There are six landscape zones stretching across the South East of England, arranged in a series of concentric horseshoes, one inside the other. At the centre of it all lie the oldest rocks in this part of the country: the sandstones of the High Weald. As one passes further out from these hills, the rocks under your feet get progressively younger until, youngest of all, one reaches the chalk of the South and North Downs.

View across the Weald from Blackcap on the South Downs

The High Weald is a land of rolling, thickly-wooded sandstone hills, reaching from between Hastings and Rye on the coast and inland to Horsham and Tunbridge Wells. Overlaying the sandstones is a layer of impermeable Wealden clay, the combination of the hard, acid rock and the badly-draining clay makes this a very difficult landscape to farm and, as a result, it retains the densest covering of ancient woodland in England. It is from these woodlands, which once covered the whole area between the Downs, that the Weald gets its name, from the Old English Wald, meaning “wood”. Many of the field boundaries and villages are still laid out as they were in medieval times, as the new methods of farming that came with tractors and combine harvesters never came to these parts, where arable crops aren’t keen to grow. As a result, the woods and hedgerows were never cleared to make bigger fields as they were in much of the rest of the country. For many years, the main industry in this area was the production of iron, as both the sandstones and clays are rich in its ores.

Between the hills there run many small, steep and rushing streams that, particularly in the east, coalesce into rivers that have carved long, broad valleys, with villages perched on the ridges between them. Many of the major roads of this region also follow the ridges, affording wonderful views. These rivers run into what were once large, complex estuaries which have, over many hundreds of years, been reclaimed. The Ashbourne into Pevensey Levels and the Rother, Brede and Tillingham into Rye Bay and Romney Marsh, the complicated and fascinating history of which I will discuss at another time. These levels and marshes form the second of our landscape types. All of Sussex’s major rivers, with the exception of the Adur, rise in the High Weald.

Around the outside of the High Weald lies the Low Weald; a broad, clay plain. Again, the heavy clays do not drain easily and while there is more arable farming than in the High Weald, there is still much less than in most of the south of England. As well there are large areas of ancient woodland, but the rivers are broader, slower and more winding than in the High Weald and the landscape more gentle. There are many villages and small towns and the area is more thickly populated than the remoter High Weald.

Next comes the Greensand: a kind of sandstone that supposedly appears green when first exposed to the air. There is a thin ring of it around the outside of the Low Weald, often with little villages and farms perched on top and up in the north west of the county there is a larger area of a slightly different kind of greensand, known as the Greensand Hills. These contain Sussex’s highest point at Black Down. In character they are much like the High Weald, with small, remote-feeling villages, steep valleys, rushing streams and much woodland.

Beyond a very thin ring of gault clay, as hard as rock, we reach the most famous landscape in Sussex, the South Downs. Made of unimaginable billions of coccolithophores – the calcium shells made by single-celled organisms called coccoliths – these chalk hills run for 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne. Once thickly wooded, as everywhere else in England, they were cleared between four and six thousand years ago and grazed with sheep, creating a unique grassland that is the most biodiverse habitat in Europe. As there is no natural water on the Downs, they have never been highly populated, but nevertheless they are rich with archaeology, from hill forts like those at Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings to thousands of tumuli dotted along the ridge. The chalk of the Downs acts like a giant sponge, soaking up rainwater and releasing it in a line of springs along the bottom of the steep northern slope, giving rise to a long line of old villages, built around the access to fresh water and the soil that, mixed with chalk that naturally washes down from the hills and with lime made from baked chalk dug out of pits, is some of the easiest soil to work between the Downs, making this a rare area of many wheat and barley fields.

And finally, beyond the Downs in the south west of Sussex lies an alluvial plain of deep rich silts around Chichester. This is the best arable land in the county and in times past there were many market gardens here, but over time it has become the most densely populated part of this corner of the world and the large towns have brought most of that way of life to an end. Pagham and Chichester Harbours, though, remain among the most beautiful places in Sussex, despite that.

The story of how this land came to be shaped as it is I will leave for another day, but I hope I have been able to give a glimpse at just what a wonderfully varied land this is. One of the greatest joys of Sussex and the wider South East is how quickly the landscapes and the flora and fauna they support change as you drive about, from the tiny winding lanes of the High Weald to the wide open skies of the Levels and from the precipitous, secret valleys of the Greensand Hills to the great glory of the high Downs, where on a clear day one can see for sixty miles across this fascinating patchwork of green.

The hills where the River Uck rises, High Weald


One place on the South Downs that will always have a special place in my heart is Blackcap near Lewes. As an undergraduate at Plumpton College I wrote a couple of essays on the hill and it’s a place I return to again and again. The clump of trees on top of the hill can be seen for many miles – even from many parts of the High Weald – but despite looking like a black cap, it is not from these trees that the hill gets its name. Where the hill does get its name, on the other hand, is a matter of some debate.

Between the 13th and 17th Centuries the hill was known as Mount Harry, as this is the hill where Henry III stationed his troops before the battle of Lewes in 1264 – a battle that ended with both Henry and his son, the future Edward I, being taken prisoner by Simon de Montfort.  The hill to its east was known as Lewes Beacon and, indeed, it has a beacon on it. For some reason, though, in the 17th century Mount Harry became Blackcap and Lewes Beacon became Mount Harry. No-one really knows why. There was, in that period, a windmill on the saddle between the two hills known as Blackcap Mill, but whether it was named after the hill or vice versa is not known. One thing is certain, though, and that’s that the trees on the very top of the hill were first planted for the coronation of Victoria some 200 years later (they have died and been replaced twice since), so it’s definitely not named after them.

The top of the hill is managed by the National Trust and has been the successful subject of a scheme to regenerate the herb-rich grassland that makes the Downs famous – much of the hill having previously been ploughed up during the Second World War. The large open expanse of the hill affords wonderful views over to the coastal line of the Downs that stretches from Brighton to Eastbourne and in the summer it has one of the finest displays of wild orchids on these hills.

This is a hill that never fails to cheer me up. A network of bostalls scores its northern face, which allows the wanderer to assault it from various directions, or combine it with a walk in the woods and fields of the Low Weald at its feet.


On my way up the hill today I spotted these King Alfred’s Cakes growing on a dead ash branch. The fungus gets its name, of course, from looking like burnt cakes, such as those supposedly neglected by King Alfred the Great while his mind was on other vaguely important things, like all those pesky Danes that were suddenly cluttering Wessex up. They only grow on dead ash and though they are extremely hard, they can be removed with a knife. Once they have been sliced off and the interior revealed, it can be seen that they have growth rings, just like the trees they grow on, which gives them their Latin name of Daldinia concentrica.

Long before the days of Alfred and his cakes, this fungus had another use. If a spark from a fire were blown onto the inner rings, it would smoulder quite slowly and happily away, even for days, until a new fire was to be set, at which point the addition of some dry tinder – and a fair amount of highly controlled blowing – would bring it back into a bright blaze. A very useful property in the days before we’d worked out how to make fire for ourselves and had to rely on its delivery from the Gods.

With the ash trees all dying of the Chalara fungus, they look set to have a bumper couple of decades, as there’s going to be plenty of dead ash for them to grow on. But after that, I suppose they’ll die out with their hosts. A sad end to such a wonderful part of our human past.


On today’s walk I am, for once, actually in the Low Weald. Now, I have a tendency to think of the Low Weald as that bit of Sussex you have to drive across to get to more interesting places, but nevertheless off I set from Henfield down to the Adur (pronounced Ada) to see what I was missing out on. Which turns out to be badly waterlogged fields that proved once and for all that I need new boots. Again.

The Adur used to be navigable up as far as Knepp Castle (which is an interesting place in its own right), which always seems inconceivable considering how small the river is. Large vessels only ever came up as far as Steyning, though. These days they can’t get beyond Norfolk Bridge in Shoreham. The name of the river comes from the Roman fort Portus Adurni, which people in the 17th Century believed was in Shoreham. Turns out it was actually in Portchester, so only 37 miles out. Before it was called the Adur, it was known as the Bramber, after the village and castle, which is a much cuddlier name. Just to the west of Henfield the river divides into western and eastern branches, both of which remain tidal for some distance.

Also today I found some scary rogue ditches, the world’s most over-engineered bench and three cars that have been stuck end-on in the ground for some reason.

Black Down

Much though Sussex prides itself on its independent spirit, there are occasions when other, less worthy counties impose themselves upon us and it is somehow ironic that the highest point of this blessed land is, in fact, an outpost of the Surrey Hills. Having said that, the Surrey Hills themselves are a mere part of the Greensand Ridge that runs in a giant horseshoe around the outside of the Low Weald, so perhaps we can learn to share our topography nicely with our neighbours. Black Down sits at the end of a promontory of sandstone that looms over the wide clay vale of the western Low Weald and, as a result, commands wonderful views; especially at its southern end, where the land steeply falls some 200 metres to meet the plains that spread below.

Such a significant hill has, of course, been important for millennia. The slopes are littered with prehistoric worked flints – some 2000 of them are in the collection of Haslemere Educational Museum just to the north. Flint does not naturally occur in the acid sandstones of these hills, so they must have been brought here by prehistoric man and the fact that most of these flints are arrowheads shows that this hill was an important hunting ground for these people.

For thousands of years the hill, like the chalk Downs, was grazed, which kept the trees down and allowed a large open heath to develop. The slopes are still covered with thick heather and hair grass, but since regular grazing stopped in the early years of the last century, Scots pine has taken much of the area over. This being a National Trust property, they are gradually thinning the pine and restoring grazing to allow the heather and its attendant rare wildlife to thrive. I didn’t see any of their belted galloway cattle on this occasion, but I have seen them among the trees on previous visits.

The hill’s most famous resident must be Tennyson, who died in his house here in 1892. One of the deep, winding lanes is named in his honour. Long walks over the heath were taken by the poet and his friends and the place remains extremely popular with walkers of all kinds, its proximity to the town of Haslemere adding to its attraction.


That morning I awoke with a feeling of complete uselessness. Nothing I had or could do seemed to have any meaning and the temptation to remain in bed, with the blinds closed and the only light provided by a laptop screen was strong upon me. “Ah.” I thought. “Another day of pointless existence, I see. I suppose I’d better get on with it.”

I forced myself to go to a place called Droke. I’d first found it years before while exploring West Sussex by car. It sits in a long dry valley of the Downs which runs parallel to where the steep northern edge of the long line of hills descends to the Low Weald. The name intrigued me, redolent as it is of some elemental Jansson-esque monster of the woods. In fact, the name turns out simply to mean “steep-sided valley”. This is a timeless, lost place high in a landscape that has never been able to support large amounts of human life. What villages and farms exist are few, small, scattered and achingly beautiful. Charlton Forest is just to the north and one of the largest areas of woodland in Sussex – leading up to the top of the north scarp of the Downs – and I’d wanted to explore it for years. I was in an ambivalent mood as I drove there. That feeling in the pit of my stomach of not really knowing what I was doing or why.

The feeling persisted as I walked through mile after mile of beech plantation, almost as mono-cultural as a stand of pine with just a muddle of bramble at the field layer, a few dark yews dotted about and the odd hazel at the edges. All of that changed at a medieval wood bank near the summit, after which I was suddenly in oak/ash woodland with a significant coppiced hazel under-storey, a fair amount of hawthorn and wild cherry filling it out and moss everywhere.

The top was muddy as all hell, but some fine views fading into the soft winter haze over towards Harting Down and the Surrey Hills made up for it. I was just beginning to really tire of slogging through the mud when all of a sudden the woodland ended and one of the most beautiful dry valleys in the Downs opened up at my feet. The sun came out and I stood and watched a buzzard wheeling against the sky above me. Through a parting in the trees I caught a sudden glimpse of Chanctonbury Ring away in the distance, almost back at Brighton and as I took it all in I thought to myself: “Ah yes. This is the point.”


The hill down to Upwaltham was steep and after spending 20 minutes or so poking around in the beautiful old church of nearly 900 years, I abandoned my original plan of walking over Upwaltham Hill and Selhurstpark Hill to get back to Droke and took the quicker route along the road, as the sun was now nearing the western horizon. The sound of gunfire filled the air as I walked along Droke Lane, the guns lined up with their dogs in the fields like so many waiting statues.

Dudwell Valley

Few villages in Sussex occupy a more enviable position than Burwash and its neighbour Burwash Weald sitting high up on one of the great east-west ridges of the eastern High Weald. In days past they must have been even more beautiful, before main roads and ranks of parked cars came along with all their ugly convenience. Burwash sits particularly prettily on its ridge and the buildings along the main road remain very handsome to this day. To the north runs the greatest of the three main rivers that run east to Rye Bay – the East Sussex Rother (not to be confused with the West Sussex Rother, itself a tributary of the Arun. Or the Yorkshire Rother, come to that). To the south is, to my mind, one of the most beautiful parts of the High Weald, if not of Sussex in general.

A small river, never much more than a large stream really, the Dudwell has nevertheless carved a deep, steep valley between the ridges occupied by the Burwashes to the north and Dallington and Brightling to the south. The acidity of the underlying sandstone is much in evidence here and many of the paths and tracks are bordered with hedges made of gorse. The impermeable layer of Wealden clay that covers it also makes its presence felt – the fields quickly becoming waterlogged and difficult to negotiate in wet weather.

The whole is covered with a patchwork of pasture and dense woodland, with many rushing, falling streams running among them. Scattered farms and oast houses perch on the hills and ridges between them, commanding wonderful views down the valley towards where the Dudwell finally reaches the Rother at Etchingham.


When first I arrived in Sussex I did what I always do in a new place, which is get in my car and start to explore. Driving out from Brighton along Ditchling Beacon Road, I soon found myself at the highest point in East Sussex, the Beacon itself, and what a view was laid out before me. Coming from Suffolk, which – beautiful though it is – is not known for its extensive vistas, it was amazing to stand on a point in the south east of England and be able to see so much country at my feet. Over time I would learn what I was looking at. I’d know which hills on the far horizon were part of the Greensand Ridge and which, seen only on the clearest days, were the North Downs away on the edges of London. I’d come to learn about the two Wealds – High and Low –  and how they were formed and I’d start a process of exploration, by foot and by car, that would lead to a truly abiding love for this wonderful corner of England.

Now, there are many beautiful places and areas in Sussex, of course, but the crowning glory of the county, to my mind, has to be the High Weald (there’s a whole High Weald article brewing) and probably the best part of that is the area around Penhurst and Brightling. I must have driven countless times along the lanes around there and paused in gateways, gazing out over the hills, the South Downs a faint shadow on the horizon; almost like a line of low cloud on the edge of consciousness.

This area is not like the eastern parts of the High Weald (which is a fascinating and beautiful region in its own right) with its long, wide, open valleys with high ridges between, topped by the villages so characteristic of the area. Those valleys were carved out by the bigger rivers which empty into Rye Bay – the Rother, the Brede and the Tillingham and their stories are long and intriguing ones, but there are other, smaller rivers and streams that have carved a web of deep, steep valleys into the sandstone rocks, creating a wonderfully complex landscape both secret and dramatic by turns.

Penhurst is a tiny, tiny village. A fine manor house, a church of honey-coloured local stone and a few barns and that’s pretty much it – the rest of this most rural of parishes being made up of scattered farms and cottages. It sits high among the headwaters of a small river that is named as the Ash Bourne on the OS map and which I have also seen referred to as the River Ashbourne in other places. This river doesn’t flow to the east, but almost due south until it leaves the steep valleys and rushing streams of its youth and becomes a slow, deep, winding river known as Waller’s Haven that snakes lazily across Pevensey Levels, before finding the sea via sluices at Norman’s Bay.

After all these years of driving through this wonderful little place, I am happy to have finally parked the car, got my boots on and done some of the real exploration that can only be done on foot.