First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The blackcap that scribbled out its song from an ash tree by the South Downs Way was singing for a perfect summer’s day. I couldn’t believe the profusion of wild flowers and blue butterflies that bordered the ancient ridgeway as it climbed towards the roof of the West Sussex downs.
Wild marjoram, thyme and spearmint scented my fingers. Kidney vetch and knapweed vied for the attention of common and chalkhill blue butterflies that had congregated after a spectacular hatch. Yellow froth of lady’s bedstraw, nail-polish pink of centaury, harebells and hawkbit, St John’s Wort and yellowwort, and the rich blue globular flowerheads of round-headed rampion, the ‘Pride of Sussex’, a nationally scarce flower of this chalk grassland habitat.
The South Downs Way rose as the view opened northwards across a patchwork of pale gold, unharvested cornfields and dark summer woods, south to where the bird’s beak of the Isle of Wight dipped to the sea. Soon another flinty track swung off southwest, a long and gradual descent between fields of wheat and barley, flanked by brilliant yellow sprigs of wild parsnip. Out of the crop fields ahead rose the multiple ramparts of Cissbury Ring, one of the Iron Age hill forts that command this countryside.
Down in the valley bottom I passed the Pest House, a modest cottage of brick and flint with an ominous name. In this lonely place in medieval times stood an isolation house where sufferers from plague, cholera, smallpox and other deadly communicable diseases were banged up to recover or die, one or the other.
A grassy track led up the wooded valley of Buddington Bottom, to reach the South Downs Way. Just west the early Iron Age hill fort of Chanctonbury Ring topped the hill, the circular rampart reinforced with a fine double circle of beech trees. The space under them is as dark as night. This is a place with enormous atmosphere, the world spread out at your feet from the sea to the Sussex Weald.
The Ring was made by the Devil, local stories say, and he will appear to you if you run thrice widdershins around the rampart. There’s a fiendish bargain on offer, of course: a bowl of demonic soup in exchange for your soul. Don’t run round the Ring when you’re feeling hungry, is my advice.
How hard is it? 5½ miles, easy, downland tracks.
Start: Chanctonbury car park, near Washington BN44 3DR (OS ref TQ 125121)
Getting there: Bus 23 (Worthing – Crawley)
Road: At Washington Roundabout on A24 (Worthing-Horsham), take A283. Right down Washington Bostal past Frankland Arms. In ¾ mile, just before A24, sharp left up rough road to car park.
Walk (OS Explorer 121): Uphill on South Downs Way/SDW. In ¾ mile at large grass triangle, right (130117, ‘Restricted Byway’) downhill. In 1 mile at cross-tracks, left (121104, 4-finger post, ‘Wiston Estate Winery’ notice). In ⅔ mile, opposite barns at New Barn, fork left, then immediately right (130100). In 150 m, where track meets lane, fork left through gate (fingerpost, blue arrow/BA); immediately left (BA). In 400m at far corner of vineyard, through gate (133104); on up path through Buddington Bottom valley for 1 mile. At top of climb, left on SDW (145113) past Chanctonbury Ring (139120). In 500m at cattle grid, fork right (134119, gate, BA) on path past dewpond. In 500m descend to gate (129121); down through old chalk pit (slippery!) to rejoin SDW (125121); right to car park.
Lunch: Frankland Arms, Washington RH20 4AL (01903-891405, thefranklandarms.com)
Accommodation: Village House Coaching Inn, Findon BN14 0TE (01903-873350, villagehousefindon.co.uk)