23 Miles, 2 or 3 days
Take the slow, steady climb up onto the downs, dipping down for rest and refreshment in the springline villages along the valley and rivers fed by the chalk. From communities steeped in history to some of the most wonderful views in the south, this is quintessential downland walking.
Train: trains run along the south coast and will require transfers by taxi or bus except for Lewes. Lancing, Shoreham-by-Sea, Hove are best for reaching the start and middle of this stage. Bus: No’s 2 and 60 connect Bramber from Shoreham. Pyecombe has a variety of services. The No. 77 connects Devil’s Dyke to Brighton. Offham buses connect to Lewes, and the 167 includes Ditchling twice a day, or the 79 from Ditchling Beacon Car Park to Brighton. Taxi: Taxi Link (Lancing). South Downs Taxis, GM taxis (Lewes)
Truleigh: Youth Hostel. Dormitories, rooms, glamping and camping. Book in advance. South Downs Way BnB in Poynings, Chantry Farm camping/glamping, or the Jack and Jill Inn at Clayton. Saddlescombe Farm Campsite. Offham The Blacksmith’s Arms, or Blackberry Wood for camping. Come off the ridge for accommodation in Ditchling, or there are plenty of options in Lewes.
Upper Beeding: The Hub Café Fulking: The Shepherd and Dog Pub. Saddlescombe: Wildflour Cafe. Offham: The Blacksmith’s Arms, Offham Farm Shop. Ditchling: The Bull, Green Welly Cafe. Lewes: Lots of options. We recommend: The Rights of Man, the Lewes Arms and The Snowdrop Inn, Bun & Bean and Trading Post Coffee on Cliffe High Street.
Tucked away down narrow paths is Fulking spring, whose waters can be more easily found at the wellhead honouring John Ruskin, conveniently located next to the pub. If you can, seek out the magical trickling spring itself.
The Devils Dyke is one of the most famous parts of the South Downs, steeped in folklore and whose legend connects to St Cuthman.
Part of Old Hamsey Church was standing when Aethelstan, the first King of England visited in 925. The church escaped the Victorian restorers and modern interventions like electricity. This much loved church has a truly special feeling and deep silence.
The Downs offer the opportunity for ancient wayfinding; follow the ridge, keep the sun on your right! Or follow the South Downs Way waymarks from St Botolphs, except where you dip down for Edburton, Fulking, and Offham.
Enter Bramber village and find the River Adur and St Mary’s House, an ancient pilgrim hostel with origins dating back as far as the Knight’s Templar, when the land the house is built on – and five acres besides – was bequeathed to them. It is even possible that Richard the Lionheart left England on the Crusades from this place. The building you find today was constructed in the 1400’s by the Bishop of Winchester as an inn for pilgrims on their way to the tomb of St. Thomas of Canterbury. The building has, through the ages, housed many famed owners, and boasts a great deal of literary connections. There is also a holy well under the stairs, but this is not visible to the public!
Whilst here, you might also visit St Peter’s Church, Upper Beeding centre of the once great Priory of Sele, which some believe is placed in a sacred geometrical arrangement with the other holy places of the area. It was William De Braose who founded Sele priory for a small group of French monks, and the monks shared St Peter’s Church with the local community. The monks established an outlying priory at Lower Beeding, nine miles away.
After taking in the church, follow the River Adur south, to the Saxon Church of St Botolph’s, which is now under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. This church used to be at the centre of a thriving community, set at the edge of the River Adur, where much trade took place. As the course of the river shifted, so too did its population, and now St Botolph’s stands – very nearly – alone in this landscape. On the south-facing door, you will find graffiti dating back to the 1640’s. Some of the church’s interior dates back to the Saxons, and faint remains of medieval wall paintings can still be detected on its walls.
For those who are interested in ancient churches, take a detour 15 minutes’ walk down Annington Road/Coombes Road from St Botolph’s church to Coombe’s Church, which is next to Coombe’s farm. The church contains wall paintings that date from around 1100, depicting the birth of Jesus. The church bell is purported to be the oldest in Sussex and may have been made in Normandy.
Once you have taken in St Botolph’s, re-ascend the South Downs up Beeding Hill – from which you can see Shoreham Airport, and where there are often light aircraft flying overhead. Head towards Truleigh Hill and its Youth Hostel.
Keep an eye out along the chalky paths for a hardy weed with a flat head of multiple white flowers (sometimes with a dash of pink), a short but straight stem and feathery leaves. This is the Yarrow, another overlooked plant with deep, enduring folklore. Many cultures used it for medicinal purposes, particularly for staunching wounds. The plant has also been used for divination since Anglo Saxon times, although you would need to pick quite a few of the long straight stems for these rituals. Instead, as it is edible, why not find a fresh clean leaf away from the path, and perhaps chewing its aniseed taste may help divine some answers.
Continue along the South Downs Way. This is classic downland walking. If you set off early, you may find yourself above the clouds. The Downs are small hills that believe themselves mountains! Soak up the endless views.
Edburton and Fulking
Descend to St Andrew’s Church in Edburton – founded by King Alfred’s granddaughter, Eadgyth, well over a thousand years ago. In the shady areas of scrub you might finder elder growing. The Elder, with its gnarled bark and untidy shape is best known for its fragrant blossom and droopy black fruit, but once had much deeper magical associations. Its reputation for good or evil has changed over the centuries as the dryad-like figure of the Elder Mother became a witch under the adoption of Christian traditions. It is this contrast which sees it give healing and curse, protection and bad luck, attracting and repelling evil alike. All agree however, that one should avoid taking its wood and be respectful when harvesting its fruit or flowers.
In Fulking, wander away from the path to find the sacred springs (the muddy stairs are hard to see but the opening is clear, if you are looking out for it). Downstream from the spring source, on the road, you will find a Victorian well house connected to the acclaimed author John Ruskin. A keen geologist as well as a writer, Ruskin was instrumental in organising the supply of water to this village. An inscription on the well house, no longer apparent, once read:
“To the glory of God
and in honour of
That they might set their hope
in God and not forget
but keep his commandments
who brought streams also out of the rock”
Next to Fulking Spring is The Shepherd and Dog Pub, which locals recommend.
Once you have taken in the springs, rise again to the Devil’s Dyke, a famous hillfort (and the pub named after it). Behind the pub you will find a public toilet, and there is occasionally a mobile coffee cart in the car park. You may also find hang gliders overheard here!
Continue to the tiny National Trust farm of Saddlescombe for sustenance at their amazing ‘Wildflour’ cafe. Here you will also find a traditional donkey wheel, and traditional farm machinery. You may wish to camp here, at the farm’s campsite, or continue over the Downs to Pyecombe, whose Church of the Transfiguration offers pilgrims tea and coffee. At this church you will also find a tapsel gate – a gate designed to facilitate the pilgrimage of the dead, in a design unique to Sussex. (There is also a toilet available to walkers and pilgrims here). This church has also been known as the Shepherd’s Church. There is an interesting history of the church and its pilgrim links available here.
This part of the chalkland ridge has borne countless footsteps over endless years. Though the landscape now is idyllic and peaceful, many shifts in our history took place here. In this land battles were lost and won, religious and parliamentary systems were restructured – and the river running through it, too, has shifted. This is a place of change, and, possibly, a place in which we encounter the unknown.
From Pyecombe you have a choice: a visit to the incredible memorial to Indian soldiers who died in World War One and World War Two, the Chattri, or the historic Sussex windmills of Pyecombe, Jack and Jill Windmill. See the google map.
Then continue onwards to Ditchling Beacon – the highest point of the Old Way. You are now almost halfway through your pilgrimage. Look out for an ice cream van in Ditchling Beacon car park!
Enter into the Black Cap nature reserve, where you will have the opportunity to take in the northerly views over Sussex Downland. Along with Ditchling Beacon, Blackcap is a National Trust nature reserve and general idyll. Here, especially during the spring, you are spoiled for choice with the springtime fauna, all coming to bloom: you may spot some wild garlic, early purple orchid and a flurry of beautiful swallows.
Sometimes mistaken for a thistle, Knapweed has pink-purple flowers but no prickles on its narrow, straight leaves. Known for its healing properties, it has been put to use for all sorts of ailments and injuries; even the legendary centaur Chiron was said to have treated his hooves with it. Once it was used for divination, although eventually this knowledge only existed amongst the young maids of the Downs, who would wear an unopened bud when seeking to identify her future husband. If you are seeking other answers, why not contemplate an already open flower and see if it offers any insights.
Look within the reserve for a trig point (a point at the top of a hill or mountain, usually marked by a small stone or concrete structure, used in surveying), as a place to rest a while. In the reserve is also a magical grove of trees to retreat into and take an early rest.
If you choose to break your journey in Ditchling (food and accommodation options below), consider visiting the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft.
Next, walk through the site of the Battle of Lewes, Mount Harry. In this place, in 1264, the Battle of Lewes was fought. King Henry III took on rebel baron Simon de Montfort, and when the king was defeated, the first ever representative English parliament was called – though Simon and the new parliament did not last long! You may find that this is a place where the shifts the landscape has been through can be sensed… Land that was once held hostage to our country’s violent past now feels idyllic and peaceful.
Offham and Hamsey
Descend from the Downs into Offham, where a pub, church and farm shop await. Walk on to Lewes (Loo-iss), paying a visit to the confluence of the River Ouse (pronounced ‘ooze’). Located in the parish of Hamsey, which was once an island, the river’s changing flow has left the original village largely abandoned, save a few cottages and the church. Meeting the sea at Newhaven and rising in Lower beeding, the river runs through West and East Sussex. You may choose to pause at the confluence, and (if you have a suitable water filter with you,) take a sip of refreshingly cool water. Or, you may wish, instead, to sing a song to the waters — remembering the water song, which the BPT often shares with pilgrims when guiding pilgrimages:
‘Water flows, life is given,
Rises from earth, falls from heaven,
Water flowing, so we sing,
Bless the holy spring’
Then, you walk onwards to St Peter’s Church in Hamsey. There has been a church registered in this place since at least the Domesday Book of 1086, and the building you find today is little changed since the 12th century. This church still has no electricity, and for some provokes a sensation of being held within a ‘deep silence’. Influenced by the fact that this church has sat within the landscape for centuries you may find yourself aware of the resonance held by this church. For a thousand years (at least), St Peter’s will have been the place where members of the community will have experienced, and had witnessed, the most important moments of their lives.
Next, to St Michael’s Church. South Malling. An apocryphal tale of tells how the knights who killed Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral rode away from the scene to this very church. When they cast their cloaks upon a stone table within, it cracked under the weight of their sin. This table is now in Lewes.
Walk into Lewes beside the banks of the Ouse, and if you like, swim in the freshwater-fed Pells Pool, before entering the ancient city through Castle Gate. The castle has been standing for a thousand years, built after the Normal Conquest. The building can still be climbed, and from the top of its tower you will find extraordinary panoramic views of the Sussex countryside surrounding Lewes. If you pay to go into the castle your ticket also includes the small museum on site and you also have the option of a joint ticket including Anne of Cleves House in Lewes. Although it would take half a day to really explore both, consider taking the time in Lewes: it is choices such as these which make every pilgrim’s pilgrimage unique!
On your way towards Lewes Priory, find Lewes’ ancient 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. Mulberries are steeped in symbolism, with various cultures associating it with nature, faith, growth or death. They are often found laying or propped as they reach old age, and you will find another just like it in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral. It is a poignant tree for the Old Way; legend tells that the knights who came to murder Thomas Becket first hung up their armour and weapons in a mulberry, before entering the cathedral. Many believe it to be a tree of wisdom; what knowledge or truth will you discover between this tree and its counterpart in Canterbury?
Explore the churches and quiet green places, before reaching the site of the great (ruined) Lewes Priory of St Pancras, built in 1081, as well as its mysterious Mount. St Pancras, who the priory was dedicated to, was a fourteen-year-old 3rd-century Roman martyr. Before the English Reformation, 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!
Then, find the final stop of this leg of the vast Old Way Pilgrimage — the Mound. Rising some 15 meters above its surroundings, the mound is both beautiful and unknowable – for the original use of it is unknown. Ancient monument? Garden feature? This may be one of the more challenging aspects of making pilgrimage: the moments where you find yourself without answers. As you come to the end of this section, you may find an opportunity to embrace uncertainty, sitting with it at the top of the Mound.
There are three of these ambiguous man-made monuments to be found within Lewes. Research carried out by the University of Reading, which explores the history of these three enigmatic mounds, summarises: “we are challenging assumptions… and finding that the histories of these monuments aren’t always as straightforward as we think they are.”
If you wish to walk this section from Offham, without the two church detours to Hamsey and South Malling, following the Old Way to Lewes’ Priory of St Pancras is only 3 miles. If you’re hoping to shorten your journey, this would be a good way of cutting out a few miles: though if you feel able, the long way round is worth it.