Life, they tell me, often goes in circles and so it is with this blog. When I first started writing about walking in Sussex I was inspired by the fact that I did not, at the time, have a car. The lack of a car by no means makes it impossible to enjoy the countryside, but it does make it more of a challenge. Especially if, like I do, you enjoy exploring new places. It is all too easy, when reliant on buses and trains, to find yourself walking the same, tired routes over and over and while there’s a lot be said for walking the same routes, especially at different times of the year – it can get a bit wearing nevertheless. So this blog started as a way to document the places I had found that could be reached by public transport, how I got there, where I walked and how I got back again.
Well, once more, I find myself without motorised wheels and, once more, some creativity and effort is required in finding new places to investigate. In many ways the experience becomes quite different when a little planning is needed. My tendency when exploring with a car was to drive around until I found myself somewhere particularly beautiful or unfamiliar, park up, fire up the OS app and see where I could walk. There are many benefits to doing this, but also many drawbacks. Almost every time I went out I’d find myself spending at least £20 on petrol and very often, even with the benefit of a motor, I’d find myself driving in the same places as I’d driven many times before, or I’d somehow never quite find a good place to stop. Sometimes I’d get home again without having walked at all.
On the other hand, of course, the great benefit of a car is that you can get to all sorts of places that public transport either renders entirely inaccessible, or practically not worth the bother. The challenge for the un-motorised walker is to find those places that are within relatively easy reach and yet still provide new and interesting places to enjoy. And while the whole thing may not feel quite as spontaneous as when you could just jump in the car and go (although, as I have discovered, it is entirely possible to run and catch a train on a whim at pretty short notice), there is a certain satisfaction to be gained from planning a trip and achieving one’s goals.
And it was very much in this fashion that I found myself at Pulborough station having decided to see if I could get up into the woods near Bedham by rail and foot. Turns out, not only can you walk to Bedham from Pulborough, but it is one of the most thoroughly beautiful walks in Sussex. This is not a walk full of grand views and wide vistas, although you do get a bit of that towards the end, but rather these paths find their way mostly through woods, or are lined by tall trees and hedgerows. In the golden light of autumn, as the leaves are turning, there can’t be anywhere much lovelier to stroll.
Pulborough itself sits on the hills just to the east of the River Arun, where it makes two great sweeps around the western and southern edges of the town, joined by the waters of the western River Rother at its first bend. From here the river runs south and is soon to punch its way through the Downs between Amberley and Arundel. The train line runs up this valley and through the gap in the chalk, but Pulborough does not sit on hills made of chalk, but ones made of sandstone. This is the Greensand Ridge, so named because, apparently, the stone, when first exposed to the air, has a greenish tint. The sandstones here are older than the chalk, but not as old as those that make up the High Weald. Because this is sandstone, the soils are light and acidic. Plenty of bracken and birch, pine plantations and and large areas of sweet chestnut coppice. Although the traditional woodland management technique of coppicing died out in most woodlands between the wars, sweet chestnut remains one of the few trees still economically worth managing in the old way. Chestnut wood is naturally rot resistant, which makes it much in demand for fencing, among other things and, of course, at this time of year, the trees are thick with chestnuts, ripe for the gathering and roasting.
On the way to the woods the route passes Pallingham Quay – a reminder that, once, the River Arun was a busy commercial waterway before the railways took that whole way of life away. The tiny settlement of Bedham occupies the centre of the walk, nestled in the trees with its little ruined school and church that once occupied the same, purpose-built building. Climbing over the ridge from Bedham, the views open out as the path gently descends back into the Arun/Rother valley, via the tiny village of Stopham with its 11th Century church, which is worth a quick visit. I always like to pop into the little churches I pass if I can. There is no greater link back to the medieval than these humble little buildings that have stood and been loved and looked after by local people for centuries. Similarly, the path then crosses the river by way of Stopham Bridge, another monument to the skill of the medieval stonemason, this time dating from the 15th Century. The central arch was raised in 1822 to allow the passage of bigger boats.
From there the path runs back to Pulborough along the edge of the Greensand Hills and the view across the Arun valley to the South Downs beyond is both very beautiful and the archetypal Sussex vista.
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.
Look! A map! Exciting! Also, definitely hover over the pictures and click on them to get my hilarious and informative captions.
If there’s one place on all of the beautiful South Downs that I keep returning to, it’s the area around Bignor Hill in West Sussex. The jury’s still out on whether it’s the “best part of Sussex” (There’s at least six or seven “best parts of Sussex”. Maybe I’ll do a list), but it’s certainly one of the most gloriously rural parts of the long stretch of the Downs, allowing one to walk for miles without being disturbed by the sound of a car. A lot of the East Sussex Downs are, of course, very beautiful, but almost always there is a fairly major road at the bottom of the hill, or not too far away so there’s always that reminder going on in the background that the real world (Hmm. Maybe that world is unreal and the world of hills and woods is the real one?) is hurrying on and making sure you know about it. Newtimber Hill is achingly beautiful, but the constant roar of the A23 puts a definite dampener on it.
None of this is a problem at Bignor and, aside from the occasional car that makes it up to the National Trust car park at the top (following the old Roman Stane Street for part of the way), you are left to the natural sounds of Sussex: the birds, the wind in the trees, the people shouting at dogs… I mean, you can’t have everything. This is Sussex after all. It’s never going to be wilderness.
I’ve usually, in the past, done much the same walk every time I’ve been up the Hill; which is to loop around via Glatting Beacon and Barlavington Down and back across the Weald to the car, which I’ve tended to leave in Bignor village itself, or (as I did today) at the bottom of the hill on the road up to the car park. Today, though, I thought I’d explore around a bit more, so I parked at the bottom of the hill where there’s space to leave the car while still leaving enough room for others to use the passing space and, at first, took my familiar route to the top. As you walk up the road you enter a wonderfully deep bostall and just after that section, before the road bends sharply to the right, there is a track leading off to the right. It’s not an official path, but this is all access land and part of the National Trust’s Slindon Estate, so we have the right to roam on it. This beautiful track leads through the trees to an actual public footpath (where there is a wonderful view over the fields, peeping out from under the eaves of the wood). Turning left the footpath leads fairly steeply up the hill, rejoining the road a hundred yards or so from the top. You could walk up the road itself if you wanted, but this way is nicer.
Bignor through the trees from the bottom of the road to the car park
The road up to the car park
The road in its deep bostall
Barlavington Down from where the track meets the footpath
Having gained the car park, there’s then almost immediately a track off to the right going back down again, which I followed back down to and then along the edge of the woods. At the far end of the access land there is, according to the map, a track that goes back up to Glatting Beacon. Let me tell you something. This track does not exist. Neither is it possible to tell where the access land ends and private woodland begins. Nevertheless I headed up the hill, following what may have been an overgrown trackway, or bostall, or cross dyke or something. Despite the steep gradient I made fairly easy progress, there not being too much undergrowth and found the main track again at Glatting Beacon. This I followed back to the car park and then back the way I’d come to the car.
Beautiful beech trees
A single beautiful beech tree
One thing that sets the more westerly Downs apart, aside from their generally more rural nature, is that they are much more wooded than their eastern counterparts. While much of the Downs was cleared of trees thousands of years ago to make way for the grazing of sheep, large areas were planted with useful trees to grow – as a supply for the local shepherds and farmers and as a cash crop. There are large areas of hazel and a great deal of ash (suffering, sadly, quite badly here from the dieback fungus), but in particular mighty, beautiful beech trees were grown, coppiced roughly every 250 years, in woodlands on the steeper slopes known as “hangers”. The woodland I was mostly in today is known as Lamb Hanger, thus neatly encapsulating the two primary purposes of the Downs in one name. Beech woodland has to be one of the most beautiful forms of woodland on earth. The tall, elegant, smooth-grey trunks of these enormous, yet most graceful trees. The fresh, bright green of the canopy in spring and summer, replaced by the most wonderful coppery gold in the autumn and winter, the old leaves eventually falling to carpet the ground with gentle gold as the next season’s growth unfolds above them.
Ash affected by the dieback chalara fungus
Golden carpets of last year’s leaves
Pretty sure all these trees are actually all the same tree
Beech may have a habit of falling over, but that doesn’t mean it’s just going to give up on life
Traditional management of beech hangers has, in many cases, ceased and these wonderful trees are left to die. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Beech naturally starts to fall apart as it gets older (it gets every disease under the sun too) and eventually the trees come to the end of their lives leaving a large amount of both lying and standing dead wood. Both are wonderful for different insects, known as decomposers, which will slowly consume the old, rotting timber. Standing dead wood also provides potential places for woodpeckers to make their nests. Beech also reseeds itself quite freely, so there seems little danger of it becoming a thing of the past on the Downs. It seems a shame, though, for all that beautiful wood to go to waste. Beech is perfect for making furniture from, but such is economics, I suppose.
The track back down from the car park through Lamb Hanger
A view across the weald from under the eaves of Lamb Hanger
The track from Glatting Beacon
The track from Glatting Beacon
Part of the road that follows the course of Stane Street
If you drive down the A23 to Brighton, you cannot help but notice the huge, dark bulk of Newtimber Hill suddenly rising ahead of you after you pass under the bridge at the Albourne junction. It’s a sight that has cheered many a weary heart after a long drive home, because when you see it, you know you’re nearly back to Brighton and before you even get there you’ve got the option of sampling the delights of the M&S at Pyecombe Services. The hill is an unusual one on the Downs because it’s wooded and most of this part of the ridge is fairly bare of trees. Indeed only a hundred years ago there was hardly a single tree to be seen on the hills, most of them having been cut down thousands of years ago; intensive grazing ever after keeping any new trees from growing. It was only after the Great War that it became cheaper to import lamb from New Zealand than to rear our own and grazing started to stop on the Downs, leading to new growth. In general it is better to keep the grassland, rather than let scrub grow up as this grassland is rare and supports many endangered flowering herbs that would be unable to grow in shady woodland. The woodland on Newtimber Hill, though, is different.
Much of the woodland on the northern flanks of the hill are ancient woodland. Some of it is regenerated woodland that regrew after the aforementioned cessation of grazing. In fact you can almost tell when looking at the hill from a distance. The newer woodland shows us an almost smooth, green covering. All the trees are about the same age and they are mostly ash, so they’re all the same height. In the older areas, there are many different species, including ash, beech and even some small-leaved lime leftover from the original forests that grew on these slopes. Because the climate is generally cooler now than when those forests first grew after the last ice age, small-leaved lime doesn’t germinate as well as it did then, so some of these trees can be very old indeed. In fact there’s one small-leaved lime tree on Newtimber Hill that may be as much as four thousand years old. It has been coppiced many times (cut down and allowed to regrow into useful poles) and now looks like a ring of large trees, the trunks all growing from the same roots – making the whole thing one single tree.
Besides this incredible tree, the woods are also home to another remarkable natural wonder, this time a beech. In 2015 a beech tree near the bottom of the hill was declared Britain’s tallest native tree at 144ft.
Newtimber Hill will always have a special place in my heart. It is owned by the National Trust and administered from Saddlescombe Farm, just the other side of the hill. I have spent many hours as a volunteer on the Devil’s Dyke Estate, of which Newtimber Hill is a part and it was here that I truly learnt the simple joy that conservation volunteering can bring. When you have spent as much of your life as I have believing yourself to be entirely useless, the effect of doing good work with good people that has palpable results at the end of the day is immeasurable. As I wander the many winding paths in the woods today I still remember places where I cleared a path, or cut some scrub, or that time I delivered crucial biscuits to the wardens working up on the top of the hill. I remember when we made a bonfire so big we could throw whole trees on it (we weren’t cutting the ancient bits down, don’t worry) and when we discovered that great crested newts had returned to a restored dew pond right on the top of the hill – miles from the nearest water. How did they get there? We can only guess.
At the foot of the hill is a narrow road called Beggar’s Lane that winds through the trees, from which steps lead up into the woods. Concrete at first, they soon give way to simple mud steps held back by wooden risers. Even after all these years I am never quite sure after the first couple of hundred yards which of the myriad paths I am on, but they are all beautiful. Sometimes winding along the contours, sometimes suddenly snaking up dozens of steps before meeting three other paths all leading off to new, secret places. In the spring there are carpets of anemones and bluebells and many other woodland flowers and you are surrounded by ash, beech, lime, hawthorn and hazel that has been coppiced and worked for thousands of years.
Eventually, inexorably, the paths always seem to lead upwards. Higher and higher through the trees until suddenly they emerge onto the bald, grassy top of the hill and when you look to the west, there in front of you is one of the best views in the South East of England. Dyke Hill, Chanctonbury Ring, Cissbury Ring, Bignor Hill and Glatting Beacon are laid out as your eye follows the Downs and then away on the horizon to the north west stands the dark, whale-backed mass of Black Down – the highest point in Sussex. On a clear day to the north you can just see the North Downs, almost beyond the horizon and even the Hog’s Back, a hill in Oxfordshire, some 60 miles away.
On the western part of the hill, the steeper slopes are mostly bare of trees and here you can find some of the best chalk downland in Britain. Studded with tell-tale anthills that prove this land has never been ploughed up, the grassland is home to an incredible variety of flowering herbs and the rare butterflies and other insects that live on them. Near the bottom of this slope is a grove of another rarity: juniper bushes. Needing to drop their seeds on bare ground and then experience two harsh winters before germinating, these fussy shrubs grow in sudden profusion here in one of their few sites in the area.
And finally, to the south, nestled in its hollow and looking almost as naturally placed as something that has grown there lies ancient, wonderful Saddlescombe Farm, which perhaps I shall write about in greater detail in the future.
All over the hill there is evidence of man’s long relationship with it. From the ancient coppiced trees, to man-made dew ponds and chalk pits. There are strip lynchets, evidence of early arable farming around the North Laine (laine means field) and there have been hundreds of findings of worked flints, in one case a pile of knappings that showed the clear outline of a pair of legs belonging to someone who had sat on this same hill that we walk today and worked here thousands of years ago. What did that person look out and see? Perhaps they were making the axes that first cleared the forests and created this uniquely beautiful landscape.
Lower slopes of West Hill
The view west
The view west on a hazy spring afternoon
Dyke Hill, wooded on the left. Truleigh Hill with the radio masts on its summit and Chanctonbury Ring visible to its right
Saddlescombe Farm beyond North Laine
North Hill from West Hill, both parts of Newtimber Hill
North Laine surrounded by the two arms of Newtimber Hill
Chalk pit on Newtimber Hill
The summit of Newtimber Hill
Another entrance to the chalk pit
The Low Weald from the slopes of Newtimber HIll
Dew pond near the summit of Newtimber Hill
Another entrance to the chalk pit
Saddlescombe Farm Pond
Devil’s Dyke from above the chalk pit on Newtimber Hill
There are six landscape zones stretching across the South East of England, arranged in a series of concentric horseshoes, one inside the other. At the centre of it all lie the oldest rocks in this part of the country: the sandstones of the High Weald. As one passes further out from these hills, the rocks under your feet get progressively younger until, youngest of all, one reaches the chalk of the South and North Downs.
The High Weald is a land of rolling, thickly-wooded sandstone hills, reaching from between Hastings and Rye on the coast and inland to Horsham and Tunbridge Wells. Overlaying the sandstones is a layer of impermeable Wealden clay, the combination of the hard, acid rock and the badly-draining clay makes this a very difficult landscape to farm and, as a result, it retains the densest covering of ancient woodland in England. It is from these woodlands, which once covered the whole area between the Downs, that the Weald gets its name, from the Old English Wald, meaning “wood”. Many of the field boundaries and villages are still laid out as they were in medieval times, as the new methods of farming that came with tractors and combine harvesters never came to these parts, where arable crops aren’t keen to grow. As a result, the woods and hedgerows were never cleared to make bigger fields as they were in much of the rest of the country. For many years, the main industry in this area was the production of iron, as both the sandstones and clays are rich in its ores.
High Weald, near Penhurst
High Weald Penhurst
Stone Hill Rocks
Ashdown Forest in the High Weald
Ashdown Forest in the High Weald
Darwell Wood in the High Weald
Sunset, Ashdown Forest
Sheep graze at sunset, Ashdown Forest
Between the hills there run many small, steep and rushing streams that, particularly in the east, coalesce into rivers that have carved long, broad valleys, with villages perched on the ridges between them. Many of the major roads of this region also follow the ridges, affording wonderful views. These rivers run into what were once large, complex estuaries which have, over many hundreds of years, been reclaimed. The Ashbourne into Pevensey Levels and the Rother, Brede and Tillingham into Rye Bay and Romney Marsh, the complicated and fascinating history of which I will discuss at another time. These levels and marshes form the second of our landscape types. All of Sussex’s major rivers, with the exception of the Adur, rise in the High Weald.
Waterfall, Beckley Wood, High Weald
Beckley Wood, High Weald
The Rother Valley from Witherenden Hill
Around the outside of the High Weald lies the Low Weald; a broad, clay plain. Again, the heavy clays do not drain easily and while there is more arable farming than in the High Weald, there is still much less than in most of the south of England. As well there are large areas of ancient woodland, but the rivers are broader, slower and more winding than in the High Weald and the landscape more gentle. There are many villages and small towns and the area is more thickly populated than the remoter High Weald.
Henfield, Low Weald
Shemanbury, Low Weald
Ringmer, Low Weald
River Ouse, Nr Barcombe, Low Weald
Blackbrook Wood, Low Weald
West Wood, Low Weald
Next comes the Greensand: a kind of sandstone that supposedly appears green when first exposed to the air. There is a thin ring of it around the outside of the Low Weald, often with little villages and farms perched on top and up in the north west of the county there is a larger area of a slightly different kind of greensand, known as the Greensand Hills. These contain Sussex’s highest point at Black Down. In character they are much like the High Weald, with small, remote-feeling villages, steep valleys, rushing streams and much woodland.
Black Down, Greensand Hills
Black Down, Greensand Hills
Black Down, Greensand Hills
Beyond a very thin ring of gault clay, as hard as rock, we reach the most famous landscape in Sussex, the South Downs. Made of unimaginable billions of coccolithophores – the calcium shells made by single-celled organisms called coccoliths – these chalk hills run for 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne. Once thickly wooded, as everywhere else in England, they were cleared between four and six thousand years ago and grazed with sheep, creating a unique grassland that is the most biodiverse habitat in Europe. As there is no natural water on the Downs, they have never been highly populated, but nevertheless they are rich with archaeology, from hill forts like those at Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings to thousands of tumuli dotted along the ridge. The chalk of the Downs acts like a giant sponge, soaking up rainwater and releasing it in a line of springs along the bottom of the steep northern slope, giving rise to a long line of old villages, built around the access to fresh water and the soil that, mixed with chalk that naturally washes down from the hills and with lime made from baked chalk dug out of pits, is some of the easiest soil to work between the Downs, making this a rare area of many wheat and barley fields.
Alfriston over the flooded River Cuckmere South Downs
Ditchling Beacon, South Downs
Cuckmere Haven, Seven Sisters, South Downs
Nr Firle Beacon, South Downs
Wilmington, South Downs
Blackcap, South Downs
Upwaltham, South Downs
High and Over, Seaford, South Downs
And finally, beyond the Downs in the south west of Sussex lies an alluvial plain of deep rich silts around Chichester. This is the best arable land in the county and in times past there were many market gardens here, but over time it has become the most densely populated part of this corner of the world and the large towns have brought most of that way of life to an end. Pagham and Chichester Harbours, though, remain among the most beautiful places in Sussex, despite that.
The story of how this land came to be shaped as it is I will leave for another day, but I hope I have been able to give a glimpse at just what a wonderfully varied land this is. One of the greatest joys of Sussex and the wider South East is how quickly the landscapes and the flora and fauna they support change as you drive about, from the tiny winding lanes of the High Weald to the wide open skies of the Levels and from the precipitous, secret valleys of the Greensand Hills to the great glory of the high Downs, where on a clear day one can see for sixty miles across this fascinating patchwork of green.
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