Walking the South Downs ridge to Houghton Bridge
Everyone was suffering from the Monday morning blues. Social media was full of the hashtag #bluemonday (the third Monday in January) which is said to be the most depressing day of the year.
What better day to choose for a walk from Storrington to Houghton Bridge and back. Not everyone had the blues in my household. The weather for the latter part of January was wintry; cold frosty nights and grey damp days. The morning started off that way. Camera, boots and maps readied.
I headed towards the centre of Storrington along the familiar River Walk; a path that runs beside the River Stor. Stopping to buy some lunch from a convenience store for later on. The actual location for lunch unknown to me at this time; isn’t that half the fun of exploring on foot.
The shortest walking route from Storrington village centre to the South Downs Way is via Church Street and then Greyfriars Lane, a route I knew very well; a route that was also steep.
The Open Season
As I walked towards the Downs the sky was lead grey overhead, no breeze, no brightness. Blue Monday certainly didn’t refer to the sky above. A convoy of slow-moving 4x4s, their drivers wearing seasoned Barbour Jackets, reminded me that this was shooting season and sticking to the exact route of the right-of-way was essential if I didn’t want to end up peppered with shot.
The climb from Greyfriars Lane up to the South Downs Way is steep and densely wooded; the heavy chalk paste clung to my boots and sucked the vigor from each stride. Slow progress was made. To my left men were flushing Game towards the sharp crack of a firing Gun.
The ground eventually began to level out as I emerged from the wood, the frost was bright and smothered all; from fields to bramble. All was white in the world. The distant pop of shotguns now fading.
Everything was covered in tiny crystals of ice and naturally I took lots of photos. The air was still and the wildlife was keeping close to ground. At 196 metres above sea level the South Downs Ridge allows the air to remain just that little bit colder. The frost lingers, mud crunches under your boots.
OS Maps of the area show clearly the rights-of-way, the signposts are a welcome reminder and for me, an excuse to take more photos in the frost. I refer to this section above Storrington as a ridge because it very much is. Popular in dry spells with the silent gliders from Parham Airfield, a few minutes soaring time away.
I followed a well worn path westwards, towards the car park at Kithurst Hill, where the main South Downs Way trail is easily accessed by weekend walkers. With the shooting party now many feet below me, I had the South Downs very much to myself.
South Downs Solitude
On any given sunny Sunday the car park at Kithurst Hill would be busy with organised walks, competitive mountain-bikers and families but today there was just a single parked car; a lone dog walker somewhere out on the great expanse of farmland.
The SDW is wide here, which allowed me to zig zag my way around the patches of ice and the solitude meant I was unlikely to bother anyone with my stagger! As I walked west towards Springhead Hill I caught a glimpse of the English Channel away to my left; a bright golden patch of sea, illuminated by a single warming sunbeam. The land still under cold grey cloud. Come on sunshine, you can do it.
Springhead and Rackham Hills
These hills are respectively 191 metres and 193 metres high, with Rackham Hill’s summit marked with a trig point; sadly the wrong side of a farmers fence but easy enough to photograph with a little camera zoom. It is from this section of the SDW that you really get to appreciate the views; English Channel, Isle of Wight, North Downs.
In winter time the most obvious landmarks from up on high are Amberley Wild Brooks and Pulborough Brooks, looking north. The brooks are areas of natural flood plain for the mighty River Arun.
From Rackham Hill you can truly appreciate the importance of natural flood plains. Even moderately wet winters will produce acres of flooded land. The floods of winter 2013 caused severe issues even in West Sussex.
Parham Park Fallow Deer
As I walked along the SDW, enjoying the solitude I spotted faces in the distance looking at me over the brow of Rackham Hill. Lots of faces, silhouetted against the still grey northern sky.
I was treated to a view of a herd of fallow deer, as I walked west, the herd kept their distance and moved west. We all moved up west. Nervous as always the herd fixed their gaze on me. Silently and slowly I took my camera out and managed to grab a few shots.
Sadly I didn’t catch on photo or video the moment that the herd jumped over the fence, leaping high over the SDW into the adjacent field to my left. Was a very special moment. You had to be up here to appreciate it; no excuses.
Rackham Banks to Amberley Mount
With the herd of deer long gone, I walked once more towards the west. The hills of Bignor and Glatting a stunning backdrop, a reminder of my previous Roman Road walk. I walked by Rackham Banks towards Amberley Mount. Both areas of neolithic activity. Rackham Banks situated just south of the main SDW is a prehistoric cross dyke. Excavation suggests human settlement during the Late Bronze Age / Early iron Age.
Amberley Mount, pictured above is a prehistoric burial mound, marked as Tumuli on OS Maps. Roman pottery has also been found at Amberley Mount. Certainly a very important location for our ancestors. It felt a very welcoming location, partly I guess because I was on the final descent from the high ridge and partly because this area had been a safe home for people for thousands of years.
Below is the view from Amberley Mount looking to the west. Bury Hill, Bignor Hill and Glatting Beacon can clearly be seen. Those hills offer equally stunning views to the east.
As I walked the final section of the ridge, I walked through Downs Farm, depending on the time and season there can be a lot of cattle around. Best to keep dogs under control on this last section.
Mud, is never far away on the South Downs and the entrance to Downs Farm is no exception. The SDW is to the right of the image below, through the small gate. Even photos of modern farming have a charm about them, seeing the land being worked with respect. It was only here that I saw people. My entire time spent walking the ridge was in solitude; except for the leaping deer.
Amberley Station in Houghton
As I left the fields behind me, the SDW follows a rural road, High Titten. This location is also the start / end of the Wey South Path, a walking route of just over 36 miles from Guildford Surrey. As I mention on this blog’s home page, the South Downs have many connecting trails to be explored.
Following the SDW signs, the trail eventually meets up with the busy turnpike road, the B2139. This is the main road to Amberley Station and Amberley Museum & Heritage Centre, a 36 acre site dedicated to the industrial heritage of the South East.
Amberley Railway Station can confuse the visitor because it is located in the heart of the village of Houghton. The picturesque village of Amberley is in fact a half a mile north.
Keeping true to the South Downs Way I followed the signposts which led me north along a grass verge parallel with the B2139 for a few hundred metres. There is a dedicated crossing point as the SDW continues west on the opposite side of the road. Be warned that the road is very busy, despite being single carriageway.
After crossing the main road I followed the SDW signs which directed me down a concrete track in the direction of the main railway line, a sewage farm and the River Arun. Something there to please someone I would guess! The terrain was flat, my OS Map tells me it’s a mere 3 to 4 metres above sea level – the end of the high road but not the end of my walk by any measure.
There is drinking water and a trough for watering horses on your left, just beyond the railway bridge and the farm buildings, heading west on the SDW.
The Mighty River Arun
Did you know the Arun is one of the fastest flowing rivers in England. No neither did I, but according to some online research by me it is. What I do know is the river is prone to flooding the surrounding area so you have to pick your season to walk the locale.
As I followed the SDW over the railway bridge I could see patches of deep blue amongst lush green. The groundwater on the adjacent fields was still frozen and reflected the deep winter blue of the sky. Once more the landscape of the South Downs had changed in a matter of 1/2 a mile. From chalk and flint, to reeds and river.
Blue Monday was now starting to live up to its trending name; the sun had finally broken through its winter grey overcoat and the cold pools and drainage channels welcomed the warmth.
Across this marsh runs the railway line, safely raised above winter water on an embankment. As the trains from London whooshed along I wondered who might be looking at me, the lone walker; standing on the banks of the Arun, smiling.
Crossing To The Other Side
Raised banks, no more than grassy dykes, form the path of the SDW along the Arun. Hundreds of boot-prints, filled with winter rain guide you in the right direction. The banks drop one side into the river and the other, into the drainage ditches. It is wise to keep up high.
Ahead of me the South Downs once more commanded the horizon. Bury Hill, which offers motorists fleeting views of the landscape, the prominent hill. I squelched along the trail towards the modern footbridge.
A Bridge Too Far?
To continue on the SDW means crossing the Arun via the modern steel footbridge. Wide enough for horses the structure could be deemed out-of-place, rising above the reeds, river and wildlife.
The bridge does have a welcome place in nature though, the gentle curve of the steel blends with the curves of the landscape behind; no coincidence I am sure. Sunlight casts attractive shadows through the vertical bars, creating a uniform, architectural pattern on the walkway.
I crossed the bridge, stopping to take photos, only momentarily was I behind bars, isolated from nature but protected at the same time. As the photo below shows, the river offers angles and reflections that would obviously be missing if the bridge simply crossed a busy road.
Natural engineering works hand in hand here. Vertical reeds meet vertical rods. River reflects raised steel.
It wasn’t quite lunchtime as I crossed the bridge so I turned left and parted with the SDW for now and followed the banks of the Arun towards Houghton Bridge. Walking alongside and several feet above the river in welcoming warm sunshine it was hard to imagine being anywhere else.
Houghton Bridge – Pinch Point
A few hundred curving metres along the river path sees the picturesque Houghton Bridge come into view. Built with medieval appearance this version of the bridge was actually constructed in 1875, a pretender if you please. Then bridge spans two legs of the Arun with a solid, non-arched section in the middle. The narrow width of the bridge makes it a traffic pinch point.
The Arun is tidal for over 25 miles and the keystones of Houghton Bridge’s arches sat close to the fast flowing water. A spring tide with winter rain sees an enormous amount of water flow through Houghton and the surrounding brooks.
The road is busy and any attempts at inspecting the magnificent architecture is best done from the footpaths. Houghton suffers as a result of being a traffic shortcut, another reason to walk more often if you can.
Wary of approaching lunchtime I retraced the same river route back to the steel footbridge over the Arun. In warm sunshine, with just the distant sound of modern life I had lunch. Perfect.
I had planned my circular route so that the return journey would be via the “low route”; that is to say via the village of Amberley, Rackham and through Parham Park to Storrington.
Rustic Amberley to Rackham Ruin
I followed the SDW back to the main turnpike road and then headed north into the heart of the village of Amberley. OS Maps clearly show the route. Amberley is a charming village with several pubs and numerous thatched cottages. The roads are reasonably quiet as the main road from Houghton Bridge to Storrington by-passes the village heart.
I followed East Street as it became Rackham Road out of the village until just beyond the area called Cross Gates. I found a signpost on my left marking the West Sussex Literary Trail, a path that runs from Horsham to Chichester Cathedral, some 55 miles in length. There are spectacular views across to Amberley Wild Brooks as you walk along the road, the photo below was taken from the edge of the Rackham Road.
I followed the West Sussex Literary Trail (WSLT) in a north-east direction across some very boggy fields and babbling brooks; being only a few centimetres above the flood plain, the going was soft. Beautiful peaceful location but a bit unnerving when every footstep sinks into water, at least it washed the heavy clay off.
I sunk into the lush ground on more than one occasion and really had to yank my leg up hard to keep going forwards and not downwards and this was on a path on “dry” land! There is a path across Amberley Wild Brooks but during winter time you’d never be seen again. No one likes to rescue people from boggy swamps!
After crossing several small brooks via rotting planks the WSLT arrives at an isolated private house and, to my pleasure, a ruined watermill. Marked rather usefully on OS Maps as Rackham Mill with a spring also marked on the map.
As there didn’t seem to be anyone about I didn’t want to trespass and take close up photos, hopefully next time I can meet the owners and spend some more time looking around. The walk from the road at Amberley to Rackham Mill is very wet in winter. You want to be wearing waterproof boots, I can tell you.
The WSLT wanders through Rackham Plantation, a steep wooded walk, welcome shade in the summer no doubt. The worn path through the trees is easy to spot, just head upwards and eastwards until you arrive at a road, with a junction just a few metres further to your right. At the road junction the WSLT heads north for a few hundred metres.
I Had Arrived at Parham Park
The West Sussex Literary Trail cuts an east / west path right through Parham Park but first there are the delightful gatehouses to admire at the entrance to the estate on the right. A local estate agent sometimes advertises these gatekeeper cottages for rent, just so you know.
Stopping to take a discreet photo, after all these are private cottages, I squeezed through the white painted kissing-gate and walked proudly into the estate. I had arrived.
Parham House, Deer Park and WW2
The house at Parham has a fascinating history not to mention a herd of over 350 fallow deer. The same herd I had seen several hours earlier high up on the open hilltop of Rackham Hill. The estate grounds are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) so unfortunately roaming about the estate and deer park is only allowed at certain times. You are of course allowed to follow the WSLT public right of way, through the grounds, 365 days a year.
Built in 1577 Parham House is open to the public during spring, summer and autumn but even when closed, the walk through the estate is rewarding. Deer roam freely and the grounds are a mixture of new and veteran trees. Wildlife aplenty exists in harmony with the estate. During WW2 Parham was home to the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions as well as being in the middle of the South Downs Training Area. There are roads on the estate built to house the Canadian troops in Nissen huts.
Leaving Parham Park, I took a final photo of the magical “Douglas Lodge”. Described as quaint, spooky, enchanting by many who have seen it. The West Sussex Literary Trail leaves Parham at the busy A283 road, in Cootham and continues northwards on its journey to Horsham. I was heading a different direction and continued a short distance along the A283 road, before heading up Hurston Lane on my left. My final destination on this walk.
I hope you have enjoyed this walk, there really is so much to see in a modest 12-13 miles. The landscape changes from windswept Down to lush river pasture. Old mills, fallow deer, neolithic earthworks, trains, drains and automobiles. Something for everyone I hope.
Route: Storrington to Houghton Bridge, back via Parham Park
Distance: 13.05 miles (21 km) (including elevation change)
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!