The South Downs of Sussex are legendary. People travel for miles to enjoy the rolling hills, chalk cliffs and rich history. The area abounds with tall tales and legends, from Roman Roads to the Devil himself.
I planned a walk from the busy village of Storrington to Chanctonbury Ring, West Sussex and back, some 12.5 miles round trip. I allowed myself 4 hours, as I always take far too many photos along the route.
Storrington River Walk
The morning of my walk, 20th December 2014 was wet and dark, a typical late December day. The weather forecast did offer the promise of sunshine later in the morning. I knew I had limited daylight, the winter solstice being the next day! I packed my South Downs map, a walking pole and wore my hiking boots and not my trail shoes. I’ve walked part of this trip before and the ground can be very muddy in places. Grip can be an issue.
Starting in Storrington, close to the gliding club, I took the pretty River Walk into the village centre. Sitting at the foot of Sullington Hill, Chantry Hill and Kithurst Hill, Storrington sees its fair share of ground run-off water and the River Stor turns from a gentle summer brook into a fast flowing large stream in winter.
Thankfully the River Path has been repaired recently and is a mixture of wooden boardwalk, compacted sand and tarmac in places.
Kithurst Hill which rises steeply above the village is marked at the summit by a Trig Point, some 699 feet (213m) above sea level. That was the first of several steep walks along my chosen route.
I followed the River Stor into the heart of the village, for its size Storrington has many facilities only found in larger towns. I stocked up on food and drink, my plan was to enjoy a nice sandwich high up on Chanctonbury Ring. Not sure if Bronze Age man would approve of my choice of healthy and not so healthy snacks!
Storrington is a mix of the old and new, trying to retain village charm in the face of intense pressure to build new houses.
Thankfully the South Downs are just a brisk walk off the high street. Within a few minutes the hustle of the busy A283 is left far behind and once more nature provides the aural backdrop. I do hope the property developers don’t win the latest land battle.
Walking south along Church Street, the view is a mix of old and the new, with the glorious St Mary’s Church residing several feet above street level. A Grade 2 listed building which is floodlit at night until 10:30 p.m. Other historical curiosities can be found along Church Street, it is worth the extra walk from street level to the South Downs Way to see them for yourself.
As you head south, the cottages and quirky houses become few and far between and Church Street takes on the appearance of a country lane. Water runs freely over the worn tarmac, with open fields to either side. Just 5 minutes walk from the thunderous 40 tonne lorries and school run traffic.
I kept an ear out for passing traffic, as the lane narrows as it winds away from the village. The area is popular with walkers and I did find every passing car gave me room. A cheery wave of thanks hurts no one.
It is wise to carry a map of the area, as there are a couple of different paths leading from Greyfriars Lane up the slopes of Kithurst and Chantry hills and the signposts can sometimes be tricky to spot amongst the shrubbery.
Mud Mud Glorious Mud
In the summer, trail shoes are ideal for walking the South Downs Way, as the flint strewn paths are often baked solid from the summer sun. Not so in December, I found plenty of mud. Ankle deep, thick sticky mud. Walking boots are essential, also walking poles are very welcome.
I walked along the bridlepath, leading off left from Greyfriars Lane, with the stagger of someone out on the town on a Friday night! I would have probably kept cleaner just marching up the middle and not fussing about.
My solitary walking pole (I’ve yet to master walking with two poles and looking human) came in very handy, as I walked up the various paths, slowly gaining height. 4 wheel drive horses have the right idea but I managed ok…just. It didn’t take too long to slip and slide my way up Chantry Hill and take in my first view. Any excuse to catch my breath and take a photo. The image below is looking north-east, Chanctonbury Hill, my destination is to the right of the image.
I did notice that some of the signposts are looking a little weather-beaten but I do know that much work is being done to replace the worst and there shouldn’t be any problems identifying legal rights of way; besides I like an excuse to catch my breath (again) and take a few more photos.
Chantry Hill Views, South Downs Way
I trod carefully as I walked up Chantry Hill, the chalk and flint very wet beneath my boots, the ordnance survey maps show plenty of contour lines in this area, I was walking up them! As you walk up Chantry Hill, there is a very steep drop to your left, eventually you meet an east / west path marked as Chantry Lane on some maps (it’s a track here, not a road).
I followed this intersecting path eastwards for a short distance, where it then joins another Chantry Lane, which this time is a public road. A quick walk up Chantry Lane leads to a rough car park at the end of the tarmac and yet more spectacular views. There is an elaborate signpost at Chantry Hill car park, called funnily enough, Chantry Post.
The main South Downs Way crosses east / west through the car park here and you could walk to Winchester or Eastbourne! By now the sun had broken through the morning gloom and the sunbeams were reflecting off the not too distant English Channel. A reminder that the South Downs are never far away from the sea in Sussex.
With favourable weather you can clearly see the Isle of Wight, Hampshire towards the south-west and looking north, the summit of Leith Hill in Surrey; and all in between. The photo below is looking west, back towards the car park at the top of Chantry Lane. The track is the South Downs Way.
Moooove Over on Sullington Hill
This part of the South Downs is used to graze animals. Cattle and sheep are free to roam about between various cattle grids; and roam about they do. So please keep your dogs firmly under control and on a lead. The South Downs are wonderful to explore for leisure but for many people they are working hills too.
I headed off towards the east, from Chantry Hill car park, following the well-worn South Downs Way as it cut a line straight across the next hill, Sullington Hill. The small village of Sullington sits to the north of the hills, one of several villages that were built along the natural spring line, ensuring a clean supply of drinking water at the time. Clearly visible are several sand pits in the area, a reminder that this area has been used for mineral extraction for a long time.
Sullington Hill is like a giant beach ball, a huge gently curving surface stretches away from you. The cattle silhouetted against the horizon. I always give cattle a wide berth and today was no exception. Left, right, straight, left, right….don’t mind me, just another walker avoiding a kick.
Miles of Smiles and Views
No matter which direction I looked, there was a view worthy of a photo. I kept telling myself that I didn’t have an infinite supply of daylight and I didn’t have an LED torch with me either. Something I’ve now rectified! I pressed on, stopping only to chat for a moment with the ONE other walker I met on the Way.
If you want to escape from life, for a few hours, then the South Downs can and do provide that escapism. Looking north towards the large towns of Horsham, Crawley, Guildford, East Grinstead I felt smug.
It was a Friday lunchtime and I didn’t have to face the M25 drive home that afternoon, like thousands of others. No traffic jams on the SDW today! Don’t get me wrong, my legs were tired, the wind was cold but I felt alive. You’d enjoy this walk, I know you would.
World War 2 – The Distant Voices
We are still, after all this time, never far away from the legacy of WW2 and the defence of Britain. I knew of another WW2 relic up on the Downs (another blog article will tell of that walk) but I wasn’t expecting to find any traces of war on this walk. Well I got that wrong.
I spotted the structure some way off. There is something about 75 year old concrete that sticks out, probably the fact it was built to last and last it has. Being a typical boy, I wanted to look inside, to imagine what life was like in the 1940s. I stopped short of making machine gun and dive bomber noises. Not that anyone would have heard me 😉
I walked up to the pill-box. Unusual in that it was clad in rusting steel plate. A protective armour for the concrete block built structure (subsequent research hints that this was an assault training pill-box).
It was quiet, very very quiet, really quiet. I walked around the pillbox, taking a few photos. I spotted the entrance on the side facing away from the main path. I peered inside cautiously. It was evident from the rubbish inside that people use this pill-box for 101 reasons, probably not all legal. I took a few more photos and was just about to look further inside when I suddenly heard loud voices.
I jumped out of my skin. A combination of the remote location, the silence and my overactive mind. I skurried away not looking over my shoulder. Nothing to see here, move along now. Eventually my heart rate slowed to a sensible level. It was only a couple of SDW walkers, their voices carried far, on the relentless wind. I’ll return at a later date.
The South Downs Way started to drop down now, towards the natural Findon Valley that the noisy A24 road runs through, on its way to Worthing and the Channel or London and the Thames. There is a SDW sign-posted diversion route (approx extra 2 miles walking) if you wish to avoid crossing the busy dual-carriageway.
Leaving the war defences behind, the next sign of mankind is a fleeting glimpse of the A24 / A283 Washington Roundabout, through the trees from up high. As I walked the sound of the traffic grew stronger, not intrusive like parts of the North Downs Way close to the M25 but loud enough to remind you that civilisation is never truly that far away.
Water Water Everywhere
As I descended from the fields, the South Downs Way became a tarmac lane with private driveways leading off. I spotted a drinking water stand-pipe on the lane, with a handy sign informing me that the next water was at Steyning or Amberley. I didn’t test the tap but see no reason for it not working (if not frozen!)
I followed the lane downwards, the not too distant A24 now a noisy intrusion into my day. I had to smile at the shot-blasted signpost along the way. I thought people only did that in the Wild West, not Wild Worthing!
Crossing the A24 – South Downs Running
I chose to ignore the longer signposted diversion walking route and crossed the busy A24 dual-carriageway at the designated SDW crossing point. There is good visibility but you cannot take your time meandering across, the traffic approaches at 70 mph and you have 2 lanes to cross either side of the central grass reservation. Inevitability I ended up doing that funny half run, half skip routine to get across safely.
Once I was safely across the other side, I simply followed the new South Downs Way signposts. There has obviously been a lot of work going on replacing old signs, most welcome. The SDW runs through another car park, Washington Car Park and then begins a steep climb once more. The SDW is mainly chalk and flint, so again this section could be slippery when wet. Boots, maps and walking poles are useful.
Views of The Weald
The climb back up the Downs seemed harder east of the A24, I had been walking along the ridge for a long time and my legs had forgotten about climbing UP. Upwards I had to go, so it was head down and walk. Well it actually was walk, stop take a photo, walk a little more, take another photo. I just can’t get enough of views and enjoy watching the landscape change as the light changes.
From the slopes of Chanctonbury Hill there are far-reaching 360 degree views. North east looks towards the Weald of Kent, South towards Worthing, West towards Hampshire.
There are numerous traces of disused flint pits and quarries on this stretch of the SDW. The shape of the ground makes it quite obvious in many places. A trig point marks the summit of Chanctonbury Hill, though it is believed the Iron Age Ring Fort is higher, at 794 ft (242 metres) above sea level. What makes this location so amazing is the view. This is the land of the big sky.
Dewpond and The Downsmen
I had read about a dew pond restored in this part of the South Downs and many maps clearly mark it. A dew pond, as the name suggests, is a small pond used for watering grazing animals, high up on a hill, away from natural water supplies. Though rain water fills the pond and not dew. Rainpond doesn’t sound so romantic does it; I met my sweetheart by the Dewpond, one cold frosty morn’.
An information board tells the story of the dew pond, its 1870 construction and 1970 restoration by the South Downs Society. With the whole location to myself I spent a while taking photos and enjoying the magical view.
Chanctonbury Ring – Tip Your Hat
I was nearing my destination now, the raised earth banks of Chanctonbury Ring hill fort called out to me in the distance. I walked closer to the circular wood plantation. The beech trees, which were planted in 1760 by Charles Goring whistled furiously in the wind, announcing my arrival to those that listened. The long shadows on the ground reminding me that daylight was running out, like the sands of time.
I’m not a religious man, I have my views and beliefs but they are not set in tablets of stone. Chanctonbury Ring has something about it, there are legends of the devil and carbon dating on an animal bone suggest the hill fort was built in the early Iron Age, in the 6th to 5th centuries BC, but some Bronze Age pottery has also been found on the site.
It’s one of those locations where you gather your thoughts and say something to those poor souls not with us any more. You can’t help yourself. You just feel you have to tip your hat, nod your head slightly and say a few silent words.
The souls of our ancestors can hear you up here, that I am sure. Local legend has it that Chanctonbury Ring was created by the Devil and that he can be summoned by running around the clump of trees seven times anti-clockwise. When he appears he will offer you a bowl of soup in exchange for your soul. I walked around the Ring clockwise, once. I didn’t need another pill-box moment today.
I ate my late lunch as I walked slowly around and took in the view. The history of this location makes you feel very humble. I wasn’t master of all that I could see. I truly felt like a visitor, I didn’t feel unwelcome but not fully trusted just yet. As the shadows grew longer I knew it was time to leave this ancient iron-age hill fort.
I took lots more photos and walked a few yards west, to the trig point, for some final photos before I retraced my own route history. With legends of the Devil and pagan sacrifice, a nice cup of tea, after the walk back home seemed more sensible.
I wanted to stay for longer but without a torch I wanted to make sure I was back on the streets of Storrington not long after sunset. I said my goodbyes to Chanctonbury Ring and retraced my footsteps westwards. Chasing the setting sun and the ancient long shadows.
Route: Storrington to Chanctonbury Ring and back.
Distance: 12.5 miles (20.1 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!