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.

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Primroses outside a cottage garden

As I walked away from The Sportsman Inn at 9 o’clock, Sussex was clear and bright;

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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.  Why, I almost felt young again.

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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.

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

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to regain the crest of the Downs.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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Yellowhammer

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

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

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

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and passed newborn lambs that made me smile.

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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 are down to one man, 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.

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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.

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Chanctonbury Ring before the 1987 storm

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

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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.

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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.

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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.  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, witches 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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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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.

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

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

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I had saved an Amberley shop treat for a moment such as this: A & R Baileys Champion,  Award Winning Pork Pie.  It was.

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Truleigh Hill

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

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The path leading to Devil’s Dyke

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

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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.

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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 snow fields on top of the Downs melted.  You decide.

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Devils Dyke Hilfort

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.

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

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and the final sprint.

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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.

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

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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.  I’d sat outside, bootless, sockless, fixing plasters on angry blisters and raw, bloody feet.  31 years ago, eh?  I’m virtually a Plough regular.

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The South Downs Way

The South Downs Way is one of fifteen National Trails in England and Wales, and the one I know best.   From long association, it is a personal favourite and, whilst it can’t compete with the rugged beauty of say, The Cumbria Way or Hadrian’s Wall Path, I think it is one of the finest paths in the country.

South Downs Way (5)

It crosses a densely populated corner of England and yet, the crest of the Downs can be wild and empty (especially midweek.  In the rain).  Keeping close to the chalk escarpment, the path runs the length of the South Downs National Park, linking King Alfred’s capital, Winchester, to the coast at Eastbourne.  Parts of the high, free-draining path have been a trade and communication byway for thousands of years and, in places, it does feel ancient: passing several iron-age hill-forts, mediaeval churches and bronze-age tumuli.  But it is more challenging than you might think (for a southern ‘softie’ walk) and especially so if tackled in under a week.  (Here’s a tip: take longer).

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Storm arriving on the South Downs, Nov 2013

In bad weather, the Downs are anything but soft and they soundly thrashed me when, at twenty-two, I first attempted the SDW.  On the morning of my third day, having walked from Eastbourne, I humbly admitted defeat at the half-way point, Amberley.  I’d wild-camped in Chanctonbury Ring the night before; and over-night the skies dropped torrents of water specifically on me and continued, gleefully, as I took down my tent.  I was soaking, all my gear was soaking and my feet were impressively blistered too.  On reaching the gorgeous warmth and chocolate cake of a café in Amberley, I stubbornly shook my head and refused the climb back to the ridge-line in now horizontal, freezing rain; and gratefully limped aboard a heated train back to London.  (Here’s a second tip: the Way is nicer in good weather).

South Downs WAy (3)

Since that defeat in 1985, I’ve walked every step of the path between Winchester and Eastbourne at least twice – and some parts of the eastern section many, many times.  But I had never completed the whole 100 mile challenge in one go.  For some reason (a nerdy one) it seemed important I do just that.

South Downs WAy (2)

In April 2016, I caught a train to Winchester and, in startlingly good weather, walked back home and then on to the finish.  (An overview of this walk is on my other blog – The Anxious Gardener).

Beachy Head Lighthouse

Here is a day by day account of my walk:

Day 1 – Winchester to East Meon

Day 2 – East Meon to South Harting

Day 3 – South Harting to Amberley

Day 4 – Amberley to Pyecombe

Day 5 – Pyecombe to Southease

Day 6 – Southease to Eastbourne

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