South Downs Way, Ditchling Beacon

6.5 miles (10.5 kilometres) January, wind, so much wind. Solo with dog

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

King Lear

It was time to go south again. This time to the South Downs and East Sussex’s highest point, which goes by the unattractive name of Ditchling Beacon. The language is a constant source of humour to me, albeit an internal bitter humour, that if I want to walk the downs in England it will involve a steep hill as they are all very much up.

The reason has nothing to do with down and everything to do with Old English dūn, meaning hill, later hill fort. Dūn still survives in place names all over the world, particularly Ireland and Scotland (Donegal, Dún Laoghaire, Dunfermline and even Edinburgh) as far as Dunedin, NZ., and of course in the North and South Downs where I am today. The presence of the windmills should have at least told me to expect wind.

I begin at Hassocks train station. Hassocks, another fine place name, named after the clumps of grass you get in marshy places. We have a lot of words for these kinds of clumps: hummocks, tussocks, hillocks, hassocks, humps. Such poetry is in there somewhere.

The footpath out of Hassocks is muddy, January’s principal feature, but the path is lined with hazels and the first catkins. At the village of Clayton I pass an ancient church, but very sadly it is locked. When I look it up later I find it is grade 1 listed and has 12th century murals inside. There was even a trace of medieval graffiti on the entrance, the only church entrance I can recall that asks you to please remove your boots. But I can’t get inside to explore. So instead, slowly, I turn up the hill to the chalky downs.

It’s a slow climb, I’m conscious of someone behind me so I try to look fit, in that -oh I don’t need a rest, not I- kind of way but I really need a rest. The person following me doesn’t care, the lovely chocolately cows don’t care and eventually I take a huge interest in a bit of fence that I absolutely must stop to examine and he strides past me. Relieved I continue up with what Bill Bryson called waddlesome sloth. As I look back, the real reason you should take your time, the views are magnificent over Sussex and the South Downs National Park.

Ahead of me under the blue sky are the Clayton windmills, known as Jack and Jill. In summer Jill is open on Sundays, you can even buy flour made from locally grown wheat there. Jack is a private residence owned by barrister Jolyon Maugham, and has some very interesting new architecture at the base. There are no sails turning today.

We wade through some more mud, the dog and I, to the higher chalk ridge of the downs. It’s a popular route, there are plenty of footprints to prove it but just a handful of dog walkers and joggers today. The path stretches long and white in both directions, and a stiff breeze is blowing the cobwebs out of the old year.

As I cross through the gate on to more exposed grass land, the wind is picking up, but it’s not cold. I’m on the escarpment which runs for almost 100 miles to Beachy Head. Up here there are several dew ponds which have been used for livestock for hundreds of years.

Shovell stops to take advantage. The wind in his fur makes him look hilarious but I don’t think it’s good for his eyes. I try to take a picture but he looks blurred, which is a good representation of his personality. No wonder the trees are stunted and windswept.

Even the gorse is growing in fantastical and grotesque shapes. A gnarly being he must be when he comes alive at night and prowls the ridge. Clearly he likes to rampage, scream and shout like King Lear and eat fingerposts.

The wind is really starting to make its presence felt and there are dark clouds gathering. I speed up a little to make sure I get to the beacon and not be caught in a storm although, lightening notwithstanding, Ditchling Beacon would be an awesome place to watch a storm breaking. We reach the beacon, and it’s as I circle the trig point (bagged) I realise for the walk back the wind is going to be howling into my face. I wish I’d brought a hair tie, but thank god it’s not cold.

It would have made more sense to carry on towards Lewes, or come down to Plumpton, but the fact is New Year always brings New Credit Card Statements, and a return train ticket is way cheaper than two singles. So I about-turn and with the gale now screaming straight at me, and Shovell’s ears blowing frantically about his head like two more possessed demons, we head off into the gust front of the storm.

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Walk info

The GPX of the walk I followed is here but it is easy to plan your own route if you wish to carry on to Plumpton or have a longer walk to Lewes. The South Downs Way is well signposted, even from the station. Can be very muddy, and of course windy.

3 responses to “South Downs Way, Ditchling Beacon”

  1. Thank you for the beautiful photographs!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The scenery and photographs are wonderful. I especially love those aptly-named Jack and Jill windmills!


    1. Thank you Bruce, you’re very kind.

      Liked by 1 person

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