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.

IMG_7827
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.

IMG_7804
Path to the bottom of the Dyke
IMG_7808
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.

IMG_7810
Steps lead into the woods on Dyke Hill
IMG_7811
The path through the woods
IMG_7813
Fulking Escarpment, Truleigh Hill and Chanctonbury Ring
IMG_7814
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.

IMG_7816
The funicular
IMG_7819
Looking down the funicular track bed
IMG_7818
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.

IMG_7820

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.

IMG_7822
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.

IMG_7821
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.

IMG_7823

IMG_7824
Devil’s Dyke
IMG_7825
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.

IMG_7826IMG_7827

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.

Advertisements

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.

IMG_7604
IMG_7605
IMG_7606

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.

IMG_7607
IMG_7608
IMG_7609

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.

IMG_7611
IMG_7615
IMG_7616

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.

IMG_7619
IMG_7620
IMG_7621

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.

Wandering

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.

Droke

That morning I awoke with a feeling of complete uselessness. Nothing I had or could do seemed to have any meaning and the temptation to remain in bed, with the blinds closed and the only light provided by a laptop screen was strong upon me. “Ah.” I thought. “Another day of pointless existence, I see. I suppose I’d better get on with it.”

I forced myself to go to a place called Droke. I’d first found it years before while exploring West Sussex by car. It sits in a long dry valley of the Downs which runs parallel to where the steep northern edge of the long line of hills descends to the Low Weald. The name intrigued me, redolent as it is of some elemental Jansson-esque monster of the woods. In fact, the name turns out simply to mean “steep-sided valley”. This is a timeless, lost place high in a landscape that has never been able to support large amounts of human life. What villages and farms exist are few, small, scattered and achingly beautiful. Charlton Forest is just to the north and one of the largest areas of woodland in Sussex – leading up to the top of the north scarp of the Downs – and I’d wanted to explore it for years. I was in an ambivalent mood as I drove there. That feeling in the pit of my stomach of not really knowing what I was doing or why.

The feeling persisted as I walked through mile after mile of beech plantation, almost as mono-cultural as a stand of pine with just a muddle of bramble at the field layer, a few dark yews dotted about and the odd hazel at the edges. All of that changed at a medieval wood bank near the summit, after which I was suddenly in oak/ash woodland with a significant coppiced hazel under-storey, a fair amount of hawthorn and wild cherry filling it out and moss everywhere.


The top was muddy as all hell, but some fine views fading into the soft winter haze over towards Harting Down and the Surrey Hills made up for it. I was just beginning to really tire of slogging through the mud when all of a sudden the woodland ended and one of the most beautiful dry valleys in the Downs opened up at my feet. The sun came out and I stood and watched a buzzard wheeling against the sky above me. Through a parting in the trees I caught a sudden glimpse of Chanctonbury Ring away in the distance, almost back at Brighton and as I took it all in I thought to myself: “Ah yes. This is the point.”

 

The hill down to Upwaltham was steep and after spending 20 minutes or so poking around in the beautiful old church of nearly 900 years, I abandoned my original plan of walking over Upwaltham Hill and Selhurstpark Hill to get back to Droke and took the quicker route along the road, as the sun was now nearing the western horizon. The sound of gunfire filled the air as I walked along Droke Lane, the guns lined up with their dogs in the fields like so many waiting statues.

Lickfold

I admit I mainly wanted to walk in the Lickfold area because it’s got a funny name, but it also turns out to be in a really beautiful, rural part of Sussex.

Sitting in that bit of the county between Midhurst and Haslemere, it is comfortably within the boundary of the South Downs National Park, but this is not Downland. The bones of the earth, where they break through around here, are not white chalk, but sandstones that are far older than that. The great dark lump of Black Down looms in the distance, itself an outlier of the sandstone Surrey Hills, despite being the highest point in Sussex. The ground is spongy, sweet chestnut abounds in the woods and there are vast areas of commercial pine forest, while bracken fringes the edges of the woods and lanes. In fact this area, with its acid soils and rolling, thickly wooded hills, has much more in common with the High Weald than it does with the South Downs.

The villages are few and scattered and the houses often built out of the local stone, glowing honey-coloured in the weak December sun. This is one of the less-visited parts of the National Park and this is a big part of its glory. The paths are a little harder to follow in places, but still not difficult and there were some real moments of delicious solitude, while the surroundings alternated between deep, dark, secret woodland and wide open pastures.

There may be something in this business of choosing walks based on funny names after all. As a bonus the area also glories in the names “Dirty Bridge Barn” and “Dirty Bridge Field” (which is a wood, oddly). There didn’t seem to be an actual “Dirty Bridge”, though. Perhaps it’s too ashamed to bring attention to itself.

 

IMG_4410

A wood bank on the edge of Bexleyhill Common, with coppiced beech on the corner. Wood banks are ancient boundaries between properties and often have coppiced, stumped and pollarded trees on them to make them more obvious.

IMG_4417

Although this might look like a stand of dead trees, in fact it’s a plantation of larch – the only deciduous conifer – in its winter plumage.

IMG_4423

Definite signs of man-made channels in this meadow, silted up and barely discernible now, but the shallow, linear depressions in the deep grass show that this was once a water meadow and deliberately flooded to encourage lush growth. Just needs a lovely old red poll cow called Ermintrude to stand in the middle of it all and chew on a buttercup. A red poll? In Sussex? Sorry, that’s the Suffolk in me coming out.

IMG_4424

If you see a row of big old trees in a field like this, it’s very likely a sign that there used to be a hedgerow here. The rest of it’s been grubbed up for one reason or an other and only the big old oaks, too expensive and valuable to remove, remain to show us what once was.

IMG_4428

Although it looked quite scary in the gathering gloom and it was a bit slippery in the ice, this bridge doesn’t even make the top five Scariest Sussex Footbridges

Gravetye Estate

What a find! The estate of the Elizabethan former manor house of 1598, the whole lot was left to the Forestry Commission on the death of former owner William Robinson, who also created renowned gardens around the house, which are now open under restrictions. The house became a hotel and Michelin starred restaurant.

Because the estate is managed by the Forestry Commission, the whole lot is designated as Access Land and the public have the right to roam across all of it. Unlike most Forestry Commission properties it is far from being uniform pine plantation, but is in fact a wonderful extensive patchwork of woods, fields, lakes and streams laid over rolling hills and with the old manor house still set at its heart.

Bedham Church

Now, I don’t know how you spend your evenings, but I spend quite a lot of mine looking at Ordnance Survey maps. Mostly, of course, I’m looking for places with rude names (Wellcombe Bottom being a particular favourite), but also I’m looking for places that might be nice for a walk. One such place is an area of open access woodland I noticed to the north of Fittleworth in West Sussex (Fittleworth of course is not a rude name, exactly, but it’s still an awesome one). Today being a nice day, I decided to go and have a look… And found this! Built as a church and a school in 1880, it stopped being used for education in 1925 and for worship in 1959.