We recommend breaking this journey into two days with an overnight stay in Firle. This will allow you to make the most of Lewes and plenty of time to dwell in the spectacular landscape captured by the Bloomsbury Set in the painted church at Berwick.
Lewes: a large variety available. BPT recommends: Bake Out £, Trading Post Coffee Roasters ££ Pelham Arms ££, Glynde: Village Store, Little Cottage Tearoom. Firle: Village Store, the Ram Inn. Alciston: Rose Cottage Inn. Berwick: Cricketers Arms. Alfriston: Several pubs, tea rooms and a village store. See separate listings for full details. BPT recommends: Alfriston Village Stores £, The George Inn ££, The Gun Room ££.
Lewes: Public blocks in Southover Gardens, Pinwell Road nr Station Road, Friars Walk car park. Glynde: Public block near the cricket pitch Firle: The Ram Inn, St Peter’s Church. Alfriston: Public blocks in The Willows and The Dene car parks.
Taxi Lewes Taxi and Polegate Taxis service most of this route. Train: Southern Rail connects Lewes, Glynde, and Berwick. Bus: the 25 and 125 connects all of the waypoints on this route, with additional services to other destinations at Lewes, Alciston, and Berwick. Alfriston connects to Berwick train station by bus.
Lewes: plenty of accommodation choices. BPT recommends: Firle: Firle Church offers sanctuary accommodation. The Ram Inn, Firle Shepherd’s Hut on Airbnb, bell-tent camping at Firle Camp, Dairy Farmhouse B&B. Alciston: Rose Cottage Inn or the Bo-Peep Farmhouse. Alfriston: The Old Chapel Centre offers Sanctuary. There are many options for B&Bs as well as the Polizzi Collection’s The Star Inn, a former pilgrims hostel turned luxury boutique hotel. Camping is a short walk from the village at Alfriston Camping Park.
The the great ruins of Lewes’ Priory of St Pancras, built in 1081, are an excellent place to begin this stage. The churches offer a great deal of variety. Discover neo-classical gracefulness in Glynde, medieval magnificence in Beddingham and parish simplicity in Alciston, culminating in the astonishing painted church of Berwick, painted by the Bloomsbury Group. You’ll find the graves of Bell and Grant in the churchyard at Firle.
The charismatic landscape has much to offer, with steep ascents to the sweeping views of the Iron Age hillfort of Mount Caburn and Neolithic barrows of Firle Beacon, contrasted by the leafy green spaces of Southover Gardens and the Heart of Reeds nature reserve. Rich with wildflowers, and thrumming with wildlife, this is chalk downland at its best and the easternmost high point of the South Downs.
The National Trust’s Alfriston Clergy House offers an interesting and appropriate diversion for the pilgrim, and there may be events at Glyndebourne or the Firle Estate to encourage you to linger. There is a strong culture of independently run eateries, celebrating locally grown produce in both the towns and villages here. Firle particularly has a feeling of being unintruded upon by the rigours of modern life.
In this section of the Old Way, pilgrims will find themselves with the choice of taking a direct route, or diverting to take the long way round. This choice is always up to the individual pilgrim, but we believe there is something to be said for the practice of avoiding the most direct path. Old Way in its entirety, when viewed on a map, follows not the quickest route, but the one which, the BPT believes, will give pilgrims the greatest opportunity to find places along the way that hold resonance for them. In this section of the route, wind through the maze of the Heart of Reeds near Lewes, and then take a long, looping way round into Firle and its churchyard labyrinth, ascending the ridge and dropping down to circumambulate holy places as you go. On pilgrimage it is not about how far you travel, but how deeply you go.
In Lewes, begin at the impressive ruins of St Pancras Priory, looping through what was once its precincts but are now better known as Southover Gardens. Built in 1081, this priory had one of the largest monastic churches in the country – and its own songbook, the Lewes Breviary. Now only ruins remain: during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in King Henry VIII’s reign, these once beautiful buildings were demolished. The ruins are now looked after by English Heritage, Lewes Town and the Cluniacs. Many pilgrims have chosen to lie among the ruins of the Priory, reflecting on the evidence of one of Britain’s greatest cultural and religious shifts: the Reformation. You also reflect on how recently the priory was made accessible, and give thanks that it is open to all, all year round, and for free!
On your way through Southover Gardens keep an eye out for the old Mulberry Tree. Though many holy places on pilgrimage are man-made, and often sites of worship, it is also true that nature provides some of our landscape’s most resonant and ancient places.
Once a powerful source of freshwater for the people of Lewes, Pin Well, an ancient water source, is formed from a spring that bubbles up from out of the Downs.As is so often the case with once-vital wells, the Pin Well is now much-forgotten, and ill-cared for. In modern times, it is easy to forget the everyday miracle of free-flowing, easily accessible water. A growth in Pilgrim practices around Britain, like yours, could help return care and attention to these quiet miracles.
Be sure to spend some time at the Heart of Reeds Railway Land Wildlife Trust, an astounding work of land art created by artist Chris Drury in collaboration with Railway Land Wildlife Trust and Lewes District Council. The artwork emulates “patterns of blood flow in the heart, namely a Cardiac Twist”. In “allowing for more borderlands between land and water”, it supports and aids the growth of biodiversity in the area. The twists and turns of the Heart of Reeds’ paths do not follow the swiftest route, but the most enriching one – pilgrimage, especially along the Old Way, is often an opportunity to take the long way round, to wind gently through the landscape, giving yourself enough time to take in all that you find there.
Mugwort grows all around the Heart of Reeds and in many other wayside places. Also known as Motherwort, it has been used since antiquity for a wide range of medicinal purposes. For the pilgrim, its traditional use to relieve fatigue saw it being used to line shoes to refresh the feet, and also to repel insects. Mugwort’s magical associations mean some people still use it as an aid to divination, or as a protective herb to guard against lightning and misfortune.
Consider popping into Harvey’s Brewery, one of South England’s great beer-makers. The brewery does provide tours, but do pre-book this if you’d like to be shown around (waiting lists have been known to be a year long!) Leave Lewes by ascent, to meet the Downs beyond the golf course. Suddenly, the valley known as Bible Bottom appears. Not far from the hustle and bustle of Lewes Town, you arrive at what BPT’ co-founder Will Parsons has described as one of the quietest places in South East England. Perhaps pause and listen to the deep silence that can be found here. Rid of distractions, you may notice a folding of green banks that resemble the folds of a book — Bible Bottom. It is a Neolithic farmland that once, we are told, attracted preachers who took advantage of its awesome acoustics for their sermons.
Climb toward Mount Caburn, home to an early Iron Age fort, which has breathtaking views over the South Downs Ridge. Said to hail from as far back as the Neolithic era and used as a defence from 500 BC to 100 AD (around the time of the occupation of the Romans), Mount Caburn is now extremely popular with hang gliders. Its steep rise in the landscape provides them with a useful landing spot. From its summit, you will be able to see the next two days’ walks ahead. At the Mount, the unfathomably ancient and the thoroughly modern collide – quite literally, depending on how gracefully the hang gliders land!
Descend into Glynde, near where the famous Glyndebourne Opera Festival happens. Find St Mary’s Church with its sack-cloth walls – and the quintessential Little Cottage Tea Room, where you might pause for rest and refreshment.
Take the long way to Firle via Beddingham, to pay respects at St Andrew’s Church, the old Saxon centre in this area. Make your way over farmland to Firle Place, which was the location of ‘Hartfield’ in the recent cinematic adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. A historic Firle resident was Sir William Gage, who introduced a fruit tree to England from France c.1725 and it became known as the greengage.
Enter the village through the pub garden of the Ram Inn.
Follow through the village to find St Peter’s Church. Originally built in the late 12th century, St Peter’s stands at the heart of the village of Firle. Many have praised the church’s flintwork as being some of the most notable in South East England. If you arrive in Firle in the daylight, you may find this church glimmering under the sunlight, as its flint stonework surface reflects the sun. Here you will also find a labyrinth cut into the churchyard grass by the TV Pilgrim Reverend Peter Owen Jones. Within the labyrinth’s centre you will find a fire pit. Also within the church grounds is a Wishing Tree, and the gravestones of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (members of the Bloomsbury Group). Within the church itself, look out for John Piper’s Sun and Moon stained glass windows. If you choose to circumambulate (walk around) the church before entering it, you will see the building within the context of its grounds: the churchyard, the surrounding landscape, and the trees or wildlife that skirt the building.
Also be sure to dine at the renowned Ram Inn. You might find the Revd Peter here.
From Firle, follow the path beside fields at the foot of the downs, before rising to the ridge on the wonderfully-named ‘Rabbit Track’. You may have already seen the Marjoram poking through the longer grass and other wildflowers. With a lively scent and clusters of little pink flowers, it’s easy to see why it was once traditional to wear as a flower crown at weddings, to symbolise the joy of love, honour and happiness. A good sniff is quite reviving when you are tackling a steep slope, and its deeper power lies in its ability to dispel weariness and sadness. It is also used to help relieve the pain of grief and help those grieving a loss to know joy again. Why not carry a sprig and leave it in the next graveyard you encounter.
Rise to meet Firle Beacon, a Neolithic Long Barrow, and rest to look out for many miles. You will pass many more of these burial mounds of long forgotten heroes. On the northeast side of the beacon, you may jut be able to make out an almost-lost hill figure, which looks much like an ear of corn. Sussex legend suggests that the Long Man of Wilmington (who you are about to pass) was killed by a rival giant who lived here, at the top of Firle Beacon.
Descend the downs to Alciston, and a tiny simple church offering rare depths of peace. The church – the dedication of which is unknown – was built by Battle Abbey between 1066 and 1536, and was once surrounded by a complete monastic farm comprising of a Bailiff’s house, dovecote, fish ponds and Long Barn.
Continue at the foot of the downs to St Michael and All Angels’ Church, Berwick – the famous painted church of the ‘Bloomsbury Group‘ – Virginia Woolf’s circle – showing rural and spiritual life during the second world war. Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell (both buried at Firle church, which you have just passed through), had originally wanted wanted to paint Firle Church, but the vicar wouldn’t let them – so they painted Berwick instead!
From Berwick’s painted church, walk south over fields to Alfriston. The church spire appears as a beacon before the rest of this charming Sussex village appears. Stock up at the brilliant village store and deli, and look out for locally grown wine from the Rathfinny Estate in their display shop near the church. The end of this stage is the main holy place of Alfriston, St Andrew’s Church (aka ‘the Cathedral of West Sussex’). But there are other important ancient places – like Alfriston Clergy House, the National Trust’s very first acquisition. This Wealden hall-house house was constructed around 1400 and used as a residence for Alfriston’s parish priest until the early-eighteenth century and remained in church ownership until it was sold to the National Trust in 1896. Also in Alfriston are some very ancient pubs, including The George, which has had a licence since the 14th century!
If you are in Alfriston for the evening, you may wish to walk up to the the tumuli above the Long Man of Wilmington to watch the sun set. Route information for Wilmington is in the next stage.