Woodingdean – Lewes Approx 10.5 km (6.5 miles), about 3.5 hours

Castle Hill NNR
Castle Hill NNR

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.

Take the Left Hand Fork
Take the Left Hand Fork

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.

Barns
Barns

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.

View from Swanborough Hill
View from Swanborough Hill

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.

Breach Road
Breach Road

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.

Lewes Downs and the Ouse Valley
Lewes Downs and the Ouse Valley

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.

Within a Hedgerow
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.

Litlington Circular – via Lullington Heath and Friston Forest: 27th of May 2015

4.24 miles (6.8 km) – About 1 ¾ hours, but see below.

heather, gorse, scrubThis 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.

chalk track hedgrowsAlthough 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.

Winchester's Pond
Winchester’s Pond

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.

Common Sorrel on Lullington Heath
Common Sorrel on Lullington 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.

Common Hawthorn (Maybush) in flower. In May.
Common Hawthorn (Maybush) in flower. In May.

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.

Friston Forest
Friston Forest

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.

Early Purple Orchids
Early Purple Orchids

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?

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