The 64-mile Serpent Trail weaves a sinuous route between the surviving areas of heathland that once characterised much of northern Sussex. But the principal rationale for the trail’s name is not the S-shape made on the map; for these heaths are some of the last strongholds for Britain’s rare reptiles, including the very rare sand lizard and smooth snake, and the venomous adder.
The Serpent Trail was new when I walked it in 2005-06, having been inaugurated in April 2005 by the Sussex Wealden Greensand Heaths Project. A few months later, I was looking for a trail to walk after having finished the Chiltern Way, and had pretty much made up my mind to start the Greensand Way when I heard about this one, which conveniently ends where the Greensand Way starts in Haslemere.Walking the Serpent Trail also brings me close to countryside I was aware of when growing up on the West Sussex coast. But even to one who was once nearly a local, this isn’t a countryside that is known well. Although the A3 and London-to-Portsmouth railway touch the trail’s western side, and there’s plenty of money about in many of the towns and villages, this is an area that has stayed well clear of some of the more obtrusive developments of the last few decades.
Though not forestry. There are a lot of trees around, and thought many woods are of mixed stock, there are some ranks of uniform conifers too. At Lavington Plantation, trees were being cleared to restore heathland. What open heathland remains, however, is inspirational, little relics of a forgotten countryside, well worth maintaining, and well worth celebrating too, as this trail undoubtedly does.
Topologically, well over half the walk is in the valley of the River Rother, a tributary of the Arun. From Petersfield the walk runs east, soon crossing the river, then skirting south of Midhurst to Fittleworth, where the river is crossed once more. On the northern side, the river is more distant as the walk enters the foothills of the Low Weald after Petworth, now heading west. The walk turns sharp north-east (echoing the river) at Hill Brow, just before the old A3, now B class. It is then close to or alongside that road to Liphook, after which it turns south of Haslemere to the highest point of the walk (and all Sussex), Black Down (280m). A final northerly stretch takes you into Haslemere and the walk’s end, at the starting point of the Greensand Way on the town’s High Street.
The trail is almost entirely within West Sussex, though the first two miles are in Hampshire, it skirts the Hampshire border at Rake and Liphook, and finally enters Surrey for the last two miles into Haslemere.
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Towns and villages
Petersfield is a market town originally founded by the Norman invaders in the 11th century, not far from the source of the River Rother. Midhurst is famous for polo at Cowdray Park and the dramatic Cowdray Ruins, which provide perhaps the most atmospheric backdrop to any bus station in England. Fittleworth is a growing village, but Petworth to the north, not much bigger, has far more fame thanks to Petworth Park (now maintained by the National Trust), itself a result of a striking series of paintings by JMW Turner. After Petworth come villages of varying size – Tillington, Henley, Hill Brow and Rake – before the small town of Liphook. At Haslemere, you enter London’s southern stockbroker belt; but the town deceives, for its Mayor told me it is one of the most polarised towns in England: outlying estates with few jobs, wealthy homes where citizens commute daily to well-paid jobs in the City, and precious little in between.
Transport and accommodation
Fast train services on the on the London Waterloo to Portsmouth rail line call at Petersfield and Haslemere, and stopping trains serve Liphook. Pulborough, on the London Victoria to Chichester and Bognor line, is just over two miles from Fittleworth. You will see plenty of traces of, and hence regret the passing of, the former Petersfield – Midhurst – Pulborough branch; I can just remember its last freight services in the early 60s, waiting at the main line in Pulborough.
Bus services are about as conveniently placed as they could be, even by the relatively good standards of southern England. There are various routes from Petersfield to Midhurst, between them approx hourly, some passing through Nyewood. Midhurst, Petworth and Fittleworth are linked to Pulborough by an hourly bus which continues on to Worthing. The quickest way from London to Midhurst is to pick up the hourly Guildford to Midhurst bus over the road from Haslemere station; it also crosses the route at Marley Common and Henley. Liphook has various buses as well as the rail station. Finally, Cocking Causeway is served by the half-hourly Midhurst to Chichester service. (Services may be less regular on Sundays and bank holidays.)
There is plenty of accommodation, but some of it might be pricey, in all the towns and at some of the pubs listed below. Midhurst’s good bus services would make it simple to base there and do the walk in stages each day. In Fittleworth, The Swan, a former coaching inn, looks particularly impressive as you walk past. Most unusual accommodation is at the Old Railway Station at Petworth (not actually very close to Petworth – it’s by the Badgers pub, south of the Rother on the A285), where you can stay in either the station house or converted railway carriages.
This is a great area for pubs, many strategically situated half-way on my stages. (Note – following information was accurate in 2005-06.) The Keepers Arms at Trotton had a third world interior and served the best cottage pie ever, but it’s since been gastroed I hear. On the next stage, visit the Badgers, just after Duncton Common. The Horse Guards in Tillington and the Jolly Drover at Hill Brow are both good in very different ways, and I would have liked to have popped in to the Duke of Cumberland at Henley (picture 4) and the Black Fox just after Chapel Common. There is nothing directly on the Liphook – Haslemere stage, but I diverted down to the Red Lion at Fernhurst. Look out for the local Ballard’s beer, brewed at Nyewood.