South Downs: Hassocks to Ditchling Beacon and Back Again

I had originally intended to do a second "major" expedition (e.g. another two day hike) during my week off, but the state of my feet after the first one suggested a more modest outing might be wiser.

The timing was also somewhat dictated by the fact I had ordered some new anti-blister socks, which arrived at 2:30pm today, and I wanted to wait until then before heading out, to give my feet the best chance of not incurring any further injury.

For months now I had been longing to go to the South Downs. Before The Unpleasantness began my free time for walks had been focused on the Ridgeway, and I hadn't so much as set foot in Sussex since the Wassail I attended in January, near Haywards Heath. So today the Downs were the obvious destination, and I set about thinking what I could do with the remains of the day I had left after waiting in for my sock delivery.

Hassocks has served me well in the past as perhaps the quickest station for getting up onto the Downs from London - I can get there from my nearest National Rail station in under 90 minutes, with only a single change. On arrival at Hassocks station you can see the South Downs before you, and the closest point of the South Downs Way is about a mile and a half away. Although the last section of that walk is rather steep, so it takes around 45 minutes. As proved today I was able to get from home to the first signpost of the South Downs Way in just under two and a half hours. Given the long summer evenings this makes for a very feasible outing at this time of year, even if, like me today, you don't set out until mid afternoon.

At the first glimpse of the Downs from the train, I was almost teary. The weather was magnificent this afternoon, and it was a majestic sight.

The train arrived at Hassocks around 4:30 - it had been happily nearly empty all the way - and I immediately set out along the now familiar route, starting with the footpath which follows alongside the railway. I was greeted as ever by the above sign, which always raises my spirits.

It was a pleasant shady walk to begin with, which was much appreciated, as it was rather a warm afternoon. Instead of following the footpath which runs alongside the railway all the way to the Jack and Jill pub, as I have in the past, I took what seemed like a short cut by following a footpath off to the left just after Butcher's Wood. Probably in reality there's not much in it, but this way avoided the A273, which was a bonus. Slightly confusingly, on my phone at least, the path did not show on the 1:25k version of OS Maps, although it did on the 1:50k version. However the sign posts were still there, so I was reassured it was still a legitimate right of way.

As the path emerged from between the two wooded areas, the scenery opened up spectacularly, and once again glorious views of the Downs lay before me, with an extremely enviably located house in the foreground.

There were sheep in this field, lazing in the afternoon sun, rendered too lethargic from the heat to run away as I passed them. 

Beyond this field, I crossed the B2112, then another welcome shady section on a public bridleway, which surprisingly had some more very enviably located houses positioned along it.

Then a short section of country lane, and then the hard work was about to begin - a path turning off the lane which would take me rather directly, and very steeply, up onto the Downs: up to the Jack and Jill windmills.

Of course, the effort is well worth it - even after the first few minutes of slog the views were spectacular.

Really glorious. I was musing earlier this week about why it is the scenery along the Ridgeway doesn't really compare with the South Downs and I think there's more to it than just the shape of the landscape. The sky is different. Yes, I know it's unfair to compare a sunny day on the South Downs with an overcast day on the Ridgeway, but even the times when it was bright and sunny along the Ridgeway there just wasn't the same kind of light somehow. Is it to do with being close to the sea perhaps? Or is there just something ineffable about Sussex?

I seem to have an odd obsession with footpath signposts. Along the Ridgeway I was fervently taking pictures of them as well. Perhaps it's partly just a way of mentally tracking progress on bits of a walk when they start to feel like a trudge. However the sight of a South Downs Way sign post seems to fill me with instant joy. Even now that I've already done the whole thing. Again, I almost got slightly teary seeing this one today after all those months of confinement.

I could also see the sea off in the distance once up on the Downs - another thing I found very uplifting. Probably the first time this year?

I had decided just to walk as far as Ditchling Beacon. That seemed like a good spot to sit, have dinner, and watch the sunset if there was going to be a sunset to be watched. The first time I had walked over Ditchling Beacon it had been unseasonably inclement - I hadn't expected icy rain in September. So it seemed only fair to give it another chance on a day with very pleasant weather.

I proceeded along the South Downs Way at a pleasantly slow amble, confident I had already done sufficient exercise for the day with the climb up the hill earlier. My feet were gently reminding me of the punishment I'd subjected them to earlier in the week, but not painfully so. I was fairly confident today's walk would not be too arduous - I think it came to about 7 miles in the end.

As I neared the top of Ditchling Beacon, I could see vineyards laid out before me - the cluster of vineyards to the south of Ditchling, which now number four - Chalk House, Plumpton College's Ditchling vineyard, Black Dog Hill and a fourth which I think might be an extension to Black Dog Hill. I wrote about all of these last year.

As always, the mandatory of a trig point. Being typically the highest point in the immediate vicinity, these usually offer the best views, but given the relatively flat hilltop here, better views were to be had from just a tad further down.

I found a nice spot a little off the path, and decided I would settle there for the evening, to have dinner, and watch the sunset. I stayed there for a good couple of hours, and had an absolutely delightful time of it.

Of course, ideally I would have been drinking wine from one of the Ditchling vineyards I was overlooking, but they were all growing grapes destined for sparkling wine, and I didn't really want the faff of having to lug ice up the hill to keep it chilled. Plus I didn't currently have any wine from those producers in the cellar. So instead I brought a bottle of still red - Davenport's excellent Pinot Noir. It was still a Sussex wine - the winery is less than 20 miles from this spot.

I took reams and reams of photos while I was sitting here, and it's no easy task trying to pick out the best as most of them look pretty similar. The clouds had accumulated a bit since I'd arrived, so I suspected it probably wouldn't be the most spectacular sunset of all time, but the setting, for me at least, was very hard to beat.

By around 7:30, the silver sunlight was starting to turn a pale gold. I was starting to get quite peckish by this point.

I had a bit of uncertainty about whether or not it was appropriate to use a campstove here. I certainly wasn't going to start an open fire - though I notice some people on this spot previously had, and to make matters worse had just abandoned lighters (you can see one in one of the above photos) - I picked these up and took them away with me when I left. The stove was only on for about 10 minutes and I watched it like a hawk while it was, and I had plenty of water on hand in the unlikely event of anything going awry. The grass underneath wasn't even wilted afterwards, let alone scorched. I was pretty sure this was safe. 

Dinner was a very simple affair - just some soupy pasta, but in this setting it was absolutely delicious.

After dinner entertainment took much the same form as pre-dinner entertainment had - watching the sky change colour.

I took a short time lapse movie of the clouds moving, along with the sun's rays. Probably should have left it going for longer!

Eventually I decided I ought to start heading back to Hassocks, but fortunately this meant heading roughly west, so I could still enjoy a bit more of the sunset on my way.

I took what seem to be the most direct route back to Hassocks - a path which cut down through the Ditchling Beacon Nature reserve to Underhill Lane. Somehow Underhill Lane sounds like something out of The Hobbit to me.

Along Underhill Lane, and then onto Lodge Lane, both quiet country lanes which were a pleasure to walk down at this time of the evening, with hardly any passing cars. I caught a couple of final glimpses of the last colour from the sun before I arrived in Keymer, which blends into Hassocks.

To end, here I am walking down one of those country lanes, looking thoroughly delighted with my evening spent on the Downs.