Thursday, 27 November 2014

Firle Beacon and Charleston Farmhouse

Firle Village

Time this autumn has not been a great friend to me as I seem to have had precious little of it. I have had too few walks and too little time to write them up.  Hence with this one I am actually scrolling back almost two months to when the weather was warmer and there were still hints of summer temperatures in the air.  Actually if I was to pick a favourite time in the year for walking it would probably be late September and early October for conditions underfoot are nice and easy and the heat of summer days has passed.  So it was that I found myself with an afternoon to spare and some pretty decent weather that cried out for a Downland walk.  I have spent a lot of time on our local Downs this year so cast around for a walk on my old stomping ground around Lewes.

Firle Church
So it was that I alighted on Firle for a quick up the Downs along a bit, back down and close off the loop kind of a walk.  This walk is number 9 in the Pathfinder Guide Volume 67 (East Sussex and the South Downs).  Firle is one of those impossibly pretty villages that lie at the foot of the Downs and has been luckier than most in that it sits at the end of a cul de sac road that means that it has not been overrun with traffic but allowed to quietly exist without too much fanfare.  Of course it also helps that it is mostly owned by the Gage Family as part of an estate that has Firle Place at its heart.  It is rare to have a village like this in the 21st Century.

Firle Tower
I parked in the village car park on the edge of the village and walked along the main street to the church.  As I did so a vintage bus passed me dressed up as a wedding vehicle.  Sadly I didn’t catch it in time so wasn’t ready to take a snap as it went by.  When I arrived at the church at the far end of the village I paused for a while listening to the hymn singing from the wedding service inside and watched the clouds billowing and constantly changing shape on the wind above me.  A more idyllic moment it would hard to imagine.

At The Top Of The Ridge
Eventually I managed to pull myself away from the churchyard.  I was so distracted by the sights and sounds around me that I hadn’t remembered to look for the graves of the Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell, Quentin Bell and Duncan Grant who are all buried here.  Maybe I’ll have a look next time I come?

Firle Beacon Looking West
My onward path from Firle initially took me along the old coaching road from Lewes to Eastbourne that led along the foot of the Downs.  Although today this might seem a strange route, I believe that the road was routed this way to take advantage of the water supplies offered by the spring-line villages that line the foot of the Downs.  For thirsty horses I imagine this was a major consideration.  The Downs, for all their dry conditions, would have offered very little in terms of practicality or hospitality for weary travellers.

Firle Beacon Looking East
At the copse at the top of the hill the path took me up the steep scarp slope of the Downs, slowly at first but soon quite steep.  My views were restricted to the eastward side of the copse and every so often I would get a fright as one of the many pheasants that live here would suddenly fly up in front of me making a huge racket as they did so.  As I puffed my way to the top the farmers were madly trying to prepare their fields while the window of good weather lasted.  I enjoyed my good fortune of having a little free time to myself while I watched everything going on.

Firle Beacon Bottom
Eventually I made it to the top of the Downs.  I have to say that this is probably one of my favourite stretches of the South Downs, probably because it is so familiar and nostalgic for me.  By this time the clouds had also relented a bit and the sky was rather sunnier than it had been back in Firle.  Looking back across Lewes, the town where I grew up, was a picture perfect scene with crystal clear clarity in the air and scores of puffy white clouds decorating the sky.  These are walking conditions that I never tire of and I was in fact a little disappointed that I didn’t have longer to enjoy the view.

Winter Preparations

Being a Friday afternoon I largely had the place to myself although there was another couple of bods up by the trig point when I got there.  They were engrossed by their lunch though and didn’t pay me a second glance.  I drunk in the view instead – from the top of Firle Beacon it is possible to see much of East Sussex, from Hastings to Heathfield and Brighton.  Only the outer fringes towards Rye and north of the Wealden crest are out of sight.  To the south the towns of Newhaven and Seaford weren’t so easy to see because of the glare of the sun on the sea.

Maize to be Gathered
I wandered along the South Downs Way for a short time feeling like I was on top of the world and enjoying the views all around me.  Soon enough though I reached the point where my walk would take me back down the scarp slope to Tipton Farm.  At the foot of the Downs the last of the maize field were brimming with corn and looking like they really needed to be harvested.  As I walked from Tipton Farm to Charleston Farm I passed a woman with a pushchair, rather an incongruous sight in the depths of the couryside.  I soon twigged though that she was probably a visitor to Charleston Farmhouse, the residence of the Bloomsbury Set, and taking the baby out to get it to sleep.
Charleston Pond
Despite the lateness of the season and the fact that it was a Friday afternoon there were plenty of people around looking at Charleston Farmhouse.  The famous Bloomsbury Set, led by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant moved to the house in 1916 as they were inspired by the artistic possibilities all around them.  For their time they led very unconventional lives and continue to fascinate present day generations.  I have looked around the house before so didn’t do so this time but I was thankful for the presence of the cafĂ© and took advantage with a welcome cuppa.

Charleston Farmhouse
Feeling fortified my onward walk took me across the fields of the Firle Estate back to the village itself.  On the way I passed first the tower built for the gamekeeper of the Firle Estate (built in 1819) and then the huge house at the centre of the estate, Firle Place.  The gamekeeper used to use flags to signal his staff from the small castle like tower that he called home.  Nowadays the tower serves as a private residence and what an amazing place it must be to live in.

Firle Horse Trials
As I got closer to Firle Place I soon discovered that there was a lot of horsy activity as the participants in the forthcoming horse trials.  Although not much of a horse lover myself I have to confess that it looked like the ideal surroundings for such a show.  Lots of horse boxes were already gathered for the event due to take place that weekend.  I watched with some fascination as I crossed the event showground and had a good look at the house itself before moving on to the village.
Firle Place
By now the wedding had finished and all was quiet again in the village.  I grabbed some refreshment from the village shop (yes, it still has one!) and wandered back along the main street enjoying the sunshine picking out the dark blue/grey hues of the flints that most of the houses are built with.  This is a brilliant walk and manages to pack such a lot into its short five miles.  It is definitely going to go on the list of regulars!

Monday, 10 November 2014

Wolstenbury From Hurstpierpoint

Hurstpierpoint Village Sign

One of my favourite viewpoints in all of Sussex is Wolstenbury Hill, sadly bypassed by the South Downs Way.  With a beautiful sunny day upon us I was pleased when my girls picked walk 10 out of the Pathfinder Guide Volume 52 (More Sussex Walks) as it gave us the opportunity to pop into the village of Hurstpierpoint, take in the views from Wolstenbury Hill and pass by the old Elizabethan house of Danny.
Hurstpierpoint Church

We parked in the free car park in the centre of Hurstpierpoint and wandered initially down towards the church and turned left at the roundabout down Brighton Road.  Fortunately there was a narrow pavement for the road was very busy and didn’t make for particularly pleasant walking.  Just at the end of the housing we crossed the road and headed along a narrow path at the back of some housing.  I am writing this a few weeks after we actually completed the walk and so much of the landscape I am about to describe will by now have completely changed as the season progresses.  This was late September and the air temperature at least seemed like late summer and there were still barbecues still on the go in the back gardens, while the church bells rang out for a wedding at the church.

Wolstenbury Approaching
As we walked along the hedgerows the crops had been harvested but many of the bushes themselves were still heaving with wild fruit.  Luckily we had come prepared with tubs and collected large juicy blackberries as we made our way along the track around the perimeter of Washbrooks Farm.  This farm caters for small children and we have had plenty of enjoyable visits ourselves there in the past.  We could hear the far off peals of laughter and sounds of children playing, which was rather a joy to hear.  Butterflies were still servicing many of the remaining flowers on the field edges, although by now everything definitely had a rather tired look about it as we head into autumn proper.
Beech Nuts

The loop around Washbrooks wasn’t the most inspiring start to the walk but things definitely got better as the looming presence of Wolstenbury came back into sight.  We re-cross Brighton Road and headed through the delightful (if slightly scarily named) surroundings of Bedlam Street.  Somewhere in the field beyond this point is the remains of a Roman  Villa apparently, although with no immediate access we didn’t investigate the mark on the map.  There is a Roman Road that runs across this part of Sussex roughly east to west so perhaps not a huge surprise that there is a villa here.
Wolstenbury Caterpillar

At Randolph’s Farm we were directed around the edge of the farm and then on to a very pleasant track through some woods with the hill getting ever closer.  The children were getting rather anxious about its size, especially when I told them we would have to climb to the top!  Bribery with sweets helped along this section and especially as we started to climb.

View North From Wolstenbury
Anyone who knows the South Downs will be aware that they are not the biggest of hills but the climb up the scarp slope is quite an undertaking.  We took it slowly with the girls taking a look at flowers and butterflies on the way to try and distract them from getting too puffed out.  There were also a couple of strategic moments when we had to wait for families coming down the narrow path and this helped too.  What did not help though was the fact that part way up the hill we took a wrong turn and started heading in the wrong direction – we corrected ourselves by heading across a field of rough pasture but it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience and the girls struggled a bit.

View West From Wolstenbury
Eventually we got to the top and the view was magnificent all around.  Being an outlying hill along the ridge of the Downs is definitely very helpful.  This allows for a proper 360o view and starting out from the point behind us we could see the high rise buildings of Brighton city centre.  Moving around we could see the Downs above where we had walked to the Chattri Memorial earlier in the year, the Jack and Jill Windmills and then down into the clay vale.  The line of Greensand villages stood up above the low lying countryside with the High Weald off in the far distance.  Finally off to the west the line of the Downs continued past Devil’s Dyke to Chanctonbury Ring and beyond.
View of Jack and Jill

Having caught our breath and drunk in the view we headed straight down the hill once again and back towards Hurstpierpoint.  This proved to be a steeper descent than the way up but did provide for some running entertainment for the little ones.  At the bottom of the hill we passed through a small wooded area and then along a road for a short while. 

The remaining part of the walk was across fields of rough pasture, mostly with sheep keeping down the growth although in at least two of the fields they were replaced by alpacas, still a rather incongruous sight in the British countryside to my eyes.  The main point of interest along this part of the walk though was Danny, a large mansion that has had an interesting history.  Built originally in Elizabethan times it was significantly remodelled in Queen Anne’s time.  Prime Minister Lloyd George rented the place in 1918 and the house became the unlikely setting for the drawing up of the Armistice that concluded the Great War.  The house is now divided into apartments, which seems rather dull by comparison.

The route across the remaining fields was pleasant and we had to pay attention to our navigation due to the plethora of paths.  We eventually came out into the centre of Hurstpierpoint once again and wandered back through the main street.  For a relatively small place it has some rather interesting shops although the ambience of the village centre is rather spoiled by the amount of traffic passing through.

Back to Hurstpierpoint
This is a pretty and largely untaxing short walk, with outstanding views from Wolstenbury Hill and an interesting view of Danny.  There are few problems with navigation (so long as you take the right path up the hill!) and certainly child friendly as my kids proved.  A popular choice and probably one we might try again!