Devil’s Dyke

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.

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Newtimber Hill from Devil’s Dyke

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.

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Path to the bottom of the Dyke
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Haws at the bottom of the Dyke valley

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.

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Steps lead into the woods on Dyke Hill
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The path through the woods
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Fulking Escarpment, Truleigh Hill and Chanctonbury Ring
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Newtimber Hill

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.

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The funicular
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Looking down the funicular track bed
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Poynings and the Weald from near the funicular track bed

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.

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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.

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The ramparts are the green lines in the long grass to the right of the path

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.

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What remains of the landing stage for the cable car

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.

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Devil’s Dyke
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Devil’s Dyke and Newtimber Hill

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.

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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.

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College Bostall

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Blackcap

One place on the South Downs that will always have a special place in my heart is Blackcap near Lewes. As an undergraduate at Plumpton College I wrote a couple of essays on the hill and it’s a place I return to again and again. The clump of trees on top of the hill can be seen for many miles – even from many parts of the High Weald – but despite looking like a black cap, it is not from these trees that the hill gets its name. Where the hill does get its name, on the other hand, is a matter of some debate.

Between the 13th and 17th Centuries the hill was known as Mount Harry, as this is the hill where Henry III stationed his troops before the battle of Lewes in 1264 – a battle that ended with both Henry and his son, the future Edward I, being taken prisoner by Simon de Montfort.  The hill to its east was known as Lewes Beacon and, indeed, it has a beacon on it. For some reason, though, in the 17th century Mount Harry became Blackcap and Lewes Beacon became Mount Harry. No-one really knows why. There was, in that period, a windmill on the saddle between the two hills known as Blackcap Mill, but whether it was named after the hill or vice versa is not known. One thing is certain, though, and that’s that the trees on the very top of the hill were first planted for the coronation of Victoria some 200 years later (they have died and been replaced twice since), so it’s definitely not named after them.

The top of the hill is managed by the National Trust and has been the successful subject of a scheme to regenerate the herb-rich grassland that makes the Downs famous – much of the hill having previously been ploughed up during the Second World War. The large open expanse of the hill affords wonderful views over to the coastal line of the Downs that stretches from Brighton to Eastbourne and in the summer it has one of the finest displays of wild orchids on these hills.

This is a hill that never fails to cheer me up. A network of bostalls scores its northern face, which allows the wanderer to assault it from various directions, or combine it with a walk in the woods and fields of the Low Weald at its feet.

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On my way up the hill today I spotted these King Alfred’s Cakes growing on a dead ash branch. The fungus gets its name, of course, from looking like burnt cakes, such as those supposedly neglected by King Alfred the Great while his mind was on other vaguely important things, like all those pesky Danes that were suddenly cluttering Wessex up. They only grow on dead ash and though they are extremely hard, they can be removed with a knife. Once they have been sliced off and the interior revealed, it can be seen that they have growth rings, just like the trees they grow on, which gives them their Latin name of Daldinia concentrica.

Long before the days of Alfred and his cakes, this fungus had another use. If a spark from a fire were blown onto the inner rings, it would smoulder quite slowly and happily away, even for days, until a new fire was to be set, at which point the addition of some dry tinder – and a fair amount of highly controlled blowing – would bring it back into a bright blaze. A very useful property in the days before we’d worked out how to make fire for ourselves and had to rely on its delivery from the Gods.

With the ash trees all dying of the Chalara fungus, they look set to have a bumper couple of decades, as there’s going to be plenty of dead ash for them to grow on. But after that, I suppose they’ll die out with their hosts. A sad end to such a wonderful part of our human past.

A Few Extra

A collection of a few pics that, for one reason or another, weren’t part of other sets, or haven’t been posted before. Hover and click for descriptions.

Burnhouse Bostall

Just the other side of the Downs from Brighton is a path that winds up the steep, northerly slopes called Burnhouse Bostall. For thousands of years shepherds lead their flocks up and down from the Weald to the Downs and back, carving these deep paths into the chalk as they went. Now the sheep are no longer driven up these paths, it is left to the rain and the boots of walkers to carry the job on.

Woodingdean – Lewes Approx 10.5 km (6.5 miles), about 3.5 hours

Castle Hill NNR
Castle Hill NNR

Now, try not to get too excited, but we’re back at that exceptional beauty spot The Downs Hotel in Woodingdean (served, excitingly, by both the No. 22 and the No. 2). I know it’s tempting, but try to resist its obvious charms. There’s a Tesco Express at the petrol station as well as a Co-op just over the junction, but if you can tear yourself away, turn left at the Downs Hotel and walk up the hill on Falmer Road. Just past the end of the buildings on the right is a small car park with a couple of tracks leading from it. The left-hand track is Drove Avenue, which becomes Jugg’s Road and is a popular and straightforward route to Lewes, but not a patch on my route (obviously), which goes through Castle Hill National Nature Reserve and has some of the best dip-slope/dry valley scenery on the South Downs.

Take the Left Hand Fork
Take the Left Hand Fork

Follow the right-hand track, which I am sure you’ll be thrilled to know is called Norton Drive. Ahead of you, you will see a radio mast (you will also see, away to its left, another radio mast on the top of Newmarket Hill. So long as you’re heading initially towards the right hand of the two, you are going the right way. Well done!). Just before the radio mast, take the left-hand fork, with the fence on your right. This path, I have decided, is one of the most beautiful on the South Downs and I shall brook no argument on the matter. To your left is Newmarket Bottom and Bullock Hill rises on your right.

Follow the path all the way down and round to the right, round the end of Standean Bottom and back along the other side of the dry valley.

Have we talked about dry valleys? Let’s talk about dry valleys. The most famous dry valley on the South Downs is Devil’s Dyke and I’ll do a Devil’s Dyke walk at some point I’m sure, but the important thing is that they were all created in the same way, some 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Glacial Maximum (or ice age, if you’re not being a ponce about these things, although technically, as there’s ice at the poles, we’re still in an ice age, but whatever). The Downs were not covered by glaciers (they only came as far south as North Finchley Tube Station), but they were frozen solid (There’s more on this guff in my post giving an exciting geological history of the Downs). As the tundra melted, the melt-water formed rivers in the dips and depressions on the Downs and eventually wore valleys into the surface of the chalk. Once the ground had all thawed, the water ran out and the rivers disappeared, leaving dry valleys behind. So now you know all about dry valleys. You’re welcome.

Barns
Barns

Anyhoo, you will now be walking along a track shaded by a slightly incongruous row of enormous London Plane trees. Be careful on this path, there are badger setts, some of the entrances to which are right in the middle of the path and perfect for unwary walkers to fall down. At the end of this path under a few big Ash trees, you will come to a junction of tracks, where you turn left, heading towards a collection of red-brick barns lacking somewhat in the roof department. Try as I might I have never been able to take a decent picture of them, but there’s always a certain glorious melancholy about ruined buildings, isn’t there? One day I will be there under the perfect conditions to take a picture that will capture that brooding melancholy of the abandoned… but I digress. Again. Sorry.

Just past the barns, turn right, go through a gate with a fence on your right, turn right at the end of the fence and then you should see a path leading off to your left along the length of this cultivated field. Through a gate at the other end of the field, across another fairly small field and through another gate into a much bigger field. Follow the path straight on and round to the right. This field may well be full of moo cows, but don’t worry, they’re friendly moo cows and used to walkers. Do keep dogs on a short lead, though. You are now in Balsdean Bottom, which is a great name for a bottom, I’m sure you’ll agree.

At the other end of this field you are presented with an exciting choice of gates, a new wooden one and and old, metal one. I like to go through the metal one, because I’m sentimental like that, but I shan’t be cross if you choose the wooden one, although I will silently judge you.

View from Swanborough Hill
View from Swanborough Hill

Follow the wide track straight ahead, which will start to go uphill. On your right is another valley that glories in the name of Stump Bottom, but pay it no mind. It does no good to encourage that sort of behaviour. At the top of the hill, cross a cattle grid and go straight on. You are now at the top of a shoulder of Swanborough Hill and all of East Sussex is laid out at your feet. The village of Kingston Near Lewes is at the foot of the hill. Dead ahead are the Lewes Downs, with the round, bald head of Mount Caburn at the southern extreme. The white cliffs are, imaginatively, called Cliffe, and the town to the left is Lewes, with its castle visible on its hill. I usually stop here for a roll up and a Double Decker and often find it hard to drag myself away from this view, which I regard as the finest in Sussex, even if you can see Kent in the distance. Try to ignore that misfortune.

Breach Road
Breach Road

Leading down in front of you are two paths. One leads to the left and, very steeply, drops down to Kingston. You can go that way if you like. There’s a pub and everything. But it’s cheating, so I’m not going to describe it, so there. Take the right-hand fork, leading down and round a spur of the hills. This is Breach Road and leads, eventually, down to Swanborough, becoming metalled as it emerges from a small patch of trees. At the bottom of the road on your left is Swanborough Manor and the main Lewes – Newhaven road. Cross this carefully – it’s busy and fast here – and through a gate into wheat fields, the flat Ouse Valley suddenly around you. Take a moment as you cross this plain to look back at the hills you’ve just crossed.

Lewes Downs and the Ouse Valley
Lewes Downs and the Ouse Valley

You will quickly come to a t-junction of paths in the middle of the field. Turn left and follow the path across the fields. There is a small airstrip to your right. At the end of the field, the path goes through a gate and down some steps to a tarmac lane. It may well be completely surrounded by tall nettles, but you can get through. Turn right onto the lane and almost immediately left, just before the gates to a sewage works up along and almost within a hedgerow.

Within a Hedgerow
Within a Hedgerow

At the end of this path you will come back out into a wide open crop field with the path obvious ahead of you. Cross the field and the next until you almost reach the road, then turn right with a large drainage dyke on your left, lined with tall trees and sports fields beyond. Follow the dyke (there’ll probably be swans and all that sort of caper) and at its end, turn left through a gate, across the end of a mown stretch of grass and through another gate onto a tarmac road. Turn right here and then left through a bridge under the A27. Follow the road round to the right, then turn left at the first junction. Follow this road under a low railway bridge and up to Southover High Street.

To get to Lewes railway station, turn right and left at the second mini-roundabout, but take my advice and explore Lewes and its many pubs, if you have time.