Brede High Wood is one of those places I’ve been driving past for years, always thinking “I should stop and have a look one day” and, eventually, on the 13th of September 2018: that day came. An almost magically beautiful woodland owned by the Woodland Trust a patchwork of ancient areas, old coppice, plantations and the occasional open glade, I was entranced by mysterious fungi, wild hops, portentous arches and mile after mile of beautiful, stately beech. Very glad I finally decided to stop and look around.
One of my favourite places for a quick up-and-down walk on the Downs is Westmeston, a tiny village near Dithcling. The route up crosses above the Victoria V, a large a plantation of trees on the north scarp of the the Downs in the shape of an enormous “V”, which can be seen for miles around and was planted to commemorate the coronation of Queen Victoria. Legend has it that the planters originally intended to spell out “V&A”, but ran out of money. The descent follows the ancient shepherds’ track known as Westmeston Bostall, which has carved its way deeply into the chalk over the centuries.
Hello everyone! Come with me now as I take you in my time machine back into the mists of time to… the 7th of September 2018! Imagine! This was a day I walked up to Blackcap from *a different direction*. Very exciting.
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.