Sunday, 26 February 2017

Blackcap and Stanmer Down From Ditchling Beacon

Early morning walks at any time of year are special but none more so than on cold and frosty winter mornings.  With the memory of my walk around Arundel Park fresh in the mind I was eager to have another early morning outing and made sure I got up while it was still dark so that I could be up on the hills when the sun came up.  After the mud and the less than perfect conditions last week this week could not be more different.  Conditions were benign but seriously cold when I got going and I chose a downland walk on the basis that the underfoot conditions would probably be better.  Thus I plumped for walk number 23 from vol 52 Pathfinder Guide More Sussex Walks.

Daybreak at Ditchling Beacon
Familiarity was the key to this walk for this part of the Downs is really where I feel at home.  Ditchling Beacon is not too far from Lewes where I grew up and this is the part of the Downs that I explored as a youngster.  I venture to these parts all too rarely these days but I always get waves of nostalgia when I do.  Parking at Ditchling Beacon is no joke these days although I was never going to have a problem coming at this time of day on a Saturday.  If you come later in the day on the weekend you might consider coming up here on the bus - a regular service comes up here from the centre of Brighton.

I felt the chill wind as soon as I got out of my warm car and I soon realised that I wasn't alone for there were a couple of photographers around clearly hoping for a special sunrise.  We were a little early for that and I was pleased for the first half mile or so the skyline from where I assumed the sun would come was obscured.  I hurried along the chalky track to get to where I thought I might get a good view and was rather disappointed to see that the sun had beat me too it.  Nevertheless the red ball had only just cleared the horizon over towards Firle Beacon and it still looked very special indeed.

Which Way?
Surprisingly considering that I was on the crest of the Downs the best views were to be had to the south and east.  Even with the proximity of Lewes I didn't catch sight of it for some time but in the distance I could see the faint plume of smoke coming from the incinerator in Lewes.  Elsewhere on the Downs livestock continued their interminable grazing - must be awful spending all your life grazing.  I suspect that this went on pretty much all night too.  It wasn't just sheep up here either - a large herd of bullocks did their best to keep out of my way.  Further on was a different kind of beast - a large excavator that looked rather melancholy.  I suspect the farmer has been doing some work to improve the tracks up here - there was some evidence that work had started although I wasn't sure how extensive it would be for not much had yet happened.

Having enjoyed the early sunrise I could now see that the rays were extending beyond the ridge of the Downs to illuminate the countryside below.  I've always thought that being on the crest of the Downs is a bit like in a low flying plane - the view from the top almost has to be seen to be believed.  Far below me here is Westmeston and its dainty little church.  A little further on and I passed teh extensive grounds of Plumpton Agricultural College and then Plumpton Place.  The latter was where my mother grew up and subsequently became a haunt of Led Zeppelin as Jimmy Page owned it at the height of their fame.

Blackcap View
Plumpton Plain is a section of the walk that I could hurry along because it is essentially flat.  As I walked along I tried to imagine my grandfather working in the fields up here in the 1950s as he was a farm labourer at a nearby farm.  It really is that special to me around here.  Past Redhouse wood the main South Downs Way heads southwards but I continued straight on.  The path in the book skirts around the summit of Blackcap but I decided to head to the top so I could enjoy the view north across the Chailey and Shelley's Folly.  The trees on Blackcap are iconic for me although they seem a bit thinner than I remember.  It was replanted in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of the Queen.  It is remarkable that she is still on the throne!

Blackcap From Mount Harry
I lingered for a short while before continuing on to Mount Harry where I came across a brazier that I don't remember at all.  Turns out that this had a Queen Elizabeth connection too, only this time it was put here to celebrate her Golden Jubilee in 2002.  This is the territory that the Battle of Lewes reached and I tried to imagine the two armies at full tilt all those hundreds of years ago.  Although not widely known outside the area where I grew up, it was one of those pivotal battles in English history and led directly to the setting up of Parliament when Henry III was defeated by the rebel barons.  

At Mount Harry I dropped down to another historic relic - the old Lewes racecourse.  Sadly horses haven't raced here since 1964, more than 50 years ago.  Yet I remember plenty of race horses galloping around the course when I was a boy, for the track still exists as a training course.  It is probably too much to ask that it will ever re-open after all these years, but I guess it theoretically is possible since all the infrastructure is still here.

Ouse Valley View
I turned here to head back towards Ditchling Beacon.  My return route was a lot less straightforward as I would be using paths that negotiated the dip slopes of the Downs and crossed a couple of the dry valleys that characterise this part of the Downs.  This part of the Downs is less visited for me but notwithstanding the ups and downs of the walking this area should perhaps get more attention.  I enjoyed it for there were no people about at all - a far cry from the runners and dog walkers on the South Downs Way.  I had some curious sheep for company and the warming sun - in fact the temperature had risen quite a lot and the frost had melted.

Creeping Halls
I found my way to the back of Falmer village before turning once again at what was marked as a farm on the map but what was in reality a pile of rubble and some rubbish that suggested that farming activity had ceased a long time ago.  I headed north at this point, following a shady tree lined road into the wonderfully named Shambledean Bottom.  As I did so my eye was caught by the sight of a large number of halls of residence that have found their way into the rural idyll of the Downs.  Of course these belong to the nearby Sussex University.  I found it rather astonishing how many have been built - there is seemingly no end to the expansion of our student populations.  I suppose the halls are really necessary to the whole operation.

Confused Cow
I passed by St Mary's Farm - a human habitation that is almost the antithesis of the halls.  Yet even here was plenty of activity.  I suspect that the farm does a sideline in shooting activities for a group had assembled for what looked suspiciously like a lesson.  I didn't hang around - the thought of a buch of shotguns being fired and shattering the peace of the morning was too much for me.  What lay ahead now was a lengthy climb back to Ditchling Beacon.  Fortunately it wasn't too steep but the climb did seem to go on forever - in all it was probably a couple of miles.  As I got back up towards the summit the numbers of walkers around increased considerably.  I felt a bit smug as I returned to the car to find that people were setting out for the day knowing that I had already experienced the best of it!  The car park was rather busier now and almost as soon as I left my parking spot it was filled by the next visitor.

Back to the Beacon
This is a great walk for a workout.  It has some fabulous views out across the surrounding countryside, among the best anywhere in the South Downs.  It is a little short on specific landmarks on the way round but I felt so good after it - just a little frustrated that my diary is so full looking that it looks unlikely that I will be able to repeat the experience any time soon.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Temple of the Winds From Fernhurst

Regular readers of these walks will know that one of my favourite spots in Sussex is Black Down, the highest point.  For me this is a corner of Sussex that has always seemed a bit of an enigma - so very different from the South Downs that I grew up with, but no less appealing.  After a few days of wintry weather that my children were very excited about I thought it might be the one place nearby that managed to hang on to the white stuff.  With a friendly looking weather forecast it looked like a good day for a winter walk.  This one is walk no. 17 in Pathfinder Guide volume 52 More Sussex Walks and walk no.19 in vol.66 West Sussex and the South Downs.

Upper Sopers
The day certainly started out pretty well - the cloud looked like it was going to give way to sunshine as promised as we started our walk at the village green in the small village of Fernhurst.  I have to say that if I had been with my wife and not the two girls I might well have been tempted just to stay in the pub as it looked so inviting overlooking the green.  As it was the girls were keen to get up high as soon as possible to make their acquaintance with the snow.  The path climbed slowly out of the village and as we reached the edge of the housing we got our first view of the brooding mass of Black Down.  I have to say that it didn't look too promising from this angle and with warming weather I thought that any lingering snow would just be wet and horrible anyway.
Range Rover Crowd
I needn't have worried - by the time we reached Upper Sopers, a large house at the top of the first slope we found our first snow.  That soon got the girls into a frenzy of excitement and snowball fighting ensued almost immediately.  It was as much as I could to get them moving along and only then on the promise that there would be better stuff further on :)  In truth I was slightly concerned about daylight - we had had a reasonably late start and I wanted to be sure that we would get round before it got too dark.  The weather suddenly looked a lot less promising than it had earlier too - the bits of sunshine that we had had were now completely gone and we just had leaden skies. 

Sussex Saddlebacks
It was with a bit of a heavy heart that I noticed that we were about to lose a lot of the height we had already gained as our path dropped steeply down to a set of fishing ponds.  There was no fishing activity today but the countryside set were out killing something else.  Their tell-tale vehicles were lined up in the adjacent field - what is with Range Rovers?  There is something about these vehicles that scream 'I kill stuff for fun'...

Splash of Colour
Having dropped steeply we had an equally steep climb the other side much to the displeasure of all of us.  Thankfully the underfoot conditions weren't too bad - much more in the way of mud would have been a problem with traction.  As we climbed I heard the first of the shots ringing out through the woods.  It drew questions of course - I explained that it was clay pigeon shooting and that seemed to satisfy the young ones.  They were much more interested in meeting a couple of pigs at the top of the hill.  These were a couple of Sussex Saddlebacks, a rare and local breed and most friendly too.

Valewood Park
We eventually reached a road and walked along it briefly before swapping cold cheerless woods for more open countryside and a good deal more snow.  The views out across the snowy landscape were quite something and I was rather fascinated by the two large houses overlooking the scene.  I could see why the National Trust had taken on this stretch of countryside - it is definitely worth keeping as it is.  We slowly dropped down to the Valewood Estate road and found some pretty marshy ground as we did so.  I managed to get through unscathed but both girls seemed to find the water traps and soon had wet feet.
Defiant Against the Cold

We crossed the road and slowly climbed the other side of the valley.  There were already very early signs of spring as the gorse was in flower, a welcome splash of colour on an otherwise bleak day.  We were now making the final ascent to Black Down and the girls had ceased complaining about the climb, so absorbed were they in their conversation.  Actually the last part of the climb is quite gentle and the countryside improves all the while.  The snow got a little thicker too and the promised sunshine finally started too, bang on time for the best part of the walk.  

Black Down
I love the landscape across Black Down.  The sandy soils support a heathland that is very handsome, sprinkled with some very large and stately looking Scots Pines.  Somehow the winter conditions suit the place particularly well.  Being sandy it is a joy to walk in the winter for mud is at a premium.  Having walked for several miles without seeing anyone it was a bit of a surprise to see lots of people out.  They were probably more sensible than us though - I'm sure they had all parked at the top rather than walk up from the village.  They weren't the only company we had for we soon came across a herd of Belted Galloway cattle stationed up here to keep some of the growth in check I suppose.  The National Trust seems fond of these grazers - they can often be found doing conservation work in these parts.

Belted Galloway
We walked around the top of the hill enjoying the snow and the sun peeking through every so often.  Eventually we got to the wonderfully named Temple of the Winds.  Sadly the 'Temple' is no more and only the viewpoint remains, but what a viewpoint it is!  It is possible to see a sizeable chunk of our home county from the top and even into Hampshire and East Sussex.  As we stood and enjoyed the view the sun highlighted different stretches of countryside as it poked through the clouds.  It looked for all the world that the weather would clear and we would get the sunshine that the weathermen had predicted.  What happened was quite the opposite - within minutes the rain had started and it got heavier and more persistent.  This wasn't good news for we were at the highest and most exposed point of our walk.

Black Down View
 We put our skates on and headed down the steep side of the hill.  This wasn't easy as we seemed to have found all the mud that was missing from earlier in the walk.  In fact as we went further and further down the hill it only got worse and we all had a hard time not getting absolutely filthy.  The problems culminated in small daughter going over and getting covered - luckily she saw the funny side!  I cannot say that the descent from Black Down was enjoyable - anything but...   The trial seemed to go on for quite some time too - the path seemed a lot longer than any of us had expected.  All I can say is if you come in the winter beware this stretch - it might be advisable to find an alternative route or save it for a frosty morning.  The last time I had done this walk it was a sunny September day - a much better day for it!