Part Five – Amberley to Steyning
Starting the fifth leg of our SDW journey, Amberley to Steyning, it seemed to us that as we had passed the half-way point. We were sort of, nearly, getting to the home stretch. Accordingly, we decided to risk taking the Morris 1000 van to Steyning from where we would travel, via public transport, to Amberley. Then, so the plan went, we would walk back to Steyning where our vehicle awaited.
In Stenying, while I went off to park the van, Adam and Robin took care of our victualing needs in the excellent Sussex Produce Company. After an hour or so on the bus, during which we discussed the new Harvey’s kegged beers (more info coming soon!), we were in Amberley and our walk could begin. This was the best day weather wise we have had so far: warm, blue-sky, bright sunshine
We dug deep for some energy as we started for the hour was now past eleven and a certain reluctance had descended; a late start with no miles covered and many before us made our feet heavy and our hearts a little unwilling… but, striding up High Titten, our spirits lifted. Flowers bloomed abundant on the verges: speedwell, dead nettles, orchids and buttercups. The countryside appeared bright and new under the sun and glancing over our shoulders we could see clearly back towards Gatting Beacon, where we had come from a few weeks before. Adam spotted a lizard on the path basking in the sun, a rare treat in England – both lizard and sunshine. To our left were the ruins of Amberley Castle, which is now a hotel. The castle has been much visited and patronised by royalty and various distinguished guests, both in recent times and in days gone by. Arthur Beckett visited here in 1908 and wrote that it is rumoured that Prince Charles, later Charles II, in 1651: “sought a refuge here under the protection of the loyal Sir John Briscoe, after the fight of Worcester.”
Leaving Amberley Castle, striding along the ridge and looking out and over to the weald, buzzards could be seen soaring above Cross Gate. We watched them as we carried on to Rackham Hill; diving and tussling with one another, down and down to the woods below, before separating and soaring up high again on the thermals.
We reached the top of Rackham Hill and looked out towards the coast. More than any other stage this was Downs walking ‘proper’. This is to say a labouring slog to the ‘summit’ then a long stretch along the ridge, one endless white path, with green fields on all sides and the Downs reaching into the distance. There was a pleasant breeze and almost no noise, save for a very distant hum of traffic and the ever present lark’s song. To the south we saw the patchwork of light green fields separated by the darker green of hedgerows and spinneys. Broken by the streaks of white and brown bostals scarring the hillsides, black clumps of forest sat on the summits. Touches of yellow rape and knots of red and grey farm roofs broke up the green fields and as we gazed, following the sliver of the silver Arun, our eyes were drawn towards the sea where the colours faded and the white sea and sky converged at Worthing. When Beckett walked the downs, he read his companions Nash and Milton, Robin kindly recited an interesting poem about dog turds on the beach.
As we walked along the ridge, Robin continued our education by identifying Salad Burnett and some small, shallow patches of bare turf – badger latrines! Red and white campion grew in the verges of the path as did the Wayfarers Flower with its white, lily scented bloom in abundance. As were the ominous looking, though harmless, St Mark’s fly: hanging heavy in the breeze, sometimes two flies locked together in mid-flight, vividly illustrating the origin of their other name of ‘love bug’.
It was hot under the sun despite the slight breeze and as we lapsed into silence there was little enough noise, other than the stamp, crush and scrape of our own boots upon the path. We walked through a small spinney that covered the path. The only cover for miles, it was cool and dark and seemed to intensify the feeling that we were alone at great distance from all else. I can only speak for myself but at this moment my chest tightened and a lonely feeling descended, as sometimes arrives when one is walking any distance. Suddenly I wanted to be down on the plain below the Downs. Preferably in a bustling town or busy pub, somewhere where things were taking place and people and the events of the wilder world were all connected once again. I was shaken from this mood as we exited the spinney and a thundering great boom from a passing jet aircraft filled the skies and resonated in my chest, even in the distant reaches of the downs, we are not far from the world for very long.
Various ‘treats’ awaited us further along the ridge: a multitude of Linnets perching on a fence; a lone apple tree beside the path – presumably the legacy of a long past walker’s lunch; the ten minutes we spent trying to identify a moving brown lump in a green field – a stoat? A hare? No, it was a buzzard which launched itself skyward as a mob of crows approached. As is traditional, in such circumstances, I had just turned off the camera. The star of the show however was a corn bunting which Adam identified with good use of both binoculars and google images. This bird, once very common, is now red listed by the RSPB and is derided for have a rather rough song which is likened to the jangling of a bunch of keys. It is however very fond of perching on anything that will give it height advantage and in farmland this means fencing.
Lunch was bread and cheese from the Sussex Produce Company, tapenade made by Ouse Valley foods and Reese’s peanut butter cups made by The Hershey Company. Beckett states that “bread, cheese and beer” are the only “nectar and ambrosia” for Downland walkers and if one hasn’t the appetite for them after walking miles in the “rare air of high Sussex” then clearly they’d be “better indoors.” Which is a bit harsh on those who struggle with gluten and lactose but there you are.
After crossing the imposing A24 we were faced with a sharp ascent up Chanctonbury Hill. It was I who took the lead, a lead I privately challenged myself to keep. Which I did and it nearly killed me. It was a wheezing and sweating mess that summited first, gasping for both air and the contents of his water bottle. More or less dead ahead from the true summit, we could see Brighton shimmering in the heat haze, the i360 shaft proving a very telling land mark. Turning to our left we arrived at the ramparts of Chanctonbury Ring and were rewarded with one of the most impressive vistas on not just the South Downs Way but in the whole of Sussex: the “run of the Downs” both east and west on our left and right, and then pure unbroken country stretching all the way to the weald. Chanctonbury Ring is also a fine Sussex land-mark; a ring of trees on top of the downs, planted by a young Charles Goring of nearby Wiston House in 1760. Its appearance was much altered by the ‘87 storm but it has now more or less recovered. Arthur Beckett, whose Downland footsteps we follow in, writes that legend has it that if one circles the ‘ring’ at midnight then the devil will appear and “offer you a bowl of soup”, which as Beckett observes is uncharacteristically helpful of the Prince of Darkness.
Leaving Chanctonbury behind us we set a good pace for the last two miles before we made our way off the SDW, turning for Steyning and home with a last look at Lancing Collage and the old cement works at Beeding.
The old Sussex Poem, Seven Good things of Sussex concludes with the line: “If I could but forget the Amberley trout”. Once you have tried this recipe, you may agree…