Saturday, 6 August 2011

Sussex Border Path Section 4 South Harting and Chalton


Another beautiful sunny morning awaited me on my next foray on the Sussex Border Path. Today I headed for a piece of Sussex that I know a little better than had gone before. South Harting is a beautiful, quintessentially English village at the foot of the Downs, just in West Sussex but a stone’s throw from Petersfield. One of the reasons that the village is familiar to me is that it is where the escarpment of the South Downs properly gets underway and the view of the village is an early highlight of the South Downs Way.

It was pretty early when I began my walk and for a change I decided to get the non Border Path section completed first. I wandered up the deserted main street (well, who else would be silly enough to get up as early as me?) and past the distinctive church with its green copper roof. The flower baskets were in full bloom all along the main street, which made the village look fantastic on this mid summer day. I was rather amused to see that outside of the church was a set of stocks, a mediaeval way of dealing with miscreants. I wonder if they are still used?

Just beyond the church and I was pleased that it was early morning for I had to walk along a busy stretch of road that had no pavement. I was pleased that I could do this bit before the traffic really got going for the day. Just after this little bottleneck I headed off the road to begin the slow climb up onto the South Downs. I initially wandered past a group of small lakes (supporting a fairly large population of ducks) that made me wonder how they came to be? They looked like hammer ponds but are a bit off patch for this kind of activity (more associated with The Weald, some 25 miles or so away).Perhaps they were a drinking water supply to make the most of the many springs that emanate from the foot of the Downs?

I began the plod up through the trees to the top of the Downs, expecting the sort of climb that I am used to closer to Worthing. However, this proved not to be the case and it was more of a gentle amble through the tall beech grove that covered the side of the scarp slope. At the top of the hill I finally passed out of the shade and into the sun and soon realised that it was going to be a very warm day. By now the colours of the vegetation were also passing from the lush, early summer colours to the rather more tired late summer look.Butterflies and bees were making the most of the sunny conditions and visiting every flower available to stock up on food reserves.I saw this as a good opportunity to practice macro shots with my little camera. Despite being ostensibly a point and shoot camera, it can get some good close in shots of insects, although it can also be a slightly hit and miss activity.I was excited that the first opportunity was to get a picture of a fairly small spider preparing a hapless bumble bee for a sumptuous meal.

The path onwards was a section of the South Downs Way that I am very familiar with. However, in all the times I have completed the walk, I have never once followed the route in an East to West direction. It felt a little odd, and the views didn’t seem quite right! The South Downs Way is a bit of a motorway of local routes and it wasn’t long before I saw the first cyclists bombing towards me. Cycling the South Downs Way has become increasingly popular in recent years, and I have to confess that I almost did it that way during my latest completion in 2008.

At Sunwood Farm the path became a road as the South Downs Way briefly follows the access road to Ditcham Park School, a private school high up on the Downs that will be visited a little further along the route. Even the approach road along a line of copper beech trees is quite impressive. Just as I reached North Lodge, the traditional entrance to the estate I hooked right to find a footpath that passed around the perimeter.

After a bit longer along the South Downs Way I finally turned off at the small nature reserve at Coulter’s Dean. This little area of downland is noted for its wild flowers, hence it is protected. I didn’t really want to wade through the grassland just in case I squashed something important! I continued through the lovely beech forest, enjoying my solitude and the cool shade afforded by the trees.

At the far end of the wood I came out into a field with a stunning view across the Downs towards Chichester. It made me realise how extensive this part of the Downs actually is, for there is a whole section of land south of the chalk, which simply doesn’t exist further east. I soon rejoined the drive down towards Ditcham Park School, left earlier at North Lodge. I was immediately struck by the number of butterflies along the hedgerow at the side of the road; most were brown species and not the more colourful, but it was the sheer number that amazed me. I was fascinated by their comings and goings as I ambled along the road towards the school.

Even better was to follow at the school when I passed by a corner that I took to be the nature area. Reaching out over the fence was a large buddleia bush and it was populated by some very large and colourful butterflies. In the few minutes I stood and watched I saw Painted Ladies, Red Admirals and Small Tortoiseshells to name just a few. I was mesmerised! The school itself, a little further on, is obviously a country pile bought for the purpose. Apparently during World War II the old place served as a convalescent home for injured servicemen when it was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence.

As I headed obviously downhill towards the valley that I walked along in the previous leg of this route, I came upon the first ripe blackberries of the year – quite something for late July! Across the fields I could just make out another historic building – the old windmill high above the hill at Chalton. This is now a residence, having been saved from possible demolition by the local authority giving it listed status and a person having the foresight to turn it into an attractive home.

All the way down the slope into the valley of the railway (not sure if it has a name!) the sides of the path were buzzing with all manner of insects with hoverflies particularly numerous but also ladybirds, bees and many other species of butterfly, not all of which wanted to play ball with me on the picture taking front. However, I did get lots of practice all the way! Eventually I reached the bottom of the slope at Woodcroft Farm, where there was lots of activity from people getting ready to go out horse riding for the day. Having already been out for a couple of hours I really felt like I had a head start on them!

I crossed the railway via one of the old 1930s concrete footbridges that were provided by Southern Railway. I thought it a little out of place, being more in keeping with a station. However, I did notice a redundant platform by the side of the line, which I found rather odd. When I later looked this up, I discovered that it had been the halt provided for convalescing troops being treated at Ditcham Park. The halt only lasted a couple of the war years before becoming redundant and Woodcroft Halt as it was named closed for good. Presumably there was insufficient traffic for a more permanent stop, with the small village of Chalton a mile or so distant not being big enough to warrant a further stop on the line.

It was to Chalton that I headed next. This small village is a little gem, tucked away on the edge of East Hampshire. The Red Lion, a pub in the middle of the village is delightful and had a super set of hanging baskets on show. The church was strangely quiet for a Sunday morning, although I suspect I might have been too late for the morning service.

Having had a quick look at the village I retraced my steps back to Woodcroft Farm. I was now on the walk of my objective! I now followed the Sussex Border Path back from here to the top of Harting Down. Unlike the outward part of the walk, this section was almost exclusively woodland. This presented me with reward and annoyance. Reward in the number of butterflies that I saw and annoyance when I managed to take a couple of wrong turns on the way!

I did have a very magical moment through this section of the walk when I spotted a peacock butterfly recently emerged from its chrysalis and drying its wings while sitting on a blade of grass. Initially the wings were kept firmly shut and I almost dismissed it as another of its dowdy brown cousins such as I had seen earlier. I kept with it though, just in case it showed me something else. Then flash! When it opened its wings it provided the most dazzling and vibrant show of colour I have ever seen on a butterfly. It’s not a word I like or use very often but it was simply awesome!

A little further on from this wonderful sight and I found a hangout for a number of other types of butterfly especially red admirals with their vibrant black and red colours. These are my personal favourites, so it was fantastic to see so many fluttering around me! This encounter was the result of another wrong turn and correction, so I was glad that it happened this time!

I eventually emerged from the wood at Foxcombe Farm having picked my way down an unusually muddy and steep hill. The Farm boasted a huge farmhouse and its setting out in the rolling Downs must make the place quite a bolthole. I walked steadily uphill and crossed the part of the South Downs Way that I had walked along earlier keeping straight on and following the tarmac road down the scarp slope of the Downs. Occasionally I would get a peep through the tees at the surrounding countryside and caught a glimpse of a whole bunch of running deer along the side of a far off field on one occasion.

Eventually I reached the main road and I decided that the walk back along it to South Harting, although tempting in terms of short cut, was just too unpleasant to think about and so I crossed to walk around the base of Torberry Hill, the site of an Iron Age Hill Fort. The atmosphere of the hill fort was rather ruined by a scrambling competition that was going on at the time. Bike after bike buzzed past me with their annoying raspy sounding engines. I was glad eventually to get out of earshot at the north end of the hill, but I just swapped the annoyance of the trial bikes for more road walking.Fortunately it did not last too long and it was also mercifully much quieter than the Petersfield Road I had contemplated walking along. However, it was inevitable I would walk along some of it as there was no alternative from my position. Fortunately, the section I did do was mercifully short and I was soon reunited with the car, some 12 miles and 4 hours after I had started.

This was a hugely enjoyable circular walk around a part of the South Downs I knew little about except for the stretch of the South Downs Way I had previously walked. I was delighted by the butterflies and enjoyed the range of wild flowers I saw immensely. It was a relatively easy walk with long steady climbs rather than short steep ones (excepting a short steep one at Chalton). I was quite pleased to have completed the walk during a morning, but I wouldn’t mind betting that a summer evening would do just as well!

5 comments:

  1. Another very informative posting. Funny enough I have only ever walked the South Downs Way East to West.
    I cycled up and around Ditcham Park School just over a year ago....it is a really nice area and I have always enjoyed walking and cycling around there....

    -Trevor

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  2. Thanks Trevor! I am curious as to why you have only walked the SDW in that direction?

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  3. I used to live at Horndean....so starting the walk at Eastbourne and heading west made it seem as if I was walking home. Even finishing in Winchester meant that after the walk I could be back home quite quickly.

    -Trevor

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  4. I'm impressed you've already mananged to walk 4 sections of this path in a few weeks. I have only managed a paltry 2.6 miles since April!
    Our paths will soon be crossing as you head east and I head west.
    Sara Davies (daras)

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  5. Ah - that makes sense Trevor!

    Hello Sara - I have read your accounts with interest especially as you have covered ground I haven't yet! I have now completed a fifth section, which will shortly follow. It is a very pleasant walk & I am enjoying doing it as circular walks - not something I have done for a long distance path before

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