While it’s usually a good policy to have a rough idea about where you’re going when setting out for a walk, a little bit of improvisation can on occasion be a very good thing indeed. So it proved a few weeks ago when I set off for a walk on the South Downs with a sizeable posse of friends out on day-release from the Big Smoke.
When staying down in Sussex, I usually try to organise a sociable Downland peregrination or two and I had a rough route planned for this particular Saturday in early-March. However, one late arrival (always leave yourself a whole hour for buying a ticket at Victoria!) and the later connecting train from Lewes failing to stop at Southease meant a bit of ad-libbing was required. Over the years, my loose Cabal of friends and associates seem to have settled into the expectation that all they have to do is turn up and I’ll lead them up hill and down coombe on a seamless meander through the Sussex Downland with never a pause for orientation or consultation of a map. This is actually an entirely reasonable expectation as I know the paths, bridleways and byways of the eastern Downs like the back of my proverbial, having grown up in the shadow of the Downs at Newhaven – the Gateway to Europe – as the road sign on the way into town used to announce.
From an early age I discovered that walking was a good way of getting out of Newhaven – and this I tried to do at every available opportunity until I was able to do so definitively. As Lou Reed says:
When you’re growing up in a small town
You know you’ll grow down in a small town
There is only one good use for a small town
You hate it and you’ll know you have to leave
Newhaven is actually a fairly blameless sort of place really and it is rather wonderfully situated on the channel coast at the mouth of the Ouse Valley, surrounded by ramparts of rolling Downland. However, the town’s fortunes have been undermined by some fairly poor planning decisions over the years. The first major catastrophe visited on the town was the construction of a ring-road bypass around the town centre in the mid-1970s that effectively cut-off High Street shops from passing trade, thereby strangling otherwise thriving local businesses. More recently, one of Newhaven’s real assets – the lovely west beach – has been closed to the public as the site’s French owner – Newhaven Port and Properties – has deemed the sea wall unsafe, but seems unprepared to do the obvious. The town is also the beneficiary of an enormous waste incinerator being built on the harbour’s east quay, which will take in 210,000 tonnes of East Sussex’s solid municipal waste per annum. Poor, luckless old Newhaven also provided the setting for Thomas Clay’s grim rape and drugs and anomie feature The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, which outraged audiences at Cannes in 2005.
Anyway, the delayed arrival of Nigel – victim of Victoria Station’s serpentine ticket office queues and non-functioning ticket machines – provided the opportunity for the rest of us to enjoy coffee and cake at Lewes station’s Runaway cafe. When he eventually arrived, we boarded the next Seaford service only to find it wasn’t stopping at Southease – from where I’d originally planned for our walk to begin. Bishopstone, the stop before Seaford, is always a great place to start a walk so we stayed on as the train clickity-clacked along the Ouse Valley, skirting the east bank of the eponymous river into which Virginia Woolf stepped – her pockets full of stones – nearly 70 years ago. The train passed through Newhaven – Gateway to Europe! – and as we passed the rather low-key ferry port I pointed out to the assembled company that Ho Chi Minh had once worked as a pastry chef on the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry before going on to his illustrious career as a murderous totalitarian despot.
On a stretch of raised embankment our train passed around the sweep of bay between Newhaven and Seaford known as Tidemills before arriving at Bishopstone station, where we alighted. The station, which has a certain abandoned, decrepit charm, sits above a caravan park where several Cross of St. George flags flutter ostentatiously atop their not-very-mobile homes, creating the impression of a military encampment; though less like the bridgehead of a conquering force than a vanquished army awaiting rescue by a Dunkirk-esque flotilla of ‘little ships’.
Leaving the station, which is situated in the 1960s bungalow-world part of Bishopstone, we crossed the A259 coast road and walked across fields to the old village of Bishopstone. This is a very beautful settlement of houses, cottages and barns many of which are built in the Sussex flint and lime-mortar vernacular. Here also is St. Andrews, a very fine 12th century Norman church, which is built on the remnants of a Saxon church dating from the 8th century, which likely makes it the oldest church in Sussex. Bishopstone is the site of an early Saxon settlement, which was established in the early-5th century after the Roman withdrawal. To the east of the village is Rookery Hill with the ditch and dyke earthworks of the original Saxon settlement clearly visible on the hilltop above the eponymous rookery. The indigenous corvids wheel and caw raucously around their tree-top manor as if they own the place, which of course they do.
We paid a visit to St. Andrews and as luck would have it a couple of local ladies were in the church for some flower arranging and one of them gave us an informative tour of the church, describing architectural and historical points of interest.
Continuing on our way, we left Bishopstone on a footpath heading north-east towards the main ridge of the Downs running between the Ouse and Cuckmere valleys. After a long gradual climb, with fine views down to the English Channel, we crossed The Comp bridleway, which runs from High and Over Hill – between Seaford and Alfriston – and Bopeep on the main ridge of the Downs. We continued north-east, descending into a valley before climbing very gradually again to the main ridge east of Bopeep. A number of craters in the chalk hillsides were visible running south from the ridge towards the sea. I had wondered if they were small quarries as chalk was once used for fertilising arable land hereabouts. However, the venerable Leon Parsons, who worked on the land here during and after the last war, tells me that they were caused by a German bomber dropping its ordnance on the way back to France, having failed to bomb London. A full payload would slow bombers down as they returned to base, making them vulnerable to attack by patrolling fighters. Furthermore, crash-landing with your bombs still on board wouldn’t do much for your chances.
Gaining the ridge, we turned east and walked along and then down to Alfriston, enjoying fine views of the Weald to the north, the Channel to the south and the Cuckmere Valley with Windover Hill beyond to the east. Alfriston is a chocolate-box pretty English village par-excellence, beloved of publications such as This England magazine. It is actually a real place however, where people live and work and the village does have a life beyond servicing its many visitors. Alfriston is very strategically located as far as walkers and mountain-bikers are concerned and the post office/shop sells very excellent pasties and cakes.
Stocked up with comestibles, we made for the green next to St. Andrews Alfriston – the Cathedral of the Downs – as Nigel insisted it is known. I’ve never heard that one myself, but then I’m no Downland churchophile. Or at least I thought I wasn’t. After pasties etc. were dispatched. I formed up the squad (ten of us in total) and prepared to move out. However, certain fifth-columnists insisted on visiting the Cathedral of the Downs first. ‘Don’t blame me if you all get back to the Great Wen at midnight’ – I harumphed to myself, as the entire group slunk off in dribs and drabs to this rather unnecessarily large and unprepossessing House of the Lord. I soon found myself alone, so there was nothing for it other than to slink churchwards myself.
I really love leading these Downland walks if truth be told; I’m sure it fulfils some inherited need on my part. My father was an RSM – a regimental sergeant-major – for part of his army career, so I wonder if that’s where my bossy streak comes from. Unfortunately for me, my innate bossiness isn’t bolstered by a natural authority or commanding physical presence. So I try to be subtle about it, but I don’t think I’m fooling anyone really. Despite my attempts to stay in charge out on these walks, the whiff of mutiny from the ranks is ever-present.
A theme seemed to the walk seemed to be emerging, so once I had the deserters back in line, I marched them off to nearby Lullington church – also known as the Church of the Good Shepherd. Lullington church is thought to be the smallest in England. Indeed, this tiny little place of worship is only five metres-square and seats just fourteen souls. It was built from the remains of the chancel of an earlier church destroyed by fire around the time of Oliver Cromwell. The actor and novelist, Dirk Bogarde lived at the Old Rectory in Lullington and he wrote about the Church of the Good Shepherd in his first book A Postillion Struck by Lightning. The Church of the Good Shepherd is also the subject of British Sea Power’s song The Smallest Church in Sussex, which was recorded using the church’s own harmonium.
The gang were suitably impressed by this neat little ecclesiastical edifice and so condescended to pose for a group photograph in front of the Good Shepherd. It occurred to me that my present role wasn’t entirely unlike that of those crook-wielding rustics. No sooner had this notion suggested itself than one of the flock immediately went astray. We’d already yomped a good few miles and on leaving Lullington behind, Giulia’s knee went a bit wobbly at the prospect of Windover Hill looming ahead. It seemed prudent to send her by the shortest possible route to St. Mary and St. Peter at Wilmington – our fourth Downland church of the day – while the rest of the party did a quick circumnavigation of the Long Man of Wilmington. A minor road crossed our route, providing a short cut for Giulia and her knee, while the rest of us scaled one of the finest hills in all Sussex. We had great views all around as we crossed over the top of Windover hill before dropping down to a bridlepath running through woodland between Folkington and Wilmington. Several rather wilful members of the group had forged ahead imagining that they knew which way to go. At leisure, I called them back to the one true path and we continued on our way to Wilmington under the sentinel gaze of the Long Man.
No-one is sure how old the Long Man is, the earliest record dates to 1710, but it is possible that he is much older. Many Sussex people believe that he is of prehistoric provenance, while others are convinced that he was created by a monk from Wilmington Priory between the 11th and 15th centuries. Roman coins from the 4th century depict a similar figure and resemblances to a helmeted figure on Anglo-Saxon ornaments have also been noted. Personally I like to think that he’s a neolithic rambler with his nordic walking poles advertising the healthy benefits of fresh air and exercise among the Downs to any stone-age folk living out on the Sussex Weald.
Soon we arrived at Wilmington and walking up the steps into the churchyard of St. Mary and St. Peter. This is another fine flint and lime-mortar Downland church and pre-dates the Norman Conquest having been established in the early-11th century. The Benedictine Priory immediately to the south of the church, which was once connected by a cloistered walk, was founded around AD1100. St. Mary and St. Peter is a lovely church full of interesting architectural and decorative detail; a recent addition is the Millenium window in the west wall beneath the tower. The window was inspired by the ancient yew tree in the churchyard and symbolises the tree of life. The design is based on the concentric annual rings in the transverse section of the trunk.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about St. Mary and St. Peter’s church is actually its ancient yew tree, which is thought to be around 1600 years old. It was formerly common practice for churches to be built next to established yews as the symbolism of death and resurrection imputed in the tree’s qualities of longevity and regeneration in pre-Christian Celtic culture were continued into the Christian era. Yew trees have a popular association with old churches in Britain, to the extent that very old specimens are now relatively rare outside of church grounds.
The Wilmington Yew is hugely impressive, not least because its thick, twisted and gnarled limbs are buttressed by telegraph poles and girdled by heavy-gauge chains.
After extensive appreciation of the church and it’s yew, we set off for the last church of our day’s impromptu itinerary. Following footpaths across fields we passed by the tiny hamlet at Milton Street and the Sussex Ox pub, before crossing the Cuckmere at Long Bridge, just north of Alfriston. We followed the country road up through the sunken lane at Wiston, making for St. Michael and All Angels Church at Berwick up on its wooded promontory. I actually managed to lead the party 200 yards off-course while crossing fields to the church – a rare abberation, I must say. This was a dangerous time for making mistakes as many of the party were tiring and exhibiting signs of fractiousness. However, we arrived at the church without further mishap and with ample daylight still remaining.
St. Michael and All Angels Church is best known for its murals painted by Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell in 1941/42.
Bishop Bell, Bishop of Chichester from 1929 to 1957 was keen to forge a close association between the church and the Arts, and was keen for the present generations of artists to add contributions to the historic legacy of the past. Wall painting is a long tradition in Sussex churches, and St Michael’s provided an opportunity to re-introduce the practice. Many of the building’s windows had been destroyed by wartime bombs and the Bishop decided to replace them with plain glass and wall paintings rather than expensive leaded glass which stood the risk of being damaged again. His foresight proved itself because later a flying bomb removed the chancel roof, half the nave roof and the side windows!
A friend of the Bishop, Sir Charles Reilly, a famous architect, suggested Duncan Grant should be asked to paint the murals. At the time he was living with Vanessa Bell and her children, Quentin and Angelica, at Charleston, and old farmhouse near Firle Beacon and close to Berwick. Duncan agreed the commission and produced a scheme for the complete decoration of the church in which Vanessa Bell and Quentin and Angelica would all cooperate.
Work on the murals started in 1941 after some dissent from local people and was completed in 1942. They are painted on plaster board, enabling the artists to paint in their own studio in Charleston. They were fixed to the walls of the church in January 1943 and were dedicated by the bishop in October 1943. Further murals were added later.
The murals depict various scenes. On the north wall of the nave is a painting of the nativity. The scene is represented in a Sussex barn with the Downs as a backdrop. Local Shepherds and farmworker’s families posed for Vanessa Bell and they are depicted in contemporary clothes. On the east wall is Duncan Grant’s depiction of The Victory of Calvary or Crucifixion. The south wall of the nave features Vanessa Bell’s interpretation of The Annunciation. Above the chancel arch is Duncan Grant’s Christ in Glory. To the left of the chancel arch are depicted the kneeling figures of a soldier (Douglas Hemming, who was killed at Caen in 1944), a kneeling sailor and an airman. To the right is the Bishop of Chichester with the Rector of Berwick as Chaplain. On the chancel screen are depicted the Four Seasons, Dawn and Sunset by Duncan Grant.
Our party wandered around or sat among the pews admiring the frescoes until Titus, who hails from Augsburg, broke the spell of our cultural attachment to the marvellous Bloomsburys by declaring that the murals reminded him of the kitsch, volkish art popular in his homeland during the decade or so of the 1000-year Reich. Now there’s an interesting perspective.
Before leaving the church, I pointed out the curious striations to the right of the font on the lower stones of the tower arch. These are thought to have been cut by the sharpening of arrows during the 14th Century. Archery practice was made compulsory on a Sunday after church by Edward III. The ‘Westcatts of Berwick’ are on the Rolls of Archers at Agincourt and there are Westgates still living in the parish.
Leaving the church we crossed a paddock and passed the pond. All eyes turned to the marvellous prospect of The Cricketers Arms shimmering before us; I knew I had to act quickly or the day would be lost. I promised the company that there was a fine pub at Berwick Station – our destination, only two miles distant – and managed to shepherd the grumbling flock away from the prospect of instant liquid gratification. Soon, we arrived at and forded the fast-moving torrent of the A27. As the sun sank behind the Downs, we followed footpaths across fields to Berwick Station where, thankfully, there was time for a pint at the Berwick Inn before the next train. Cheers!