diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 03, 2017

TREASURE HUNT: Brighton and the South Downs

Start position: Brighton station

Clue One: By Western's Manor, where Pride falls, find the Twins the Dutch could not defeat.

In the early 18th century Thomas Western became lord of the manor of Preston, a village just to the north of Brighton and since swallowed up by it. His manor house still stands, improved and upgraded, and you can take a tour inside its Edwardian themed rooms for a small fee. Alongside is Brighton's first and largest public park, spread out in the valley of the city's lost river, the Wellesbourne. Preston Park is a mixed and lively space, laid out with sports pitches, cycle track and chalet cafe, and every summer is taken over for Brighton's annual Pride festival, hence the Pet Shop Boys will be dropping in this August. Less well known, in the northwestern corner by the Walled Garden are reputedly the world's oldest (and tallest) elm trees. [map]

When Dutch Elm Disease arrived in Britain in the 1970s, Brighton council adopted a particularly effective programme of infection control, hence the city still has over ten thousand healthy specimens. The two oldest are known as the Preston Twins, jewels of the National Elm Collection, and are believed to have been planted around 1613. Although their trunks are hollow, the council keep the branches under careful control to ensure the trees don't collapse under the weight of their leaf canopy. They're both looking gorgeous at present, encloaked in fresh spring growth, with a distinctive asymmetry I subconsciously remembered from my childhood. Lucky Brighton, I say.

Clue Two: Above the woods, surrounded by woods and irons, a ring of iron.

Step back from the coast and Brighton's defining characteristic is its undulating downland setting. One of the highest points within the city boundary is Hollingbury Hill, lying almost due north of pier and pavilion, an open summit amid the outer suburbs. I ascended through the beechy incline of Hollingbury Woods, alongside an astonishing dip covered by hundreds of well-tended allotments on opposing flanks. It was no surprise to emerge at the very top into a golf course, an ex-championship 18-holer, nor unexpected that the public footpath officially disappeared at this point, so careful manoeuvring was required around and occasionally across the fairways. But oh, the view from the top. [map]

Iron Age settlers built a defensive ring at the highest point, namely Hollingbury Hill Fort, a whopper of an earthwork approaching half a mile in circumference. It's mostly bank and ditch, with a touch of counterscarp, and a central expanse rife with barrows and blooming gorse. You can see for miles up here, most especially out towards the seafront and Channel, where the shiny silhouette of the i360 viewing platform rises and falls rhythmically on its pleasure-spike. The rim of the fort is a great spot for getting the measure of the city, its streets clinging to copious slopes and valleys in all directions. But watch the skies as well as the horizon... a plummeting golf ball missed me by about a club's length.

Clue Three: Board the American Express to the stony pond, and make an ass of yourself behind the church.

You can't miss Brighton and Hove Albion's new stadium, a trussed-arch bowl dropped in beside the station in Falmer, and currently sponsored by a well known US-based credit card. Across from the Amex is the University of Sussex, sprawled in a very modern manner across the eastern slice of Stanmer Park. But the general public gets to enjoy the western swathe, formerly a sealed off estate, now a public park with a Palladian pedigree. I enjoyed a long stroll above extensive woodland slopes, then made my way past picnics on the central lawns to the sarsen-strewn pond. That's the stony mere after which the village is supposedly named. [map]

Stanmer is a linear village no longer in thrall to a major mansion, the latter now given over to weddings, conference and gala dinners. I much preferred the charm of the single street, with weatherboarded barns and flint-knapped cottages, plus a popular tearoom halfway down so that visitors have somewhere non-residential to congregate. The Stanmer Preservation Society are hard at work conserving heritage hereabouts, with a recent successful lottery bid under their belts, and custodians of the well house behind the church where a rare Donkey Wheel is housed. The unfortunate beast would once have walked in a circle to power a pump to draw water from the ground... but to see the mechanism for yourself you'll need to turn up during the one hour a week the door is unlocked ("Open on Sundays, 2.30-3.30, volunteers needed for other times and/or days").

Clue Four: 248 by 79, or chalk up by bike.

I love Ditchling Beacon, most probably because I'm not a cyclist. The chalk escarpment rises particularly steeply on the northern side, with the road twisting in lungbusting hairpins, should you ever feel the need for a two-wheeled lycra workout. The Tour de France came this way in 1994, and the annual London to Brighton bike ride saves Ditchling as a fiendish finale. The road up from Brighton is a steadier climb, although drivers face the very real challenge of being shut out of an overflowing car park and having nowhere else to go. At weekends you can ride the 79 bus, an excellent hourly leisure service from Brighton to the hilltop and back. But I walked from Stanmer, past Granny's Belt, round Bow Hill and over Big Bottom, in glorious solitude. [map]

A few weary pedallers sat slumped on the verge at the top of the climb. Various friends lounged in the long grass quaffing cans, overlooking the Weald arrayed below. Well turned-out ladies wandered not too far from the car park in their pristine boots. A lone ice cream van swirled out another 99 to its captive audience. Father and son walked along the ridgetop deep in discussion, pausing only to identify a small bird in the rough. Dogs tugged past on long leads, itching to worry sheep by the dew ponds. And a trio of inner city students whooped on finding their orienteering target up by the triangulation point. At 248 metres it's not quite the highest point on the South Downs, but it feels like the top of the world.

Clue Five: Jill is up the hill with Jack.
One is white and one is black.
When the lady you have found,
The next instruction will come round.

That's the actual Treasure Hunt clue from 1985, that is, when Margaret and Philip Swift guided skyrunner Anneka Rice and her helicopter above West Sussex. They solved the riddle quickly, deducing that these were the two Clayton windmills on the South Downs, with postmill Jill the fairer of the pair. Anneka got to tug the sails round with a big hooked pole until the next clue was in her hand, and no, they don't make TV shows like that any more. [video] [map]

Jack's now a private residence but Jill still turns, with volunteers opening her up to visitors on summer Sundays. I turned up on a Saturday, which is their regular maintenance day, so had to make do with the view from the car park, but that was pretty dazzling. And then I headed sharply down the hillside, smiling that I wasn't one of those bravely panting up, before one last mile on the level back to Hassocks station. I had twenty spare minutes before my train, so diverted on a whim into Butcher's Wood just south of the village alongside the main railway. Here I found a web of twisting footpaths through a brilliant blue carpet of bluebells, a sight being enjoyed by only a tiny handful of residents in the know. This was my treasure at the end of the hunt. Stop the clock.

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