The Wealdway was my project with my younger son, Adrian, 14 when we finished but 8 when we started, just as the South Downs Way was for his brother. Walking with a youngster makes logistics a whole lot more interesting, as there are long stretches with little accommodation or transport that would require a whole day’s commitment from a grown-up, or people willing to deliver / collect (as my wife Barbara did a few times).
Towns, villages and country
Gravesend is an unprepossessing start, and we did what many may have done before us, start from the A2 on the southern edge of the town rather than by the Thames. The only other town directly on the route is Tonbridge, one of the principal towns of Kent, though in Sussex the Way dips a toe into the edges of Uckfield and Hailsham before ending close to Eastbourne.
Though it won’t always feel like it – Adrian kept wondering why we didn’t meet more fellow walkers – the south-east is a crowded region and there are villages aplenty. At the northern end, some of them are a bit monotonous, as you’re in commuter country; but even here there are gems such as Luddesdown and West Peckham. Further south, villages such as Speldhurst have grown to be townlets, but Fordcombe and Withyham keep some of their character, and East Hoathly has regained quiet since it was bypassed. In the South Downs, both Wilmington and Jevington have much to commend them as well as an excellent pub each.
With hill systems and their intervening valleys crossed with regularity, there is plenty of variation in the countryside; for example below the scarp slope of the North Downs there are the sandy soils around Wrotham Heath. For me the highlight lies in the Weald proper. Here is Ashdown Forest, the best surviving open heathland in the south, and the first glimpse for Adrian of what it is like to walk on top of the world over broad rolling miles; it’s the true heart of the walk, with its views backwards and forwards to the two Downs ridges, an opportunity both for remembrance and anticipation.
Transport and accommodation
There’s good rail access to many parts of the walk. There are of course links from London to the major towns of Gravesend, Tonbridge and Eastbourne, mostly on lines radiating from the capital to the coast; since we walked it, Gravesend has trains on the HS1 high-speed line. Sole Street station is directly on the route. The stations at Borough Green (near Wrotham Heath), Ashurst (for Fordcombe), Buxted, Uckfield, Berwick (near Arlington) and Polegate (Folkington) are within two miles of the route; Eastbourne is not too far from the Beachy Head finish, and if you had the energy you could walk there down the hill by the South Downs Way. The Wealdway crosses over the Uckfield line near Buxted. Frequencies are never less than hourly in the week but always check before going anywhere by train on a Sunday.
We used, or been aware of, a variety of bus services. There’s a good Maidstone to Borough Green service along the A25 through Wrotham Heath, and another from Maidstone to Tonbridge by the A26, not far from the banks of the Medway. Fordcombe had (nervous to say does, for village routes are increasingly at the risk of cuts) a bus every two hours from Tonbridge to Edenbridge; we managed to miss one, only to step right on to the one bus a day from Fordcombe to Ashurst. Bidborough and Speldhurst have better Tonbridge services. If the train is no use for you at Buxted or Uckfield, the frequent Uckfield to Tunbridge Wells bus at Five Ash Green might be helpful. There’s another good route from Uckfield to Eastbourne, passing through East Hoathly and Horsebridge. The Cuckmere Community Bus is worth checking for the Cuckmere valley, there was an occasional service from Polegate to Wilmington, and there are loads of buses along the A259 near the finish. Beachy Head has a good summer service but little in the winter except on Sundays.
However there are significant blank patches to overcome. In particular, there’s practically no public transport in the North Downs stretch, nor in Ashdown Forest. In areas like these we relied on drop offs, a taxi, or overnight accommodation, in the former case the rambling old rectory at Trottiscliffe and the latter the smallholding of Paddocks in Chuck Hatch, neither seems any longer to provide it. There is a bunkhouse at Blackboys and a hostel at Beachy Head.