‘A butterfly appears, a Red Admiral. It suns itself on a nearby ivy flower, wings opening and closing in the heat. I step too close and up it goes climbing high over a nearby ash until I catch one last sight of it silhouetted against the almost unreal blue of the sky. It vanishes and I am left alone on the coachroad path that leads out of Firle village.’
Length: 10 miles
Terrain: Downland, chalk path, village paths
Difficulty: Medium with the majority of the walk on flat, even ground.
This is one of my favourite routes in Sussex to walk. It covers a well known section of East Sussex while avoiding the busyness of the official south downs way route. Beginning with downland walking over lewes, it takes in expansive views, quiet village scenes and, in the last section, a beautiful chalk path known as the old coach road which trickles on towards Alfriston with the magnificent sweeping downs, a constant companion, always to your right.
The walk starts in the county town of East Sussex, Lewes though it can of course be done the other way. The easiest way up onto the downs from Lewes is to head to the end of Cliffe high street and take the small winding road opposite which clambers up a precipitous chalk scarp overlooking the town and ends at the golf club. About half way up you will be rewarded with a broad, sweeping view of the town, the castle, the south downs ridgeway behind and below, the Ouse, which flows alongside the A27 before meandering Southwards to Newhaven. When you reach the golf club you will see a stile and this takes out onto Southerham farm nature reserve.
As I walked out and onto the nature reserve, a kestrel hovered over the coombe, finely balanced on the rising thermals. Behind, the clouds hovered like cotton wool as the sun beat down on the dry grass. If you like to watch kestrels this is a good place to do so and you will be unlucky if you don’t see one during your ambles along this path. There is also a good chance you will see a pair of ravens around this area as they nest in the chalk cliffs close to the golf course and will often spend their days in the reserve. I managed to film one a few months ago and the footage can be seen here.
After about 500 yards the track splits in two and you can either follow it down into the valley and then up the other side to Mount Caburn or you can carry on forward eventually coming to the same position in a long arc and this is the way I took.
At the foot of Mount Caburn I carried on a path to Glynde whose start is marked by a stile that leads into a small spinney of ash and sycamore clinging to a steep bank that tumbles down to the valley. As you come through on the other side there is a bench offering rest and an excellent view of the downs flowing east, with Glynde village at the bottom and further on, Firle whose church can be seen rising above the dotted oaks of Firle Place. As I sat and watched, half a dozen wheatears were flitting amongst the crumbled chalk of the path, chittering excitedly and eyeing me from the fence poles. At my feet a partridge crept slowly past and disappeared into the wood’s edge and down in the coombe, somewhere amongst the trees, the unmistakable mewing keer of a buzzard echoed plaintively through the air. There are now over 300 pairs in Sussex, brought back from the brink by changing attitudes and pairs introduced from Dorset in the 1990’s.
After you follow this track down the valley you will come onto the road where you need to turn right and follow this before you reach the main part of the village (be careful here as there are not footpaths for a 100 yards). Glynde is a pleasant village, famous for it’s opera house built in 1934 by John Christie, yet unfortunately spoiled, as so many other are, by the busy road which carves it in two. The village has a railway station with links to Lewes and Brighton so it has the welcome aspect of making a handy starting or finishing point for walks.
Before you reach the end of Glynde village you will start to hear the roar of the A27 passing ahead, your destination is the quiet road directly opposite the junction and though this is an annoying and unavoidable interference you will be amazed at how quickly the sound of the traffic dies away once you cross and make your way up the opposite road. After about a quarter of a mile you will see a left turning leading to a farm which you need to take and from there it is a fairly straight line passing through pasture, field and barn to Firle village arriving at the entrance of Firle Park.
There is a gate next to the road that leads into Firle park and you should follow the track until you see another gate leading into the village on your right. Once through this is it a pleasant walk past a house with watercress growing in it’s garden stream before emerging onto the main village road by the village store. Firle is a beautiful village saved by no through road, and is an excellent half way point to relax and rest a while. There is a local pub called the Ram should you wish for food and beer.
Here I stopped in Firle church whose priest, Peter Owen-Jones, has just made a short television documentary on the South Downs recently broadcast by the BBC. I sat on one of the benches, drunk my tea and ate my sandwich and enjoyed all the peaceful sounds of a summer’s afternoon. Swallows were swooping near the belfry and in front of me two chalk hill blue butterflies flitted amongst the long grass.
As you leave Firle you are now on the ancient path called the old coach road. The track that day was blindingly white and seemed to slither over the landscape, stretching away from me like some great white snake. Soon Firle Beacon comes into full view with it’s peak billowing down to the floor like a great green unbroken wave. Here you have the chance to turn right if you wish to get some height and onto the downs.
As I made my way further I saw the wheat was being cut and the bales sitting plump and golden in the sun, while the sound of combustion engines at work blurred with the buzz of insects. I thought of the pre-machinery age and of how this scene would of looked many years ago. The mechanical drone of the tractor replaced by the soft ‘swish, swish, swish’ of the scythe, sweeping, arching and felling the grass. The reapers like ants picking across the ground, only pausing to wipe their brow with a hankerchief or to sharpen the blade with a wetstone. Gone too would be the bales, in their place the smaller, looser haycocks gathered with their tufted heads drying in the hot sun. I suppose it is the lack of men, women and children that you would notice most. Their movements, their laughter, their calls and cries now replaced by one man and his machine. No ten pint harvest bottle. No passing round of the warm brown ale and no tea brought punctually by the wives to enjoy under the shaded bough at the close of day. It would be another sight to see revisiting later in the year at ploughing time. I could imagine passing through one of the small hillside hangers, emerging to see the cold morning breaking gently onto the fields. The men would already be there and the horseman’s plaintive calls would come echoing across the valley.
The track now is easy to follow and leads directly to Alfriston winding all the way along the sweep the down that falls dramatically into Cuckmere haven. There is a tea room open in the summer months at a junction not long after you leave the village and for those interested in the Bloomsbury set, Charleston Farmhouse lies adjacent to the path and can be accessed via branching footpaths and also Berwick church, where the famous painted murals are. As you keep walking you will pass a varied and interesting landscape, passing isolated barns, houses, excellent downland views and, with the track thickly hemmed by hawthorn and many large ash trees, there is lots of bird life to listen to and see.
A welcome place to stop is the crossroad bench at the top of Alciston village, here is a circular bench with the distances of Alciston, Berwick and Alfriston etched into the wood and provides a sheltered place to rest.
When you leave here, keep walking for another mile and you will come to a house that marks the tip of Berwick village here you can either go left to explore the village or carry straight on through a sunken lane thickly hedged on either side for 200 yards (this can be very muddy in winter or after rainfall). From here you soon join the road that leads into Alfriston and as you gently descent into the village the slender, shingle spire of St Andrew’s and bricks tiles roofs of the houses can be seen in the distance.
When I reached Alfriston the quiet evening sky was pale blue and streaks of pinkish lemon cloud could be seen in the distance. I sat on the Tye (Old English teag meaning an enclosure), on one of the many benches that border the green. The church of St Andrew is also known as the ‘cathedral of the downs’ and stands on a slight mound between the village and the river Cuckmere. It is covered with beautiful snapped flint, cut, squared and laid in courses and was built in the fourteenth century presenting a prominent backdrop to the pretty timbered and tiled houses of the village. To it’s side lies a thatched house known as the ‘clergy house‘ and was the National trusts first acquisition in 1896.
The village itself is one of the prettiest in Sussex managing to retain it’s charm while also being a bustling and successful village commercially. There are three excellent pubs; The George Inn, Ye Olde Smuggler’s Inn and the Star Inn, a bookshop and number of cafes. When at length I rose and walked to the bus stop, a trio of Spitfire’s crawled across the dimming sky, the unforgettable sound of Merlin engines wafting over the village and I stood watching and listening before boarding the final bus home.
Here the walk ends and to get back to Lewes you can wait in the carpark for the ‘125’ Compass bus which runs from Eastbourne to Lewes. The routes and times can be checked here, they are not very regular so take care to plan your return and bring cash for the fare. This is a brilliant walk and if you require any further information please let me know.