Home to the sea

Out of Hassocks Station, past the alternative-therapy \’Heeler Centre\’ (not a bad pun, apparently, but run by someone called Heeler), we followed the railway embankment south as far as Butchers Wood, then over to Clayton.

The Downs rose steeply ahead of us, the sails of the Jack and Jill windmills peeking bashfully over the sheep-filled horizon. Turning back, we could see the coloured counties, or at least Sussex, turning shades of ochre in the hazy autumn sun. Beyond the windmills, we crossed the South Downs Way, busy with walkers, dogs and horses, and skirted the edge of Pyecombe Golf Club.

We joined the Sussex Border Path as it led through a freshly ploughed field, the bare flinty earth gleaming black under wheeling seagulls.

Past the Chattri War Memorial, an incongruous Mughal-styled memorial to 53 Indian soldiers whose corpses were cremated there during the First World War, Sussex Heights and Brighton\’s seafront could be seen in the distance.

After a quick pint in Patcham\’s Black Lion, a plastic Harvester restaurant busy with squabbling families, we walked back in to Brighton on the London Road. At the south end of Preston Park, the remnants of Steve Ovett\’s despoiled statue provided a surreal footnote to the journey.
Stats: 11.25km, 7 miles, 2.5 hours

Fowl play

Leaving Haywards Heath, my befuddled state (head-cold fog battling it out with pseudoephedrine fizz) got me serially lost down sylvian suburban streets, with his\’n\’hers Porsche Cayennes in front drives. Eventually, as the autumn sun broke through grey clouds, I escaped into a field of cows by Fox Hill.

From here, a curiously complicated series of footpaths led me slowly south to Wivelsfield, over handsome stiles erected by the local Monday Group. The last footpath ended in a garden populated by geese and a goat. I followed the signs to cross a small bridge over a stream, but the geese had other ideas, rushing over the bridge at me with wings aloft, hissing furiously and trying to bite me between the legs. Like heavy artillery, the goat lurked malevolently behind the front lines.

Like a cross between Horatius Cocles and their Capitoline ancestors, the birds were clearly determined to defend their territory. While pondering these irrelevant classical allusions, I cast around for a weapon: would self-defence be a mitigating factor against accusations of poaching? Did I want to carry a dead goose for the rest of the walk?

Instead, I decided to beat a hasty retreat, and walked cautiously round the edge of the garden. After a mercifully brief stretch of road (the byways of Sussex are packed with speeding SUVs and white vans, not making for easy walking), I returned to open country, passing to the east of St George\’s Retreat (a rapidly-expanding care home) and between the heathland and industrial buildings of Ditchling Common.

Joining the Sussex Border Path and crossing the Lewes branch of the railway, I saw a first glimpse of the South Downs in the distance. The path led into \’the Low Weald\’ – small fields of horses and grapes, and through a free range chicken farm. My second poultry encounter of the day was much more relaxed than the first: the chickens had obviously come to associate humans with food, so came rushing at me.

As I walked down the track, I looked back to see that I had attracted a retinue of the daft clucking creatures, reminding me of Bertrand Russell\’s admonition: \”Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who feeds them. We know that all these rather crude expectations of uniformity are liable to be misleading. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.\”

Ditchling\’s narrow high street was clogged with cars, and The Bull was packed with prosperous munchers, giving the lie to the recession with their locally-sourced and exorbitantly-priced lunches. Following an old Roman Road busy with well-dressed dog walkers, I skirted Keymer, and arrived at Hassocks Station in time to catch a train under the looming Downs back to Brighton.

Stats: 8.7 miles, 14 km, 3.25 hours

To the valley below

Balcombe to Haywards Heath is only about two miles as the crow flies. I am not a crow, so this stage of the walk described a lazy s-shape, passing through the Ouse Valley and under the magnificent Ouse Valley Viaduct.

Leaving Balcombe south on the B2036, I escaped from the rattle of the rails down into a wooded valley swarming with pheasants, scurrying indignantly ahead of me, or squawking and rustling from the undergrowth. At the top of the valley, the landscape opened up, with a glimpse of the Viaduct in the distance. I joined the Sussex Ouse Valley Way and turned east towards the Viaduct, which emerged through a landscape that seemed almost unnaturally green in the late summer sun.

The view from the top of the Viaduct is, at any time of year, one of the highlights of the train journey from London to Brighton. Rushing past incongruous Palladian gatehouses and stone balustrades, rail passengers are treated to a panorama of timeless southern English countryside, with old brick farm buildings dotted throughout the wide and well-wooded valley, and the schools buildings of Ardingly College in the background.

Approaching the Viaduct from ground level, you become aware of the strength and grace of the structure. The 37 brick supports are hollow-centred, creating mesmerising patterns as they retreat up the slopes of the valley. Texture and depth is added by the different styles of brick that have been used to patch and maintain the Grade II-listed structure through its 170-year history – according to wikipedia, more than 100 trains a day pass over it.

Beyond the Viaduct, I took a short-cut through River\’s Wood, then rejoined the path, as it led through the pastel-shirted ersatz landscape of Haywards Heath Golf Club. Disorientated by its homgenised sandpits and ornamental tree-planting, I took a wrong turn and ended up on High Beach Lane, which led me into Haywards Heath past suburban villas and McMansions.

When I walked in to the Burrell Arms, opposite the station, I was grateful that I only had time for a quick half-pint. If this pub is not the worst in town, I shudder to think what its competition must be like.

Stats: 5.8 miles, 9.4km, 2 hours

For what it\’s Worth

Footpaths are elusive at Gatwick Airport, but if you walk south past the valet parking depot, the car hire desks and the smoking sheds full of re-dosing new arrivals, you eventually find a West Sussex County Council fingerpost, looking as alien as a pennyfarthing at the TT races.

The path winds between the long-term car parks, and crosses over the internal road system, encased all the way in a wire cage, as the planes roar in overhead. As the airport sprawled, someone presumably fought for the preservation of this right of way, but it makes you feel like a perimeter guard at a high security prison. After a surprisingly long time, we cleared the airport, spotting a fox cub and a muntjac on the way, then meandered back over the motorway to Shipley Bridge.

Turning south, we followed roads and footpaths through Copthorne, then entered the western fringes of Ashdown Forest (\’home\’, its website earnestly informs us, of Winnie the Pooh). Police signs on the gates warned of malicious damage to flora and fauna – bear-of-little-brain-baiting, perhaps, or thistle-rustling? – but the tracks through the well-managed woods were almost deserted, decorated only by piles of logs and the occasional feral club chair.

Abruptly, the forest gave way to the lawns, playing fields and golf courses of Worth School, a Catholic boarding school boasting the grandiose but grim architecture in which such institutions specialise. We were a couple of weeks away from the beginning of term, but already lawn mowing and line painting was immaculate, ready for the onslaught of a new academic year.

A thirsty diversion west through more woods led to The Cowdray, a recently refurbished pub with a sunny beer garden full of families. A slow-moving elderly lady, looking down at a toddling infant, remarked with casual menace, \”If you get in my way, I will tread on you, you know.\” Outraged expressions all round. The Cowdray\’s reinvention of the club sandwich was – as reinvented club sandwiches tend to be – perfectly pleasant in itself, but not a patch on the original.

The rest of the walk to Balcombe, along the busy B2036, was functional rather than scenic. Balcombe itself was full of blackberry pickers, looking on each other with a mixture of curiosity and paranoia as they hunted down the most fruitful and accessible branches.

Stats: 9.2 miles, 14.8 km, 4 hours

Walking fifty miles in their shoes?

I have done some sniffing around the web to find any other accounts of walking from London to Brighton, and have found very little. Two minor gems: this marvellous Pathe film of a London-Brighton walking race in 1955, and – even more eccentrically – these photographs of Mademoiselle Florence, a lady who walked from London to Brighton on a ball in 1903. Respect.

Trains, planes and automobiles

Redhill is a good place to leave. I had arrived by train from Victoria, where I saw a family of recently arrived tourists (Iranian, I think) trying to collect the necessary change to use the public loos (£1.50 for the five of them). It felt deeply shaming that this chiselling approach to basic human needs was to be one of their first experiences of the UK.

Back to Redhill, where a bit of fancy footwork along the A25 took me away from the shopping mall that appeared to have replaced the town centre, and to the south. Redhill\’s former \’asylum for idiots\’, the Royal Earlswood Hospital has – like so many of London\’s green belt asylums – been redeveloped as housing. The main building is imposing and impressive (you can see it from the railway line), as befits an establishment that was the residence of the Queen Mother\’s nieces for many secret years. It is now mocked by the cheap pastiche that surrounds it, buildings crammed together like Monopoly houses. There is still a gate, presumably to keep people out rather than in nowadays, though it\’s a pretty moot point.

From alongside the hospital (and leading past the newer East Surrey Hospital and the isolated housing estate (perhaps a \’New Village\’?) of Whitebushes), a slightly monotonous bridleway and cycle track takes you south to Horley, staying a fairly consistent field\’s width away from the railway line. In several places, what was marked on the OS map as fields has been taken over by new housing estates. Many of these can be seen from the train. They do not look much more impressive close to.

The Farmhouse, just on the northern edge of Horley, lies alongside one of these estates, but has a good garden for a pint (and a magnificent \’smoking pavilion\’, in which the landlord has drolly made space for a bar \”should the Government…ban alcohol in pubs in future\”). Continuing clockwise round the town, I made for Thunderfield Castle, which looked more impressive on the map than it did with reality: a caravan site surrounded by a redundant moat of oily, stagnant water.

Modern buildings down these small back streets and bridleways were far more effectively secured, with electric gates and high hedges protecting the privacy of large houses and large cars.

Clear of Horley, the roar of the motorway grows again as you approach the M23 spur to Gatwick, this time mixed with the intermittent rattling of trains and the keening whine of aircraft. Cows in the fields alongside seem curiously nonchalant, as I creep through the din and the brambles to the airport.

Stats: 2.5 hours, 12.75km, 8 miles

I fell in love with the beautiful highway

\”The journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step\”

I spend so much time travelling between London and Brighton, that I thought it would be worth walking the route, if only to understand better the familiar but always half-glimpsed landscape as it flashes past the window.

Coulsdon South was the starting point. I wanted the trip to be more honest than scenic, but trudging through Streatham, Norbury, Purley and all points in between seemed to be an exercise in unnecessary masochism. A few yards from the station, the path across Farthing Downs takes you to the top of the North Downs, the hillsides dotted with forests in one direction and suburban villas in another. The road narrows and continues down towards Chaldon, with huge SUVs squeezing past each other, rushing to conclude the slightly furtive business that seems to dominate London\’s fringes.

I wandered off the road to try to follow a path through Devilsden Wood, but quickly got confused by too many paths rather than two few, almost all of them marked \’Happy Valley Nature Trail\’. That wasn\’t what I wanted – it sounded far too urban and didactic for my mood – but it seemed to have taken over all signage, like Japanese Knotweed smothering native species.

I returned to Ditches Road pretty near where I had left it, dodged some more SUVs and the occasional tractor, then walked past Chaldon\’s 11th Century Church (no camera this time, but I hope to remedy that in future stages). Past a couple of farms and then the most fantastic vista over the great closerleaf of the M23-M25 junction, with the M23 snaking through misty skies to the South.

Motorways may be bad in all sorts of ways (planet, health etc), but watching them twining together through wooded valleys, you are reminded what beauties of engineering they are too. Walking through cornfields down to the road, the roar of the traffic growing steadily more insistent, you feel like an archaeologist or an alien, unearthing something at once thrilling and abstruse.

A path passed under the M23, through Merstham, cut off like a sandbank between two rivers, then over the M25. Following the bank round above the junction, I passed more intriguing edge of city developments (razorwire and daubed signs – \’GUARD DOGS LOSE AT ALL TIME! KEEP OUT!!!\’).

Nature reserves indicated the sites of past gravel pits, and the path eventually emerged at Nutfield Marsh. The Inn on the Pond was exactly the pub I didn\’t want to find for lunch: restaurant-focused, with precious little bar service, and an interior that looked like it had been selected by an auto-gastropub programme. Very sorry, very Surrey.

The chef cites \”Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver and Thomas Keller of Napa Valley’s ‘French Landry’ [sic] restaurant fame as his food influences\”. I had a ham baguette, in which few of these influences were discernible. It\’s a bit like me saying that this account is inspired by Patrick Leigh Fermor. It may be true, but it has no bearing on the quality of my prose.

From there, the idea of walking into Redhill, past the huge new housing estates being built in gravel pits that I had seen from the train, seemed too depressing a prospect, so I took a slightly woozy route across fields to Nutfield itself, then a further stroll (downhill again) onto South Nutfield, where a train arrived, miraculously, as I did.

Stats: 3.5 hours, 13.25km, 8.25 miles