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.


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