I’ve camped up here several times. It feels special, timely, even atmospheric. The history is deep, entwined in the very earth under my feet. Thousands of years past, memories locked in the ground that still resonate and vibrate. You can feel them, honest you can.
The Sussex Downs looking down from Bury Hill near the start of my walk
I woke in the early hours, I don’t know what time exactly. My hammock was purposely pitched low beneath the tarp so I could take advantage if I woke and see my surroundings. A low slung moon picked out the tree flanks, bathed in a silver light. The moss glowed, shadows stretched and save the odd rustle of a rabbit, it was quiet. I wondered why I had woken? Perhaps it was a dream gently bringing me round. Then, after a minute or so I remembered and it chilled me. Marching, the rhythmic sound of feet on hard ground, perfectly synchronised, like a thousand drumbeats. I was a mere few yards from Stane Street, an old Roman road built to link Chichester with London. I shrugged it off and fell back to sleep.
I came to at sunrise, 5.30am back then in the summer. There’s few greater pleasures than waking when the sun hits you, it’s how it’s supposed to be and how it always once was for all of us. Was the marching a dream? Was my awakening a dream even?
West Sussex rarely gets mentioned in walking magazines. I don’t care, the fewer people that visit means it’s less crowded for me. The publications focus on the western areas of the UK because that’s where the mountains are. Wales, The Lake District and Scotland all vie for the editors picks because, apparently, height is everything.
But, it is my little corner of the world that has everything. Classic rolling down land, miles of albino white chalk trails, ancient wood and forest, a dramatic coastline and most of all, it is bathed in history.
I am familiar with West Sussex, I have lived here my entire life. I know some great trails, can show you the best views, wooded strolls, coast line ambles but there is one little niche I have become very fond of and it centres around Stane Street.
Whiteways Lodge is a little café bustling with Hondas, Ducatis and Triumphs at the weekend. It sits on the top of Bury Hill, just outside Arundel and right next to Houghton Forest. I skirt the eastern edge as the traffic noise from the A29 fades, thankfully. The South Downs Way, familiar territory, merges from my right and I join it’s flow whilst gently climbing. Sweeping views join the ensemble to my left, on a clear day the English Channel glistens to the south. Westburton Hill rises but I fall down to a small farm, the bottom always muddy except in the middle of summer. I decide which side to skirt the sludge and then hang left to climb steeply up to 225 metres.
Onto the South Downs Way near the start of the loop
As I level out finally, Bignor Hill appears below me, a few cars dot the car park but I see no one. The familiar signpost on the summit points out places such as Slindon, Sutton, Bignor, Noviomagus and the big city itself, Londinium.
A mere five minutes later I bisect Stane Street. The Roman’s penchant for building their roads straight must have cost them dearly as the South Downs rose up before them. But, straight over they went and still to this day, a clear raised ramp perhaps 15 feet high cuts a datum swathe for a mile and a half down to Eartham Woods, also forming part of the Monarchs Way.
The raised ridge between the two trees is Stane Street, a Roman road built to link London and Chichester
History is rife on this trail and it was the route used by King Charles II to escape after defeat in the Battle of Worcester. The Monarchs Way is an impressive, and tempting 615 miles long. Alas, not today.
Passing the Gumber Bothy, Stane Street carries on a south west bearing through Eartham Wood but I leave it almost immediately after entering and turn north uphill. The leaves are just turning now but green still abounds, even in late October.
Stane Street again just before entering Eartham Woods
An occasional, deep green Yew stands out like a solitary sentinel, keeping guard over the rest of it’s friends. I’ve slept under many a Yew, their low slung branches darken the ground and insulate, especially with a small fire. They can be so dense that even light showers are unable to work through to the ground.
The path is full of mystery. A family member of mine is acquainted with someone who was also walking up here one day. Spotting something unusual protruding from the ground he bent down to lever the object from it’s resting place. To his surprise, and horror, a beautiful and intricate copper bracelet revealed itself, along with the owner’s skeletal wrist still wearing it. It turned out to be Romano-British, dating from around 100 AD.
The climb warms me and I peel off a layer, scanning the trail ahead to try and glimpse where it levels and my right turn appears. The top portion of Eartham Woods offers flatter ground, ideal for wild camping and perfect for hammocks. Widely spaced trees lend themselves well to our suspended shelters. Yellow and red leaves litter the ground as a passing wind whips them into a frenzy, swirling in the air eddies and announcing their fun by a whispered, ghostly rustle.
Bignor Hill signpost
My tree tunnel diminishes as dark fades to light and once more I reach open land just south of Burton Down, glad of the sun on my arms. I’m heading back now having completed the lower curve of my figure of eight walk. The aerial masts atop Glatting Beacon peek above the trees shyly and shortly after I cross Stane Street once more, reaching the northern edge of Houghton Forest where my Roman footfall camp lurks in the woods. A Neolithic Camp is marked on my map but the land offers little to agree with it. The long, gentle downhill eases south east, wide enough for the occasional biker to pass easily but today, Monday, all is quiet.
Looking back into Eartham Woods just before exiting south of Burton Down
I reach the bottom and a kind ascent marks the final section back to Whiteways. Conifers appear to my right, I glimpse the occasional oak, commanding it’s own section of woodland as other trees back away hesitantly from it’s boughs.
My walk finishes once more at the café, even my steps now confined to history. As for my dream, indeed if it ever even was a dream, only Stane Street holds any answers.
The last portion of the walk downhill through Houghton Forest