Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Serpent Trail Section 4 Petworth and Fittleworth

Leconfield Hall

It’s been a long winter & regular readers of this blog must have wondered where I have got to.  Since the last outing on the Serpent Trail I have been thwarted by a combination of bad weather, lack of motivation and then a broken arm.  Now thankfully all these things seem to be behind me and I can think about the spring season and hopefully getting some mileage under my belt quite quickly.  It seemed appropriate to start out where I had left off last time and move on to the next stage of the Serpent Trail.

Shimmings Valley
This was the occasion of my birthday, giving me a bonus day during the week to go walking.  I always like going midweek since I rarely meet anyone else on my travels and can enjoy the trail that much more.  The Serpent Trail does a dog-leg around Petworth as it turns to head back westwards at Fittleworth.  This provided an opportunity to do a loop walk and allow extra time on the trail rather than wait for public transport.

I was a cloudy day at the beginning of my walk but there were definitely hints of sunshine and I got lucky for a brief spell as I headed through the town centre of Petworth.  Small but perfectly formed, Petworth is a delightful place still full of shops and with an air of affluence about it.  I soon realised though that most of the remaining shops are selling antiques, trinkets and tea/ cake.  It is certainly a place geared up for tourists and yet it has managed to retain its charm.

Breakfast with a View
I headed along the High Street and past the small cottage museum, set up in the same way that a past resident would have had it back in the day.  Sadly at this early time so despite clean boots still I was denied a snoop around.  Maybe next time?  The path headed out of town past houses full of character, with scarcely a bad looking one among them.  My moment of brief sunshine passed sadly and the clouds came back over for the time that I headed past the Catholic Church and out of town entirely.

Goanah Lodges
The path out of town was protected by a small turnstile.  When I first encountered it I wondered whether it would actually turn and to my amazement it did, very easily!  I walked along the back of some houses before turning to gaze across a small valley and the next mile of so of walking.  It looked green but when I got down into the valley I soon realised that the veneer of grass was disguising a significant mud problem.  I squelched my way across the field and up the hill opposite, finding it very tough going as I did so.  Despite the blue sky and hints of sunshine above I discovered that very little had changed terrain wise underfoot since my last outing in November!

Flexham Park
At the top I felt hot and bothered already and hoped to goodness that the remaining 12 miles of my walk wouldn’t be like that.  A group of horses were waiting for me at the top, looking rather bemused at a red and puffed out looking bloke with no food for them…

Bedham Church
For me though the views from this point were a decent reward for an early climb.  In fact it would be pretty much my only climb of the day surprisingly so perhaps it was good to get it out of the way so soon into the day.  The views back to Petworth were pretty special, with the church tower of Petworth Housedominating the scene.  Off in the distance were the brooding shadows of the South Downs, but perhaps what interested me more was the fact that if I looked way off into the distance in the other direction I could also see the North Downs, I am guessing somewhere near Guildford.  Having drunk in the views I headed into the woods, crossing first through Brinkshole Heath and then Flexham Park.  

In the first part of the woodland I passed a couple of unusual looking lodge houses.  When I looked them up on my return home I discovered that this was intended to be an eastern gateway to the Petworth Estate.  However, although the lodges were built the driveway across the valley to the main house never materialised.  One theory suggests that the valley to be crossed (the one I did) was just too fertile to be left uncultivated and so it remained as farmland.

Weather Vane
Between the two tracts of woodland was the rather busy road of Kingspit Lane.  It was a pretty unpleasant few hundred metres of walking and a glance at the map suggested that it could be unnecessary if only some of the forest tracks could become public rights of way.  I was most glad to leave the road and head down into Flexham Park.  By now the sun was making more of a concerted effort to shine and I soon had my outermost garment off and stowed away in the rucsac.  The path ahead was straight and true for quite awhile.  I find this slightly disconcerting as it gives an indication of how far you have to walk!  All through the woodland though the sun was shining off the sliver-grey trunks of the coppiced trees and there was definitely a bit more strength in the rays than we have been used to of late.

Fittleworth Wood
I eventually reached a road and turned to follow that for a bit.  Even though the tracks through the woods had been reasonably solid it was a relief not to have to battle the mud for a short while.  The road wound around the woodland for a few bends until I suddenly came upon the most astonishing sight.  Despite living less than 20 miles away from this spot I came upon a derelict and ruined church that I had never bfore heard of let alone visited.  Its location was slightly odd, down in a dell below the level of the road such that it would be very likely not seen by passing motorists.  I climbed down the slope to have a poke around the old place as it was completely open for inspection.

Fittleworth Church Gate
I discovered that this was Bedham Churchand when I looked its history up I found that Wikipedia described it thus “The small schoolhouse was built by local landowners and the Church of England to provide elementary education for children from the hamlet and surrounding area. Built in the style of a chapel it doubled up as the church on Sundays. The single room was divided by a curtain for infants and senior classes. At the end of the school week the chairs were turned to face the east and ink pots removed from the desks. In the 1930s services would be held there once or twice a month by the Rector of Fittleworth, with one of the local ladies playing the harmonium.”

Fittleworth Church
Whoever owns it now, some effort is going into ensuring that it doesn’t deteriorate any more.  The bell tower is being propped by a couple of RSJs and the walls look like they have had some work to maintain their integrity.  The roof is missing though, so any interior detail is no longer in situ.  All that remains is the dedication plaque, confirming the date of completion in 1860.

Fittleworth Daffodils

I pushed on, heading out of the woods and across a ploughed field that was luckily not to difficult to walk across.  At the other end I was greeted by a number of cut back trees that were sporting catkins.  I couldn’t help thinking that these were a bit late and that we should be seeing proper buds by now.  I passed a small farm that had obviously had a lot of money spent on it to change its purpose to residential units, possibly even holiday lets.  I found myself on another road just beyond and as I got there I spooked a couple of deer browsing by the side.  They ran off at astonishing speed leaving me a bit bewildered.  I turned off once again onto a track that rather resembled an old road, which of course is what it could well have been.  This led me down into the small village of Fittleworth, which I reached around noon.  
Hesworth Common

By now the sun was out and the day was turning out to be quite warm.  I was pleased that the sun had come out for there were sounds of playing children in the local school playground and even a lawnmower in the distance.  For me these were sounds that suggested that at least most of the long dark days of winter were behind us.  I pitched up at the church and found myself a nice sunny spot in which to have my lunch.  Sadly my boots were caked in mud and although I would have liked to, I thought better of going inside the church itself.

The Swan at Fittleworth
Once lunch was consumed I headed up onto Hesworth Common and found the second fantastic view of the day this time purely southwards along the line of the South Downs.  This is a place I had never previously been to and clearly I have missed out.  The path wound around the common down to Lower Fittleworthwhere I once again picked up the road I had crossed at the church.  I looked at the Swan pub, with its unusual pub sign straddling the road and thought how inviting it looked.  With a fully tummy though I smugly saw that it wasn’t serving food that day so my reason for going inside had been stymied on two counts!

Former Fittleworth Station
I headed south along the road, glad of the pavement that was provided.  I crossed the River Rother, very swollen and full of water despite the fact that most of the nearby fields were also flooded.  It did make me wonder whether my later route might need to be adjusted.  Further down the road and I crossed the former Pulborough to Midhurst railway line, now nothing more than a distant memory having closed as long ago as 1955.  Despite that Fittleworth station was still intact and lovingly restored as someone’s home.  Its distance from the village it served surely being a factor in the closure of the line though.

Sutton Common House
If I’m honest the next few miles were rather forgettable.  I turned off the road and headed across more common land.  This is probably not the best time of year to cross this kind of landscape. The heather was brown and grey, completely devoid in colour and there were surprisingly few gorse bushes to brighten up proceedings.  Added to that the sun had gone in once again and with it took all the colour out of the landscape.  What interesting features there were seemed to be provided mostly by bodies of water, from puddles to much larger lakes.  Each in turn showed off some great reflections, courtesy of the trees and bushes all around and the remarkably still conditions at ground level.  I also passed a small house with some very outsized chimneys at Sutton Common and guessed that maybe this was a school house once?

The last of the ponds I reached was Chingford Pond and by now the day had turned into a grey and bleak looking one.  Thoughts of pictures were few and far between as a result yet the walking was pleasant enough.  I crossed the dam at the end of the pond and headed through an area of very posh looking housing.  I am guessing they were granted planning permission to replace earlier buildings associated with the nearby Burton Park.  Somehow though this estate looked rather incongruous in the landscape – it surely would have suited a suburb of Horsham or Chichester rather than here.

Puddle Art
The path continued around the rather bleaker end of Burton Park, with glimpses of the main house some distance to the south.  Briefly I had joined forces with the West Sussex Literary Trail, surely a future project?  As I wandered up towards Duncton Common the clouds suddenly opened and for a few minutes I was confronted with a hail shower.  Yet, this seemed to encourage the clouds to part once again and the sun came back!  At Duncton Common I finally said goodbye to the Serpent Trail for today and headed along the A285 briefly back towards Petworth.  It was not a pleasant walk, especially as I approached Petworth Station, the next stop along the same line that I had crossed at Fittleworth.  This was even further from the place it was supposed to serve and looking at the road I cannot imagine many passengers wanting to make the long walk along it to catch the train when a bus would have surely been far easier.  Happily the station has survived and is now a very well appointed country house hotel with some of the accommodation provided in Pullman Carriages parked in where the platforms would once have been.

Petworth Station

I needn't have worried about changing my onward route into Petworth. I initially thought I might have to follow the main road but when I saw how scary a prospect this would be I headed along the track I had originally intended.  This provided a quiet and safe route back to the town and even had the extra feature of a well appointed footbridge across the River Rother, which rather defied my expectations of a wet walk!

Rother Bridge

I ended up back at Petworth around 3pm, approximately 5 hours after starting out.  Not too shabby considering I ambled a lot of the day and had a leisurely lunch.  It felt really good to be out and getting my legs working again.  Thankfully, weather willing, I shouldn’t have too long to wait until the next one. Certainly not 4 months + anyway!