Thursday, 27 November 2014

Firle Beacon and Charleston Farmhouse

Firle Village

Time this autumn has not been a great friend to me as I seem to have had precious little of it. I have had too few walks and too little time to write them up.  Hence with this one I am actually scrolling back almost two months to when the weather was warmer and there were still hints of summer temperatures in the air.  Actually if I was to pick a favourite time in the year for walking it would probably be late September and early October for conditions underfoot are nice and easy and the heat of summer days has passed.  So it was that I found myself with an afternoon to spare and some pretty decent weather that cried out for a Downland walk.  I have spent a lot of time on our local Downs this year so cast around for a walk on my old stomping ground around Lewes.

Firle Church
So it was that I alighted on Firle for a quick up the Downs along a bit, back down and close off the loop kind of a walk.  This walk is number 9 in the Pathfinder Guide Volume 67 (East Sussex and the South Downs).  Firle is one of those impossibly pretty villages that lie at the foot of the Downs and has been luckier than most in that it sits at the end of a cul de sac road that means that it has not been overrun with traffic but allowed to quietly exist without too much fanfare.  Of course it also helps that it is mostly owned by the Gage Family as part of an estate that has Firle Place at its heart.  It is rare to have a village like this in the 21st Century.

Firle Tower
I parked in the village car park on the edge of the village and walked along the main street to the church.  As I did so a vintage bus passed me dressed up as a wedding vehicle.  Sadly I didn’t catch it in time so wasn’t ready to take a snap as it went by.  When I arrived at the church at the far end of the village I paused for a while listening to the hymn singing from the wedding service inside and watched the clouds billowing and constantly changing shape on the wind above me.  A more idyllic moment it would hard to imagine.

At The Top Of The Ridge
Eventually I managed to pull myself away from the churchyard.  I was so distracted by the sights and sounds around me that I hadn’t remembered to look for the graves of the Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell, Quentin Bell and Duncan Grant who are all buried here.  Maybe I’ll have a look next time I come?

Firle Beacon Looking West
My onward path from Firle initially took me along the old coaching road from Lewes to Eastbourne that led along the foot of the Downs.  Although today this might seem a strange route, I believe that the road was routed this way to take advantage of the water supplies offered by the spring-line villages that line the foot of the Downs.  For thirsty horses I imagine this was a major consideration.  The Downs, for all their dry conditions, would have offered very little in terms of practicality or hospitality for weary travellers.

Firle Beacon Looking East
At the copse at the top of the hill the path took me up the steep scarp slope of the Downs, slowly at first but soon quite steep.  My views were restricted to the eastward side of the copse and every so often I would get a fright as one of the many pheasants that live here would suddenly fly up in front of me making a huge racket as they did so.  As I puffed my way to the top the farmers were madly trying to prepare their fields while the window of good weather lasted.  I enjoyed my good fortune of having a little free time to myself while I watched everything going on.

Firle Beacon Bottom
Eventually I made it to the top of the Downs.  I have to say that this is probably one of my favourite stretches of the South Downs, probably because it is so familiar and nostalgic for me.  By this time the clouds had also relented a bit and the sky was rather sunnier than it had been back in Firle.  Looking back across Lewes, the town where I grew up, was a picture perfect scene with crystal clear clarity in the air and scores of puffy white clouds decorating the sky.  These are walking conditions that I never tire of and I was in fact a little disappointed that I didn’t have longer to enjoy the view.

Winter Preparations

Being a Friday afternoon I largely had the place to myself although there was another couple of bods up by the trig point when I got there.  They were engrossed by their lunch though and didn’t pay me a second glance.  I drunk in the view instead – from the top of Firle Beacon it is possible to see much of East Sussex, from Hastings to Heathfield and Brighton.  Only the outer fringes towards Rye and north of the Wealden crest are out of sight.  To the south the towns of Newhaven and Seaford weren’t so easy to see because of the glare of the sun on the sea.

Maize to be Gathered
I wandered along the South Downs Way for a short time feeling like I was on top of the world and enjoying the views all around me.  Soon enough though I reached the point where my walk would take me back down the scarp slope to Tipton Farm.  At the foot of the Downs the last of the maize field were brimming with corn and looking like they really needed to be harvested.  As I walked from Tipton Farm to Charleston Farm I passed a woman with a pushchair, rather an incongruous sight in the depths of the couryside.  I soon twigged though that she was probably a visitor to Charleston Farmhouse, the residence of the Bloomsbury Set, and taking the baby out to get it to sleep.
Charleston Pond
Despite the lateness of the season and the fact that it was a Friday afternoon there were plenty of people around looking at Charleston Farmhouse.  The famous Bloomsbury Set, led by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant moved to the house in 1916 as they were inspired by the artistic possibilities all around them.  For their time they led very unconventional lives and continue to fascinate present day generations.  I have looked around the house before so didn’t do so this time but I was thankful for the presence of the cafĂ© and took advantage with a welcome cuppa.

Charleston Farmhouse
Feeling fortified my onward walk took me across the fields of the Firle Estate back to the village itself.  On the way I passed first the tower built for the gamekeeper of the Firle Estate (built in 1819) and then the huge house at the centre of the estate, Firle Place.  The gamekeeper used to use flags to signal his staff from the small castle like tower that he called home.  Nowadays the tower serves as a private residence and what an amazing place it must be to live in.

Firle Horse Trials
As I got closer to Firle Place I soon discovered that there was a lot of horsy activity as the participants in the forthcoming horse trials.  Although not much of a horse lover myself I have to confess that it looked like the ideal surroundings for such a show.  Lots of horse boxes were already gathered for the event due to take place that weekend.  I watched with some fascination as I crossed the event showground and had a good look at the house itself before moving on to the village.
Firle Place
By now the wedding had finished and all was quiet again in the village.  I grabbed some refreshment from the village shop (yes, it still has one!) and wandered back along the main street enjoying the sunshine picking out the dark blue/grey hues of the flints that most of the houses are built with.  This is a brilliant walk and manages to pack such a lot into its short five miles.  It is definitely going to go on the list of regulars!

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