22.5 miles 2 or 3 days
Take in the last of the South Downs and its ancient mounds before heading to the flat expanse of the Pevensey Levels.If you have never seen Cuckmere Haven or the Seven Sisters before, we strongly recommend allowing an extra day for this diversion to experience one of the most iconic landscapes in Britain. See the Alternative Routes for details.
Train: Berwick, Polegate, (both reachable from Alfriston by bus) Normans Bay and Pevensey Bay Bus: there are 7 different services in Alfriston which will connect you to Lewes, Eastbourne, Berwick, Cuckmere and other local destinations.The No.125 connects most of the places on this stage to Willingdon and Eastbourne. The No. 8 will connect you to Pevensey but services further on are more erratic. Taxi: Polegate Station Taxis, Oceanside Cars Call 01323 764676
Alfriston: The Old Chapel Centre offers Sanctuary, there are a lot of hotel and B&B options, plus a campsite. Wilmington: The Crossways Hotel, Twytten House. Willingdon: Chalk Farm Hotel. Wartling: Court Lodge Farm There also are a lot of accommodation options within Eastbourne if you don’t mind connecting with transport, including a YMCA. Wartling: St Mary Magdalene Church offers Sanctuary. Wartling Place Country House B&B.
Alfriston: there are many places, our favourites are the deli in Alfriston Village Stores, and The George. Willingdon: The British Queen pub, Brains Butchers, Co-op. Sharnfold farm shop. Wartling: The Lamb Inn
The mysterious Long Man of Wilmington has captured the imagination through the centuries. His age and purpose may be unknown, but many find their own meaning whilst gazing on his form or sitting on the barrows above him.
Combe Hill is one of the best places to experience the end of the South Downs that has carried much of your journey on its whale-back ridges so far. From here you can see the land slide away to the flat levels before ascending once more for the Weald.
Pevensey Castle has an impressive Roman fort and medieval castle, once a major seaport at the time of its construction that saw many pilgrims, as evidenced by the graffiti at St Nicholas church.
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 main holy place of Alfriston is 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!
Out of Alfriston, cross the river, and then onto the ‘half church’ (literally) at Lullington. The smallest church in Sussex is all that survives of the remains of the chancel of a larger church, which is believed to have been razed by fire in Cromwellian times.
Rise again to the magnificent South Downs, with a sharp valley and a burial barrow complex just off the beaten track, crowning the mysterious chalk carved Long Man of Wilmington – carved into the chalk downs, carrying two staffs either side of him. Is the Long Man a pilgrim?
In the village of Wilmington beyond, seek out the wondrous yew tree of St St Mary and St Peter’s Church. Supported by props and chains, this is believed to be one of the oldest yews in Sussex – older by far than the church that stands beside it. It has recently been dated as 1,600 years old. By the roots of the tree, you will find an old Roman stone said to have been found at the bottom of the vicarage well by the village well digger, and the Roman stone now lies over the digger’s grave.
Folkington and Jevington
From the here, walk into hollow ways at the feet of the South Downs. Continue to Folkington and its beautiful flint church, with pilgrim statues in the churchyard. Because of the way the nave and chancel blend together – being both the same height – the acoustics within this church are superb. You may find that this is a church that lends itself to song. The flint walls of the church remain much as they did when they were first built, though its interior has been repaired multiple times – especially during the Victorian era.
Continue along the spur of the downs to Jevington, with its thousand year-old church, St Andrew’s, the oldest parts of which date hundreds of years before the Norman Conquest. At that time, this church served a secondary purpose: a sanctuary to locals when Viking raiders came looting. Here you will also find The 8 Bells pub.
Ascend to a neolithic causeway and great hump on Combe Hill (also known as Coombe Hill), protected by the National Trust and overlooking the end of the South Downs. From here, on a clear day, it is possible to see all the way to the Cotswolds. The National Trust lists “rock rose, marjoram, basil and thyme” as plants to look out for while you are here and butterflies such as “small heath, meadow brown, ringlet and common blue” have all been spotted here.
The exposed location on Combe Hill means the Cowslips grow much shorter than you will see elsewhere. Once they were as common as buttercups, but have experienced such decline each one discovered should be cherished, even if their name derives from an old word for “cow pat” (as one helped the other to grow). The cluster of flowers look like a bunch of keys, and it is from this imagery that cowslips have associations of unlocking secrets in several traditions. For the Norse, the keys belonged to Freya, goddess of love, beauty and fertility, opening the door to her secret hall and the treasure of inner knowledge. In the Christian tradition, the flowers first grew from the ground where St Peter dropped his keys.
Follow the 1066 Country Walk and cross through suburbia to Pevensey, or take the shortcut from Sharnfold Farm. The “Saxon Shore” fort was one of the last to be built by the Romans, and has stood at the turning point of history many times. From the first of the Saxon raiders to Norman invasion, John of Gaunt and Joan of Navarre, these impressive ruins are far more significant than they first seem. The outer bailey is free to explore, or there is a small fee to see inside, including the ruined chapel. Outside the walls is St Nicholas Church, with pilgrim graffiti on the east side of the door. From here return towards the castle and follow the road outside its walls into the marshes. This section of the route can get a little boggy, so dress appropriately and tread carefully.
You are now in the Pevensey Levels, 3,500 hectares of low-lying wet grassland. Among the many birds present in the reserve, look out for peregrines, lapwings, yellow wagtails and cuckoos (all dependant upon what time of year you a travelling through). In the ditches, look out for arrowhead, spearhead, and greater spearwort – for more information, click here.
This is Will-o’-the-Wisp country, so tread carefully and don’t follow strange candles.
As you follow the banks of the Hurst Haven, distant landmarks arrive slowly underfoot. Visit the wonderfully atmospheric marshland All Saints Church and the epic Herstmonceux Castle – which many years ago was an inlet to the sea. This construction of this red brick castle began in 1441, when Sir Roger Fiennes applied to the King Henry VI for permission to begin work on another castle (he already had one in Kent). By the 1700’s the castle was only an ivy-covered ruin. It was only in the 20th century that work on the reconstruction of this enormous building got underway. Only the gardens are accessible to the public.
From the castle, make your way to Wartling. The church of St Mary Magdalene has stood at the centre of this community since at least the Saxon times. As with so many churches along the Old Way – and around the country – generation upon generation have worked to maintain this church, and so it is a beautiful patchwork of construction. Within the church, you will find memorials to those who lost their lives in WWII.
Next to the church is the The Lamb Inn, which comes highly recommended, offering great local food and beer, as well as rooms. After the delicious time you will have there, you can also rest in peace within the 13th-century church, where there is Sanctuary accommodation available, instead of the pub rooms!
From Wartling’s Sanctuary church of St Mary Magdalene, step away from the Pevensey Marshes to walk among the Weald, a land of oak, clay and water. Follow Boreham Lane northeast, then walk through fields towards Boreham Street.