diamond geezer

 Monday, October 29, 2012

South Downs Way: Devil's Dyke to Ditchling Beacon
6 miles [map] [route] [ten photos]

It's surprisingly easy to get to Devil's Dyke, which is somewhat surprising given it's two miles beyond the edge of Brighton in the middle of nowhere. But there is a regular bus service up to the top of the South Downs, at this time of year weekends only. The number 77 runs eight times a day, from the heart of the city and from just outside the station. If you wave your rail ticket at the driver he's supposed to offer you money off, although that's difficult if the barrier at Brighton has just eaten your ticket. But 20 minutes later you could be stepping off at the bus stop on the ridge, and blimey look at those views, and whoa isn't it windy?

Devil's Dyke is the largest dry valley in the UK. Some say it was dug by the devil himself, with a very big spade, but in truth it was carved out naturally by permafrost meltwater. Today it curves for just under a mile down to the village of Poynings, a narrow grassy chasm in places 100 metres deep. And it's very pretty. An Iron Age hillfort was built on the adjacent plateau, defended on three sides by a sheer drop, though mere traces of its ramparts are all that remain. The Victorians were so taken with Devil's Dyke that an entire entertainment industry grew up around it, including a fairground and a funicular railway. There was even a cablecar across the chasm, linking nowhere to nowhere except for the sheer hell of it, which sounds familiar. No such extravagances today, just a mobile phone mast and a pub (which is much nicer on the inside than the outside).

The lofty elevation attracts glider pilots, soaring silently across the grassland, as well as enthusiasts with model aircraft to fly. For larger craft look carefully to the north and you can just make out proper commercial traffic coming into land at Gatwick. That's miles away, but the view from the escarpment across the Lower Weald is amazing. A patchwork of towns and fields and villages stretches off into the distance, seemingly flat as a pancake, until the North Downs rise up like a low blur on the horizon. The lack of shelter means it can be utterly windswept up here, as it was on Saturday, which made the presence of an ice cream van almost inexplicable. "Chill out" said the sign above the door, which it was impossible not to do, and so the crowds of 99-buyers stayed away.

The South Downs Way departs by following Summer Down, a ridge on the Brighton side of the dry valley. Again there are fine views to the north, this time through a gap between hilltops. It was at this point that I spotted my first rainbow of the afternoon, a faint arc grounded somewhere in the vicinity of Hassocks. How pretty, I thought, unaware that I'd see ten separate rainbows by the end of the afternoon and that this was merely the precursor to a heavy shower. It was drizzling by Saddlescombe, so the detour through a muddy farmyard to see the Donkey Wheel didn't appeal. If you have better weather, turn off to the right just after the organic refreshment room with the yummy cakes.

Up to this point there had been plenty of walkers but beyond it there were none. The path rose inexorably up the lengthy slopes of West Hill, which it appears are ideal for cycling down very very fast. I was bemused to see a line of gentlemen with white flags walking slowly four abreast through the field on the right. I assumed they were scaring pheasants or preparing the way for the local hunt, but was forced to reconsider when two deer ran by and were summarily ignored. A further gentleman with an orange flag stood on the edge of the escarpment staring out across the suburbs of Brighton, beyond which the English Channel glinted in the sunlight. Alas the track downhill was a bit of a mudbath, churned up by hooves from the adjacent riding school, and made less comfortable still by a sudden hailstorm.

The path has to descend to cross the A23, the main road into Brighton, which nips through a gap in the Downs in a not entirely beautiful way. Thankfully the road beyond has been safely blocked off, a winding lane up into the heart of Pyecombe village and its 12th century Grade I listed church. The next half mile passes up the middle of a golf course, which must have one of the best views in the South East, and then past some inquisitive friendly sheep. On the edge of the ridge overlooking the village of Clayton are two famous windmills, named Jack and Jill. As I approached they were briefly silhouetted against an ever-darkening sky, which soon gushed forth in another heavy shower. The path around the front of the mills was the muddiest yet, and alas Jill is only open to the public on summer Sundays.

The last two miles of this walk are an almost straight run along the top of the ridge. Brighton's still visible across the fields to the south, but the main attraction is still the view to the north across miles of the Lower Weald. The drop's fairly precipitous, as grassy slopes go, so only a couple of footpaths break off to descend to Underhill Road below. The track is churned up at present, and a bit of a trial to plod along. But the lane opens out halfway into broad undulating uplands lined by the occasional windblown tree and dew pond. Here's where I spotted rainbows six to ten, but thankfully the journey to the summit of Ditchling Beacon stayed dry. Close to the car park the path got busy again with short-distance ramblers, but few stepped off the main track to the triangulation point. The Beacon here is four metres higher than The View From The Shard, and what it lacks in city rooftops it makes up for with wow.

The road over Ditchling Beacon is a key part of most London to Brighton bike rides. Cyclists face a masochistic mile-long ascent up a steep winding chicane before emerging by the car park and frequently collapsing. I wouldn't. He did. A footpath descends alongside, a surprisingly slippery chalk furrow through a nature reserve, leading eventually to Ditchling village (and very eventually to Hassocks station). Alternatively you can continue walking along the South Downs Way to Lewes, but that's miles, or you can wait for the bus. The number 79 runs on Sundays throughout the year, but on Saturdays only during the summer. Best come when it's dry.

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