The South Downs Way: Day 5 – Pyecombe to Southease 

22nd April 2016 (15 miles + 1 mile)

The sun absolutely refused to shine today but, given the good weather I’d enjoyed since Winchester, it would be unreasonable to grumble.

I grumbled unreasonably.  You see, today’s walk would lead me along a stretch of the South Downs Way I know very well and I wanted to show it off at its best: all blue skies; stark, white clouds and distant views of the sea.  But sadly, under a thick grey mantle, the light was rubbish for photos.  Oh well, you’ll just have to take my word that from Pyecombe to Southease, the SDW is more dramatic and beautiful than my photographs allow.

After a hearty breakfast (of … muesli) and a half-hour drive from home, Jim dropped me outside Pyecombe church at 8.30.  We bid each other a tearful farewell – for at least eight hours – and I marched away, staunchly not looking back.

My morning’s initial climb to the top of the Downs was easier than usual;

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if across a golf course.

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I dislike walking on courses; especially so after hard, white, spherical missiles have twice whizzed by my ear on earlier walks.  Don’t always assume, as I did, that players will wait for you to pass, even on a public footpath, before teeing off.

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Flowering gorse, in the absence of sunshine, lit up the way ahead and soon I thankfully left Pyecombe Golf Club behind … without injury.

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As I was now returning home each evening, I carried only a small knapsack and felt remarkably light on my feet, nimble even, without my heavy rucksack.

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A sign reminded me where I had come from and where I was going, if not who I was – which would be increasingly handy the older I get.

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Sign-posting on the ‘Way is excellent and especially so on this bit. Your sense of direction and path-finding skills would need to be pretty dire to go astray.  Worse than mine even.

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The nearer I drew to the coast, the more wind-sculpted trees I saw.

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It looks as if these hawthorns have been bent over by the prevailing south-westerlies running in off the sea.  They haven’t really: new growth and buds on the windward side are damaged and stunted, whereas on the leeward they are more protected.  When I first learnt that, I remember finding it quite interesting but it probably isn’t.

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Downland turf, close-cropped by sheep, is probably the nicest, softest walking surface and a blessed relief if your feet are sore.  When I started distance walking as a teenager, I assumed that blisters and bloody feet were an unavoidable consequence; but actually they were caused by not very good boots.  Modern boot design is taken for granted nowadays but as I can’t remember the last time I suffered a blister, I think it bloody marvellous.

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After about an hour, I reached Ditchling Beacon, the highest point in East Sussex (248m).  In the ’90’s, I volunteered as a South Downs Ranger and spent a Sunday or two each month on conservation work: clearing paths, pulling up ragwort or “scrub-bashing”.  I also attended various courses and learnt about honeypot sites, of which Ditchling Beacon car park is a good example: it attracts many visitors who mostly don’t stray more than a couple of hundred yards from their cars.  Compared to surrounding areas, honeypots suffer heavy erosion of grass and adjacent footpaths, higher levels of litter and dog mess too.  Generally, I speed by them (unless there’s an ice-cream van).

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I crossed the Brighton-Ditchling road to follow the obvious, straight path towards Lewes and left behind the few dog-walking honeypotters.

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I’ve walked this length of path countless times; usually on Sunday afternoons with friends and family; or alone with my dogs in a vain attempt to tire them out.

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Two and a half miles east of Ditchling Beacon, the SDW turns sharp right toward the coast.  It’s at this way-marker that over-nighters for Lewes, the county town of East Sussex, can leave the SDW and march straight on.

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There’s no denying that today’s weather was the least satisfactory of my six days but despite the forecast, it didn’t rain.  And to cheer me up, I was looking forward to meeting my friend John.  Though we were at school together and have been friends for 40 years, I’d barely seen him since the Millennium.

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On the skyline, halfway between the hump of Kingston Hill and the masts near Woodingdean, was the spot where we’d arranged to meet.

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I passed some rare distance walkers but they didn’t stop to talk; only greeting me with a muttered hello or a tired smile, before disappearing over the near horizon. I guess they were on an outward bound course … whilst looking like they rather wished that they weren’t.

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As well as being a relatively short day, there are only two significant climbs.  And here is the second – a sharp drop to cross the A27 and then straight back up again, past triangular Newmarket Plantation.

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The main Lewes to Brighton dual-carriageway is very busy but a short detour leads to a footbridge and a non-life-threatening crossing.

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I had only 6½ more miles before the railway halt at Southease but first that climb up to Newmarket Plantation and Kingston Hill.

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The path wended (good word) through blackthorn blossom;

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and began the long, if fairly easy, climb

past New Barn in the valley of Loose Bottom: a lovely example of a flint Sussex barn, built at an intriguing angle.

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At the top, and a little after midday, I sat on a tussock and waited for John.  He soon appeared and after plenty of arm thumping and back slapping, we fell into easy conversation and, distracted, I took fewer photos still.

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We walked along to Kingston Hill (that isn’t us) to look out over the Ouse Valley, with Mount Caburn on the left and Firle Beacon directly ahead.  The South Downs Way goes over the latter and I would stand by its trig point tomorrow.

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We didn’t have far to go now: a stretch of concrete path toward Newhaven;

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a brief pause from chatting to snap the view over Kingston village with Lewes beyond

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(or, if you prefer, in muddy colour);

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and passed the Greenwich meridian line, about which I can’t think of anything to say.  It is what it is.

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At about 2pm, we descended off the Downs into the village of Rodmell;

and a long-anticipated, late lunch stop at the The Abergavenny Arms.  Rodmell doesn’t sit on the SDW but I think this slight diversion is better than the designated path, and the pub is a very good one.  If you’ve time, and it’s open, Monk’s Housethe home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf – is nearby and perfect for whiling away an hour.

John and I stuffed ourselves rigid with haute cuisine (ham, egg and chips for me) and over two pints of Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter, we easily solved most of the world’s problems.

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Afterwards we waddled on for the final mile, passing a show-off display by this male kestrel.

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St Peter’s, Southease

Southease church is one of only three in Sussex with a round tower.  (The other two are close by: in Piddinghoe – a couple of miles downstream – and Lewes).

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Each year, the village hosts the Southease Open Gardens Fete.  There are five gardens to explore and cake in abundance, with all proceeds going to the upkeep of the church.  It is an archetypal English afternoon and a fine day out.

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Shortly after leaving the clutch of cottages about the church, a bridge carried us across the Ouse.  It was at this bleak spot that Virginia Woolf’s body was eventually found, three weeks after her suicide by drowning.  I never cross it without sparing her a thought and suppressing a shudder at her awful, final state of mind.

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On a lighter note, Southease Station is just beyond the bridge and the natural end to this section of path.  Hourly trains run north to Lewes and Brighton; or south to Newhaven and Seaford.  Alternatively, there’s the brand new Youth Hostel South Downs nearby.  I waved goodbye to John as he disappeared on a train to Brighton, and hopped on my own train southwards, followed by a mile’s walk to my front door.

If today’s weather had been a sombre disappointment, tomorrow’s final leg to Eastbourne would compensate with a return to sunshine.  The last day on the SDW is a grand finale and one of the finest of any National Trail.  Near perfect weather would make it finer still.

And I managed some better photos too.

The South Downs Way: Day 3 – South Harting to Amberley

(20th April 2016 – 20 miles + 4 additional miles)

Today was my longest and toughest on the SDW and, as I’d also arranged an early supper date with my sister, I was marching against the clock too.   I woke early, packed, demolished a grand  breakfast, paid my bill, pulled on my Meindl boots and was climbing back to the top of the Downs by 8.30.

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It was a glorious morning and the woods were ripe with the scent of wild garlic.  The forecast gave sun all day and I wanted to cover a good few miles whilst it was still cool.

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Horse chestnut leaves

Didn’t really happen: the light was so perfect and new plant growth so fresh that I stopped repeatedly to take photos and drink in this first rush of spring.

South Harting, South Downs Way

South Harting

At the top of the climb, and back on the trail, I looked down over South Harting, the church and my B&B.  Both the pub I’d visited the night before and the village shop are owned and run by the villagers.  The same is true of the shop in Amberley and it is now a common way of keeping rural businesses open.  And good job – my walk would have been all the poorer without the pub and these two village shops (with their award-winning pies).

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My eyes drifted to the left and over the wooded hills I’d crossed the day before to, far off, the mast on top of Butser Hill.  I’d sat there at lunchtime yesterday and it always surprises me how much ground one can cover on foot in just a few hours.

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A bench, sited by a genius, delayed me even more

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before I struck out on fine open Downland

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on soft, perfect-walking turf.

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31 done, 69 to go

Regular mileposts gave me a running tally of miles covered, and miles still to do.  Almost a third done!

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As well as long miles there were plenty of stiff descents and climbs today

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but on day three, and getting into my stride, I didn’t find them too onerous.

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Recently harrowed fields glowed with emerging wheat

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and eastwards I had a clear view of the scarp edge receding into the haze.

German pilot memorial, South Downs Way

“In Memoriam Hauptmann Joseph Oestermann Pilot 1915-1940”

Shortly after entering Phillis Wood, I passed the easily missed memorial to Joseph Oestermann.  He was the pilot and only fatality of a Junkers 88 shot down by an RAF Hurricane in 1940 and, given that his mission was to bomb airfields during the Battle of Britain, I find it moving that passers-by and locals still respect his resting place.   (The Hurricane pilot was shot down later the same day but, after ditching into the Channel, he survived).

Devil's Jumps, West Sussex

Devil’s Jumps

A little further on and I paused again at The Devil’s Jumps, a 3000 year old barrow cemetery.  Disconcertingly, a clean-cut, bloodless deer’s foot lay on the path … which unsettled me somewhat if adding nicely to the silent and eerie atmosphere.

Marks memorial, South Downs Way

At my feet and almost invisible, I noticed a small weathered plaque inscribed with the words, “Mark liked it here 23 July 1960 – 20 April 1998” .  For the second time in half an hour the simplicity and understatedness of a memorial moved me.

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Yellowhammer

There were no people on this quiet section of the SDW but plenty of bird-life,

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a herd of fallow deer and the irritating scream of peacocks from nearby Monkton Estate.

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Leaving the woodland of Monkton, I also left the heavily wooded half of the Way:

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the rest of my walk would be more classically rolling Downland.

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As the day wore on and with such good weather the path became busy

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and I smiled at how some people would avoid saying hello by suddenly and intently studying the ground before their feet or staring pointedly at some fixed point on the horizon as they passed me.  I tried not to take it personally.

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A fine April is probably the perfect time to walk the South Downs Way with fields of dandelions,

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daisy lined paths,

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and the constant trill of skylarks.

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Regularly checking my guidebook, I knew when a descent from the High Downs was imminent … but often the steep reality was more disheartening than I’d supposed, as here coming off Cocking Down.

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8 miles from South Harting and about 13 miles from Amberley, the village of Cocking – half a mile off the trail – is a popular stop-over on the South Downs Way.  I had considered spending the night there on this trip but it didn’t fit comfortably enough into my six-day schedule.  I have wild-camped on the Downs above the village in the past … after a slap up feed at the village pub, The Bluebell Inn.

chalk stone Andy Goldsworthy

Chalk Stone by Andy Goldsworthy

In 2002, the British artist Andy Goldsworthy set a series of 14 chalk boulders linking the South Downs near Cocking to West Dean, though this one on Cocking Down is the only one I saw.  Initially Andy thought they would weather away within a couple of years but at this rate they’ll be around for centuries.

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With my eye on the time, I set a fast pace and at one point had to politely, persistently back away from a very chatty walker who otherwise would have carried on talking for hours.

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But I still took plenty of photos: the view back to Cocking Down;

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synchronised grazing;

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gentle spring sunlight;

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solid English names;

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the way ahead;

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first beech leaves;

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and a distant strip of English Channel.

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At 3.30 I got my first glimpse of Amberley and the half way mark on the ‘Way.

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But it was just a glimpse and I had a further long fall and climb on the path

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River Arun

before finally crossing the River Arun an hour later

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with a pied wagtail close encounter.

Amberley castle

Amberley castle

Though I have been to ‘Amberley’ before, I hadn’t quite realised that what I think of as Amberley – where Amberley railway station lies – isn’t Amberley.  The station is actually in Houghton but the village of Amberley is about a mile to the north, past the castle.

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Amberley village

My sister was arriving on the 6.30 train and I’d arranged to meet her in the pub next to the station.   I  thought I still had plenty of time but when I finally reached proper Amberley, I discovered that my stop for the night was still another half mile beyond the village.

The Sportsman Inn, Amberley

Hot and bothered, I reached The Sportsman Inn, booked in,

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glanced out of my window at the remarkable view over the Amberley Wildbrooks Nature Reserve, showered, dressed and charged breathlessly the mile and a half back to Houghton and The Bridge Inn rendezvous with my sister.

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I arrived about ten minutes early, sipped icy shandy and fiddled with my phone.  I took this selfie – which doesn’t accurately portray just how shattered I felt.  It was a great choice of pub with superb food but I must have been somewhat delirious for, after that brilliant meal, laughs and chat, I offered to pick up the bill.

Too much sun and long miles must have fried my brain.

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