It has been a frustrating time since my birthday, with the odd opening in my calendar for walking dashed by the worst April conditions I can remember. Knowing that the next section of the Sussex Border Path was likely to be muddy, I decided that only the best weather would entice me out on to this part of the walk. Fortunately, last Sunday presented just such a day and I headed out very early to Rusper to carry on from where I had left off on that snowy day back in February.
It was just before 7am when I got going and the weather was picture perfect as I parked outside Rusper church. The village was deserted but within seconds of getting my boots on a large and posh looking car drew up with a couple of foreign tourists asking me where they might find a coffee shop! Being deepest rural Sussex I did think they would be out of luck this early on a Sunday morning so I pointed them to Horsham as being the nearest place that might offer something.
Last time out on this walk I had hoped to include Rusper but hadn’t managed to on account of the fading light. My first priority therefore was to complete the short loop by the Royal Oak at Friday Street. I found a path at the south end of the village and headed that direction. This was across open fields and conditions weren’t as bad as I had previously feared. Given the early morning the sunlight wasn’t strong enough quite yet to burn off the mist and this part of the walk was characterised by the swirling patterns created as a result.
After about half an hour I passed by the Royal Oak, where I had left off last time and joined the official route back to Rusper. I soon realised that my outward journey was not going to be typical of the conditions I was likely to encounter today. Almost immediately the way forward through the woods turned into a mud bath, making walking conditions extremely difficult. The woodland floor was still carpeted with bluebells in places, while ramsons (also known as wild garlic) were also very much in evidence. Colonies of these plants generally denote ancient woodlands, and given the steep sides of the valley running through the wood it is easy to imagine this area never having lost its tree cover.
Eventually I left the woodland behind and for a time I lost the sun completely as the mist had gathered together into large clouds. It was a strange looking phenomenon and disappeared almost entirely within minutes to be replaced by blue skies once again by the time I got back to Rusper church. I crossed the road and headed off across fields, squelching through the mud as I went. As I headed off towards Charlwood, the roar of the planes taking off from Gatwick became ever louder as I approached the airport.
Another woodland section of walk soon beckoned and while I did appreciate the bird song and the freshly sprouting leaves it was difficult to give these my full attention as I slithered my way along the muddy paths. In fact, how I kept my feet was a miracle in itself. The only near miss I had in terms of going completely over was when I had a brief encounter with a deer as it scarpered away at top speed when it heard me coming. The bird song was quite insistent in the trees, like a chaotic woodwind section of an orchestra. A distant woodpecker did his part too, knocking some percussive beat every so often. I cursed the mud, for above me everything was great now that the day was properly getting underway.
Eventually I had a brief respite from the mud when a short section of road walking was thrown into the mix. I passed a substantial house, built with a very striking looking tower, and then headed over a stile to be met by what I can only describe as a swamp. That should have told me not to bother proceeding across the field ahead, for the whole field was completely waterlogged and wandering across was a complete nightmare. I got spooked halfway across when I saw some large flightless birds wandering across the field towards me. They weren’t ostriches – perhaps rheas or emus? It was difficult to tell and I gave them a wide berth as I had no desire to be pecked either as a result of inquisitiveness or annoyance! I think they were probably put there to fend off would be sheep rustlers – they certainly would have made me think twice about taking one of the sheep out of the same field!
I had a bit of a hard time figuring out the line of the path across these fields and started heading off in the wrong direction. Fortunately a distant farm hand pointed me in the right direction and I soon picked up the rather sparse signage once again. I came out of the field by a large hotel, a rather ugly looking place from the angle I was looking from. The entrance suggested a rather better looking building from the front view and there was a large coach load of tourists ready to head off, suggesting that it caters for a certain clientele? In this area of low hills, it did look to have something of a view across to the airport in the distance and I could just about see the planes actually taking off.
The path followed the road for a short while before heading off across fields for the last leg into Charlwood. I decided to stick with the road since I was very interested to take a look at Lowfield Heath windmill. This old post mill wasn’t originally sited here, but was in the way of Gatwick Airport a little to the south. It was moved in 1987, nearly 250 years after it was built in its original location. The rest of the village wasn’t so lucky – it was demolished to make way for hangars and warehouses associated with the airport.
It was still pretty early when I got to the windmill and the volunteers were just rolling up for their big day ahead. It was National Mills Day and they were expecting quite a few visitors later on to help them celebrate. I was allowed exclusive access to look around, which was very much appreciated. The mill had been newly painted outside with some new sails also fixed on. The mill looked radiant in the early morning sunshine. It was well worth the detour to take a closer look!
A little further on and I came upon the church of St Nicholas at the southern edge of the village of Charlwood. Somewhere along the way I had edged into Surrey again – the village of Charlwood being in Surrey but originally intended for West Sussex when local government reorganisation took place in 1974. The church was Norman but apparently had been enlarged significantly during the Fifteenth Century. Because of my extremely muddy boots I didn’t venture inside but admired the very old looking yew trees in the churchyard and even spotted my first orange tip butterfly of the spring. Sadly it was too shy for a decent photo as usual (never managed a good shot of one).
I pushed on into the village and was relieved to find that the local shop was open for by now I was parched and the weather was getting really quite hot. I grabbed a cold one and ended my section on the official part of the path here. For now I just had to find my way back to Rusper across the fields. My path out of Charlwood wasn’t great as I headed south past the end of the Gatwick runway. More extreme mud and I had a double dose when I dropped the map and didn’t discover it for half a mile. How I cursed!
The path across the end of the Gatwick Airport runway was most strange. Every couple of minutes the huge jets thundered down the runway and took off so close that I almost felt as if I could touch them! A few of the newer and quieter jets seemed to need a lot less run up than the older ones and they took off at a much steeper angle it seemed. It was a noisy but fascinating path. At the other end of the field a plane spotter was busy recording the various aircraft taking off and jotting down notes in his book. He was too intent with what he was doing to be interested in me.
Beyond the end of the field the path entered an enclosed section between woodland and field, fenced on both sides. All was well initially but within a coupe of hundred metres the path was completely covered with water. At this point I had Hobson’s choice – either walk through and get wet feet; or turn back and walk the mile or so back to Charlwood. I did get wet feet, but that was the end for me – I had had enough of such awful walking conditions and set myself a new route back to Rusper entirely along roads. It wasn’t the pleasantest walking I have ever done, but I did save some time and more importantly my feet started to dry out on the way back. Most drivers gave me a wide berth, which was ok but there were one or two that were driving way too fast. I tried not to let it get to me, but I will probably let the conditions dry out considerably before I try any more of the Border Path in this part of Sussex! The scenery was lovely and the air conditions were lovely but I’m afraid that the underfoot conditions really spoiled it for me :(
For more pictures from this walk please see My Flickr site