Thursday, 5 March 2015

Kingley Vale

Heading Out
As I get older I get increasingly intolerant of muddy walks and so during the winter months I try very hard to find areas that I can walk to minimise the amount I have to negotiate.  It’s been a few weeks since this walk took place now but we did find a beautiful Saturday morning to while away a few hours on the Downs before the next dumping of rain came.  We chose walk 2 in Pathfinder Guide volume 66 (West Sussex and the Downs).

Entering the Nature Reserve
It had been a few years since our last visit to Kingley Vale but I thought another trip would be good.  This is one of the largest and oldest yew forests left in Europe and some of the old trees are fascinating to look at on account of their gnarled trunks and huge spreads that leave the underneath of the tree cavernous in nature.

Into the Yew Forest
We arrived to find only a couple of spaces left in the car park and thanked our luck that we had decided to head over early.  The initial stages of the walk are pretty straightforward, along a nice clean flinty track.  The light on this particular morning was also very good and it was one of those winter days when it is a joy to be out of doors.  Eventually we reached the yew forest at the end of the track and it was pretty evident that this is a very popular place for walking judging by all the family groups and dogs that were out.

Reaching Out
At the entrance to the nature reserve is a little gazebo containing some displays on prehistoric people that lived in the area as well as the more usual material on geology and natural history.  The forest is merely a remnant of a much larger habitat that was once quite common on the South Downs but which is now quite rare.  Given that this is one of the largest areas left it is quite sobering how much has been lost, for this really is only a small tract of woodland occupying an otherwise attractive but otherwise useless bowl in the chalky downs.
Leaving The Woods

After perusing the displays and getting a sense of what we were looking at we headed along the path at the bottom of the valley through the main body of trees.  Each tree is almost a sculpture in itself, with gloriously crooked branches that twist their way outwards from huge lumpy and bumpy trunks.  Some of the trees are said to be more than 500 years old and one specimen in particular is rumoured to have been planted in the Viking times in the 9th Century.  Virtually nothing can grow under the canopies due to the darkness underneath.  For my girls this really fired their imaginations for it felt like we entered another world entirely full of mystery and intrigue.

View Across the Vale
Our path wound in an out of the trees and into more open areas where we could see the extent of the forest.  The colours of the trees were most interesting for they were not the uniform dark green that you might have expected but interspersed with other contrasting colours of yellows and browns, I assume the vestiges of autumn colours.

In the Dark Woods
Eventually we reached the end of the old stand of trees and our path took us up the hillside to our right past an old dewpond that I suspect doesn’t get a huge amount of use for livestock drinking any more.  However, a small habitat like this in an area of very little water must be invaluable for a different set of flora and fauna.  At the top of the slope we entered another yew woodland – this time much more densely packed and even darker as a result!  Before entering I did swing round to look at the view across the bowl in the Downs.  It looked quite magnificent on this January day.
Old Man's Beard

We plodded up through the trees to the top of the hill.  Most of the woodland had been drained of colour but little flashes of red were provided by the remnants of woody nightshade (bittersweet) berries and the burgundy shades of dogwood branches.  Even the odd bramble bush created some shades of purple and red on the dying leaves.  Thankfully the low winter sun highlighted all these colours in the landscape beautifully – this would have been a lot less enjoyable on a dull day.
Chichester Cathedral

As we reached the top of the slope we had an encounter with mud as the path along the top of the bowl was a quagmire – largely as a result of being churned up by horses.  As we got further round though the view more than made up for the underfoot conditions.  We could see across to the Isle of Wight, which seemed so close you could almost touch it.  Off to the east and the spire of Chichester Cathedral dominated the view along the coast. 

Tansley Stone
We made a small detour from the path at this point to a memorial called the Tansley Stone.  This is a memorial to the 20th Century ecologist Sir Arthur Tansley, whom was responsible for creating the nature reserve here at Kingley Vale.  I’m not sure if his ashes were scattered here but I cannot think of a more inspiring place to spend eternity…

Devil's Humps
Further along from the memorial stone are some resting places of a rather different nature – the four bronze age burial mounds known as the Devil’s Humps.  Two of the Humps are out into the open countryside away from the trees and these have particularly good views – perhaps even better than Sir Arthur’s!  I don’t know why but it seemed appropriate to climb to the top of each one to take in the 360 degree views.  Lots of other people were doing the same and as I stood there I imagined that a late summer’s evening picnic here would be absolutely perfect.

View From The Jumps
After enjoying the views for a time we headed off on our way again, descending down through more mixed woodland to meet the gazebo at the bottom of the hill once again.  From here we retraced our steps back to the car park to find it absolutely jammed by now – there were even cars stretched out along the adjacent road.  This hints at the popularity of this ancient place so beware if you decide to visit for yourself!  The walk itself was delightful and easy to see why it is so popular.  A mixture of history, unique nature and fabulous views means that you pack a lot into the 3.5 mile total distance.

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