The South Downs Way: Day 4 – Amberley to Pyecombe

(21st April 2016 – 20 miles)

Yesterday had been a long, tiring day’s walk but today would hardly be any easier.  Once again I had twenty miles to conquer and once again I was marching against the clock.  I’d arranged a 5pm rendezvous with my partner Jim at Pyecombe – from where he’d pick me up, drive me home, dine me, wine me and drop me back off the following morning.  All for free.  If for the rest of my Sussex trek, I’d sleep in my own bed I’d also forego any more cooked breakfasts: an almost fair trade-off.

And so, over my final full English of the trip, I chatted to a Canadian who was also walking the ‘Way … or rather he had been until his hip packed up.  Now, unable to walk any distance, his baggage-transfer company ferried him and his luggage from one night’s stop-over to the next.  I felt sorry for him (if trying not to show it) and enthused about the free rides and all that spare time in which to hobble about at his leisure.  I barely convinced myself let alone him … and silently resolved to undertake as many long distance walks whilst I am still physically able.


Primroses outside a cottage garden

As I walked away from The Sportsman Inn at 9 o’clock (they didn’t do early breakfast), Sussex was clear and bright;


Thatched house, Amberley

and at the half-way point of my 100-mile walk, I felt in pretty good shape.  No bad aches, no pains, no gripes, no blisters.  I almost felt young again.


I strolled back to the quiet village of Amberley, stopping off at the community-run Amberley Village Stores to stock up with lunch and important snacks.


As on almost every day on the SDW, my morning kicked off with a steep climb


to regain the crest of the Downs.


I paused to watch a herd of cows enjoying their silage.  Cows are so very interested in seeing a new face, it seemed churlish not to repay the attention.


As I climbed, the view to the north opened up over Amberley Wildbrooks (the undeveloped flood plain of the Arun) with The Sportsman Inn, detached from the village, easily visible (the red-tile hung building just left of centre).


Over my shoulder, to the right sat Amberley itself and far off the line of Downs I’d followed for three days.  Plenty more of those ahead.


Soon, and with the aid of my telephoto lens, I looked down on one of England’s finest Elizabethan houses, Parham House.  The house and gardens, which I’ve visited two or three times, are beautiful and certainly worth seeing – but maybe not when walking the ‘Way.  As it sits at the foot of the escarpment, a detour will demand a stiff climb back … and you’ll have climbs aplenty on this leg without adding even more.



I fell into a comfortable, fairly fast pace with skylarks and yellowhammers singing me along,


(if sometimes getting underfoot); groaned at a sharp descent and climb to cross the A24;


topped up my bottles at fairly regular water taps (with helpful mileage to the next one);


and passed newborn lambs that made me smile.


A little after midday, I reached an iconic landmark of the South Downs Way  – the Iron Age hillfort of Chanctonbury Ring.  It is the trees rather than the fort which make Chanctonbury famous and they were all planted by Charles Goring.  In 1760, as a young man, he planted a thick copse of beech trees on the fort, watered them regularly and, as he lived into his 80’s, watched his trees grow almost to maturity.


When I first walked the ‘Way in 1985, Chanctonbury Ring was visible from miles away.  Sadly, the great storm of 1987 flattened most of the copse and though it has since been replanted, it’ll be many years before the fort regains its distinctive crown.


Here’s a copy of my Kodachrome slide from ’85, showing how Chanctonbury should look and hopefully will again.


Some of the original trees are still standing (these above are on the extreme left of the 1985 photo) and this grouping reminded me of a favourite painting:

Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; Wood on the Downs

Photo: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

Wood on the Downs by Paul Nash.  Nash’s oil on canvas is of beech trees at Ivinghoe Beacon on another chalk long distance footpath, The Ridgeway.  But where it was painted hardly matters; it could be any beech hangar on any chalk downland in England and for me, it epitomises the South Downs and Chanctonbury in particular.


I sat on the earth ramparts, took a selfie, tried to ignore the lifeless body lying nearby and munched my lunch.  The fort is said to be haunted by all manner of beasties and Lucifer himself hangs out here.  True.  Local legend tells that if you run around the Ring seven times, backwards (!?), the Devil appears and offers you a bowl of soup.  Which all sounds terribly tiring for small reward and so, as I had sandwiches, I didn’t bother.


My Trailblazer guide, has this line “(Chanctonbury) may be a beauty spot by day but it takes a brave person to spend the night there” which made me feel terrifically heroic.  You see, I’ve camped within the trees of the fort.  In a day, I’d walked almost thirty miles from Telscombe youth hostel and by the time I reached Chanctonbury, I was the walking dead.  I put up my tent, and too tired to eat, crawled inside and fell fast asleep.  Perhaps ghosts, zombies and even Old Nick were cavorting about outside, but if so I was too tired to notice and they kindly didn’t disturb my sleep.


The view eastward was of another distant line of Downland.  I would walk all of it before the Way turns south and runs toward the sea.


More sheep, more lambs, more sun, more photos; the afternoon wore pleasantly on.


Above the village of Steyning, I looked across the valley of the River Adur to my next target – the masts on top of Truleigh Hill.


I passed the biggest, free-range pig farm I’ve ever seen,


enjoyed an excited, squealy welcome from the ill-fated residents


and descended to the Adur valley.  With eye-watering house prices hereabouts, I’m surprised when I see a derelict building, but a bit pleased too: barn owls and bats need somewhere to nest.


I can’t resist a sneaky peek into a garden just to see what’s what but in this case it was hardly worth the while.  I didn’t loiter


and arrived at a sign showing that I’d completed a solid 60 miles since my morning croissant in Winchester.  The remaining 40 miles I’d complete by the day after tomorrow.


I crossed the coffee-coloured Adur, knowing that I had yet another steep climb ahead:


this one straight to the top of Truleigh Hill.  I took a deep breath, eased my rucksack, muttered a rude word and started the long climb.


Truleigh Hill Youth Hostel

But actually, it was fine and lifted me quickly to Truleigh Hill Youth Hostel.  It’s not a building of great beauty but has the good grace to obscure itself with mature trees.


Which is more than can be said for nearby buildings and fields.  I’ve wild camped here too – out of necessity as the sun sank.  It is a soulless, unkempt area for a National Park


full of decaying, can’t-be-bothered-to-dispose-of caravans, machinery and rubbish. Oh well, one day somebody might bother.


Brighton and Hove

From Truleigh, my old home town of Brighton is clearly visible though the SDW gives it a wide berth, some six or seven miles to the north.


At Fulking Escarpment I fished out my black marker pen (it wasn’t me really and besides it’s not funny)


and settled down on another irresistible bench with views over the Weald.


I had saved an Amberley shop treat for a moment such as this: A & R Baileys Champion,  Award Winning Pork Pie.  And it should have won too.


Truleigh Hill

The path on this stretch is hard, flinty and blinding in sunlight but perfect for a decent walking speed


The path leading to Devil’s Dyke

and, keeping an eye on the time, I raced on toward my Pyecombe rendezvous.


But first, another hillfort and this one is impressive: Devil’s Dyke.  So which blithering idiots decided to build an ugly great pub and car park right on top of it?  Right on top of one of the finest Iron Age sites in Sussex.  Grrr.


The actual Dyke is a long, dry valley, stabbing deep into the Downs.  It was dug by the Devil (him again) as a channel through the Downs to allow seawater to rush in and flood all the churches in the Weald.  Or it was carved out by immense flood waters after the last Ice Age, when deep snowfields on top of the Downs melted.  You decide.


Devils Dyke Hillfort

The Dyke and escarpment form a chalk spur on which the fort was built and no wonder: it is a brilliant defensive site with extensive views across the Weald to the north.


The SDW dropped once more to cross the Brighton-Poynings road at Saddlescomb Farm before the day’s final climb


and the final sprint.


Before descending to the A23 and Day’s End, I swivelled to appreciate the country I’d crossed today.  In the near distance sits Devil’s Dyke; Truleigh Hill with its masts is behind; and furthest away, the once very distinctive beech trees on Chanctonbury Ring.


After 20 miles in about 7½ hours (and a little weary), I crossed the A23 to reach poor Pyecombe.


Church of the Transfiguration, Pyecombe

Once a pretty downland village, Pyecombe had the misfortune of lying on the main Brighton to London road.  What was once a cart track is now the very busy A23 and not a peaceful bedfellow.  I was half an hour early, so I walked up to the church before settling down outside the pub, The Plough Inn.

As I savoured a cold celebratory lager and waited for my lift home, I thought back to the last time I’d supped here in 1985.  It was on the same day that I’d camped at Chanctonbury, and I sat outside the pub at lunchtime, bootless, sockless, fixing plasters on angry blisters and raw, bloody feet.

Over 30 years ago, eh?  I’m practically a Plough regular.







10 thoughts on “The South Downs Way: Day 4 – Amberley to Pyecombe

  1. There are many things I would do for a bowl of soup (such as: cook it, or show up in someone’s kitchen with a bowl) but running around a bunch of trees backwards isn’t among them. What a marvelous gift to the future—the trees, I mean. It’s almost hard to imagine that kind of long-term vision for a landscape—at least, for those of us who were nomadic for most of our lives.

    Lovely post, Dave. x


    • Showing up in someone’s kitchen is the best way, I agree (though it rarely works in my experience. I should probably try people I know rather than total strangers). Years ago, I read that Charles Goring carried buckets of water up the scarp face to water his saplings which is pretty amazing. I don’t know whether that is true (I couldn’t find that detail when writing the post) but if so long-term vision coupled with extraordinary determination too. Dx

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ivinghoe Beacon, eh? I used to do cross country running up there on very cold and blowy winter mornings in the 1980s. What on earth was I thinking? I was also trying to spot my cousin’s farm on the road up to Devil’s Dyke, but failed miserably. The rolling hills are so very beautiful there. Thanks for continuing to inspire me with both your walking and your writing, David. “It’s not a building of great beauty but has the good grace to obscure itself with mature trees” is definitely the line of the post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Janna. I spent a sunny afternoon on Ivinghoe as a schoolboy, throwing quadrants (I think they’re called – frame like squares, anyhow) over my shoulder and then counting the species of plants found within each supposedly random square. Not for fun you understand but on a biology field trip. I’m thinking of walking the Ridgeway soon so no doubt I will be there again. I hope so. I remember the views were pretty darn good. Dave


      • I couldn’t think what a quadrant could be…until you described throwing frames over your shoulder and I remembered doing that on my biology field trip to Exmoor (think I might have won there!). Take some nice snaps of my parents’ house when you are back on the Ridgeway (not too in focus though…it is a 1970s construction).

        Liked by 1 person

  3. An impressive walk, Dave. And at such speed! I really must get a walking camera with a better zoom. Your pics are great as ever, but that Paul Nash painting is stunning. Now, I must try and write up a snowy walk I did in the Lakes last March. It’s never too late, is it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good grief man. Last March? Too late? I have a walk from 2015 I’m considering writing up so I should say most certainly not. But given my snail-pace rate of posting on this blog, I would wouldn’t I? Wood on the Downs is stunning, I think and I’m so glad you agree. It really did jump into my head at Chanctonbury (though I couldn’t remember the artist’s name). Dve


  4. Hi David,

    Do you still get blisters and bloody feet now when you walk or have you learnt to stop before then? My partner did about 4 days of the Penine Way and his feet were such a mess he had to give in. I think his pack was really big and heavy and considering he only camped one night it would be better to do baggage transfer. It was late Autumn which probably didn’t help either.
    He does triathlon so he doesn’t usually give up but I saw a picture of he’said feet. Yikes what a mess.
    Makes me sad to see the road in the pic. I wonder how many people going along care about the countryside these days. Lots I hope still. I live in London so not so many i meet here do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lyndsey, no I don’t get blisters any more and struggle to remember when I last did (a small one on the Coast to Coast in 2013, I think). Boot design and technology have moved on tremendously since the 80’s and I’m convinced that my current make of boot, Meindl, is why my feet no longer bleed! They are amazingly comfortable and now that the soles are wearing thin, I’m looking at having them resoled. Blisters and bloody feet were such a part of my early walks it’s a wonder I didn’t pack it in for good.

      I also carry a heavy rucksack – though lighter on the SDW than on most of my walks – so that shouldn’t necessarily lead to feet problems. I wonder whether his boots were worn in properly (not always strictly necessary with modern boots), sturdy enough for the PW, the right size or just not very good? Hard to say really but I hope it doesn’t turn him off having another go. Hope that helps and thanks for leaving a comment. Dave


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