First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The shepherd came bouncing up the long flank of Home Bottom on his quad bike, three frisky sheepdogs in attendance. ‘The sheep? Oh, they’re doing all right. Off to be shown soon, and then we’ll sell ’em, all the black-faced ewes. That old red Sussex bull down there? That’s Del-Boy; you can walk right up to him and he won’t say a word. Cold wind today? Hah! This is warm! You should be up here on top of the downs in winter time, in the snow and a north wind – then it does bite a bit!’
These are the sort of things you never learn unless you stop and chat a while. We bade shepherd and sheepdogs goodbye and walked on past circular dewponds and Bronze Age tumuli. Up here above Brighton the South Downs National Park boasts some of its most spectacular scenery, a great circle of East and West Sussex, north for fifteen or twenty wooded miles, south through the dips of Hogtrough Bottom and Home Bottom across the massed roof of Brighton to the sea. In Ditchling Beacon nature reserve, the wild flowers provided us in their close-focus way with as dramatic a spectacle as the view – harebells thickly sprinkled, mauve feathery bartsia, purple knapweed and sky-blue chicory, bright yellow froths of lady’s bedstraw and fragrant pink thickets of wild marjoram.
The Clayton windmills stood breasting the north wind on their ridge, Jill in her white weather-boarded smock, black capless Jack skulking in the trees behind. Here we left the South Downs Way and the panoramic ridge, plunging south into the sheltered bottoms or steep dry valleys that seam these chalk downs. Beyond deep-sunk Lower Standean farm we found another shepherd working his sheep in the pastures of North Bottom, the man flying up and down the slopes on his puttering quad, the dogs racing round behind the flock, the sheep on the canter, every lamb and ewe bleating so that their panicky voices filled the valley, high and low. When all were corralled and their wobbly laments stilled, the three dogs took a leap into a drinking trough and splashed about there luxuriously.
We swung north for the homeward stretch up a nameless bottom, opening on a far view of brilliant white cliffs, the scuff of our boots in the chalk and flint of the path the only sound in this secluded and now silent hollow of the downs.
Start: Ditchling Beacon car park, near Brighton, East Sussex, BN6 8RJ (OS ref TQ 333130) – £2/day (NT members free)
Getting there: Bus 79 from Brighton. Road – Ditchling Beacon signed from Underhill Lane near Ditchling (B2112 from Clayton on A273 Brighton-Burgess Hill road).
Walk (8½ miles, easy/moderate, OS Explorer 122): Head west from car park along South Downs Way/SDW; through gate into nature reserve. In 100m pass boundary stone; in another 50m, fork right off SDW on grassy path through top edge of Ditchling Beacon Nature Reserve, then back onto SDW. On for 1¾ miles to Jack and Jill Windmills (303133). Right across car park; at far side, right on bridleway (blue arrow/BA) to rejoin SDW. Left for 150m; fork right (305132, SDW, ‘Devil’s Dyke’). 100m beyond New Barn Farm, SDW turns right, but keep ahead (306129, BA, ‘Chattri War Memorial)’. In ½ mile, left at 3-finger post (307121); at gate, right (BAs); in 200m, left through gate (308119, waymark arrow 44). In 150m, at gate on right, cross Sussex Border Path (309117); keep ahead, down to Lower Standean farm.
Pass sheds; 100m before house, left (316115) and pass to left of pond. Bear right along lower edge of trees, following path as it curves left to meet pebbly track (318116). Right along track. In 400m, just before cross fence, right through gate (321118); left with fence on your left through North Bottom. Through gate in valley bottom (326118); in 350m, before next gate, right along fence (328121) to cross Ditchling Road (327116).
Fork left, following BA/’Bridleway’ through Highpark Wood for 1 mile. At crossroads of tracks under power cables (337108), hairpin left (no waymark) down through wood to bottom gate (337112). Ahead (BA) with wood on left. In 200m fork right through gate (339113); on with fence on left. In 600m, through gate (343117); left (BA). Through next two gates (344119, 343121); up across wide field for ½ mile to SDW (339128); left to Ditchling Beacon car park.
Lunch: Half Moon Inn, Plumpton BN7 3AF (01273-890253; halfmoonplumpton.com) – well-run, characterful pub.
National Parks Week 2016: 25-31 July (nationalparks.gov.uk)
Info: Brighton TIC (01273-770115)