One of the best things about living in Brighton is how easy it is to get out to the countryside. Often I drive out to the Downs, or Ashdown Forest or somewhere, but this walk starts at my front door and within ten minutes I’ve left the city and the green fields are all around me.
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.
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.
4.24 miles (6.8 km) – About 1 ¾ hours, but see below.
This walk starts from the village of Litlington in East Sussex, which is not served by public transport, as far as I’m aware. The No.12 from Brighton or Eastbourne stops at Exceat for the Seven Sisters Country Park and it’s an easy walk from there to Litlington via the road, the Cuckmere River or through the forest.
Although this walk says it’s only an hour and three quarters, when I did it I was out for about three hours, partly because there’s some lovely places to sit and smoke contemplative roll ups, but mostly because the whole point of this walk was to go and have a look at Lullington Heath, which is Access Land and can be wandered about on at will, so the instructions only tell you how to get there and back again. The rest of your time may be spent gaily tripping hither and yon through the heather. Did I say heather? On chalk downland? More of that in a bit.
Just to the north of the church in Litlington (if the church is on your left, you’re going the right way) there is a bridleway leading off to the right, through a farmyard. Go up there. It turns diagonally to the left, marked by a post, past a barn and then turns right onto a chalk track between hedgerows. Follow this path until you get to Lullington Heath.
Well. That was easy to explain.
Oh wait, no, there’s more. You will get to a junction of bridleways and a Natural England information board welcoming you to the Heath. To the right of the board is a gate, through which is Winchester’s Pond, an 18th Century dew pond. We’ve done dew ponds before, right? And you remember it all, yeah? Man-made ponds dug to collect rainwater for sheep to drink? Well anyway, this is a particularly lovely one and there’s a bench upon which to sit and catch one’s breath while enjoying the vista. Having just read the information board which said there were newts in the pond, my companion for the day said he could see one – pointing in the vague direction of the pond. After a certain amount of “No, you idiot. There. By the big reed.” I spotted what he was pointing at and, with a small whimper, raised myself from the bench to get a closer look. On closer inspection, what we’d thought was a newt turned out to be a rather handsome grass snake, which was lovely to see. In all my years of wandering about the countryside, I’d never seen one swimming before.
From here we headed vaguely north east and wandered about to have a look at the heath.
So, what’s so special about Lullington Heath? Put simply, it is the largest and best example of Chalk Heath in the country. And just what is chalk heath? Well, now. In general, there are three types of plants, with regards to the soil types they’ll grow on. Generalists, which will grow more or less anywhere, calcicoles, which like to grow on alkaline soils, such as chalk and limestone and calcifuges, which grow on acid soils such as sand and sandstone. Heath is a community of plants that grows on acid soils. The observant amongst you will have noticed that the South Downs are made out of chalk. So why are there acid-loving plants growing on chalk? Basically, at the end of the last ice age, the water from melting glaciers flooded over the chalk and wore it away until it exposed the underlying clays of the Weald. Such was the ferocity with which this water surged across the landscape, it washed some of this clay up onto the top of the chalk and deposited it there, making a clay-with-flints cap on top of the Downs. Clay is slightly acidic and this was enough for acid-loving plants to get a foothold. Chalk Heath was once fairly common on the Downs, but due to over-grazing it has almost all disappeared.
In many places it is possible to see where there would once have been chalk heath, as the one calcifuge that continues to grow in those places is gorse, that enormous prickly bastard with the yellow flowers and a scent of coconut. Chalk heath is rare because it can be killed both by over-grazing and under-grazing. Over-grazing will trample and otherwise remove the delicate plants, which are barely clinging on in that environment at the best of times; while under-grazing will allow the gorse to take over and shade out those same little sensitive fellas. Only with the right level of grazing can chalk heath flourish, which is what Natural England are attempting to achieve at Lullington. Besides heather and bell heather, over 250 species of plants (both acid and chalk loving) grow on the heath, around 100 kinds of birds visit and about 50 nest there. Only about a third of the heath is actual heathland, with the rest being chalk grassland and scrub woodland.
Scrub is something a lot of people put a lot of effort into getting rid of. It is regrowth – mostly of common hawthorn, ash and sycamore – that has grown up since grazing became less common on the Downs between the wars. It shades out smaller plants and destroys the grassland. However, there is a place for some scrub on the Downs as it provides habitats that would otherwise not be present, particularly for nesting birds.
Once you’ve had enough of mimbling about on the Heath, follow the track you came in on until you reach a bridleway on your right, which leads down and round a long, sweeping corner. Eventually, you’ll go through a gate and into Friston Forest. Although, as a Forestry Commission forest, much of Friston is rather boring pine plantations, this bit of it is actually rather lovely, with a great deal of mature beech growing on either side of the broad track. Go straight on at a meeting of several paths and a few hundred yards later take the narrower path into the trees on your right. After 200 yards or so, you will come to a gate into a field. On the day I was there, there was a profusion of early purple orchids just before the gate. Follow the fence to the bottom of the field where the path becomes a chalk track and follow that all the way back to Litlington.
Once back to the road, a right turn will bring you back to the start point and will take you past Litlington Tea Gardens, which is well worth a visit, should you fancy scones, clotted cream, jam and tea while sitting in a shed – and frankly, who doesn’t?
In the steep hillsides above Fulking there lie deep scars, criss-crossing the landscape. The V-shaped depressions known as bostalls are a familiar sight all along the Downs and on Fulking Escarpment in West Sussex there is a particularly spectacular collection of them, which between them tell a story of the long history of the Downs. When people first came back to what would eventually become Sussex after the end of the last Ice Age, they started clearing the forests on the top of the Downs and using them to graze sheep. Starting around 6 thousand years ago, the Downs were almost totally cleared by around 2000 BC and sheep have been grazed there ever since – reaching a peak in the 17th Century. Alongside this grazing, arable farming also grew up in Sussex. The clays of the Weald are too heavy and waterlogged to be easily cultivated, even with iron ploughs and the soils on top of the Downs were too thin and alkaline to be of any use to those early farmers. But along the bottom of the Downs, where the chalk and the clay meets and mingles, the soil is lighter and it is possible to plant crops there. To help fertilise the fields, the sheep grazing on the Downs during the day would be lead down to the arable land to spend the night, where their droppings would improve the soil. The soil of the Downs being very thin, it quickly wears away under the feet of thousands of sheep allowing rain water to run across the surface of the chalk beneath, which soon erodes to form the deep tracks we see and still walk today – some of them a thousand years old.
More evidence of early farming activity on the Downs can be seen in the form of lynchets (sometimes known as strip lynchets), particularly around some of the dry valleys of the dip slope (the more gentle southerly slope of the Downs running down towards the sea). These long linear features were formed when old ploughs turned the soil, which then crept slowly down the hill, forming shelf-like platforms. Opinion is divided as to whether this was simply a side-effect of old-style ploughs – which turned soil only one way – or a deliberate act intended to better retain water on the hillsides and to provide flat terraces to be more easily worked.
In some ways like a smaller cousin of the lynchets, terracettes, despite sounding like a 60s backing group (In fact, I’m thinking of starting a band called Strip Lynchet and the Terracettes, but that’s for another article), are in fact long step-like formations on the steeper parts of the scarps of the Downs, created as a result of soil-creep and the action of grazing animals walking across the face of the hillsides. The poor, crumbly soil of the Downs (called a rendzina soil) easily washes down the hill, but collects around the base of the grass, which in turn provide a foothold for the wandering cattle and sheep. As they tend to walk along the face of the Downs, rather than directly up and down the steep slopes, they soon walk the soil into the form of terracettes.
4. Chalk Pits
While wildlife across most of the Downs is adapted to surviving in extremely exposed situations, the numerous chalk pits provide some shelter and a range of ecological niches that would otherwise not be seen. Chalk was dug out of these pits before being baked in kilns to produce lime. The lime would then be taken into the fields below and ploughed in – both to address creeping acidification of the soil and in an attempt to make the heavier clays light enough to plough. Once a chalk pit had been abandoned, it often became a haven for wildlife, giving shelter for more delicate species and allowing scrub woodland to grow up (an unfamiliar sight on the Downs before the latter half of the 20th century), providing yet more habitats to be filled with life.
5. Dew Ponds
Since at least Saxon times and possibly much earlier, people have got round the lack of natural water on the Downs by constructing dew ponds. The chalk being highly porous, rain water quickly soaks away, leaving nothing for sheep to drink. In order to catch and retain rainwater, these perfectly circular, saucer-shaped ponds were dug, lined with chalk and puddled clay and left to collect their essential bounty. Like the chalk pits, these man-made features provide habitats that would otherwise not be available on the Downs. Some of the better-maintained ponds even have great-crested newts in them, despite being some distance from the next nearest stretch of water.
Less common in the eastern part of the Downs, steep, wooded hillsides known as hangers proliferate as you go further west towards the Hampshire Downs. Studded with enormous, beautiful beech trees, these woodlands also contain a great deal of ash, which grows like a weed on the Downs and some of the oldest, coppiced trees of the area – small-leaved lime trees, remnants of the original forests that once covered the hills, before the coming of people and their sheep. In other parts, shepherds planted areas of coppiced hazel to provide wood for making their hurdles to control and pen the sheep during shearing.
Some of the steepest slopes on the Downs are found at the top of these deep, bowl-headed dry valleys. The terracette-lined slopes were carved out by melting water at the end of the last ice-age and now provide some of the best-preserved stretches of calcareous grassland in the area, as it was impossible to plough up and “improve” them – in comparison to the flatter areas on the dip slope that were lost forever under arable fields in the 1940s, when the pressures of war required a great effort to produce more food from the landscape – made possible by modern ploughs and fertilisers. These unimproved tracts of grass, therefore, provide habitats for some of the rarest plants in the UK.
Where the coombes widen out, the soil washed down from the steeper hills collects, to form deep, easily-worked and fertile soils and it was here that some of the earliest farming communities formed when humans came back to Sussex after the ice receded and the tundra which covered the Downs thawed. The Beaker People lived here before the coming of the Iron Age and the Celts, but ultimately the lack of natural water in the bottoms forced people down into the Weald, where drinkable water emerges from under the Downs and flows into the rivers.
The Downs have always enjoyed a strategic importance in the wider landscape giving, as they do, commanding views over the Weald. It was a powerful person who could claim control of the Downs and in prehistory they built hill forts, with gleaming-white chalk embankments that could be seen from miles away, proving that power. Long ditches known as Cross Dykes were dug to delineate borders between properties and the dead were venerated with tumuli (burial mounds) that stud the hilltops to this day.
Named from the Saxon word “dûn”, which also gives us the modern word “dune”, the whale-backed rolling hills of the Downs are one of the last bastions of calcareous grassland in the UK and, indeed, in Europe. The long history of grazing on the Downs and folding the sheep on the fields below at night stripped nutrients from the poor soils, while the constant nibbling of the sheep prevented larger plants from growing. This created a unique habitat that is one of the most biodiverse in Europe. An astonishing variety of flowering herbs and rare grasses supports populations of insects from ants, whose hills cover the slopes of some Downs in great profusion to beautiful blue butterflies on the sunnier elevations and the green woodpeckers and skylarks that live on the insects. With the coming of cheap lamb from New Zealand, grazing has declined on the Downs and this unique landscape is under threat from increasing scrub woodland, destroying the herb-rich grassland. Now that the South Downs have been declared a national park, this degradation can, hopefully, be arrested, but we will never see again the Downs as they were before the coming of the plough and the ash, hawthorn and sycamore scrub that has killed some of the rarer plants forever.