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Walking the South Downs Way – Part Three

Part Three – Buriton to Cocking

As we were short of time at the end of our last walk we hadn’t had a chance to admire the interior of St Mary’s Church, Buriton. I was caught short near the churchyard but, due to the time constraints, our experience of the place didn’t move beyond that.

On this leg of the SDW from Buriton to Cocking, we found the time to look at the church. St Mary’s has a very welcoming sign on the door proclaiming the church to be open during the day and inviting people to come in at their leisure.

The interior seemed quite dark, which was all to the good as it made the various stained glass windows all the more impressive. The window above the altar was particularly impressive because, as Adam noticed, the gentlest movement of the trees in the churchyard gave the impression of texture and movement of the figures in the glass. The columns of the nave are also cleverly lit to show off the details of the masonry. There are many memorials here to members of the Bonham-Carter family who seemed to have suffered greatly in the First World War. One memorial in the chancel has this charming epitaph to a man’s parents:

“From a grateful Regard
To the Memory
Of the worthiest of Men
And of Fathers,
And of the most tender
And most affectionate
Of Mothers,
This Stone was erected
By their dutiful Son.”

Leaving the church, we went back past the pond and returned through the Chalk Pits Nature Reserve to re-join the SDW where we had left it. The information boards dotted around the site told us that the small wagons of the long gone railway would sometimes travel, by gravity, at speeds of fifty miles per hour!

The SDW after Buriton follows a byway, so permits the passage of motor cars. Whether its chalk paved and pot-holed surface supports their passage is another matter as over the course of the day we did find a fair few detached engine guards that had proved ‘faithful unto death’ by the side of the track. Progress was relatively easy on this stretch and we got off to a fair lick.

High on the ridge we were shaded by tall trees on either side which proved abundant for bird life. The greatest of which was a Goldcrest (I say ‘greatest’ as in ‘most impressive’: it’s actually the smallest bird in Europe) that was hopping around a leaf-bare, medium sized shrub, as opposed to hiding in the taller trees, that afforded us a lengthy and close-up view. Still damned difficult to photograph, though. Robin tells me that the Goldcrest’s markings, a yellow ‘crown’ of feathers, distinguish it as the “King of Birds” in European folklore.

Wild garlic was prolific on the verges and, as, by crossing the ridge, we had just crossed into Sussex, Robin informed us that we should call it ‘ransoms’ which is the local name. Through the wood that shades the road up to Harting Hill we went, with evidence of recent and past storms about us. The day had thus far been still and bright and it was only as we submitted that we felt the wind, as Arthur Beckett observed, is so often the case on the Downs:

“Pleasant winds on the levels below are [on the Downs] boisterous breezes and breezes are wild hurricanes.”

From Harting Hill, we could look down on South Harting with the green, copper-clad spire of the church St Mary and St Gabriel rising above the village. This church is sometimes called the ‘Cathedral of the Downs’, as have been many other churches over the centuries such as St Andrews in Alfriston. I mentioned this as we gazed down and Robin remarked: “was not Harvey’s Brewery a cathedral of the Downs?” It was then we noticed a red kite flying above the plain before soaring up above us and courting the wind. Now, shamefully, after the Hampshire stages of walking the SDW, we had become a little blasé about the red kites of Hampshire because, as like when driving on the M40, you see them all the time. Remember how thrilled you once were to see a buzzard? They’re ten a penny these days, you get them at home. We saw twelve of the things over the course of five hours : familiarity had certainly bred contempt. It is worth noting, though, that it is not a bad thing. Such familiarity is, in fact, a good thing as such a high number of top-level predators, that one may become indifferent to them, indicates a healthy ecosystem and a flourishing population. The sight of a red kite in Sussex though (for we had just crossed the border into the county)? This is another matter! ”What a treat, what an excellent thing!” We exclaimed to one another. It was at this moment that the kite wheeled and disappeared, out of sight, in the direction of Hampshire… Robin blamed our arrival.

Somewhat predictably, as we puffed and wheezed our way up another Beacon Hill, the weather closed in. The day was turning into one of April showers and there are few things more aggravating to the walker than perpetually halting progress in order to take off or put on a raincoat. In spite of the weather, we broke for lunch on a fallen tree near the Hooksway. Robin’s excellent sandwiches were complimented with some Sussex marble cheese and a steak and stilton pie from Comestibles Delicatessen in Midhurst, where we had stopped, en route to Buriton, that morning. After lunch, we carried on past the small, but well cared for, memorial to a downed German pilot of the Second World War to the Devil’s jumps. The Devil’s jumps are five tumuli in a row that, apparently, line up with the setting sun on midsummer’s day (though I have never had the chance to see if this is true). In recent years testing this has been made more convenient by the felling of trees on the site and returning it to grazed Downland.

Sensing we were on the home straight we marched on through the now steady drizzle and the West Dean Estate woods, catching the glimpse of a hare as we went. Leaving the SDW we made our descent into Cocking. This took as passed a beautiful steam that is hidden alongside a private road leading to a farm. Guarding the entrance to this small cluster of buildings is an imposing railway bridge that carried the now defunct Midhurst to Chichester railway. It is quite a feat of engineering to serve just one farm and is, in our opinion, all the better for it.

Our journey home took us back through Midhurst and we decided to perform some ‘quality control’ and seek out The Swan, a Harvey’s pub. We found that the beer was in superb condition and were very pleased to be offered the choice of ‘jug or straight?’ We went for jugs. A tour of the refurbished letting rooms was next and they were so inviting that it seemed that a night in the village was on the cards but, alas, we had to continue our journey home.

Robin’s Nature Notes

Good numbers of birds in this quiet section of the Downs, with ear, brain and soul filling with skylark song, but only near the occasional scarp slope Downland turf.

Flowers were out in abundance on the woody path edges; wood anemones, celandines, primroses and the stunning carpets of native Bluebells, not the introduced “Spanish” variety. If you can’t remember the difference, think ‘males’ of the respective countries – Spanish bluebells are tall, elegant, erect and dominant, their English counterparts are smaller, droopy and smelly! (Spanish bluebells don’t smell). Personally, I think the English ones have more charm and beauty but then I am quite biased!

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