Mark Rowe's walk in the South Downs: Day one

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Environment and travel journalist, Mark Rowe, shares his experiences of day one of a two-day walk in the South Downs in East Sussex.

The River Adur

The plan had been to pick up the South Downs Way where it crossed the River Adur just south of the village of Steyning. But unseasonably warm weather on the south coast triggered an impulsive decision to hop off the train at Shoreham-by-the Sea. While this added more than three miles to my journey, it was worth the effort, for I was able to pick up the Downs Link, a path that runs south-north alongside the Adur – the unusual name is Celtic, derived from Dwyr, for ‘water’ - beneath disused stone quarries that are overlooked by chimney stacks and decaying factories whose broken window panes are portals for rock doves. That’s not to make the walk sound unpromising, because it’s actually a delight, the path and river winding hand in hand, as if engaging in a graceful waltz, sheltered from trunk roads by thick shrubbery and brambles.

The first redwings and fieldfares had arrived from Scandinavia, while horses incongruously grazed meadows and paddocks underneath a dual carriageway flyover. To the west the striking outline of Lancing College chapel, Gothic revival to the tip of its spire, stood on the hill. Overhead, light aircraft buzzed quietly on their descent to Shoreham airport.

The South Downs Way

River and path meandered in one last gracious, sweeping bend and then by a modest, low bridge, bumped into the South Downs Way. A few paces away I discovered something rather charming, a tap with drinking water – something I discovered was a periodic feature along the South Downs Way.

Within minutes, too, I’d become acquainted with the defining feature of the South Downs: its rolling, implausibly steep hills. There’s nothing very high along the Downs – the high point of this walk is Ditchling Beacon, at 248m – but you still need some puff and stamina. Most of the climbs start at somewhere near sea level, so many of the hills are actually just as high as those you might encounter in, say, the Peak District – where you start higher but often make a similar net gain in height. Navigate 40-odd such hills along the South Downs and you’ve effectively climbed Mount Everest.

Stunning views

The reward of course is the views, which I never tired of throughout the two days. To the north the skyline was dominated by the High Weald, Leith Hill and Box Hill, more than 20 miles distant. To the south-west, 46 miles away, was the Isle of Wight. Below my feet, the escarpment fell away, like waves, to the flatlands of Sussex, where you could pick out villages by their steeples and small, squared-off coppiced woodlands.

Despite the climbs, the walking was easy, the path seeming to bounce along the ridgeline, sweeping across Fulking Down, past the remains of Neolithic hillforts, the fields often ridged in a manner that hinted at medieval field systems. At times the trail followed ancient sheep tracks, deep furrows in the limestone known as botolphs. To the south, somewhere, more indistinct, lay the deserted village of Perching. Disused quarries came into view, the exposed chalk looking rather like the site of a meteorite impact.

Devil's Dyke and Saddlescombe Farm

The headline act of Day One is the Devil’s Dyke, England’s longest dry valley, drilling south from the lowlands into the heart of the escarpment. Heading east, the dyke, once a Victorian playground and home to a funicular, is hidden from view. It only becomes apparent once you’re actually upon it. Despite its name, which draws on medieval suspicion and folklore, the dyke is a natural wonder, which began to form 10,000 years ago when a warming climate unlocked the permafrost of the frozen Downs.

The melting water cascaded downwards in exorable, huge volumes, carving out the dyke. I walked around its rim, though you could just as well drop down its steep flanks and clamber up the other side. Beyond the dyke lay Saddlescombe Farm, home to the local estate for the National Trust, as well as the excellent organic café, Hiker’s rest, a well-matched combination of mobile kitchen and old stables.

Jack and Jill

The sun was fading to the horizon, casting improbably long shadows as I continued my up-down-up-down journey. In the gloom, I passed two enchanting windmills, Jill and Jack, dalek-like apparitions in the half light. A brief detour from the path led to them, the former restored and open to visitors, the latter in desperate need of a loving owner.

There are several places at the foot of the Downs where you can break your journey. Known as spring villages, they were founded in Saxon times by people drawn to the waters that emerged at the foot of the South Downs and which headed north, rather than south to the Channel. Having reached Ditchling Beacon nature reserve, I dropped steeply down to the village of the same name for the night.

Download day one and day two of Mark's South Downs walk and try it for yourself, or find out more about how the National Trust is working to care for this precious habitat.