diamond geezer

 Monday, March 02, 2020

The highest hill in East Sussex is Ditchling Beacon, the chalky ridgetop with the steep descent much beloved by cyclists. The second highest is rather further inland, atop the High Weald, and considerably easier to climb because a town was built on top of it. That town is Crowborough, the peak is Crowborough Hill, and here's how you might consider tackling an ascent. [map]

Assault on Crowborough Hill (240m)

The easiest place to start an ascent on Crowborough Hill, should you be arriving from London, is from the station. It's only an hour out of London Bridge on the Uckfield line, unless that's closed for emergency engineering works, of which more later. Before the railway arrived in 1868 Crowborough was little more than a scattering of hamlets amid open heathland en route from Royal Tunbridge Wells to Lewes. But the hilltop's microclimate attracted many for reasons of good health, and so the current town of twenty-thousand souls gradually coalesced.

Railways tend to avoid hills so the station is right on the edge of town in the neighbourhood of Jarvis Brook. The station used to be called Crowborough & Jarvis Brook, as a window in the ticket office confirms, until they removed the only clue that the town centre might be a mile and a half away. It's uphill too, an ascent of well over 100m, so best stock up on provisions before departing. Don't look to the Railway Tavern across the car park because that closed a few years ago, but Jarvis Brew will sell you a coffee while Pic-Ups takeaway offers ultra-traditional British beefburgers or a big bag of chips.

The road we're about to climb is called Crowborough Hill, although it doesn't quite go to the summit but instead aims for the town centre. Strike out for the pavement, keeping the Sainsbury's Local on your right hand side, and pause awhile at the top of Medway. The eastward view across the valley is the heath that still surrounds the town, which you won't be seeing much of later because there's too much housing in the way. From here you could divert west through Crowborough Country Park, a former quarry that now resembles a rocky wooded gorge, but if time is tight simply plod on up the main road.

Crowborough's Edwardian police station is only open between ten and two on weekdays, suggesting that violent crime is not a serious affliction hereabouts. Keep going and you may spot Watson Way and Sherlock Shaw, two modern cul-de-sacs with very Holmesian names, of which more later. And at the White Hart, the big old pub opposite the water trough, a difficult choice must be faced. The quickest way to the hilltop is to head west past the parish church, but that would be casting aside all the history that the town centre has to offer, so the experienced rambler is invited to continue straight ahead to approach via the northern flank.

One final brook needs to be crossed - don't worry, you won't get your feet wet - before the last few houses make way for the first few shops. They're a goodly mix of branded cafes, hardware stores and gents outfitters, plus a dispensing chemist whose frontage includes lettering that can't have been updated since the 1960s. A defibrillator has been placed outside the door to the old town hall in case climbing this far in one go has been too much for you. At present the main high street is subject to major gas main repairs, so is less attractive than it might be, but to be fair most of the hillside's natural beauty was devoured some time ago. Those arriving by bus from Royal Tunbridge Wells, of which more later, can begin their ascent here.

If you reach the Wetherspoons by the crossroads you've gone too far, plus you might accidentally spot the statue to the town's most famous former resident, of whom more later. Instead climb the stepped gully beside the travel agents to reach an open plateau, midway between the respective car parks of Waitrose and Morrisons. Watch out, the rainbow may be behind you. Crowborough's community centre is located on the higher slopes, a swish glass number built in a recent era when councils still had money. Try to keep your spirits up, even though you've now been climbing for almost half an hour - one last push past that patch of new flats should do it.

The summit of Crowborough Hill is somewhere along Beacon Road, which rises gently to an indistinct peak just beyond the change in speed limit. Instead of a beacon today we find an O2 phone mast, a service reservoir and a turretlike water tower. The trig point, alas, is secured within South East Water's locked perimeter. It's a shame to have climbed all this way and not to be able to reach the official highpoint, but residential encroachment means there wouldn't have been much of a view anyway. Beacon Road doubles up as the A26, by the way, so you could in fact have driven here and avoided all this hill-climbing malarkey.

The western slopes of the hill are covered by sweeping avenues of very large detached houses, many shrouded in conifers. Anywhere else these might be private roads but in Crowborough Warren affluence is normal, and most retired bank managers don't feel the need to bother with security gates. David Jason used to live hereabouts, before he got really famous, not to mention Dirk Bogarde, Ross Kemp and Adam Faith. Were you to descend past Warren Lodge the lane eventually leads to the edge of Ashdown Forest, Five Hundred Acre Wood and the original Poohsticks Bridge, but best not in this weather, so hopefully more of that later.

For an interesting descent continue down Beacon Road to the clubhouse of Crowborough Beacon Golf Club. Its terrace it boasts a spectacular view across woods and heathland to the blue line of the South Downs, and on a good day the sea beyond, although these are not best seen through an impromptu hailstorm. When it was opened over a century ago the golf club covered what used to be Crowborough Common, limiting roaming access to residents who weren't paid up members. One paid-up member was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who was so enamoured by the course that he moved to an adjacent property in 1907 and spent the last 23 years of his life on its doorstep.

That property was Windlesham, a large house on Hurtis Hill facing open common [video]. Conan Doyle had already penned his most famous stories before moving in, but continued to write in a small summerhouse in the rose garden, including the fourth and final Sherlock Holmes collection. After he died in 1930 he was buried alongside the summerhouse, but when his family sold the house in 1955 his remains were transferred to a New Forest churchyard. Today Windlesham Manor is an old people's home, its former front garden tarmacked for use by cars and ambulances, and remains resolutely plaqueless.

To return to Crowborough station continue east through Whitehill and Alderbrook for about a mile and a half. Congratulations. Not only have you climbed one of southeast England's highest hills without getting your boots muddy, but also one of its handful of Marilyns, of which more later.

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