10 miles (16 kilometres). March, lowering clouds and a storm threatening. Solo with mr dog.
I’ll level with you, I’d never heard of Balcombe. It was very much a last minute decision. It turned out the walk I wanted to do couldn’t be done, well not in the time frame I had anyway. A good percentage of my walks have to fit around school, and when walks radiate out from the capital I am at the mercy of off peak fares, and cancelled trains. I looked around all the usual places for a suitable walk and noticed Walk 16, Balcombe, 40 minutes from London Bridge. That’ll do said I.
I don’t know why Shovell always has a poo in London Bridge station, perhaps it smells like a toilet, or he has a pathological hatred of south London, but he does. It’s not the best start. The journey into West Sussex is quick, the same line will take you to the South Downs, but I alight at Balcombe station which has been planted with hellebores and periwinkles and looks lovely. Behind the station is a tree tunnel snicket which takes you over a ricketty stile and down stone steps to the stream, I’m immediately plunged into the countryside and all the mud that comes with it. I emerge up the other side into a meadow.
There’s an old foresters’ saying, ‘the thorn is the mother of the oak’. For an oak to grow it needs protection from rabbits, deer and other nibblers, thorn bushes of all kinds, blackthorn, bramble, gorse and so on protect emerging seedlings, mothering them until they are old enough to stand alone, what Isabella Tree called ‘nature’s barbed wire’. Thorny scrub was considered so important we had laws prohibiting its removal, until more recent centuries when it became unfashionable and was removed at every opportunity. At the edge of this meadow there’s a sapling poking above a clump of scrub. I wonder if it will make it as big as the oaks which line the field. It’s a quintessential English pastoral land.
This morning I was reading a friend’s blog by Stevyn Colgan, he had started a nature alphabet in lockdown. It had struck me as an excellent idea so I begin to make one myself, all I have to do is find letters in nature. In the first half hour I find WAVE and a dodgy looking M made from three clumps of wool caught in barbed wire.
In Bury Woods Shovell is having the best time snuffling for smells. His psychologist says he needs to do a lot of this. Yes, our maniac dog now has a psychologist, it’s too soon to say whether he has benefitted as he is still a maniac. I hear a woodpecker. Down by the stream I see the brilliant bowls of scarlet elf cups growing on a wet log. I wish I knew what Shovell is experiencing, he looks very motivated.
We continue this way for quite some time, bits of woodland, bits of field. We pass the very grand looking mansion called Ditton Place which seems to now be flats. It’s a nice enough spot to land in on the Ouse Valley Walk. The dark clouds are gathering however.
In the next clump of woodland I spot a green woodpecker darting between the trees. This woodland is idyllic. Not in a pretty, nostalgic wood of childhood way, but in a chaotic, wet, fallen tree kind of way. If I were a wood fairy this would be the kind I would live in. It feels as though there are tiny eyes watching us, I hope so. There are ghosts all around and the green woodpecker is their sentinel. There are some friendly sheep and then I suddenly find myself in the grounds of Nymans, a National Trust property with beautiful landscaped gardens. We don’t have access to the gardens but we are in their woodland. I see my first celandines of the year and then giant redwoods, I read the tallest tree in Sussex is here but I can’t judge which one, there are several contenders.
Nymans’ wood suffered badly in the great storm of 1987 and lost 486 mature trees. It must have felt devastating. Wakehurst Place, just down the road lost 20,000 trees that night. Sussex took more than its share of the full force of the storm. It takes much longer than a lifetime for a wood to recover from the loss of its veteran and ancient residents. Nymans is pleasant enough but feels like a summer visit is necessary.
At this point the weather turns cold and the path becomes mundane. The attractively named Park Road turns out to be a mile long boring tarmac road, and at Slaugham there’s an interesting detour around St Mary’s churchyard with its own ancient yews and the ruins of Slaugham Place. But from here I’m dismayed to realise the path is a road for at least two miles. It’s not a busy road but it’s a road nevertheless and much of it is without a pavement.
Eventually the path returns to open countryside and I spot deer prints, but a light rain starts and I have lost my enthusiasm for Balcombe. The icing on this grey soggy cake is at Sidnye Farm where I wrestle with a stiff metal latch and it slices off part of my finger pad. I cannot decide if now would be a good time to commit a crime. I guess a missing fingerprint is quite distinctive. Fortunately I have a plastic plaster to wrap it tightly. I trudge back to the station feeling sorry for myself. Even the sight of a cloud of chaffinches only briefly cheers me up, you can’t but feel enlivened by the chirping din they are making. There are a hundred in the tree, and from the noise it sounds like a thousand in the hazel trees behind that. But Balcombe is already lost to me. As I reach the station for once my mood only begins to brighten the further I get from my walk. Sorry Balcombe.
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More walks in this area
This walk appears on the Ordnance Survey app and website here and is also covered in Time Out Country Walks Volume One, although the book is old and out of date now. I’m sure there are plenty of paths around Balcombe, and I would suggest you might want to design your own which perhaps follows the first section as far as Nymans and either double back or explore a different path back. If you know Balcombe and a better walk, drop me a comment below!
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