The South Downs loom large but benevolent on approach from Hassocks station. The late summer sunshine trickles out onto not-long-ago fields of wheat and grain, now harvested and left dried and cracked. The twittering of blue-tits and blackbirds mark the start of the climb: a ponderous one, through enclaves of under ripe blackberries and up around the old sibling windmills of Jack and Jill.
Jill is resplendent in gleaming white paint. A working windmill and a testament to the fine work achieved by the charity of the same name. Jack sulks to one side, tawdry in comparison and privately owned. I have a hard time deciding which one I like the best; the stunted brother or the opulent sister.
My internal wrangling is cut short though as I nearly stumble into a protruding hawthorn bush which is buzzing suspiciously. I am reminded instead of my own shed, currently off limits due to a late seasonal invasion of this hedgerows’ brethren.
The South Downs Way, stretching from Winchester in Hampshire to Eastbourne in East Sussex, is one hundred miles of unbridled joy. This leg between Hassocks and Lewes, a mere ten per cent of the total length, is a wonderful segment of it. For those of us that live in London, it has the added bonus of the outbound train from Victoria to Hassocks, and then the inbound train from Lewes back to Victoria. A linear walk with no motor required, a rare beast indeed.
It seems obvious to state for most walks, but this really is a spring or summer walk. There is something about the way the light catches the never ending chalk ridge, assaulted on all sides by a clear blue sky and dizzying views that requires – nay, demands – a bounce in one’s step. And a requisite stop at the seemingly permanent ice cream van at Ditchling Beacon, of course!
This hilltop once contained a blaze to warn Queen Elizabeth I of the impending Spanish Armada, but now doubles-up as a very agreeable area to enjoy a Flake ’99 and observe the mountain bikers trundle along or the occasional middle-aged couple struggle to assemble a buggy.
A swift pootle down hill to Plumpton, where a handful of the more forward-thinking beech trees are starting to redden with shades of Autumn. The Half Moon Inn is a fantastic pit-stop and always has fish ‘fresh from the boats’ available, accompanied by an unusual – but delicious – samphire bhaji and bulger wheat salad. I plum for mackerel and pick the meaty bones clean.
If only the beer, a 360 Degrees South West Pale Ale (Sussex), could rival an equal match. It is too tangy for me but inhabiting that awkward area of British pub culture between:
“Excuse me, I think this is off, can I get another one please?”
Or, convincing oneself that this is what it is supposed to taste like and don’t you dare complain, lest you are laughed out of town.
Still, an enforced half-pint does make the struggle back up to the top less painful and I emerge breathless out by the trig point marked at Blackcap on the map.
A handful of miles (and thrice as many curious Sussex cows) later, the gentle descent into the beautiful town of Lewes begins, studded with horse paddocks and blackberry-pickers armed with plastic tubs.
Make sure you stick to the left hand side and do not take the bridlepath signposted to Lewes. If you take the latter, the walk will be cut short and will sacrifice a river side for a stony path that runs parralel to HM Prison.
The marked map takes me first through the village of Offham and then around the back and down along the River Ouse which emerges into the heart of the place, beside the magnificent Lewes Castle.
I mop the sweat from my brow and, after my meager lunchtime beverage, am pleased to recall that Lewes is the home of the Harveys brewery.
A swift one at The Lewes Arms before the train home. It would be rude not to.