The view from Chanctonbury Hill took my breath away. Distant hills lay far to the North, rising above what appeared to be a continuous forest, an echo of the ancient Andredsweald. Close by, ruddy hawthorn berries glistened in the sun and above my head a buzzard soared on a thermal. I took a deep breath of clean, Atlantic air. One more day would see me at the end of my quest to devise a walking route following the Weald to Waves corridor.
I first met Libby Drew, director of Knepp Wildland Foundation, in September 2022. Over lunch at Chalk on the Wiston estate, she shared with me the vision for a new wildlife corridor. Having volunteered with the Sussex Wildlife Trust and Ashdown Forest Rangers, I’d begun to understand how fragmented our wildlife habitats were, and I was intrigued by the potential for wildlife corridors to turn the tide on decades of bad news for nature. A few months later I found myself working one day a week as the Foundation’s part time, pro bono legal adviser.
As I learned more about it, I wanted to see the corridor for myself and, being a walker, bought the Ordnance Survey maps and plotted the route. I could spot some obvious rights of way tracing the corridor, for example along the rivers Ouse, Adur and Arun; in other places it was trickier – there were no footpaths running north of Balcombe, for example. Regardless, it seemed obvious to me that there needed to be an “official” Weald to Waves walk, so I decided to make a start and see what happened.
A few days later I took a train to Bishopstone Station, one stop on from Newhaven, and alighted to be greeted by a planter with a sign:
“Friends of Bishopstone Station Produce Garden – please help yourself and pick your herbs from
our sustainable herb garden boxes”.
I smiled to myself. A few metres away, adjacent the walkway to the road, was a banner with the words:
“Wildflower and natural habitat in progress. Please do not mow”.
My smile widened. It was a promising start.
Over the next few months, I walked 100 miles, researching a route that divided into manageable sections of roughly 15-25 km a day, starting and finishing at villages and towns with food and accommodation, and staying as close to the corridor as possible.
Ideally there would be public transport between start and finish points but more than once this proved challenging and at one point I sat shivering in a pub after being caught in the rain, punching multiple numbers into my mobile trying to find a taxi which, when it turned up two hours later, charged me £40 for a 15-minute journey. How would we make this walk accessible to all? Would we one day have a fleet of buses plying the corridor?
But mainly I walked in the heat of an Indian Summer. I was startled by clouds of butterflies, watched in awe as red kites hunted on the chalky South Downs, missed a heartbeat when a kingfisher darted across Balcombe Lake in a shimmer of turquoise and orange, and shared the excitement of a photographer who had captured her first Dartford Warbler on Ashdown Forest.
I saw rivers rushing to the sea as if to leave behind their cramped embankments, and imagined the day when these walls would be torn down and salty flood plains would be alive with curlew and lapwing.
I ventured down dusky holloways, worn deep through a millennium of hooves and trotters, and scoured by rocky debris washed through in violent storms. I marvelled at the big skies of Ashdown Forest and at tiny ferns clinging to dripping sandstone outcrops in deep valleys. I meditated in the wild graveyards of exquisite churches.
I met so many people who felt connected to the land – the volunteer on the Forest proudly showing me his 55-strong flock of Hebridean sheep, and the disabled woman telling me how invigorated she felt as she put her all-terrain mobility scooter through its paces on a gusty afternoon on the South Downs Way accompanied by her two terriers.
I chatted with a Septuagenarian ambling along the Downs Link, who had travelled to school on the steam train on that very route 60 years ago. Now it was nature commuting along the scrub and ditches which lined the track bed.
I learnt from a man whose job was to sweep the mud off the slipway at Ford on the tidal Arun, that the river was the second fastest flowing in the country (evidently this didn’t make his job any easier).
I smelled the sickly whiff of Himalayan Balsam suffocating streams and encountered Rhododendron invading sensitive gill valleys. I heard the crumps of shotguns, and clumsily clumped my way through waterlogged, heavy clay fields, ploughed up the footpath at the field margin. I learned about the financial crisis facing Ashdown Forest and read about the court defeat suffered by the Balcombe residents in their attempts to stop drilling for oil in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. What challenges our corridor faced, though none more deadly than the A23 and A24 dual carriageways. Crossing the latter terrified me. “To connect nature, we must first connect communities” Libby observed. In other countries green bridges are the norm. Why not here?
I researched the history of Sussex, learning of the stubborn Ashdown Forest commoners who defied the rules of Kings to exercise rights that had existed since time immemorial. The exercise of these rights - to graze cattle, drive pigs for pannage, cut bracken and take wood - created the unique patchwork landscape that survives today.
I discovered hammer ponds, the last traces of an iron industry which filled the Weald with heat, noise and smoke, and supplied cannonballs for the fight against the Spanish Armada. I winced when I read how the abundant wildflower meadows of the South Downs were ploughed up in the 1940’s. Digging for victory was defeat for nature.
I learned about the Victorian plant hunters who returned from perilous expeditions with exotic specimens for their gardens at Wakehurst and Nymans, and their friend, the horticulturalist William Robinson, who wrote the first book on wild gardening from his house at Gravetye, and started a movement.
And of course, I looked in on Knepp, that island of biodiversity with its storks, beavers, longhorn cattle and Exmoor ponies.
As I surveyed the view north from the South Downs Way on my penultimate day’s walking, I saw our mediaeval landscape, carved out from the vast and ancient Andredsweald forest and wondered at the intricate interaction between human, geology, water and animal that had created such a striking collage. It was a privilege to be involved in helping nature to return to this land.
Now, as I stand at the end of the walk on Climping beach and stare at the grey sea, with the last traces of the Summer being snuffed out by the Autumn gales, I reflect on my journey and it gradually dawns on me that I must do it all again. Because when the winter is over, and the ancient woods are full of bluebells, I can’t think of anything better than to trek this landscape in the Spring, my senses alive as nature returns - from Weald to Waves.