Thursday, 30 December 2010

Wealdway Section 1 Eastbourne - Berwick

Eastbourne Pier
After a month of Christmas preparations and losing my last walk due to illness and the snowy weather, I was very anxious to get out as soon as public transport was working again after the Christmas break.  In these days of shortened daylight hours I didn’t fancy the long trip up to London to complete the next section of the LOOP as I neither wanted to face the traffic associated with the sales, or a train ride almost exclusively in the dark.  I was conscious that the Downs still had a covering of snow and so on that basis I picked a walk that I have been planning for a long time now although had previously been undecided which direction to take it.  The weather conditions and my mood dictated that I would try the Wealdway as per the guidebook suggested direction of south to north rather than the other way round which would normally feel more natural to me.
Bleak Midwinter Seafront

I parked at Berwick station (it’s free on Sundays and Bank Holidays) and took the short train ride down to Eastbourne.  On the way I could see that the Downs had just about enough snow on them to make them white, although in truth it was a fairly thin covering.  The day was rather bleaker than the weather forecast had suggested with little hint of any sunshine, despite what had been predicted.  Still on arrival at Eastbourne it felt good to get some lungfuls of fresh air after largely being indoors for the last couple of weeks.
The Meads

The seafront was pretty blustery and various elderly guests were hanging grimly on to their hats as they tried boarding their coaches from the seafront hotels.  It looked as if many of the hotels had done a brisk trade over Christmas if the coach traffic was anything to go by.  I took a quick look at the pier, still trying its best to look cheery on what really was a very bleak looking morning.  The paintwork on the pier was the only blue in existence, with the sea looking very grey and choppy and the sky looking little better, although there were hints offshore that the sun might make an appearance at some point today.
Dewpond View

The pier marks the official start to the walk although you wouldn’t know it as there is no marker for the whole of the promenade westwards from here.  In fact the first clue I was on the walk at all was almost two miles it at the point that the South Downs Way footpath section starts at the end of The Meads.  After a longish walk along the promenade it suddenly felt like a proper walk as I climbed up the steep hill that I had descended on my South Downs Way trip almost two years ago.  The paths coincide for about half a mile until splitting at the top of the steep slope.  This time I took the right hand turn and headed off along the ridge of the South Downs, heading towards the bridleway section of the South Downs Way, which I soon met.  I had now turned north and was pleased therefore to have the wind at my back for much of the rest of the day, making for much more comfortable walking conditions.
Eastbourne Trig Point

When I met up with the South Downs Way again, conditions underfoot had become a lot less friendly however, as I soon realised that when I reached the snow it was not the nice crunchy kind that I had been hoping for, but extremely hard and icy and starting to thaw.  This made it extremely tricky to walk on and I went over a couple of times before realising that the best way of dealing with it was to avoid wherever possible.  For the next couple of miles the path follows the old coach road towards Jevington and normally this affords great views across the Pevensey Levels, virtually the whole town of Eastbourne and further afield Hastings and the High Weald of Kent far off in the distance.  Today though the view was just about there but I had to use rather more imagination on account of the murky conditions.
Snowy Top

At Willingdon Hill the Wealdway takes its leave of the South Downs Way and heads on a bigger loop encompassing Butts Brow and Coombe Hill before descending into Jevington.  I was pleased about this as I was rather enjoying this high level walk and I always though that the SDW is too quick in some places to lose the high ground.  It also meant that I got to look at more of the earthworks left behind by the Iron Age settlers that once called this place home.  Remains of a Neolithic Camp and various burial mounds complete the scene.  Far below me I could see rather newer antiqities such as Polegate windmill, which I have great affections for since it is located a stone’s throw from where my Great Grandparents lived in the later 1970s.

After looping around this last part of the ridge I turned and faced into the wind.  I was a very uncomfortable experience!  I was pleased now to be heading off the ridge and down into Jevington village, where the path enters right opposite the welcoming sight of the Eight Bells pub, a little further up the road than the Hungry Monk restaurant where I passed by on the SDW.  The Eight Bells had a roaring fire on offer and looked very welcoming and hard to resist.  However, I had a feeling that if I succumbed I might still be in there rather than finishing the walk!
Approaching Folkington

My dalliance with Jevington was very brief for I was soon heading along the old coach road that once passed for a main route to Eastbourne from Lewes.  Now not much more than a mudbath, having thawed sufficiently to create an opportunity for horse to do their stuff, the coach road was far from a pleasurable experience.  A little way into the coach road and it appeared to have swallowed a family, since there were some very ill equipped people (even with pushchair) trying to use its debatable charms.  They didn’t look at all like they were enjoying themselves!
Folkington Church

My ordeal soon came to an end as the path finally swung away from the shadow of the Downs for the sun to finally make a breakthrough!  This was very welcome indeed, especially as I soon came upon the hamlet of Folkington (pronounced Fo-wing-ton in these parts!).  This delightful little place seems to exist in a different world to the 21st Century going on all around it.  The church, with its small wooden spire, positively gleamed in the weak winter sunshine and the bleakness of Eastbourne seafront seemed like a world away.  By now it was well into the afternoon and conscious that I still had four miles left and my pace had been very slow I decided against going in the church this time, but headed out through the wooded combe towards Wilmington. 
Folkington Woods

After a day that had seemed devoid of wildlife, the next couple of miles seemed to have everything that was available!  I was sung to by a group of goldfinches, a redwing put in an appearance and I was followed for some distance by a robin.  My spirits rose considerably and even more so up ahead as I surely came upon the highlight of the walk.  I left the wooded combe and headed out along the foot of the scarp slope of Windover Hill, covered with a thin layering of snow.  Up ahead the Long Man of Wilmington, that mythical and mysterious hill drawing, stood half camouflaged underneath the snow barely visible.  Even on such a day though the majesty of the man could be appreciated.  I have always been fascinated by this drawing, especially as no-one knows how he came to be there, what he represents or even how old he is.  One thing is for sure though and that is that he is the largest representation of a human being anywhere in Western Europe!
Snow Patch

Dropping down the path away from the Long Man was a treacherous affair as the path had been covered almost completely with sheet ice.  It was a miracle that I managed to get to the end without falling over, but I was relieved that this was the last of the snow for me today as from here on the sun and warm air was really starting to do the trick.  Wilmington Priory glowed in the sun just ahead of me and I assumed that I would have the opportunity to look around.  It is now owned by the Landmark Trust however, and not open to the public generally although it is occasionally on Heritage Weekends.  It looked occupied when I passed by so I didn’t loiter too much, moving on instead to the small church next door.  This resembled the church at Folkington and the two villages now share a parish council, along with the hamlet of Milton Street.  So as not to upset anyone by showing favouritism the parish is known as ‘Long Man’, a very diplomatic solution!
Long Man Under Snow

Wilmington Church had the most enormous yew tree living in the church yard.  The old beast looked like it was having trouble supporting its own weight and the locals had propped up some of the limbs with some fairly substantial looking telephone poles.  After lingering in the churchyard for a few minutes, I headed down through the village.  Wilmington is one of the more picture postcard villages of Sussex, with many lovely old cottages and even a few vintage cars on show.  My lingering memory though was of the smell of smoke from lots of open fires all working hard to keep the locals warm in their houses!
Wilmington Churchyard

If I could have stopped the walk at Wilmington it would have been a very fitting end to my journey.  There was still more than two miles to go though until reuniting with the car and these were less memorable miles.  The chalk downs were left behind me as I now headed onto the clay vale that characterises the next part of the Weald.  I soon crossed the extremely busy A27 (with difficulty) and headed out across squelchy fields towards Berwick village.  The terrain is almost marshy in places and so I was relieved that my path managed to steer clear of the worst of it.  I eventually reached the River Cuckmere, a very picturesque river downstream, but here nothing more than a muddy backwater.

I reached the road next to Arlington reservoir, a feature that I would have to explore next time for now I was very focused on my final destination, especially as the short-lived sunshine had disappeared.  Now the light was beginning to fade and I my feet were really hurting after all the hard work of trying to grip manfully to icy paths all day.  Today was far more of a struggle than I expected or wanted, but it felt very good to have some miles in my feet once again.  I think that I may end up doing this walk once again when conditions are better, for it has much to commend it and even on a fairly poor day the highlights clearly shone through.  I think the next section of the Wealdway will have to wait for the spring though – the idea of clay walking in the winter is too much for me!

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