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.
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.
View across the Weald from Blackcap on the South Downs
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.