15 January 2011: East Grinstead to Ashurst, 12 miles
Like so often, a walk of two halves: hilly country in the morning, topped by the splendid old hill-fort of Dry Hill, and an afternoon riverside stroll in the company of the Medway and its border-hugging tributary, Kent Water. Cowden provided the lunch stop. The weather was in two halves too, with continual rain almost all morning, but none of the wet stuff after lunch.
Fittingly, East Grinstead town centre is in two halves too. London Road is prosaic, with the brand stores dominating, but there are some gems on the High Street, where a notable run of 14th century buildings remains. From here the path takes College Road north, over the town’s relief road, which uses the bed of the former rail line to Tunbridge Wells. There is nothing very notable about the relief road, other than it is named, without irony, ‘Beeching Way’, after the local resident who closed not only this railway but dozens of others, all in the name of the great car society. Soon, the path leaves tarmac, behind houses at first, then through Ashplats Wood before leaving West Sussex just north of the A264. You enter Surrey, not East Sussex; Kent is to be encountered next, so this is a day of four counties.
Field-crossings take you to the fifteenth century Old Surrey Hall, now split into various freeholds. Beyond here there is a succession of splendid views, first across a Kent Water tributary, then, having descended to its valley at Upper Stonehurst farm, of Dry Hill, followed by the Greensand hills across the Eden valley. Iron was known to have been worked at the fort in pre-Roman times, as indeed it would have been at many other sites in and around the Weald. Dry Hill also marks the intersection of the path with the Vanguard Way, a long-distance route from Croydon to Seaford. There was, as mentioned before, nothing dry about the weather, and I turned my concentration off for a while, gravitating too far south and taking the bridleway down to Scarletts instead of the footpath meandering more south-westerly. Tut tut indeed. Instead of staying on the road all the way to Cowden, I took another path (numbered 657 on waymarks), soon rejoining the path proper (number 658). This enters Cowden by way of the Tudor Waystrode Manor, a remarkable sight, for while clearly in excellent nick it appears to flout the normal laws of the horizontal. I spent lunch at the good Fountain Inn with my cousin Jim, who lives just south of the village. It’s always good to catch up, for we don’t see each other frequently.
The Kent Water is joined at a golf course just south of Cowden churchyard. The stream delineates the Kent – East Sussex boundary all the way from East Grinstead to the Medway, and the path slips from bank to bank to give a taste of each jurisdiction. There’s a tiny deviation so as to pass beneath the Uckfield – Oxted railway, and another just short of the Medway confluence. Joining the Medway beyond Willett’s Farm – ice cream from their own Friesians available in season, but not today perhaps – the path sticks to the Sussex bank until the A264, but Ashurst station is just over the Kent boundary.
25 February 2011: Ashurst to Wadhurst, 13 miles, 12 on path
A day that moves from the headwaters of the Medway into the sandstone of the High Weald. There are plenty of little ups and downs, amounting to 1500ft across the whole day – perhaps they felt more, as I used this day as an early-season fitness test.
This was cause of an unwanted hour on East Croydon station, due to some road user striking a bridge at Oxted and terminating my train. Thus I was not under way from Ashurst till noon: and with pub lunch closure at 2, could I cover the miles? So no ambling today. The Medway, and its Mottsmill stream tributary, are close by for the first three miles, and I recognised the floodplain from walking the Wealdway, intersected here, with Adrian five years earlier. The old rail line back to East Grinstead is now the Forest Way, and it was busy with cyclists today. Beyond Groombridge, the afore-mentioned Mottsmill stream makes for a very pretty side valley, first on a broad grass ride, then briefly into woods, and finally through the eponymous hamlet, homes dug out of terraces in a quite un-southern way. The ups and downs start in earnest here, leading, past the spring’s first snowdrops at Renby Grange, to the main-road hamlet of Boarshead, itself named for the pub, and a very decent establishment I found it too. Dead mobiles are nailed to a board by the front door: business men beware!
From Boarshead, the path now enters the sandstone country of the High Weald, which will dominate the next couple of stages. This is first most evident from the outcrop of Bowles Rocks, just off path to the north, which with Harrisons Rocks (just south of Groombridge) form virtually the only natural rock-climbing grounds of the south-east. On the next little plateau, turning right off an old road redolently named Danegate, the path dips down to more Medway-tributary headwaters, followed through a charmingly-scruffy piece of woodland into the open expanse of Eridge Old Park, a deer park with plenty of deer. Rock outcrops and then a herd of skyline deer – who would have thought it! The day’s summit comes at the Tunbridge Wells to Heathfield road, and in all honesty the scenic highlights have passed too, but it’s still all very pleasant and remote-feeling, until the very end where the first interpolations of commuter money make themselves felt. The railway line is crossed just south of Wadhurst station, which is a little off route; I had set myself an afternoon target too, of the 4.57, which after three attempts at making the ticket machine work I made with seconds to spare.
29 April 2011: Wadhurst to Hawkhurst, 15 miles, 14 on path
My alternative to the Royal Wedding, though Barbara, who had joined me, kept up a running commentary from her radio. Today’s highlight is Bewl Water, an artificial body of water but one that looks well in its surroundings, but there’s plenty of attractive Wealden countryside too.
Bravery needed at the start, as the right-of-way soon leads through a cottage back garden. In the first little woods, the buebells put on a splendid show, before undulations around the headwaters of the River Teise, a Medway tributary. The village of Cousely Wood sits on the ridge between these and the tributaries of the Bewl. Here, we waited a few moments between the village’s wedding-decked Old Vine pub, and rescued a couple of cyclists, hopelessly lost on the popular round-Bewl cycle ride. We pointed them along the footpath we were taking to Bewl Water – naughty really, but it seemed the right thing to do. The Water comes into view from this path, and very good it looks too. Some reservoirs can look like an imposition on the landscape, but not this one, even though the haze in the atmosphere means we don’t see it at its best. It was good too that, despite the recent drought, it was close to full, and hence without the tide-mark of rain depletion. Nearly a third of today’s walk is alongside the water’s edge, much of it attractively wooded, with ins and outs providing an ever-changing orientation. Around halfway is the visitor centre, with good quality cafe (just as well, as our sandwiches were still in the fridge), cycle hire centre (made a mental note), boat ride (ditto), and loads of things for kids (should have come here ten years ago).
Technically, the Path avoids both the visitor centre and the path across the dam, but I can’t imagine anyone takes the longer path along the access roads – we certainly didn’t. From the reservoir dam, Scotney Castle is in clear view – a victim should the dam break – before a short little rise comes out at the ridge village of Union Street. In the context of the path as a whole, this is a major ridge, separating the Medway catchment (flowing to the Thames) from the Rother catchment (to the Channel, at the path-end of Rye), and so equivalent to the Mole/Arun watershed at Rusper. A golf course has to be crossed before Devilsden Woods, and then another little rise takes us over the A21, and descending from here, we meet for the first time the Kent Ditch, which like the similarly-named Kent Water, encountered three stages ago, forms for many miles the county boundary, though not yet. With time in hand, we take a half-hour break in a little meadow just away from the main road. Soon we cross over the Ditch and into Kent for the penultimate time, orchards taking us to The Moor, where we leave the path and make our way into Hawkhurst for our night’s lodging at the Queen’s Inn, where travellers have been coming for 500 years. The Royal Wedding party is in full swing, both indoors and out, and no-one begrudges a good time.
30 April 2011: Hawkhurst to Bodiam, 5 miles, 4 on path
A convenient little mini-stage this, giving me just a single half day before the path proper ends in Rye. It’s one of the most attractive four miles on the path too.
Beyond East Heath oast house, a pretty path cuts down to a tributary and then up to the sprawling Conghurst Farm, before a gorgeous little stretch down to the Kent Ditch, which here is the boundary. We were surprised by the sound of gurgling water, so many smaller streams being dry. After a lane past a hop farm, there’s one more grassy rise before Bodiam Castle comes into view, across a vineyard. If you were designing a faux-mediaeval castle today, moated, square and resolute, this would be your template; it lacks nothing in familiarity, for it’s on the shortlist of location directors from here to Hollywood. And there’s a great way to get away too: steam train to Tenterden, on the Kent & East Sussex Railway.
2 September 2011: Bodiam to Rye, 19 miles, 15 on path
It had been quite fun getting away from Bodiam by steam train, but it wasn’t an option for the return; heritage railways run when they want to, and an early-September wasn’t on their schedule; in any case I’d have had to get a bus to Tenterden first. So a longer day beckoned, reaching Bodiam by foot from the station at Robertsbridge. This was no difficulty, staying close to the Rother, here no more than a broad stream, but later to be a much wider channel by the end of the day.
Leaving Bodiam, the SBP runs slightly uphill to the hamlet of Ewhurst Green before crossing the day’s sole patch of higher ground, courtesy of a Rother tributary, to the larger villages of Northiam and Beckley. That was half-way, roughly, for me, and with it pretty much the last of the habitation. The path ran back downhill now, soon joining the Rother’s riverbank. A few miles further on the river joins the Royal Military Canal at a former lock, and runs directly into Rye.
I had been in this well-loved small town a year or so previously, so had some idea of its geography; the town itself stands on a small patch of higher ground (50ft!) above the river, hence safe from the flood waters that would once have regularly flooded the marshes round here, as well as providing some defensive safeguard. The town is one of the ‘cinque ports’ in the first line of defence against a French invasion. Nowadays, visitors from far and wide are now welcomed, and the High Street is lined with bijou little shops and, happily for the walker, tea rooms too.