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.
Somewhere to the north of Fittleworth in the Greensand Hills of West Sussex there lies, lost in the woods, a tiny, tiny little place that goes by the name of Bedham. The place is so small that it didn’t have its own church or school until late in the 19th century and when they were built, they were both in the same, small building – built out of brick and the local, golden sandstone. The little school/church didn’t last very long and now stands as a maintained ruin, lacking its roof and the lean-to side buildings that once stood. The walls have been prevented from falling into further decay with repointing and steel girders to hold up the precarious bell-cot.
I have tried to find out if there is a single name for these woods, but the internet is, thus far, silent on the matter. They stretch north from Bedham including areas with names like Hammonds Wood, Hoghurst Copse and The Mens. There are huge, ancient trees here including some glorious, vast, coppiced beech whose great boughs have grown over the thousand-year ghosts of the people that first cut these trees and harvested their wood.
There are paths and tracks through the trees – some easier to follow than others – but to make a circular walk out of it I struck away from the path and followed, as best I could, the streams to get back to the car. The day above the canopy was bright and warm, but I walked and scrambled in the cool, eons-long gloom of the trees. The gloom of the woods that becomes a portal to an older world. A gloom that has persisted in smaller and smaller pockets since the ice retreated 9000 years ago and the great primeval forests that once covered this land first grew. These are the woods that humans found when they first came back to Britain and where they made their homes. This is where they cut the trees and made their clearings and knew that the woods that surrounded them held both essential assets and hidden dangers. Boar and wolves and bears once lived in these woods and to leave the clearing was a dangerous, but necessary pursuit. European folk tales are filled with stories of woodland as a transitional, transformative landscape: somewhere the young girl or boy can go and be changed. They may not come to a good end, or they may triumph over whatever lurks behind the the trunks of the mighty beeches and in the thickets of holly: but whatever their fate you can guarantee that they will not be the same when they emerge once more into the human world of light and order.
As I walked I followed tracks made, not by humans, but by other path-finders of the forest – mostly deer, of which I saw several – always bounding gracefully out of sight before I could bring my camera to bear on them. The old human paths are, mostly, gone. Even some of the ones marked on the map have faded as the trees take back their gloom; but there are other clues here that speak of labouring men and women in years gone by. There are medieval wood banks here, built to mark the edges of properties, and coppiced beech with some hazel stools stand testament to lives at which we can only guess.
And deep in the woods there were surprises. A shelter built far from the nearest path. A clearing containing a shepherds’ hut. A bridge over one of the deeper ghylls – broken and twisted by the floods of winter, but still crossable with care.
There is always such a powerful feeling of walking among the fallen and disappearing past when you walk in these old woods. Some of these trees have long memories, but not so long that the old ghosts of past millennia won’t, in the end, pass fully away and be forgotten even by the ancient beeches – once kept alive by coppicing, they now grow old and fall in a ruinous, rotting confusion of limbs. An ancient way of life is passing from us. The spirits these trees once held have flown, only to be remembered by the few who care to know what our ancestral explorers, clearers and farmers once worshipped.
Well, the time has come. I’m afraid we’re going to have to have a difficult conversation. Oh, I hoped I’d never have to have this talk with you, but I can no longer deny what’s staring us in the face. It’s time to take the bull by the horns and deal with it straight on.
I’m going to have to talk to you about Kent.
Much though we’d like to ignore the Evil County and pretend it just doesn’t exist, there are times when its presence simply has to be acknowledged and in the area around Rye, there’s nothing for it but to accept that it is there and that there is simply nothing to be done about it. One curious thing about it is that parts of it are even acceptable to upright, proper folk, and those are the parts that were, essentially, made by Sussex.
The River Rother rises near Rotherfield in the High Weald and flows east. At one time it flowed into a large estuary, which also received the waters of several other High Wealden rivers, like the Brede and the Tillingham. At this time the great shingle headland of Dungeness didn’t exist and the whole coastline was quite different to how it is today. Something about the shape of the seabed, however, made a long shingle spit begin to form, starting with a small island out to sea, not far from where Old Romney is today. Eventually the spit joined the island to the shore, creating a lagoon behind it that the rivers continued to empty into. Some people also built a town on the spit and called it Winchelsea. That later turned out to have been a bad idea.
Over time the rivers filled the lagoon with their waters and also their silt. After a while the water became too much and it punched its way through the shingle bank and found its way to the sea once again. As the waters drained out, the silt left behind became salt marshes that, over hundreds of years, were gradually drained and converted to farmland in a process called Inning. Thus, Romney and Walland Marshes and the Rother Levels were created from the mud of the Sussex High Weald and the coastline around Rye Bay was changed forever. So if you’ve ever wondered why Romney Marsh feels less sinister than the rest of Kent, here’s your answer. It is made from the soils and rocks of the Good County to its west.
Eventually the shingle spit was washed away and resurfaced as Dungeness; the old town of Winchelsea departing with it. Edward I founded the present town on its hill nearby. The rivers were forced into new shapes, all of them joining the Rother near Rye and flowing to the sea at Rye Harbour. For a time, before all of the spit had been destroyed, the lagoon survived and was deep enough to shelter several ships in an area behind the old town of Winchelsea known as “La Chambre”, or “The Camber”. Camber Sands and its adjoining town keep this name to this day.
I seem to have gone on rather a bit. Sorry about that. The main point of all this waffle is that there is now a rather beautiful, bleak nature reserve, absolutely teeming with bird life, on the shingle at Rye Harbour and the other day I went for a stroll around it in the wonderfully atmospheric early spring mists and here are some photographs to prove it. I hope you enjoy them.
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