The South Downs National Park varies in landscape by the mile. Exposed flint-strewn hills, steep chalk escarpments, dense wooded slopes. My recent 24 mile walk took in all of that.
I would walk a route that I had walked before in sections but not all in one day. Recently I have been walking east, towards Steyning Bowl, Devil’s Dyke and Clayton Windmills; it was time to walk west again.
Leaving Storrington Village
I set off from Storrington, the busy and well equipped village in West Sussex. Crossing the high street noisy with leisure traffic you would be forgiven for not realising that just 1/2 a mile to the south the scene is very rural.
The boundary of the South Downs National Park crosses Greyfriars Lane and the lack of housing development is very noticeable from this point onwards. Cottages and farmhouses with colourful flower borders welcome you as you walk the peaceful lane.
Kithurst Hill rises above the end of the metalled lane, a steep path winds through the dense beech trees, leading the walker high away from village life. Limbs of trees creaked in the stiff breeze breathing life to the wooded path. After a steep climb I arrived on the South Downs Way trail, the trees no longer sheltering me from the environment.
The typical July weather kept many people away from the exposed Ridge, a strong breeze blew clouds of horizontal rain at everything in its path. The wildflowers danced excitedly in the gusts.
Walk West To Amberley
I walked west along the SDW towards Amberley, the distant radio masts of Glatting Beacon familiar landmarks, were shrouded in a blanket of low cloud. Hardy cyclists struggled to make headwind along the trail.
Along the South Downs Way trail wildflowers grow profusely, the British summer encouraging healthy growth. Sunshine and showers over the previous weeks made for an abundance of colour, now waving wildly in the wind.
The lack of blue sky got me thinking. I reduced my forward vision from many miles to a few feet, I stopped looking at the distant hills and instead looked immediately around me. Bees buzzed, insects hovered, the verges were teeming with life.
Rackham Hill offers views far and wide, over the Sussex villages of Amberley, Pulborough and as far as the North Downs of Surrey and Hampshire. The South Downs trail descends from Amberley Mount towards Downs Farm and then into Houghton.
I walked towards Amberley Station (located in Houghton), turning right immediately after the railway bridge and taking the path alongside the River Arun for a short while. This path then joins with the SDW a short distance before the steel footbridge that spans the mighty River Arun.
The breeze rushed through the reeds bending their stalks at a 45 degree angle, ripples blew across the waters of the Arun. It didn’t feel like July and I’ve walked here in calmer January days. I crossed the impressive footbridge, designed to withstand the winter floods that occur often.
Bury and Bignor
A pretty gate at the edge of the River Arun floodplain takes the walker towards the next ascent, the steady chalk track that leads to the busy A29 and Bury Hill. Gates in fields are not something we normally think about, other than open and close but this particular gateway looked picturesque, so I took a photo.
The A29 has to be crossed before you can continue walking along the South Downs Way over Bury Hill. As I walked upwards away from the Arun valley the sound of fast-moving traffic grew louder. The weather worsened but the colours and textures of the landscape still provided plenty of visual interest.
Wear shorts at your own peril!
Summer brings rapid plant growth and many of the side-trails and quiet footpaths were overgrown to a height of 6 – 7 feet with giant hogweed and stinging nettles. Great for insects and we should support farmers that allow wildflowers to grow unhindered.
Houghton Forest to Gumber Farm
I left the South Downs Way trail at Bury Hill and battled my way through the hogweed and nettles to intersect the Monarch’s Way path at the edge of Houghton Forest. The wooded path kept the worst of the rain off me and the strong breeze failed to penetrate the forest and ruffle any feathers.
Houghton Forest on any other summer’s day would be alive with dog walkers, families, mountain-bikers but not this day. I saw the back of one distance cyclist and then not another human for at least a few miles.
After a lonely but enjoyable walk through the trails of the forest I arrived at Gumber Corner, a meeting of several footpaths. From Gumber Corner I headed south-west along the impressive Stane Street, the Roman road that leads from London to Chichester.
I’ve walked this route several times and as I’ve said before, the wind always blows strong here. Today was no exception and the weather was showing no sign of relenting. Horizontal rain landed on my face as I imagined Roman soldiers marching this very same path.
Eartham Wood Lunchtime Walk
The rolling green fields and sweeping views at Gumber Farm end abruptly as Stane Street meets Eartham Wood. The tree line, like many managed forests begins instantly; open space to green canopy in a footstep.
The forest had that wonderful smell as trees and ferns breathed the moisture laden air. Evaporation and transpiration added to the water vapour in the air, giving that lovely forest fresh feeling.
I picked my favourite location for lunch, north towards Upwaltham Hill. There is a forest clearing with remains of felled trees amongst the carpet of wildflowers, makeshift seats for dining. Sitting under my umbrella, the light rain playing a tune on the fabric, I ate a simple lunch undisturbed.
With lunch eaten I left the wildflowers to nature and walked east now, towards Glatting Beacon. The radio masts still shrouded in low cloud as the relentless light rain continued to saturate the air.
Bignor Hill Sculptures
East of Glatting Beacon is the impressive Bignor Hill, a huge flint strewn landscape, now covered in crops. The South Downs Way is hard on the feet here, no soft grassy trail to walk. Underfoot is flint, millions of pieces of flint.
As I walked into the empty car park at Bignor Hill I saw the Rise of Northwood stone sculpture, a 2.5 tonne block of Portland stone. The stone will commemorate the “Rise of Northwood” forest project and the history behind the area.
The sculpture is moved to different locations during 2015 before finally being displayed at Northwood to watch over the growing new forest. It’s fantastic to read about replanting of forests, so if you can spare a moment follow the link above and learn more.
I stopped at the top of Bignor Hill by Toby’s Stone to admire the view east. It goes without saying the wind was blustery and still the rain came horizontally. The bonus was it kept the temperature low and so I didn’t suffer too much from the lack of shade.
Toby’s Stone is a memorial to Toby Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, the secretary of the Cowdray Hounds. A controversial memorial and occasionally subject to vandalism. It’s a lovely spot to stop and catch your breath though.
The growing crops change the colour of this landscape and where white specks of flint once showed, wheat was now turning from green to yellow. By winter time it will be white once more, not from snow or frost but from the millions of pieces of flint.
Bignor Hill is very open and exposed to the persistent wind but wildflowers still flourished in sheltered hedgerows and land not ploughed over and over.
Bury Hill to Storrington
I retraced my footsteps from Bury Hill, crossing the busy A29 once more and descending to the Arun valley and crossing the River Arun via the South Downs Way steel footbridge. Rather than walk towards Amberley Station I followed the SDW signs from the banks of the River Arun and crossed over the railway line, 1/2 mile to the north of the station.
I continued to follow the signposted SDW route via High Titten and Downs Farm back to the top of the chalk escarpment, from where I walked back to Storrington. The light rain now sporadic but the breeze still strong. I was looking forward to a nice cup of tea by this point in time.
My boots and walking trousers had finally let in water, the miles of wet grass and vegetation proving too much for the fabric after 20 or so miles. Some re-waterproofing will be needed before the next long walk in wet grass.
Route: Storrington to Eartham Wood and back.
Map of Walking Route
Distance: 24.5 miles (39.4 km)