Black Down

Much though Sussex prides itself on its independent spirit, there are occasions when other, less worthy counties impose themselves upon us and it is somehow ironic that the highest point of this blessed land is, in fact, an outpost of the Surrey Hills. Having said that, the Surrey Hills themselves are a mere part of the Greensand Ridge that runs in a giant horseshoe around the outside of the Low Weald, so perhaps we can learn to share our topography nicely with our neighbours. Black Down sits at the end of a promontory of sandstone that looms over the wide clay vale of the western Low Weald and, as a result, commands wonderful views; especially at its southern end, where the land steeply falls some 200 metres to meet the plains that spread below.

Such a significant hill has, of course, been important for millennia. The slopes are littered with prehistoric worked flints – some 2000 of them are in the collection of Haslemere Educational Museum just to the north. Flint does not naturally occur in the acid sandstones of these hills, so they must have been brought here by prehistoric man and the fact that most of these flints are arrowheads shows that this hill was an important hunting ground for these people.

For thousands of years the hill, like the chalk Downs, was grazed, which kept the trees down and allowed a large open heath to develop. The slopes are still covered with thick heather and hair grass, but since regular grazing stopped in the early years of the last century, Scots pine has taken much of the area over. This being a National Trust property, they are gradually thinning the pine and restoring grazing to allow the heather and its attendant rare wildlife to thrive. I didn’t see any of their belted galloway cattle on this occasion, but I have seen them among the trees on previous visits.

The hill’s most famous resident must be Tennyson, who died in his house here in 1892. One of the deep, winding lanes is named in his honour. Long walks over the heath were taken by the poet and his friends and the place remains extremely popular with walkers of all kinds, its proximity to the town of Haslemere adding to its attraction.

Upper Medway

If you stand and look out from the higher points of Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, you are looking over successively younger landscapes the further your gaze falls from where you are standing. In an increasing, concentric horseshoe, the oldest rocks at the surface are the sandstones that form the hills of Ashdown Forest itself and the wider High Weald, followed by alternating areas of heavy Wealden clay, greensand ridges, so called because, it is claimed, this sandstone looks green when first exposed to the air, blueish gault clay that is almost as hard as rock and, finally, the chalk of the North and South Downs.

These old sandstones at the heart of the Weald give rise to several of Sussex’s rivers, including the greatest of them all, although its considerable claims to history are mostly based in the neighbouring county of Kent. It is possible that the Celts called the river “Medu”, which means “mead” and is assumed to refer to the sweetness of its waters. To the Romans the river was “Fluminus Meduwaeias”, while the Saxons called it the “Medwaeg”. At 70 miles, it is the longest river that rises in Sussex and the second longest in the South East of England, after the Thames.

The Medway is the only major river in Sussex that doesn’t flow towards the South Coast. (Apart from the Mole, but who cares about the Mole?) All the others eventually cut through the South Downs and empty into the English Channel, or flow into Rye Bay. The Medway, however, flows mostly eastwards through Sussex, before turning north and punching through the North Downs to finally enter the Thames Estuary. It is here that its best-known moments in history occur, being, as it was, the setting for the Royal Docks at Chatham. The Dutch Raid on the Medway of 1667 in particular is remembered as one of England’s most entertaining naval failures.

However, let us not get distracted by such frippery. Today my attention is turned to the upper catchment of the Medway, not far below its source at Turners Hill and all the while overlooking the great, modern reservoir known as Weir Wood, created by damming the river itself.

This is a landscape of steep, rushing streams and thickly wooded hills. The land being either sandy and poor or Wealden clay that is almost impermeable to water, agriculture is impractical here and the High Weald still retains the densest covering of woodland in the country. There are numerous outcroppings of the underlying sandstones here, such as at Stone Hill Rocks and Standen Rocks, among others. The bones of the earth being so on display seems almost out of keeping with the image of the South East of England as a “green and pleasant land”, but Sussex has always taken its own path and perhaps this almost secret world of steep narrow valleys and deep, dark woods has placed its influence on the peoples of this part of the world.