South Downs: Henfield to Steyning

Shortly after completing the South Downs Way in February this year I read The Four Men by Hilaire Belloc. The Downs, particularly the parts in Sussex, had taken on a magical quality for me, and you can clearly see from the book that Belloc held this landscape in a similar regard.

I have been thinking for a while of what my next walking "project" should be, but the answer should have been obvious - to try and retrace the route of The Four Men. Belloc's walk through Sussex ran roughly east to west, from Robertsbridge to Harting, but followed quite a different route from the South Downs Way. I made an attempt to plot it on this map.

Given that I intended to make a start of this on today's walk, I should have set off from Robertsbridge, but somehow instead I settled on a section somewhere in the middle, from Henfield to Steyning.

Large swathes of Sussex are no longer covered by the rail network, which makes the logistics for doing a day trip from London to do a section of this route a bit challenging. It would actually have been easier in Belloc's day!

After some deliberation I got the train to Burgess Hill, from where, in theory, I should have been able to get a bus to Henfield, but I missed it by a minute or two, so instead took a taxi. I arrived in Henfield a little after 10:30 and had a bit of a nose around before setting off on my walk.

The inn in Henfield where The Four Men had dinner was not named in the book, but Bob Copper, in Across Sussex with Belloc, decided that the George Inn was a likely candidate. It certainly is a venerable hostelry, with the older, pre-Victorian timber framed part being a fine example of the breed. I popped in here for a quick coffee, and admired the beams.

After my brief stop at the George, I set off to the west from Henfield, in the direction of the river Adur. Although I usually try to avoid roads wherever possible when walking, I found the sleepy country lane leading down to the river made for very pleasant walking.

I had studied the Ordnance Survey map when planning this walk, which was prior to getting hold of a copy of Bob Copper's book, and had come to my own conclusion about the location of the bridge where the Four Men crossed the Adur. I had assumed they would have headed more or less due west from Henfield towards Ashurst, passing Grays Farm on the Henfield side, and then crossing at the bridge which is a little upstream from there. This was indeed a little wooden bridge, albeit clearly of fairly recent construction, but I had happily assumed that some forerunner of the current structure on the same site had been the one they crossed.

I paused for a short while at the bridge and read the relevant passage from the book:

"This we did, and as we passed the wooden bridge we saw below us my little river, the river Adur, slipping at low tide towards the sea."

...and then, over the other side:

"So we went on over the water-meadows. It was very cold, and the moon rode over Chanctonbury in a clear heaven."

Indeed I could see the little copse of Chanctonbury Ring up on the downs, a brooding presence on the horizon.

Bob Copper determined the location of the bridge as a little further downstream, marked on the map as Bineham Bridge, and indeed given the presence of water meadows on the Ashurst side near that bridge, and their destination - "this little house of mine, for it is not a mile across the water-meadows." (which Copper was informed was the house named Bergen-op-Zoom to the South of Ashurst) I think he's probably right.

Either way, my journey led me to the Fountain at Ashurst, as it did for at least one of the Four Men (The Sailor was sent out to fetch beer). I arrived just a bit before opening time at midday, so I sat outside for a few minutes again referring to the book:

"The Fountain of Ashurst runs, by God's Grace, with better stuff than water."

Indeed it does! Not just beautiful Harveys beer, but also local English wine by the glass.

I sat in the lovely bar room of the Fountain which I had largely to myself for my visit, and it was easy to imagine it was practically unchanged since Belloc's day. A flagstone floor, a large inglenook fireplace, exposed beams and simple wooden furniture.

After leaving Ashurst, I headed broadly in the direction of Steyning, but not wanting to just walk along the road as The Four Men might have done (because of course they were unperturbed by cars in their day) I had devised a less direct route following the footpaths.

I first passed through a sort of "glamping" site which seemed to sprawl out quite a lot, and rather spoiled the sense of solitude and tranqulity, but eventually at the other side I eventually got back to the river Adur.

The riverside path made for a very pleasant walk, with largely unobstructed views of the Downs in the distance. Tempted by this, I considered diverting from my original planned route at this point, with the draw of the hills in the distance, and particularly having had a glimpse of Chanctonbury Ring earlier, but, alas, time was pressing so I continued toward Steyning.

At an old railway bridge, the footpath alongside the Adur met the Downs Link, which was formerly the Steyning Line which ran from Horsham to Shoreham-by-Sea, one of many victims of Dr Beeching in Sussex. Although the presence of a footpath along its route is obviously a benefit to walkers, personally I would have preferred a train service to have been preserved in some form - lots of walking routes in Sussex would be made much easier with a more comprehensive rail network - as things stand I typically have to try and fill in the gaps with the patchy bus service and occasionally, like this morning, exorbitant taxis.

It's an interesting aside that Belloc hardly ever seems to refer to the railways in The Four Men - and they certainly never make use of them. The story is set in 1902, and by then the Steyning line had already been established for nearly 40 years - he would have passed stations at Henfield and Steyning on this section of the walk, but paints a picture of them as isolated towns in an ancient rural landscape. Points on the route are punctuated by inns rather than stations, and it feels more akin to the age of the stage coach than of the steam train. The reality is though that it was better connected by public transport at the time the book was written than it is today!

The Downs Link took me most of the way into Steyning, through fields of maize with more views of the Downs in the distance. I just diverted towards the end to cut off the corner with a smaller footpath.

Steyning is quite a pretty town, with an attractive street of mainly timber frame houses to greet me on arrival.

I made one last pub stop in Steyning - a quick visit o the Chequers Inn, another where Bob Copper had filled in the gap for an unnamed inn in The Four Men. Again, Copper's judgement seems sound here, and it had the air of an old coaching inn, with plenty of beams in evidence.

From here, the bus back to Pulborough, and then the train back to London.