Monday, 23 September 2019

Cuckmere River and Norton Top from Alfriston

Alfriston High Street
One of the longest walks in volume 67 of the Pathfinder Guides East Sussex and the South Downs (number 26) but can't really be described as difficult even though it appears in the challenging section of the book.    Given that we were staying in Alfriston it would have been rude not to do the walk before we left.  I was accompanied on this particular walk by my wife. We had a later appointment in the day and so we decided that it would be an early morning so that we could complete it before lunchtime.  The day started out bright and sunny but there was a lot of wispy cloud around and we weren't sure whether it would last very long.  It was a joy going out early in the morning - there is something very special about the atmosphere of an English summer morning.  It's hard to define but there is a peace and tranquility that you can't quite put your finger on.  Whatever it is this morning was a great example of it.

Alfriston Church
We left Alfriston via the Tye and crossed the Cuckmere River.  The narrowness of the river is perhaps the main reason why this valley hasn't developed in quite the same way as the Ouse to the west or even the Adur  and Arun in West Sussex.  In Alfriston it is already so narrow that it is almost possible to jump across - bear in mind that we are less than five miles from the sea at this point.  I suspect in the past though there must have been some boat traffic otherwise why was the canalisation allowed further downstream at Exceat?  We crossed the river via the rather handsome bridge near the Tye and immediately turned right to head along the riverbank.  This was a nice steady introduction to  the walk with no hills or issues  with navigation to worry about.  We got to see wide ranging views of Lullington Heath to the east and plenty of swans preening and enjoying the early morning sunshine along the riverbank itself.

Swanning Around
We meandered along  for a couple of miles deep in conversation and before leaving the river behind to climb up the hill of High and Over.  Some  of my earliest memories are of this hill for we often used to have outings here when I was a child.  Later it would be the predominant view that we enjoyed at Whitsun Scout Camp  for it would be right opposite the field that we used.  I still have a special affinity for it even though I rarely visit these days - it's one of my favourites of all the hills in the South Downs.  From our approach the most distinctive feature of the hill is the white horse emblazoned on the northern slope.  This figure is not of as great antiquity as you might expect - it was cut less than 100 years ago in 1924 but it did replace a earlier one that first appeared in 1830.  Strangely the horse can only be viewed from this angle.  When we used to be at camp below the hill it was almost invisible.  We used to see a scar in the hill that we called the 'ghost' - more of an amorphous shape really but we convinced ourselves that it looked like the symbol of the Ghostbusters film.  I'm happy to report that it is still there too 😀.

White Horse
Having left the riverbank we made the slow climb to the top of High and Over.  It wasn't quite the slog of going up the side of the chalky scarp slope of the South Downs but it wasn't far off.  I was relieved to see that the path didn't go up the side of the road as suggested by the map but instead tracked alongside on the right side of the adjoining fence.  As we got to the top we headed slightly away from the road through a section of scrubland that hid the view from sight.  I was aware that this is one of the most famous views in Sussex so made a special effort to go down to the viewpoint, a spot I remember well as a kid.  It was a lot more overgrown than I remember and was pleased when eventually we got to the end and the view finally emerged.  To the south and you can see Cuckmere Haven way off in the distance complete with the ox bow lakes and canal cut that I discussed in the last blog entry.  To the south east is the expanse of Friston Forest, not looking nearly so big from up here as it feels when you walk through it.  The famous view though is to the north where you can see the meander of the Cuckmere that looks like it is undercutting the hill itself.  I have seen this view on calendars and in guidebooks galore and it is easy to see why - it is probably the highlight of the whole walk.

High and Over View
We retraced our steps along the path to the car park that most people use to get here.  It was empty today, being early morning on a weekday, but at the weekend it can get extremely busy.  We crossed the road and went slightly back down the hill on the other side of the road, crossing a stile and then heading left along a field boundary.  By now the cloud had thickened and what had been a nice sunny day had turned into an overcast one pretty quickly.  Our view had changed significantly as we headed along this field edge high above one of the dry valleys that the South Downs is famous for.  On the facing slope was the straight lines of the vines in the Rathfinny Farm Estate.  This has grown considerably since I last came by this area - I was really surprised at how extensive this vineyard had become.  Between the rows were lots of toiling workers tending the crops ahead of the autumn harvest in a few weeks time.  Judging by the size of the operation I imagine quite a few people are needed to keep things pruned and pests at bay.

Rathfinny Farm
What was to come was a slow almost imperceptible climb to the top of the South Downs that was almost a quarter circle in shape.  As with so many paths on the Downs it followed the contours of the hills perfectly and for much of its length it was enclosed by large hedgerows that were full of flowers and butterflies.  We  had noticed the plethora of butterflies this summer but along this path it wasn't painted ladies that we saw but adonis blues, peacocks and gatekeepers.  They mostly proved elusive to the camera, especially the adonis blues but there was an obliging gatekeeper and peacock.  Out to the right of us once we escaped the enclosed hedgerows was a view out across the ripening barley fields to the sight of the ferry leaving Newhaven for its four hour crossing to Dieppe.  This is a crossing we know well and in fact would be our destination a few days after we completed this walk.

Eventually we reached the top of the Downs at Bo Peep and our walk was to change character once again.  We stopped to admire the view but in truth it wasn't nearly as nice as it had been a few nights before when we had driven up here to do the same thing.  The clouds had really taken hold by this time and the outlook across the Weald before us was rather gloomier than either of us would have wanted.  That said it is a magnificent view - with a sweep of countryside from Uckfield in the north west to Hastings on the horizon in the east.  It is a spot you can spend ages at trying to pick out various landmarks from including even an observatory at Herstmonceux (see a previous walk for my visit there).

Morning Departure
We headed down the lane that leads up to Bo Peep - it's a quiet road and we saw no traffic for the short descent to the point where we could leave the tarmac and take a footpath down to the small spring-line village of Alciston.  Visitors to the South Downs may have noticed that most of the villages are at the foot of the Downs and not on top of the hills.  The practical reason for this is that chalk is permeable and therefore retains almost no water in its landscape.  Underneath the chalk is a layer of clay which is completely impermeable and the groundwater is forced out via springs all along the foot of the scarp slope.  For ancient settlers this meant that it was better for them to live where they had a regular fresh supply rather than go miles to find it.  Alciston is a small village but very typical of its type -  number of traditional styles including thatched cottages.  Sadly one feature it has lost is its village pub.  I always loved this pub and had been here many times but no more.  It has succumbed like so many others due to changing habits and not enough people coming to use it.

Moggy Minor
We pushed on around the church and headed over the fields to the next village of Berwick.  Shockingly this village also lost its pub only a few weeks ago too - two of the best pubs in this part of Sussex both gone and probably never to return.  It also means that this walk now has no pubs along its length and if you do it you'll need to plan accordingly.  The views along the fields between the villages are of the line of the Downs seemingly receding into the distance and the spire of Berwick Church further on.  We soon approached the church and found a conservation group tackling some of the overgrowth outside.  The church has recently been awarded a National Lottery grant to restore the paintings inside, which were commissioned by Bishop Bell from the so-called Bloomsbury Set of Quentin Bell, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Bell.  The church is currently closed as a result of these restorations.

Erstwhile Pub
We lingered briefly in the churchyard before moving on once again.  The character of the walk changed once again as we turned into the Cuckmere Valley once again to head across the ripening barley fields to complete the loop to Alfriston.  It wasn't long before we met the country lane that heads into the village, whhich was a lot busier than we expected.  Along the way was an unexpected sight - that of a crucifix.  While this is common to see in France and other European countries it is quite rare in Britain.  This one has just celebrated its centenary - it was erected in April 1919.  How the world has changed since then!

Heading On To Berwick
This is a longer walk than most from the Pathfinder Guides but not particularly challenging.  I wished I had tried it earlier because the lack of a church visit at Berwick or pubs en route have definitely diminished its appeal.  The views from High and Over and Bo Peep are both special but much of the rest of the walk feels more like filler - not a classic like the last hike from this general area of Sussex.  Maybe I'm being a little hard - on a day with sunshine and/ or more interesting clouds would probably transform it.


Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Friston Forest, The Seven Sisters and Cuckmere Haven

Cuckmere Meanders
This is one of the classic walks in Sussex and it would have been seriously remiss of us not to do it while staying in the Cuckmere Valley.  It is a walk that has pretty much everything - beautiful forest, dramatic cliffs, an unspoiled river valley and a rustic village.  It is another of those parts of Sussex of which I am particularly fond.  This walk can be found in volume 67 of the Pathfinder Guides East Sussex and The South Downs.  Doing this walk during the summer months is probably best done early morning or in the evening because parking at the Seven Sisters Country Park can be at a premium on a weekend day.  We were fortunate enough to be able to avoid the weekend and go quite early in the morning.

West Dean Church
From the car park we crossed the busy A259 - this has become monstrously busy and it isn't easy finding the best spot to cross.  It doesn't really matter whether you decide to park by the river or in the forest either as they both entail crossing this road.  Possibly easier first though as we found for the traffic was lighter early in the morning.  We walked up the small grassy slope to the gap in the wall at the top.  It certainly pays to look back at this point as the view towards the sea is one of the classic Sussex views.  The meander loops that are very evident in the valley are unnatural ox-bow lakes that were by-passed when a cut through was made.  I'm still not clear why this was done for the river is almost unnavigable along its entire length by all but the smallest of vessels.  When you see the oxbow lakes up close you realise how shallow they are in the absence of water feeding them from upstream.  There have been various proposals to re-instate the meander loops but they have so far come to nothing and as a result the landscape still looks pretty much the same as it has in my whole life.

Colourful Field
Once in the forest the surroundings could not be more different.  Almost instantly we lost the relatively modest height we had gained, this time down some steep steps into the small village of West Dean.  This little place has always exuded money but having not been here for a few years it somehow seemed more opulent than I ever remember.  I wonder how it would have looked one hundred years ago before the forest came into existence or it became so accessible by car?  I'll wager it was a forgotten backwater with most of the residents on very low disposable incomes.  The character of the village must have changed considerably when the forest was established in the 1950s.  I can remember as a child that most of the trees surrounding the village were once conifers but they have gradually been replaced by beech trees and it looks like a much more natural woodland these days as a result.

Friston Church
The church in West Dean is of particular note as it is Saxon in origin and as such is by far the oldest in the Cuckmere valley.  It is certainly worth taking a short detour off the advertised path to take a closer look.  It is surrounded by some flint buildings of genuine antiquity but showing signs of gentrification and renovation in recent years - the new looking mortar is a giveaway and they certainly cannot be described as rustic any longer.  Having taken a deserved look at the church we continued up the hill noting that cars seemed to be allowed up here but only if you had a key to the gate.  It seemed a little strange until we realised that not much further on were some cottages deep in the forest that probably once stood in open downland.  I'm not entirely sure I would like to live in such a location - it must be quite scary being surrounded by so many trees on a wild blustery night when the trees wave about and limbs break off.

Friston Pond
We kept right at the next path junction and walked a fairly lengthy section through the trees, dropping down into a valley and continuing straight on up the hill on the other side until we reached an area that we always referred to as The Gallops when I was a child.  I imagine that race horses must have trained here once upon a time.  I'm not sure if that is still true but what is undeniable is that seeing such an expanse of grassland after so much forest is quite surprising.  We skirted along one side of it and dropped down into the next dry valley where we had to take a dog-leg detour around Friston Place.  This 16th Century house was once owned by Sir Hartley Shawcross, Attorney General in the Attlee Government shortly after World War II.  He was the British representative in the Nuremburg Trials.  There are some nice glimpses of the house as you go around the perimeter wall - apparently the gardens open occasionally for charity if you want a closer look.

Departing Ferry
We climbed up and away from the house, crossing some pastures as we did so.  We came upon a sheep trapped in a thorny branch and once we had done so the hapless creature ran away at a rate of knots.  I caught sight of a beautiful field beyond, full of poppies and various yellow flowers and especially ragwort.  Perhaps they could have been considered weeds to anyone wanting to use the field for grazing but they did make for a colourful sight.  Sadly I couldn't get a very close look for it was beyond the private drive to Friston Place and I had to make do with my distant view.

Crowlink Cottages
We climbed up to the tiny village of Friston with its squat church and small pond at the heart.  Sadly the church is anything but peaceful these days as it is passed by the busy A259.  We crossed the road and I took a closer look at the pond which appears to have been taken over by a conservation group.  There is an observation platform and some interpretation boards and it looks like a habitat that is full of life.  Beyond the church and the landscape changed once again as we entered the Crowlink estate.  The forest was replaced by open downland full of grazing sheep.  Beyond them and we could see the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry leaving for the morning sailing.  It was a journey that we would be making ourselves not long after completing this walk.

View Across Seven Sisters
The path continues down through the beautiful Crowlink Estate all the way down to the cliff edge of a valley between two of the Seven Sisters.  Long time readers of this blog may well remember me coming this way on previous walks, notably when I completed the South Downs Way and then later the Sussex Coastal Walk.  For the first time though I would be walking in the opposite direction, so that the highest of the Sisters, Haven Brow, would be last.  We actually climbed Brass Point first and then in turn we went across Rough Brow, Short Brow and then Haven Brow.  

Closer Look
The views along the Seven Sisters are quite magnificent, for my money they are the finest chalk cliffs  in existence bar none and are far nicer than the more celebrated White Cliffs of Dover.  They appear to have caught the attention of Japanese and Chinese tourists and we passed several groups of them as we walked westwards.  They appear to have far too little fear of the height of the cliffs as many of them got far too close to the edge - we hollered at one group who were practically on the edge looking down.  They clearly have no understanding of how crumbly these cliffs are - we had visions of We lingered at the top of Haven Brow for some time admiring the view across the Cuckmere Estuary - it's rare I get to see it from this angle more's the pity as it is just as magnificent from this side as it is from the other side.

Cuckmere Estuary
The path doesn't go straight down the side of Haven Brow to the beach  below much to our relief.  A path as steep as that is a little hard on the knees.  Instead we headed inland on a much more gentle path that dropped down to the side of the river valley much more slowly.  It's a path that allows for the view to be extended for a much longer time and is definitely easier to negotiate!  At the bottom of the hill we joined the concrete road that once was the course of a tramway that took gravel from the beach to a station where the car park is that we used.  The line was open from 1930 to 1964.  The concrete road is a useful way for cyclists and all manner of non-powered transport to get to the beach, ideal for disabled people and people with pushchairs.  We didn't follow the road all the way back - at Foxhole the path takes the line of the South Downs Way up and over the small ridge to the right hand side.  We got a good view of the wildlife in the ox-bow lakes and especially a number of egrets that were busy fishing.  I wasn't sure that fish lived in this brackish water but I guess there must be plenty judging by the number of fishing birds.

As we returned to the car park there were plenty of visitors heading out for the day.  We felt a little smug knowing that we had already had the best of the weather and the countryside mostly to ourselves.  This is a fantastic walk and it is hard to believe that it packs in so much to its relatively modest 6 mile length.  I cannot recommend it highly enough if you find yourself in East Sussex.
Picnic at Exceat Barn