31 July 2009: Emsworth to Rowland’s Castle; 14 miles, 13 on path
Emsworth manages to keep some character despite the overbearing presence of Havant and Portsmouth to the west. You start where the coast road divides two little lagoons, before branching right at the Sussex Brewery pub, of which more later. From here, the path leads you out to a marina, keeping distinctive houses on stilts to your left. After a so-so crossing of the isthmus, you come out to the shoreline at Prinsted, and the Thorney Island loop begins.It’s a loop of three thirds. First, down the east coast of the island, views sweep high to Stoke Down (below) and Goodwood Racecourse; there were racegoers on my train today, and this most beautiful of racecourses will have been at its best. Further round are the channels of Chichester Harbour, busy with dinghies today, and the spire of Chichester Cathedral. I’ve always found it remarkable that this is the only ancient English cathedral visible from the sea. Thorney Island was a Battle of Britain airbase, and is now in the hands of the Army, and it’s rather disconcerting to be greeted by a remotely-manned guard tower at Great Deep. Here, you have to give your details before being allowed to proceed. The former settlement of West Thorney (on the east side of the island!) is not far away, its wonderful Norman church a good excuse for a break.
The island’s southern shore has views out to sea, the Isle of Wight rising beyond Hayling Island, before the northwards turn at Marker Point. From here, at first the hills above Portsmouth dominate, with their naval installations completing a military full house, until after passing out of MOD land, Emsworth’s pretty-looking wharf side comes to dominate. What a very good little start this has been; not typical of the path as a whole, perhaps, but the only opportunity to see a side of Sussex that would otherwise not be revealed.
The Sussex Brewery pub is far too good to miss retracing your steps a few yards back up the main road. Beer, food, sawdust floor all highly recommended, and they retained a traditional barmaid too. Afterwards, there’s a pretty little lane beside a stream before an underpass to the A27 and a broad field behind houses. Some suburban bits follow, before your first taste of woodland. Farm lanes bring you, through a neck of woodland, dramatically into the Stansted House ride. The house, former seat of the Earls of Bessborough is a mile away, in the wrong direction, so turn instead towards Rowlands Castle, a village with three pubs, hardware store, and an awful lot of money.
27 November 2009: Rowland’s Castle to Liss; 16 miles, 13 on path
A belated return. After crossing the railway, it’s a lovely start, past the hamlet of Finchdean and on up to Chalton Down. This little downland summit is an excellent all-round viewpoint, the route forward into the woods of West Harting Down being traceable to the right of Ditcham Park school, with other views to the Hampshire section of the South Downs Way and, behind you, back to the Solent. On the ascent the little scarp slope leading to Compton Down is notable too, beyond the tiny isolated chapel at Idsworth. Below Chalton Down, the eponymous village has its own church. I took my first break here, and enjoyed listening to organ practice. If my timings had been a little different I might well have enjoyed a pint or two at the impossibly cute half-timbered pub, just outside the churchyard. The rain started on exit and kept with me through the wooded section rising to the main downland ridge. With head down through a forest ride, I missed the right turn away to a footpath; the SBP website is perhaps a little misleading here, implying the existence of a non-existent fence. There were no troubles thereafter, but note that unusually the northern scarp is in two sections, the very grand Foxcombe Farm between them, and the South Downs Way intersected just before the final dip. The Petersfield – Chichester road runs below the Way, and I took its wide grass verge into South Harting, and lunch and drying out before a real fire at the Ship Inn (which may, alas, have closed).
After contouring below the hill fort on Torberry Hill, there’s a straggly road-and-field section until, just after a farm vehicle graveyard at Down Park Farm, the silver birch trees of West Heath Common come into view. This is one of the many Sussex heaths linked by the Serpent Trail, here coincident with the SBP; it will reappear frequently in the next two stages. The River Rother is crossed next. Don’t mistake this with the other Sussex Rother, which we will meet on the final SBP stage of all. The short winter dusk was drawing in as I headed north away from Durleighmarsh Farm into Durford wood, and I knew I would have to make good time to avoid use of head torch. I did, just, but regretted not having better light to enjoy the National Trust territory to my left. The SBP exits onto a minor road not far from the village of Hill Brow, where I had lunched on the Serpent Trail three years before. This time, however, it was a roadside walk in the dark, down to Liss and my train home.
12 February 2010: Hill Brow to Haslemere, 10 miles
Barbara joined me for this short stage, on a rather grey day in a chilly winter. Much of the section is coincident with the Serpent Trail, in particular the start through Rake Hanger, the middle section from our lunch pub to Liphook, and the finish over Marley Common. This meant I could anticipate highlights, though once I rather unfortunately over-promised.
I’d been looking forward to the return to Rake Hanger. Truth was though that it’s stark in winter; not without its own beauty, but one which needs to be sought out more. Barbara reckoned springtime would be glorious. After crossing the old A3, the path separates from the Serpent Trail and heads north, past the distinctive dome of White Eagle Lodge, the “mother lodge” of a meditative community. Open country lies to your left after crossing the railway, but in total distinction to the lodge it provides military training – you may hear firing. This is the Longmoor military range, and once it included its own full-sized rail network, so that soldiers might know how to comandeer rail transport while fighting overseas. Turning east, you pass the ‘equine hospital’ of Home Park before the Serpent Trail rejoins at Chapel Common.
I remember passing the Black Fox inn last time, when it was ill-timed for a break. It was the natural lunch stop today, and we were looking forward to it. And three well-kept ales, two from micros, would recommend it to drinkers. Our grilled sole did not live alas live up to website promise. A short shower and golf course trudge as we started out again didn’t lift spirits either. But the sun started to lift, Stanley Common is pleasantly wooded, and I promised Barbara the reward for the next climb would be the fine views – and the bench – I remembered from Linchmere Common on the Serpent Trail. I had not however realised that the SBP doesn’t go that way, so I earned myself a bit of a black mark. Another little rise took us to the day’s high point of 192m before the short drop down the escarpment to the main road, with fleeting glimpses of Black Down to the south-east, which we remembered from another of our walks together. The day ended as it had begun, with a short bus trip forming the link between walk and station.
23 April 2010: Haslemere to Rudgwick, 16 miles
Sometimes English weather does wonderful things. This was a perfect spring day, around 15 degrees with the lightest of cool breezes, and never a cloud in the sky. If there was a little haze, it served only soften the outlines of the Surrey Hills and South Downs, which the Path runs between for much of this walk. An exceptional day.
The initial task is to climb Black Down, the highest point of all Sussex. The route cheats a little and leaves the summit a little to the south, but I’d visited the high point before, on a stage of the Serpent Trail. In fact, neither route crosses the summit, which is tucked away in the woodland which covers the top; the best views are from the edges, and I enjoyed a short break at a bench which looked out towards the Downs beyond Petworth.Below the hill, a road is followed for a mile or so. Springtime flowers meant that this was much less of a trudge than I had feared. Beyond the A283, the route holds to a little ridge, with first the Surrey Hills to the north, then the South Downs to the south, being in clear view, and sometimes both. It’s a portion too where the border path truly lives up to its name; for long stretches, a little bank marks the boundary with Surrey, and it’s followed very closely. I took my picnic stop in a pretty patch of woodland. I’d thought of a diversion south to the pub at Plaistow, but I found it did no lunches alas, so I had made my plan to take advantage of the pub at the end, not the middle. And on a day like this, why not stay outdoors?
After lunch, wild garlic scented the air in little watery dells, before a descent to the River Lox and, a few yards further on, the site of the Wey & Arun canal. The canal here was a long way from restoration, although the Wey & Arun Canal Trust had that in mind. The Path is somewhat more nondescript beyond Alfold Bars, eventually crossing through the private Rikkyo school, of which I would tell you more were its website not in what I think is Japanese. Beyond here, the little ridge is regained, bringing the distant views of mid-morning once more.With time in hand, I spent a few moments exploring the entrance to Rudgwick’s old rail tunnel, just below the Path. The rail line, which closed in 1965, is now the Downs Link foot- and cycle-path. From the tunnel entrance, I could hear the beep-beep of reversing trucks, and back on the ridge the reason soon became obvious. Rudgwick was then home to an extensive brick works. This was something of a West Sussex industry once: the former works at Midhurst and Amberley can be seen on the Serpent Trail and the South Downs Way, with the latter the site of an industrial museum. Rudgwick’s works though were still then flourishing, and indeed had taken away so much of the hillside that the path has been moved away from the edge owing to risk; however, by 2014 the works had closed. Rudgwick’s church nestles picturesquely behind the King’s Head pub, and I chose the latter to splend a pleasant hour in the sunshine, with Harveys ale slipping easily down.
6 August 2010: Rudgwick to Gatwick, 17 miles
A stage with undoubted highlights but some lengthy ho-hum stretches in between, not helped by more miles on tarmac or concrete than is obvious from the map. Directional reassurance not needed from compass, flights from Gatwick being east-west markers more or less. Remarkably, Gatwick is not the blight one might expect, with a little manufactured valley hiding it from view until the very end.
Barely a mile from Rudgwick, the motif of the previous stage recurs, with the Surrey Hills in profile to the north, and the South Downs in the distance south. A little stretch past Monks Farm follows the path of Stane Street, the London-to-Chichester Roman Road, before an excellent view of Leith Hill, the highest ground in south-east England, from Wattlehurst Farm. So two good views and a Roman Road in the first half, which ends at the Royal Oak on Friday Street. By common consent this is one of the top real ale pubs in the country and, as they say, worth a detour, except that one does not need to: its outdoor tables are on the road of Friday Street itself, and hence one is drinking on the path proper. Food menu was a little limited, but with a bangers-and-mash sausage count of four, who needs choice?
Between the pub and the comfortable village of Rusper, little more than a mile further on, is the delightful Horsegills Wood, where one follows and then crosses a little stream that is in, for Sussex, something of a ravine. Rusper itself has (or at least had) a choice of three pubs, if the Royal Oak was too basic for you, a distinctive sandstone church, and a car dealer whose trailer had to be climbed over for it blocked the path. More particularly for the SBP, Rusper sits on a hill between the rivers Arun and Mole, the first flowing south and the second north, to the Thames, and hence the most significant watershed-crossing yet. The descent proper to the Mole begins at Russ Hill, where one has a clear view, should one want it, to Gatwick Airport, occupying the valley floor. Indeed around here the influence of the airport becomes all-consuming, with hotel development evident.
The village of Charlwood, at the bottom of the hill, is therefore something of a surprise, with a perfectly preserved little centre with once more the church at its heart. Do go inside: the fourteenth century wall paintings, uncovered in Victorian times after post-Reformation centuries below whitewash, are nationally important. Perhaps the most important thing about Charlwood is that it is still there, for it would be obliterated by a second Gatwick runway, a plan now back in contention. Finally, entry to Gatwick is alongside the diverted River Mole, following the airport’s northern boundary. The airport authorities have done a good job here: embankments either side mean there is a genuine sense of valley with flood meadow, as well as keeping the airport out of sight. However airport access finally intrudes a mile or so from the south terminal, and it’s a case of dodging roundabouts and the north terminal transit until the SBP swings north in subways. Rain, threatened all day, finally came on. Could I find a pedestrian way in to the airport station? Not without asking, twice, and ascending the wrong flight of stairs once.
12 November 2010: Gatwick to East Grinstead, 11 miles
Gatwick is left behind on some very humdrum stuff. It’s a relief to get to the woods beyond Copthorne Common, but the best stuff is undoubtedly the couple of miles out of Crawley Down. A drizzly morning became a very wet afternoon, but it didn’t matter.
You would think that, having finally found a way in to Gatwick Airport train station, I would find the way out again fairly easily. But no. On attempt three, I called back Barbara (who had joined me today) from wandering pointlessly down the shuttle platform, only to be shown the stairs at the end. They drop you almost adjacent to a Border Path sign – twisted to point the wrong way, so I twisted it back again, eager to reassert some sort of navigational authority. Over the railway line, field paths lead to a long stretch beside the motorway, not redeemed at all by being exactly on the course of the county boundary. The traffic of course is not the loudest thing, for you’re just a few feet from the flight path here, crossing immediately below it shortly before the 11th century church at Burstow. John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, was rector here for over thirty years; there’s an interesting account of a Flamsteed Society visit to the church here.
There are big empty fields to be crossed to Copthorne, before the first hints of woodland either side of the very busy A264. At a gate beyond Keeper’s Cottage in Birchen Wood, a notice incorrectly asserts that there is no right of way; this relates only to the track to the fishing pond. Beyond Home Farm, there is finally a decent view at last, across a Mole tributary towards Turners Hill. In the dip lies Rowfant House, which now combines wedding venue with home for the elderly. Shortly, the Path takes the trackbed of the old Three Bridges to East Grinstead rail line, now the Worth Way. The old rail line had two stations, one at Rowfant and the other at the only settlement of any size, Crawley Down, though this was named ‘Grange Road’ presumably to avoid confusion with the Crawley to the other side of Three Bridges. The village has a good supply of shops, and the decent pub, the Royal Oak bought its meat from the butcher opposite.
The Worth Way can take you direct to East Grinstead, but the Path keeps a more southerly course over by far the prettiest countryside of the day, in the catchment of the Medway. Although Mole and Medway both flow into the Thames, they do so some forty miles apart: and of course the Medway defines Kent more, perhaps, than any river defines any county. But we’re still in Sussex here. Looking back from just before Tilkhurst Farm, suddenly there’s no habitation to be seen, and it’s hard to think just how crowded is this corner of England. The Path heads back north to rejoin the Worth Way trackbed a mile-and-a-half from East Grinstead. This section was under threat of being turned into a ‘relief’ road in 2006, and who knows if the proposal will resurface. The Way leads directly to the station – though not many will now know that there were once two stations in one, with high level rail platforms supplementing those down below that are still in use.
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