Monday, 4 January 2016


Herstmonceux Pub
As luck would have it on my last day before going back to work the sun shone again and by now I wasn't alone in wanted to get out for some fresh air - wife and daughter wanted to as well!  It is never easy to pick a walk of a reasonable length that doesn't involve mud at this time of year but we thought that a wander around the village of Herstmonceux might do the trick.  I did think that as it sits on the upper ground overlooking the clay vales below that we might have a fighting chance of some drier conditions.
View Across Pevensey Levels
We parked in the main street of Herstmonceux village.  The unusual name comes from the word Hurst, or wooded hill, and the main house here was once owned by the Monceux family.  All was quiet on arrival - most people I suspect were still enjoying their Christmas visits or not in a hurry to get up early.  We walked along the main street for a short distance before taking a left and passing through a twitten to some very well equipped playing fields beyond.  Only dog walkers were out this morning - no sport on the sodden pitches.  Initially our path was tarmac but when we got to the end of the sports pitches the tarmac ran out and we would only be dealing with unsurfaced paths.  The wetness of the landscape was soon apparent as we crossed the field and had to pick our way carefully so as not to get stuck.
Overgrown Pond

Despite the muddy conditions the air was mild and warm and the view ahead across the Pevensey Levels was quite magnificent.  We could see across to Willingdon Hill and down to Eastbourne, both of which are a good 10 miles away.  Behind us was the large white post mill at the aptly named Windmill Hill.  The view was fairly short-lived though as the path descended to an area punctuated by a number of small ponds.  I'm not sure what their original purpose was but they are now rather hemmed in by trees which probably limits their use.  Our onward path took us through here and then across a narrow footbridge.  Already the battle against the mud was becoming apparent as the fields were pretty sodden and the gateways weren't at all pleasant to deal with.
Ploughed Field
At a very attractive looking half beamed house we crossed the road and headed up a mercifully dry path and then across a harvested but yet to be ploughed field (thank heavens!).  This wound up coming out at another beautiful house, there certainly are some beauties in this area.  We crossed another road and down past some large greenhouses.  I'm not sure whether these are still in use - hard to know in the middle of the winter.  Certainly the number of glass houses that I can remember from my childhood has diminished considerably in recent years.
Flowers Green
Our onward path was even more squelchy than before - in fact if we hadn't already walked so far I might have suggested that we go elsewhere.  We wandered down to the base of a valley and then up the other side via a very wide looking track that looked as if it had been created for the purposes of a large scale engineering project - gas pipes or electricity lines maybe?
Glass House
The undulating nature of this walk continued as we pushed onwards over the ridge and down the other side back into the valley that we had recently left.  As we did so the view across to Herstmonceux Place opened up.  This fine looking building is Georgian in appearance although was originally built in around 1530.  It is now a grade 1 listed building divided into flats and has had some impressive guests over the years, including Admiral Lord Nelson, William Wilberforce and Viginia Woolf.  It was also once owned by Thomas Kemp, the man who founded Kemp Town in Brighton.
Herstmonceux Place
Admiring the mansion took second place to the next obstacle, the worst mud yet and a consistency that was so thick and muddy that daughter lost her boot in it and had to be rescued!  The track was almost impassable and probably would have been save for a thin stretch of grass alongside that just about held our feet.  Having passed here we were rather relieved to climb away from the valley and into a dry wood that was rather drier.  As we wandered through the wood we came upon a small Christmas tree that had been planted by the path and which was covered in decorations - rather a strange sight!  We also caught first glimpse of Herstmonceux Castle from here although more about that in a minute.
Fearsome Mud
The path continued on to the church, which is some distance from the modern day village.  This was probably built here for the convenience of the castle rather than the local inhabitants.  We did not venture inside - we were simply to filthy for this to be a serious proposition.  At the church we joined with the 1066 Country Trail for a short stretch as we crossed the Herstmonceux Castle Estate.  In addition to the mediaeval castle the estate houses a whole lot of observatory domes for this was the home of the Royal Greenwich Observatory from the 1950s until the 1970s.  Originally moved here from Greenwich when it became too bright to see the stars effectively, the same happened again and the Observatory moved on to Cambridge where presumable street lights are not so much of a consideration.  The main dome, which sticks out high above the trees, is now empty as its telescope was removed some years ago and relocated to the Canary Islands.  The smaller telescope buildings are used by a science centre that occupies part of the site and by a Canadian University, under whose ownership the castle belongs now.
Christmas Decorations
The castle itself is a very interesting building.  For a start it is rather older than it looks for it is built of brick.  I cannot think of too many other castles built of brick and indeed this is one of the oldest brick buildings in the UK.  It is something of a survivor too as the castle was effectively dismantled from the inside during the 1770s, leaving just the external brick walls.  It was rebuilt internally during the early part of the 20th Century after more than 100 years of being left derelict.
Herstmonceux Church
We have visited here in recent years to see the Mediaeval festival; rather a lot of fun and a good opportunity to look around the beautiful gardens at the back.  I also remember visiting as a child when the castle and observatory were still in the hands of the Royal Greenwich Observatory.  Times have changed a lot since then although strangely the place looks very much as it did back then and I suppose it is testament to the usefulness of the place that many of the facilities remain.
Observatory Building
At the far end of the estate we headed back towards Windmill Hill past the science centre and then down through some rather pleasant woodland where we encountered large numbers of dog walkers.  This looks like a well beaten path, probably on account of a layby at the entrance to the science centre which allows for easy local parking.  We just about made it by the dogs without too much of a problem, even though they seemed intent on shaking dirty water all over us after a paddle in a nearby dirty looking pond in the castle parkland.

Herstmonceux Castle
As we left the woodland there was another very muddy field to negotiate before reaching the hamlet of Comphurst.  Here we passed another of those impossibly beautiful houses before taking a path the crossed a small valley with seemingly a pool of liquid mud at the bottom.  I think by now we were all ready to raise the white flag; especially as the sun had now gone in as well!  We did briefly get a good view of the windmill after the village that hosts it is named.  This was built in 1814 and was recently restored thanks to a grant from the National Lottery.  It looks resplendent in the landscape now and is not dissimilar to the one at Ashcombe although crucially it only has 4 sweeps and not 6.
Windmill Hill Windmill

The mill disappeared from view briefly as we climbed the hill and soon we met the busy A271.  Seeing that there was a nice pavement all the way back to Herstmonceux we decided to cheat a little and use that rather than try and do battle with any more mud along the way.  I think that we bit off more than we could chew with this walk - certainly we were rather chalky brown by the time we had finished!