Autumn has crept on and walks have been at a bit of a premium but we did find time to explore Brightling Park, somewhere I had been meaning to take a look around for a long time. We managed to find a bright sunny day without any obligations for our walk and picked it out of the East Sussex and the Downs book from the Pathfinder Guide Series (volume 67 walk 4)
Our walk started in a pocket car park on the edge of Brightling Forest. In the distance we saw the first of the buildings that we had come to look at; the so-called ‘observatory’, which is one of the many follies that are scattered throughout the park. Brightling Park was once owned by ‘Mad’ Jack Fuller, an eccentric politician and philanthropist who was the supporter and mentor of Michael Faraday in the early 1800s. During the time he owned the park he commissioned a number of follies and they all still stand today. Unfortunately the walk didn’t get any closer to the Observatory but this is now a private residence and perhaps serves the most useful function of all the remaining buildings.
Our walk initially took us through the woods of Brightling Forest, now reaching its autumn zenith in terms of colours. This is also the time of year where underfoot conditions always seem to be wet, no matter how nice the day is, and we were glad of our boots. After wandering along a forest break and then a rather narrow path we eventually came out into an open area with wide ranging views across the East Sussex Wealden landscape to the sea beyond. This is 1066 country – the land that was once conquered by William of Normandy and his band of adventurers in the 11th Century. The villages and towns in this area would have been the first to feel the force of the invading army. Now all seems so quiet that this tumultuous event in British history seems to be hard to place in this landscape.
|Fruits of the Season|
Closer to us the folly collection became apparent with the passing of a small summerhouse in the forest and then further off we could see The Temple. Alas it is only possible to get a distant view of this structure but it looks regal in the landscape even 200 years after it was built. Far from being a worshipping place though there are stories of all night parties, card games and general debauchery going on inside during Fuller’s lifetime.
Around the hill we were standing on was a small water channel and we made sure to stay on the outside of it as we passed around the small woodland contained within. My children were delighted to find some enormous mushrooms within the ditch – I told them they were parasols and we were lucky enough to find some at various stages of opening.
At the far end of the field we crossed through the woodland and on the other side we had the seemingly endless view to the north. I rarely come to this part of Sussex and had forgotten how beautiful the countryside is around this part of the Weald. Although no longer the impenetrable forest it once was the Weald is still pretty well dominated by woodland and the only breaks appeared to be small villages and churches that dot the landscape.
We met a fairly busy country lane and walked the short distance along it to reach Brightling Church. The church itself is pretty typical of those found in this part of Sussex, being fairly squat and with a castellated tower that probably acted as a lookout point. What is remarkable about the church though is the large pyramid that is housed in the front. This is the final resting place of John ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller, who built the mausoleum during his lifetime. Legend has it that he is sat bolt upright in a chair inside the pyramid, wearing best suit and top hat with a glass of claret in his hand waiting for dinner. Surrounding him is broken glass scattered across the floor of the tomb, designed to discourage the devil from taking his soul! My kids lapped this story up!
|Temple Close Up|
Across a couple of fields from the church and we arrived at a tower partially hidden by a clump of trees. This is said to have been built by Fuller as an observation tower for his newly acquired purchase of Bodiam Castle, located several miles away. Fuller apparently bought the castle to save it from demolition in the early 1800s.
|View to the Sea|
We climbed up the tower, which has had an observation deck installed inside. Sadly looking out over the landscape is not as easy as it would have been for Honest John (another of his nicknames), not least because of the trees which have grown up around the tower. The opportunity to climb up inside was very welcome though as well as quite surprising.
We headed downhill and back across the Brightling Road to follow a road down to the main house on the estate. I think there must have been a shooting event or something going on because this road was surprisingly busy and we had to step off to one side several times in order to keep out the way of the cars. When we got to the estate farm we were very relieved to leave the road behind us as stepping off every minute or so of walking was rather a trial.
Our onward route took us past the Temple once again, this time on the hill above us rather than below. Initially we followed the path across fields but eventually descended back into Brightling Forest crossing over some small iron stained streams as we did so. These streams gave us a clue about Jack Fuller’s wealth for he was also an industrialist who owned iron- making foundries when this part of Sussex was the centre of the UK iron industry.
|Brightling Church and Pyramid|
We trudged up through the forest finding more fungi in the ditches alongside our path. It also got increasingly mucky as we went along and in places it was pretty hard going through the mud. Eventually we came to the end of the forest track and had to make a minor detour away from the circuit in order to see the final folly of the day, known as the Sugarloaf. This curious structure is said to resemble the conical shape that sugar was sold in during the 18th Century.
As with all the other tales surrounding the follies this one is also rather colourful. During a gambling session in London Fuller is said to have laid a wager with friends that he could see Dallington Church from his house at the centre of Brightling Park. Upon his return he realised that such a view was impossible and he therefore erected the folly to ensure that he won the bet! The folly now looks rather strange in the landscape; just a curiosity from a time long ago. Amazingly though it wasn’t always this way as it was a two storey dwelling until the 1930s. I’m not sure how comfortable it was though as it looks scarcely big enough to live in.
|Tower Close Up|
By now the sun was going down rapidly and so we continued on our way. The last stretch of the walk wasn’t so good as again we had to walk along the road once again to get back to our car. In cleaner times this can be avoided by double backing through the forest and taking other tracks back to the car park. Having picked our way through the mud once though we were in no mood to do that again. Despite the nuisance of the road we did get some wide ranging views across to the South Downs near Lewes so it wasn’t all bad.
Despite its short length (4 miles) this was fascinating walk full of history and improbable tales from a very eccentric man, which appealed to the girls very much. The autumn landscape seemed particularly appealing for the walk too, somehow it lent some additional atmosphere to all the follies and helped tell the story. The views across the surrounding countryside are also magnificent – this truly packed a lot into a short length.