred yards or so from the top. You could walk up the road itself if you wanted, but this way is nicer.
Bignor through the trees from the bottom of the road to the car park
The road up to the car park
The road in its deep bostall
Barlavington Down from where the track meets the footpath
Having gained the car park, there’s then almost immediately a track off to the right going back down again, which I followed back down to and then along the edge of the woods. At the far end of the access land there is, according to the map, a track that goes back up to Glatting Beacon. Let me tell you something. This track does not exist. Neither is it possible to tell where the access land ends and private woodland begins. Nevertheless I headed up the hill, following what may have been an overgrown trackway, or bostall, or cross dyke or something. Despite the steep gradient I made fairly easy progress, there not being too much undergrowth and found the main track again at Glatting Beacon. This I followed back to the car park and then back the way I’d come to the car.
Beautiful beech trees
A single beautiful beech tree
One thing that sets the more westerly Downs apart, aside from their generally more rural nature, is that they are much more wooded than their eastern counterparts. While much of the Downs was cleared of trees thousands of years ago to make way for the grazing of sheep, large areas were planted with useful trees to grow – as a supply for the local shepherds and farmers and as a cash crop. There are large areas of hazel and a great deal of ash (suffering, sadly, quite badly here from the dieback fungus), but in particular mighty, beautiful beech trees were grown, coppiced roughly every 250 years, in woodlands on the steeper slopes known as “hangers”. The woodland I was mostly in today is known as Lamb Hanger, thus neatly encapsulating the two primary purposes of the Downs in one name. Beech woodland has to be one of the most beautiful forms of woodland on earth. The tall, elegant, smooth-grey trunks of these enormous, yet most graceful trees. The fresh, bright green of the canopy in spring and summer, replaced by the most wonderful coppery gold in the autumn and winter, the old leaves eventually falling to carpet the ground with gentle gold as the next season’s growth unfolds above them.
Ash affected by the dieback chalara fungus
Golden carpets of last year’s leaves
Pretty sure all these trees are actually all the same tree
Beech may have a habit of falling over, but that doesn’t mean it’s just going to give up on life
Traditional management of beech hangers has, in many cases, ceased and these wonderful trees are left to die. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Beech naturally starts to fall apart as it gets older (it gets every disease under the sun too) and eventually the trees come to the end of their lives leaving a large amount of both lying and standing dead wood. Both are wonderful for different insects, known as decomposers, which will slowly consume the old, rotting timber. Standing dead wood also provides potential places for woodpeckers to make their nests. Beech also reseeds itself quite freely, so there seems little danger of it becoming a thing of the past on the Downs. It seems a shame, though, for all that beautiful wood to go to waste. Beech is perfect for making furniture from, but such is economics, I suppose.
The track back down from the car park through Lamb Hanger
A view across the weald from under the eaves of Lamb Hanger
The track from Glatting Beacon
The track from Glatting Beacon
Part of the road that follows the course of Stane Street
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.
The summit of Newtimber Hill
Lower slopes of West Hill
Dew pond near the summit of Newtimber Hill
Another entrance to the chalk pit
The view west on a hazy spring afternoon
Chanctonbury Ring in the distance
North Laine surrounded by the two arms of Newtimber Hill
The view west
North Hill from West Hill, both parts of Newtimber Hill
Saddlescombe Farm Pond
Another entrance to the chalk pit
Saddlescombe Farm beyond North Laine
Devil’s Dyke from above the chalk pit on Newtimber Hill
The Low Weald from the slopes of Newtimber HIll
Dyke Hill, wooded on the left. Truleigh Hill with the radio masts on its summit and Chanctonbury Ring visible to its right
I once wrote a song in which I complain that “I sit in my basement flat with never sight of a tree/and as the rain runs down my window I wonder if I’ll ere be free”, and I find myself in a similar position this rainy Easter Monday, as the traditional Bank Holiday weather makes itself felt. In the interests of full disclosure, I must point out that if I actually opened the blinds I would be able to see the two spindly, ivy-encumbered apple trees that dwell in what passes for my back garden and, indeed, the enormous eucalyptus that stands like an alien giant and surveys us all a few gardens up. The song, of course, has more than a streak of self-pity in it and in my defence I wrote it in the living room where you can’t see any trees. Or anything else much other than two wheelie bins, for that matter. What it’s about, of course, is what happens to my brain when I’ve not had access to the countryside for too long. I live in a great, fun city that I love, but if I don’t get to wander free under the sky as often as possible, I start to suffer and city streets are no compensation for country tracks and muddy fields.
There is a primality to walking that is difficult to fully put into words. Something about an act as simple as putting one foot in front of the other that can propel one over mountains. It is an act that humans were built for and that simple act connects us all the way back to the first hominids who stood up to get a better view of their surroundings, their enemies and the way ahead. In many ways, of course, we are separated by eons of history, technology and development, but in many other ways we are still those primal, wary beings, seeking to explore and understand our world. Our post-industrial separation from the land does us as individuals, and our species as a whole, much harm.
Now it is very easy for me to sit here in my centrally-heated flat with its electric lights and its internet connection and its waiting car outside that can whisk me unnaturally to places I choose to walk. There are, of course, many wonders that our industrial world brings us that I would struggle to wish to do without, but that’s not quite the point. We can all make connections with the land that lies beneath our city streets and the landscapes that surround them. Every tree and park. Every garden is a portal into the wild and even though England stands as one of the most managed landscapes in the world, it still keeps those hidden gateways to another, non-human world. A world we choose to ignore at our peril.
Throughout my adult life I have suffered from poor mental health and, particularly, anxiety. There is nothing that calms me more than knowing that I remain a natural being under the sky. That simple act that connects me to those distant ancestors is one that has always helped soothe and replenish what, for want of a better word, I will call my soul. To place my feet in their footprints and follow them is a solace for which I know no comparison, but beyond paying homage to those who went before: it is also a connection to what is real and happening now.
Not all of what can be seen around us in the countryside is cheerful. There is a biodiversity crisis in the fields of Old England. Songbird populations are plummeting. The ash trees are dying; the elm already gone. Hedgerows have disappeared and vast fields spread in sterile, serried grids to horizons shorn of the trees that used to cover them. Yet there is still enough there remaining, scattered and fragmentary though it may be, to allow one, if one pays attention, to look through those windows into the wild and to see that other world and to imagine oneself an earlier human watching the rooks high in the branches of the trees that were once believed to be Gods or entities that connected us to the heavens. We can still stand on the hillsides and look out over the valleys below us and try to discern the way ahead. There is much that is upsetting and difficult, but with that primal vision still somewhere within us, there is always hope.
So I will always look to get out from behind these rain-smeared windows in this basement flat and take myself wandering under the wide open skies of this battered, abused and still intensely beguiling planet of ours. I will continue to place my feet in the footprints of those ancestors that first cleared the paths through the trees and I will remind myself that, even in this world of bright screens and all-pervasive internet coverage, that I am human and I am of the Earth.
Well, the time has come. I’m afraid we’re going to have to have a difficult conversation. Oh, I hoped I’d never have to have this talk with you, but I can no longer deny what’s staring us in the face. It’s time to take the bull by the horns and deal with it straight on.
I’m going to have to talk to you about Kent.
Much though we’d like to ignore the Evil County and pretend it just doesn’t exist, there are times when its presence simply has to be acknowledged and in the area around Rye, there’s nothing for it but to accept that it is there and that there is simply nothing to be done about it. One curious thing about it is that parts of it are even acceptable to upright, proper folk, and those are the parts that were, essentially, made by Sussex.
The River Rother rises near Rotherfield in the High Weald and flows east. At one time it flowed into a large estuary, which also received the waters of several other High Wealden rivers, like the Brede and the Tillingham. At this time the great shingle headland of Dungeness didn’t exist and the whole coastline was quite different to how it is today. Something about the shape of the seabed, however, made a long shingle spit begin to form, starting with a small island out to sea, not far from where Old Romney is today. Eventually the spit joined the island to the shore, creating a lagoon behind it that the rivers continued to empty into. Some people also built a town on the spit and called it Winchelsea. That later turned out to have been a bad idea.
Over time the rivers filled the lagoon with their waters and also their silt. After a while the water became too much and it punched its way through the shingle bank and found its way to the sea once again. As the waters drained out, the silt left behind became salt marshes that, over hundreds of years, were gradually drained and converted to farmland in a process called Inning. Thus, Romney and Walland Marshes and the Rother Levels were created from the mud of the Sussex High Weald and the coastline around Rye Bay was changed forever. So if you’ve ever wondered why Romney Marsh feels less sinister than the rest of Kent, here’s your answer. It is made from the soils and rocks of the Good County to its west.
Eventually the shingle spit was washed away and resurfaced as Dungeness; the old town of Winchelsea departing with it. Edward I founded the present town on its hill nearby. The rivers were forced into new shapes, all of them joining the Rother near Rye and flowing to the sea at Rye Harbour. For a time, before all of the spit had been destroyed, the lagoon survived and was deep enough to shelter several ships in an area behind the old town of Winchelsea known as “La Chambre”, or “The Camber”. Camber Sands and its adjoining town keep this name to this day.
I seem to have gone on rather a bit. Sorry about that. The main point of all this waffle is that there is now a rather beautiful, bleak nature reserve, absolutely teeming with bird life, on the shingle at Rye Harbour and the other day I went for a stroll around it in the wonderfully atmospheric early spring mists and here are some photographs to prove it. I hope you enjoy them.