‘Pyecombe to Southease’ – walk, South Downs Way

Looking E from Plumpton Plain towards the Ouse Valley and Downs beyond

The weather of early February 2020 has been so much better for getting out. It’s still quite gross underfoot in places but the ground has dried out enough to make a long walk less of an assault course. So with a weather forecast of sunshine, a light NE wind and single figures C, I wanted to get back to Sussex to complete another section of the South Downs Way (SDW), an accidental inspiration borne of having completed a couple of sections previously. The object is to use public transport where I can to get there and back (home in London) in a day and complete a decent walk in between. In this instance 15.5 miles from Pyecombe to Southease Station. From Clapham Junction I took the train to Hassocks Station then a quick 5 min walk to the A273 to catch a bus to Pyecombe. In just over an hour and I was at the foot of the Downs.

The walk (map below). You have to retrace back up the A273 for just over half a mile in order to pick up the SDW and the road is busy with no pavement so better to walk round through Pyecombe village and use the dedicated path to the W of the road until you cross E to start the walk. The first mile or so is steadily uphill through a manicured golf course before the path turns N through a stables then up to the scarp path where you can see the two ‘Clayton’ windmills. The path turns sharp right and continues E and opens up as do the magnificent views (weather permitting). There are Tumuli to the left and right and a couple of ‘dew ponds’ – man made pools, traditionally lined with straw, clay and Lime (to deter worms from perforating the lining) which date from medieval times, designed to harvest rainwater for livestock in an otherwise parched landscape.

Looking E when on the scarp path
Dew Pond near Ditchling Beacon
Dew Pond near Ditchling Beacon
Gorse in flower

The path continues E towards Ditchling Beacon, one of the highest points of the Downs. Noticeable in the surroundings as an area of scrub which is being grazed back into chalk grassland. The Beacon was gifted to the National Trust by a local family in memory of their son, an RAF pilot lost in the English Channel during the Battle of Britain of 1940. I cycled (actually I pushed my bike) up here when taking part in the London to Brighton Bike Ride and remember it as the toughest part of the route before becoming a welcome downhill freewheel to the coast.

Looking East near Ditchling Beacon
The wide path

For a couple of miles beyond Ditchling Beacon the path retains a wide open feel, more ride than path and occasionally Skylarks can be heard as they hover above more hospitable areas of field stubble, in what incredibly has become an ever more unfriendly zone for them. Skylarks are on the Red List of threatened species, as changes in farming practices (including the use of herbicides to eliminate weeds which provided the Skylark with over-Wintering food) and the decline in habitat has led to a 90% decline in just 30 years. I find it incredible that we haven’t addressed this issue of erosion of habitat during an extended period of awareness of the problem. The British Trust for Ornithology has more information about the plight of the Skylark and has launched an appeal to help farmland birds. This helps explain why my memory of Skylark song as a constant backdrop when walking the Downs in the early 1970s isn’t fanciful nostalgia.

From Plumpton Plain views of the Ouse valley and coast, including the Seven Sisters cliffs, open up together with views of the Downs beyond the Ouse marching E towards Alfriston. The path soon turns right heading S away from the scarp slope into the rolling dip slope of the South Downs. The landscape becomes a patchwork of largely arable fields with some grazing and the path less busy as it heads away from the obvious route towards Lewes.

Wide open spaces looking SE on the Southern leg of the walk
Traveller’s Joy/Wild Clematis – indicative of a downland habitat

The path carries on roughly S before reaching the busy A27. There is free water by Housedean Farm (and a campsite) before the path crosses the bridge over the road then continues parallel to it, backtracking past a foot tunnel on the right before going under a second bridge/tunnel a few hundred yards further on. Thankfully once through this the sound of the road diminishes as you begin to climb past a stretch of wood to the left. The route emerges onto the edge of a large bowl, the edge of which you trace around – always climbing to nearly 600ft /190m. The views become expansive as you pass the Dew Pond at the top.

Free water by the A27
Looking NE rom Swanborough Hill – Lewes and the River Ouse

For the views alone this is a lovely and quiet stretch of the Downs as it heads SE but after a couple of turns the path becomes a mile long concrete road between ploughed fields running downhill and the going is tough on weary feet. Beyond this the path enters a field, then a short section of fenced path past houses* and enters another field above a farm, the path twists round the hill descending to join a farm track heading NE. *An option (though not following the SDW) would be to follow the sign to ‘the pub’ in Rodmell. Very tempting and you can follow the minor road from there and rejoin the SDW at Southease.

Big fields adjacent the concrete road
Near Fore Hill towards the end of the walk

After about half a mile the path leaves the scrappy track and climbs to the right, crossing a road entering Southease, a hamlet with a beautiful church with 12thc tower and small green with a couple of houses. From Southease the road heads E, crosses the River Ouse and reaches Southease Station from which you can get to Lewes in minutes or Brighton in under half an hour. Trains run every hour at about five past the hour until late evening. From here I caught the 16.05 to Lewes and was at Clapham junction in less than 90 minutes.

It’s a long walk with 1600 ft of ascent. I wore light boots (Salomon X Ultra 3 mids) which, paired with Darn Tough socks, perform brilliantly on fair paths. The weather was good and my Montane Power Up hoodie over a Lowe Dryflo base layer worked for most of the day until the afternoon when it cooled and I swapped the hoodie for a Marmot Alpha 60 jacket. As it wasn’t too cold I wore a pair of Bergans Torfinnstind softshell trousers which are surprisingly wind resistant for their light weight and have a close alpine cut at the ankle which stretches over the top of the boot. Outside of Winter these are an excellent, comfortable packable option which wick really well.

‘Amberley to Steyning’ – walk, South Downs Way

Another bright January day and the opportunity to get out of London by train and walk a section of the South Downs Way (SDW) National Route for just over 11 miles, from Amberley Station to the village of Steyning allowing about five hours with a stop for lunch en route.
My aim is to walk the entire length of the SDW in day sections of between 9 and 19 miles using public transport (whenever possible) with London as my base. In this instance returning by bus from Steyning to Pulborough station (on the Amberley line) thence home.

The forecast was for 5c with a cold SW wind and no rain. Perfect! The direct train from London takes just over an hour and a quarter. The walk (map below) starts by exiting the station and walking N up a busy road for a few hundred yards before turning E up a lane called ‘High Titten’. This is metalled for about a mile before the SDW takes a left and turns into a steep chalk and flint footpath. This path opens up (pic below) as it climbs between chalk grassland and I heard my first Skylark, for me the icon of the Downs. Being January and being wet chalk the path can be muddy and slippery and the path is restricted between fences (though there is a drier field to the left as an alternative, parallel path with stiles at each end – which I realised too late). The path runs past Rackham Hill (633 ft – 193m) before continuing through a spinney then between more fences and ploughed fields for another few miles.

For some of the first section the land is cultivated intensively leaving a mean, fenced, narrow strip for the SDW with no sense of it being a downland landscape other than the ploughed flint and chalk to left and right. Work is being done to help the Downs – since its having become a National Park in 2010 – but to quote the South Downs National Park website ‘much of the chalk grassland habitat in the National Park has been lost, and it now only makes up 4 percent of the National Park. During World War II many of the chalk grassland sites in the South Downs were ploughed and have since remained in cultivation.’ It’s tragic that in a National Park so little is being done to reinstate natural habitat in which threatened and native species can thrive. I understand that prior to going under the plough the land was still farmed but the cost of this has been the threat to a set of flora and fauna wholly reliant on chalk grassland. The South Downs aren’t unique as an area of grassland on chalk which has suffered badly from loss and fragmentation in the UK. As a national resource we must do more to return some of our most iconic and sensitive landscapes to a less intensively farmed, biodiverse, chemical free environment. There is work being done by National bodies and land owners who care such as the Knepp Estate owner Charle Burrell in a ground breaking rewilding project adjacent the SDW.

By Kithurst Hill the path opens up a little and is more more grassland and thorn and gorse as margins to the wider path. In a small area of heath I saw a pair of Stonechats and more Skylarks. The going is easy past the car park at the Chantry Post then uphill to wide open views. The path continues through farmland – a quagmire in places after the Winter’s rain, to Barnsfarm Hill, from which you can see ‘Black Down’, the highest point in the SD National Park some 13 m to the NW. It also offers a first glimpse of Chanctonbury Ring (pic below). The path descends towards a wood above the A24. The path turns into a lane (the signpost suggests going down a steep hill to the left to the N but I chose to stick to the metalled road (Glaseby Lane) given the conditions underfoot). There is also a welcome public water point on the lane opposite a few houses as you near the slip road to the A24.

Looking E to Chanctonbury Ring from the top of Barnsfarm Hill

Having crossed the busy A24, the path climbs and twists steeply past small quarries and spinneys of Sycamore, Hazel and thorn (pic below) before joining a path running NE which in turn opens out into lovely open walking as you approach Chanctonbury Ring.

Looking West back along the Downs from the approach to Chanctonbury Ring
Approaching Chanctonbury Ring looking East

I love this place having spent nights camping here in its spooky earthworks. Its prominent setting and form is just so pleasing. As an important point in the SD ridgeway the ring ditch was built in either the Bronze and Iron ages perhaps for defence or to coralle livestock and later hosted Romano-British temples. There are many associated structures such as barrows in the area suggesting the site was of ritual significance. The outer ring was planted with Beech trees in the mid 18c and the interior planted in the early 20c which by the mid 20c further enhanced the amazingly distinctive living mound which could be seen from miles around. The storm of 1987 destroyed many of the trees leaving an unrecognisable mess. Since then the Ring has been replanted and the canopy is already beginning to resemble its former self. You can just see Steyning in the river Adur valley below, about four miles distant, from the E end of the Ring (pics below).

The Ring from the East.

Leaving Chanctonbury Ring, the path is pleasant level, easy walking with great views, after a mile and a half there are options. Leave the SDW at the path signposted ‘Steyning 1.2m’ or continue on the SDW as it turns S then leave the SDW and double back NE towards the village (this option indicated on map). I took the former option and regretted it. This route follows the gnarly edge of the woodland hugging the scarp slope and the going was muddy, narrow and annoying. Better when dry I’m sure but not on a wet January afternoon. My route eventually joined the alternative route above the village. Then there is a steep descent into the streets leading to the centre of Steyning.

Steyning from ‘Steyning Round Hill’

Steyning is small but a really attractive destination with everything you need after an eleven mile walk. I took some cash out at the ATM in the Co-op and had a couple of pints of local Sussex bitter at the Chequer Inn (which has a Pool table). If going back to London, there is a bus service which takes you to Pulborough Station in about 35 minutes, leaving in late afternoon from the prominent clock tower in the High Street at 15 past the hour (last service 17.15) which connects with the London train with four minutes to spare (though the service is regular – approx. every 30 minutes) if delayed.

There is fabulous architecture in Steyning, half-timbered, clapperboard and brick & flint.

I loved parts of this walk particularly the wide spaces of Chanctonbury Ring but the going was nasty in places so suggest boots and poles (for balance) vital in the Winter. It was cold and windy but sunny and I found a base layer, decent mid layer, wind shirt and selection of hats and gloves worked well. I can’t wait to re-visit this walk on a dryer, warmer day.

Links to conservation info and a few of the organizations helping to preserve, maintain and reinstate chalk grassland:
Plantlife
Magnificent Meadows
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
The National Trust (South Downs)
The National Trust (What’s so special about chalk grasslands)
The Wildlife Trust (Sussex)