Walking Stane Street, Bury Hill & Eartham Wood
I had been here before in a past life. I had probably stood in the very same spot before. Not in a past life as some Roman foot soldier, nor Bronze Age man making flint tools.
No, I had been here before in a past life as a biker, the kind with a large engine. The walk starts and ends amongst a lot of horsepower.
January had delivered some good weather, so the bikers of Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire were out enjoying the dry Sunday roads and a welcome cup of tea at Whiteways Cafe, situated on the A29 a few miles north of Arundel, West Sussex.
“Bury Hill” as we liked to call the car park and cafe, has been a popular location for bikers and hikers for many years. This particular Sunday proved no exception. The car park was busy with over-excited dogs, reversing cars and V-twins, inline-fours, classic British singles all growling away trying to gain some attention. Sunday it would seem, is a busy day of leisure (pursuits).
Bury Hill Bikers and Hikers
I was joined on this walk once more by Keith “Fozzie” Foskett – a seasoned thru-hiker and Sussex local. Several weeks previous I had seen a photo of the Roman road – Stane Street; Fozzie had shared an image online and I was intrigued by the location. So a plan was made, walking boots and gloves made ready.
This was a new walk for me, yet the start location was very very familiar; I met up with Fozzie at Bury Hill car park and set off along a marked path into the unknown (for me), quite literally within a matter of minutes I had left behind the rumble of Japan, Italy and Britain; perhaps that should read the oil drips of Britain.
Walking due north I followed a popular track from the car park towards the main South Downs Way. The car park at Bury Hill is not intersected by the SDW but instead by The Monarch’s Way, more of which later in this article. The first thing that struck me (almost!) was the number of early morning trail-runners heading towards me. The path from the car-park towards the SDW is not wide enough in wet slippery conditions for runners and hikers to co-exist on. I moved off track slightly; can’t stop progress!
Once the runners had vanished behind, a lovely sense of isolation returned; Fozzie and I walked onwards, at a steady non-running pace. Why rush? The South Downs Way runs roughly north-west / east approx 1km north of the public car park. The SDW is wide enough for maintenance vehicles so skirting around the odd rogue runner and deep puddle is not a problem.
As with much of the SDW, you can with good visibility see for miles in most directions. Fozzie (helpfully) pointed out a distant hill which was the next “landmark” destination to walk to. Bury Hill, Westburton Hill and Bignor Hill can at the right time of day be very remote. Rolling hills, wildlife and the whistling wind to keep you company. My kind of landscape if you don’t mind.
Bignor Hill – Big on Views
I’m still to this day pleasantly surprised by the friendly greeting passing hikers, bikers and dogs give you. There is hopefully a shared respect of the countryside. In the distance groups of walkers could be seen, consulting maps and opinions. There are numerous legal rights of way leading off of the SDW but for now, I kept to the main route.
The steep climb up Bignor Hill is worth it, believe me. The summit is just over 225 metres, not a great altitude but made up for by great; no stunning; breathtaking views in almost 360 degrees. Even though this January day was dry and bright, the wind whistled up here with a relentless purpose. It is no coincidence that Chanctonbury Ring can be clearly seen looking east; an equally open, remote mystical windswept location.
The South Downs, in a matter of miles, go from busy car park to windswept neolithic features. The secret to this landscape is walking it, at different times of the day, different times of the year. You’ll never see the same view twice, it’s always changing, evolving with the passing of years.
The photo above is from Bignor Hill, my camera doesn’t do the view justice. Go walk up there yourself and admire. Looking east towards Chanctonbury Ring, itself a Bronze Age mysterious location, you can see the flood plain of the River Arun. The area around Amberley and Pulborough frequently floods in winter, sensibly most of the flood plain remains as nature intended but properties have been severely flooded in wet winters. The River Arun is tidal so winter walking on the low ground needs planning carefully.
The winter sunshine enhanced almost every piece of flint on Bignor Hill. The photo above shows just a fraction of the thousands of pieces of flint, now exposed to the elements from years of farming the land. It is a spectacular landscape. One mile you have chalk downs, a mile later flint ridges, then rolling grass downland.
Glatting Beacon – Early Civilisation
I left the bracing wind of Bignor Hill behind me and continued along the SDW, westwards towards tiny vehicles in the distance. The trail was dry up here, being high up on the hills. I arrived at a public car park, accessed by a climbing, twisty country lane. I still think my approach route was better 😉
The car park between Glatting Beacon / Bignor Hill was busy, the far-reaching views and promise of Roman roads too good to ignore for many. There is a mock Roman signpost in the car park, a photo very early in the morning or lit at night by flash would probably look better than my version with cars behind it; but it’s all about the walk not the photos. A few paces from the car park sees my first glimpse of Roman road.
Stane Street is the modern name given to the Roman road that linked London to the Roman town of Noviomagus Reginorum, or Regnentium. Otherwise known by the locals as Chichester! With a car park full of cars (not many Roman Fiats to be seen) it was difficult to imagine the area as it would had been back in AD45.
I took a couple of photos as I walked through a cutting in the raised Roman embankment, close to the car park but Fozzie’s shared photo from a few weeks prior promised greater rewards further into the walk.
The Monarch’s Way – King, Romans, Countrymen
I followed the SDW to the point where the Monarch’s Way meets it, just north of the wonderfully named “Gumber Corner“. For those that don’t know (and I was one of them) the Monarch’s Way is a historical trail, of over 615 miles, that traces the approximate escape route of King Charles II in 1651. King Charles was defeated at the Battle of Worcester and eventually arrived in France, via Worcester, Bristol, Yeovil, Charmouth and Shoreham. Plenty of travelling for all!
The South Downs section of the Monarch’s Way begins in Hampshire, south of Winchester and arrives at Shoreham in West Sussex. Walking the South Downs involves much more than walking the South Downs Way; more locations to explore at a later date me thinks.
At Gumber Corner I left the SDW and joined the highlight of this walk (even better than the Bignor Hill views). In front of me the Monarch’s Way headed South-West, as straight as a Roman nose. There was no doubting the route of Stane Street; for here it was pointing directly to Chichester. All roads lead to Rome, or Chichester…London…Colchester…you get the point.
At Gumber Corner there is a bench, for those that like to sit and admire the view, looking towards the English Channel and over the Slindon Estate. If you wanted a shorter walk, this would be an ideal finishing point of a circular route (if that makes sense to you); but for me, I wanted more of this.
In all my years I have never walked on such an intact piece of Roman engineering. Of course many of our A roads run along routes chosen by the Romans for efficiency and speed but are obviously buried far beneath layers of tarmac, concrete and numerous traffic cones.
Here in front of me was lush green land and a raised, wide road. What did the Romans do for us? Quite a lot in Sussex! This section of the South Downs is much quieter, only a couple of happy cyclists caused me to step off of Stane Street. Not many streets in Britain you can walk down the middle of on a Sunday lunchtime.
I took several photos, not ideal lighting as I was facing the sun for the particular view I wanted but what a great excuse to return over and over again to watch the landscape change.
The landscape of the South Downs once again showed me a different side; this time lush green grass, numerous trees and a gradual descent towards, eventually Chichester. From flint ridges to gentle slopes.
Fozzie and I walked along Stane Street, I know from reading his own blog that this area means as much to him as it now means to me. Take away a few metal fences and corrugated barns and you are back 2000 years. Within minutes the Monarch’s Way changed into an open landscape, that sense of isolation and escapism that the Downs are famed for.
For I Am Gumber Bothy
What a great name, a character from a children’s book? A neolithic hunter? Actually no, Gumber Bothy is a converted Sussex flint barn, on a working sheep farm. It provides simple overnight accommodation just a few feet off of Stane Street. Owned and managed by the National Trust. With no vehicle access but toilets, showers, drying room, this is glamping or gliking for those that enjoy a little luxury away from it all.
Look at that isolation, if ever there was a location to help compose your thoughts, this would be high up on the list. As much as I wanted to stand still, I still had a walk to complete and I hadn’t had lunch yet. Soldiers don’t march on empty stomachs and neither do I.
Perhaps the best part of Stane Street was still to come. As I walked straight and true, the landscape once more changed, from the open fields of Gumber Farm to the tree-lined avenue that led into Eartham Wood.
Stane Street – The Original
This final section of Stane Street (my walk leaves it as this point) gives, in my opinion, the best view of what the Roman road would have been like. An obvious camber (agger), hard-wearing flint metalling, raised above the boggy ground and wide enough for a horse and cart in either direction. Remove the trees for a moment from your mental image and you have a road, a street, unchanged in time. As I walked into Eartham Wood, the wind died away, the views diminished from sight and the next climb awaited.
Eartham Wood – Inland Beech
I stepped into the wood and immediately tuned right onto a forest path that ran due north and upwards. The Monarch’s Way would continue South-West for a short distance, whilst Stane Street would head directly to Chichester.
Eartham Wood is silent, not sinister as some locals would have you believe but very silent. The beech trees preventing anything but travel along the “official” paths and tracks. Branches creak and crack high up in the breeze. I would imagine at night the Romans would have marched double-time or not at all. Keep to the path boys, keep to the path.
Fozzie and I had the path to ourselves for a quite a while, halfway up the incline two well-heeled horse riders, the landed-gentry perhaps, bid us a cheerful good morning (I was convinced it was lunchtime!); never judge a book by its cover I say. As we neared the wooded summit of Upwaltham Hill (some 210m high) a forest clearing, at the junction of several paths, called out as the perfect spot for lunch.
Freshly felled coniferous trees left behind weeping stumps, perfect woodland seats, if a little wet. The sun was still high in the sky over the tree-tops, casting spring warmth into the dark woods.
I sat facing the sun and had my lunch, couldn’t ask for anymore from mother nature. Food, location and somewhere to rest for a while. The only disturbance was a very welcome Airedale Terrier who was ignoring his owner in search of some free lunch from Fozzie. After several happy minutes the terrier ran off back into the beech trees, in search of his owner’s fading commands.
Lunch eaten, possessions collected; leave only footprints, take only photos; I set off again, now in an easterly direction along a wide path that eventually would meet up with the Monarch’s Way once more back at Gumber Corner.
The Fozzie Loop – 8 Track Style
Walking east, out of the woods, the landscape returned to a familiar one of vast open fields, flints strewn far and wide like a neolithic exploding meteorite. The radio masts of Glatting Beacon a reminder of our location in the Downs. Imagine for a moment, a figure 8, now turn that figure 8 through 90 degrees. This is the Fozzie Loop I was walking as you’ll see from the map at the end of this article.
Again this was a very quiet section of the South Downs, only a hillside away from the main SDW but a world apart from the Sunday hikers, bikers and dog walkers. I headed east back to Gumber Corner where this time I took the Monarch’s Way, and walked south-east through Houghton Forest towards Bury Hill car park.
Dogs, Dirt and Disgust
As I left Gumber Corner behind me and walked the Monarch’s Way through Houghton Forest the landscape changed yet again, slowly, gradually a marked difference. Gone were the vast open flint hillsides, gone were the efficient, enterprising Romans, gone were the views for miles.
Replaced by what you ask; replaced by signs of modern mankind; litter. The Monarch’s Way leads south-east straight back to Bury Hill car park, (the start of my journey you’ll remember). The closer I got to Bury Hill car park, the closer I got to lazy humans and litter. Empty bottles, beer cans, plastic all over the place. Why? I was nearing the end of a 9 mile walk and had dropped nothing but sweat!
There was worse to come; the final few hundred yards of Houghton Forest contained bag upon bag of dog waste. Tied up in those little dog-waste bags and then simply chucked next to a tree or tied onto a low hanging branch. I don’t mean one or two bags, I mean lots of them, 50, 60, perhaps 100 bags of dog waste.
Houghton Forest – Bury Hill
I didn’t stop to count. This was just yards, mere yards, from the car park. Yards from grass where children do play in the summer. Even on a winter’s day in January a family were playing with new Christmas bikes in the woods. Unaware or perhaps ignorant of the bags of dog waste all over the area.
I don’t understand the mentality; people pick up after their dog has been to the toilet and then tie the bag in a knot and leave it in the woods. Leave it in the woods for who exactly? For animals to die from the plastic bags, for children to pick up disease? For swarms of blue-bottles and foul smells in hot summers?
There is a reason I enjoy the solitude of Stane Street and Gumber Corner. There are many reasons I despair at how some (and not all) humans treat nature. Please enjoy this walk and please look at Houghton Woods and think; you and I probably know a friend of a friend of a friend who ties dog waste in trees and throws plastic bottles into ponds.
Route: Bury Hill to Eartham Wood and back.
Distance: 9.22 miles (14.83 km)
Map of Walking Route
The map shown is a rough guide to the route that I walked. Please make sure you always follow safe and legal paths, roads and walkways. The actual location of the red-route on the map is an approximation. Never walk in the sea or off a cliff, please just don’t, you’ll get wet and I’ll get worried!
You can click download for a basic (no altitude data) GPX file to import into any GPS route display device that supports file uploads.