First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A still, sunny day lay over West Sussex. Pigeons were loud and throaty in the beeches around Stoughton. The rumble of harrow and roller sounded faint and far off from the stubble fields around Old Bartons farmhouse, where a crowd of wailing seagulls were following the gleaming disks as they turned grubs and worms into the sunlight. A Hereford bull stood dazed with sleepiness against the fence and permitted me to scratch his woolly poll and stroke his warm, dusty coat.
Up on the crest of Stoughton Down the woods hung dense and silent, darkened with summer heat. I threaded the pine plantations and oak groves on Bow Hill, with sensational views opening to the south over the sinuous tidal channels of Chichester Harbour, as blue and rippled as silk. Tree-lined tracks led on to the brow of Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve and the rounded green Bronze Age burial mounds of the Devil’s Humps.
Here I was lucky enough to bump into Richard Williamson, for 30 years the manager of Kingley Vale, now its dedicated archivist and guardian angel. ‘The Chalkhill Blues are out,’ Richard confided. Following his directions, I found the brilliant silver-blue butterflies on the tiny patch they favoured at the edge of the reserve, and spent half an hour watching them feed, sunbathe and mate – heaven for butterflies, and pretty close to it for humans, too.
At last I got up from the sward of marjoram and harebells, shook out the cramps and went off to see the venerable yews of Kingley Vale. Visiting these bulbous trees with their arthritic limbs, all but naked of bark and extremely aged – some were old when the Romans arrived in Sussex – is like paying a call on a roomful of dignified, rather aloof Chelsea Pensioners in their birthday suits. One walks among them delicately and with a sense of awe. When eventually I tore myself away from their spell, it was to follow the path dreamily up through the flower-rich meadows of Kingley Vale, before resuming the downland ridge and the flinty trackway back to Stoughton in its sun-soaked hollow.
Start & finish: Hare & Hounds, Stoughton PO18 9JQ (OS ref SU 803115)
Getting there: Train (http://www.thetrainline.com/; http://www.railcard.co.uk/) to Chichester (8.3 miles). Road: A27 to Chichester; B2178 to Funtington; right by Fox & Hounds to Walderton; right to Stoughton.
Walk (6 miles, moderate grade, OS Explorer 120): Leaving Hare & Hounds, left up road. In 200 yd, right at Old Barton (fingerpost, yellow arrow/YA); then fork left on gravelled track (‘Monarch’s Way’ arrow). Pass barns (809115); on for 1 mile to 3-way bridleway fingerpost (824121). Right; in 200 yards, fork left (blue arrow/BA) on narrower path through fir grove. In 600 yd pass BA on right; in 350 yd, reach track crossing by Kingley Vale NNR notice (825113; 4-way fingerpost). Right along track for ½ a mile. Just past Devil’s Humps barrows, left by ‘Nature Trail’ post (819109), through gate. Follow numbered posts anticlockwise round Nature Trail, passing information shelter at 824100, for 2 miles to return to Devil’s Humps. Resume walk along track. In 300 yd, keep ahead by Kingley Vale NNR notice (817107; bridleway fingerpost, BA). In ¼ of a mile, reach edge of wood (813105); right on track for 1 mile to road in Stoughton; right to Hare & Hounds.
NB – Detailed directions, online map, more walks: www.christophersomerville.co.uk
Lunch: Hare & Hounds, Stoughton (02392-631433; http://www.hareandhoundspub.co.uk/); a pub that knows it’s a pub … with excellent food, too.