Houghton in West Sussex makes an ideal starting location for a South Downs circular walk. The railway station is within easy walking distance of the South Downs Way (SDW) and other long distance walking trails, such as the Monarch’s Way.
Houghton to Eartham Wood Circular Walk
If you do intend travelling to Houghton by train, make sure you get off at Amberley station as that is located in the village of Houghton. Confusing, slightly. Amberley is 1/2 a mile north of Houghton and the station. Do what I did, drive.
Historic Houghton West Sussex
The village has several historic listed buildings, including the lovely George and Dragon pub, which has parts of the building dating back to the 13th century. King Charles II is reputed to have stopped here in 1651 when fleeing the country after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester. The Monarch’s Way walking trail covers that historic route.
My route on this circular walk would take in a Roman road, the SDW, Monarch’s Way and spectacular views over Surrey and Sussex. It sadly didn’t include the pub interior this time.
Walking The Monarch’s Way
After parking the car outside the village main road I walked back towards the main Houghton to Arundel road, the B2139. Following the main road out of the village, leaving the mighty River Arun behind and to my left I stopped to take a photo of the village pub, the George and Dragon. Worthy of a photo today and certainly a meal another time. I’ve stopped there before and the menu gets the thumbs up from me.
With the pub on your right hand side, continue walking along the main road (B2139) a short distance and you will then see the Monarch’s Way trail leading off slightly to your right. Look for the typical public right of way signpost.
The walk climbs steeply as you leave Houghton behind, I wonder if the fleeing Monarch had to carry his own lunch and water, probably not. The section from Houghton to the A29 road near Whiteways car park is wooded and offers little in the way of views. If you’ve read any of my other blog articles you’ll know that I love my views – this circular walk doesn’t disappoint.
Houghton Forest to Gumber Corner
The main A29 road has to be crossed with care, the road is busy and fast, though only 2 lanes wide. Popular with most means of transport, Sunday in particular is motorbike day! I’m not going to make any comment for or against two-wheel fun as I was one of them for many years.
Leaving the sound of mechanical horsepower behind, it doesn’t take long to be back amongst nature as you walk into Houghton Forest. The Monarch’s Way path is wide through the forest and offers plenty of room for cyclists, dog walkers, horse riders and hikers waving trekking poles around, in other words me.
With the sky obscured by the trees of the forest, perceived time stands still. Passing fellow walkers offer perhaps, the only sense of the passage of time; good morning, ‘morning are the greetings that reinforce my “body clock”. Must still be morning, either that or I’m sounding like a fool at 4pm.
After several kilometres walking, the Monarch’s Way takes a sharp left turn through a wide gate just beyond Gumber Corner and the magnificent Roman road of Stane Street awaits me.
Stane Street Roman Road
I’ve walked this route before in part, you can read that here; Stane Street. I wonder if the Romans stopped to admire the views, or did they desire a warm spa, away from the wind and suspicion of the ancients. This section of Roman Road is fantastic, leaving an obvious but welcome scar across the landscape. It is also living history, from London to Chichester.
An Ancient Wind
Do you walk certain locations and feel the subtle temperature drops? Half a degree here, a patch of eternal shade. The wind blows well at The Gumber. It’s an ancient wind. It carries no sound of modern life, it carries no smell of modern towns, it doesn’t welcome you but it doesn’t hinder your progress. It is none the less inquisitive; who goes there?
It just blows at you. Seeking out the identity of the traveller; allowing you enough time to stop and admire the view but reminding you that this is a Roman road; no, it is a street and the middle of the street was once not the place to stop and linger without being questioned.
I followed Stane Street, the Monarch’s Way in the direction of Chichester Cathedral, there was of course very little choice, the Romans saw to that. The last section of Stane Street before it enters Eartham Wood is perhaps the most original in my mind. The camber, the flint metalling, raised for drainage. Engineering skills fit for purpose.
Leaving the ancient fields behind, Stane Street enters abruptly Eartham Wood. The temperature rises as the inquisitive wind finds its way blocked purposefully by the strong trees. A welcome place of shelter perhaps.
Eartham Wood – Dog Heaven
Footpaths, bridleways and a Roman Road run through the beech woodland. The solitude of Stane Street at The Gumber is replaced now with friendly dogs scampering through woodland paths. Owners call out a 101 different names as Fido carries out “his” important mission; having maximum fun.
Eartham Wood is the western edge of my walk on this day. A rectangular circular walk on paper. A steady climb now took me northwards away from the Monarch’s Way, towards eventually Upwaltham Hill, some 200 metres above sea level. Time for a spot of lunch.
There is a forest clearing close to Upwaltham Hill that offers a fantastic natural seating arrangement for lunch. Table for one, seating for twenty? Just take your pick of tree stump and rest your weary legs; beware the rising sap.
Glatting Beacon to Bignor Hill
Lunch in warm sunshine on the first day of March. You cannot beat that. A bird of prey circled high above the treetops, sharing this idyllic of lunch locations.
You can keep your Heston Blumenthal “Fat Duck” gastro restaurant, I would rather have a South Downs sandwich any day.
With lunch eaten and legs rested it was time to seek out the South Downs Way for the journey eastwards back, eventually to Houghton but not before a few more hills. I left Eartham Wood and walked east now. On the map Glatting Beacon is marked as having a trig point and communication aerials. It is 245 metres above sea level. You can see the masts for miles.
Keeping the adjacent hill, Sutton Down on my left, a hill of 242 metres high, I walked east for approximately 1 kilometre before taking a path northwards that would intersect with the South Downs Way at Glatting Beacon.
The communication aerials of Glatting Beacon serve in good visibility as a landmark for many miles around. From Glatting Beacon I walked the main South Downs Way towards perhaps the best view on my route, Bignor Hill. You cross Stane Street again, just outside the hilltop car park at Bignor. Though the section of Roman Stane Street walked at Gumber Bothy is by far the best example on the route.
Bignor Hill Legend
The summit of the flint strewn Bignor Hill is 225 metres above sea level. Not a terrific altitude but more than made up for it by stunning views in all directions. With these views of course comes that inquisitive wind; wanting answers, tugging at every loose piece of clothing.
If the wind that blows across The Gumber asks questions of you, the wind that howls across Bignor Hill demands your attention. Bignor Hill is an immense rolling flint strewn surface. Gone is the familiar grass of Gumber Corner; gone are the protective trees of Eartham Wood; gone are the sheltering hedgerows.
Replaced with a cold howling wind, reminding you that your time on the hillside is merely borrowed from nature. This hill belongs to Bignor, best not forget that.
An old Celtic legend has us believe that a dragon had its lair on top of Bignor Hill, the remains of the dragon can be seen in the folds of the ground. Has the dragon lost its fiery breath to be replaced by a biting cold wind instead?
Even on a bright day with blue sky you can quite easily imagine that the howling wind is there to stop unwanted guests from lingering. This is not a place for those ill prepared, you may not believe in the ancient legends but I am sure they see and believe in you. Looking east the hilltop Iron-Age fort at Chanctonbury Ring can be seen clinging to the very edge of the Ridge; another location that asks nothing of you but respect for the land.
Bury Hill to Houghton
The final climb of the day comes after descending Bignor Hill. The SDW rises up again once more at Westburton Hill and Bury Hill, the latter being 178 metres above sea level. The South Downs Way at this time of year, early spring, can be very wet and muddy in places. On some parts of the South Downs Way there is no option but to walk along the thin edge of a field, doing your very best to avoid damaging too many crops.
It’s not an idea solution but after a day of heavy rain, deep and wide puddles are plentiful. The SDW crosses the A29 approximately 1 kilometre north of the Monarch’s Way crossing point. Same rules of the road apply, keep your eyes and ears open as it is a busy road!
Amberley and The Arun
The final descent of the South Downs from the A29 crossing back to Houghton village is very scenic. The mighty River Arun catches the sunlight as it twists and turns from coast to countryside. The Wild Brooks still wet after winter floods look like massive ground mirrors reflecting the sky above.
The prominent natural landmark of Amberley Mount dominates the landscape skyline to the east; the South Downs Ridge that is so popular with gliders and hikers beckons explorers and adventure seekers.
As I walked the last mile or so the South Downs offered up views in all directions. A chance for a few final photographs to remind myself why even a familiar landscape never ever looks the same twice. This is an area I know well, yet I never get tired of walking.
Walking Weather Luck
The South Downs weather forecast for the first day of March was sunshine in the morning, with squally showers by late afternoon. You have to plan your walks in late winter well. I was fortunate and mother nature did indeed put on her Sunday best for those of us that appreciate such things.
Route: Houghton Village to Eartham Wood and back.
Distance: 12.36 miles (19.89 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.