06 December 2013 by Sarah Gardner
The recent grey weather has cleared to reveal a magnificent autumn day: blue sky, white fluffy clouds and bright sunshine - which added little to the four degrees centigrade.
It had been a while since I'd done a solo hike. I love walking with friends and with organised groups, but nothing beats setting off down the open road with just a rucksack for company. Despite my love for solitary hiking, I like to let someone else do all the hard work in mapping out the route.
A quick search through Ramblers Routes, download and print the routecard and then all I have to do is follow the instructions, with an occasional reference to the map. As someone remarked to me, following a Ramblers Route is a bit like packing a Walk Leader in your rucksack.
This particular day I'd decided to follow a route created by Ramblers volunteer Chris Smith, walking from Hayward's Heath to Balcombe, in Sussex, a 6 miler introducing me to the High Weald. The walk looks superb and Hayward's Heath is a mere 45 minutes from London, so it's easily accessible for a city-dweller. However, I have to confess, the main reason I chose this particular route is because it has … a viaduct!
I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to industrial architecture and after reading that part of the walk goes under the Ouse Valley Viaduct, “a candidate for the most handsome viaduct in England”, I know I’ve found the walk for me.
Following the routecard, I exit the station and walk out of town, passing spacious suburban houses. It's astonishing how much better everything seems when the sun is shining – this ordinary, if well-heeled, road is transformed into a dazzling golden pathway.
I find myself humming I'm Set Free (Velvet Underground) as, at the end of the road, I turn right and pass through an impressive gateway to a large estate under the solemn gaze of a stone lion. A woman passes with her dog, which bounces up and down excitedly. I completely understand how the dog is feeling.
Turning left shortly after, I head down a narrow tree-lined path. Golden leaves litter the path, like tiny coins. It's very quiet. I lean against an immense beech tree, its roots looping out of the ground like giant knuckles. The rustling of the breeze creaks the branches overhead, causing more tiny yellow and gold leaves to flutter gently to the ground. A gentle whick, as a club connects with a ball, reveals I'm close to Hayward's Heath golf course.
The path narrows to a point of light, a green and russet tunnel. I'm reminded suddenly of the path Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee have to abandon when they first leave the Shire, along the East road to Bree, and almost expect to hear the thundering hooves of the Nazgul on my heels...
I get temporarily lost in the golf course; the footpath sign (not the routecard) unhelpfully points in the wrong direction. Despite my expectation of getting an aggressive response from the golfers - and potentially a golf ball in my head - I'm offered friendly advice back onto the path and shortly join the Sussex Ouse Valley Way, and the first High Weald Wood.
It seems I have stumbled into a golden spell. I raise my hands to my face to remove my tinted sunglasses, which have the effect of turning every scene radiant, and realise they are on the sideboard at home where I left them this morning. It's dead silent. Despite a few busy roads I've had to cross, this is a rare south-eastern walk that doesn't feature the sound of traffic. There’s no one else here; the woods belong to me.
Then a man comes jogging past, with a terrier at his heels, and I hear the hoot of another train and the squawking of disturbed crows. The spell is broken; real life floods in again.
Chris’ routecard explains that I'm now walking on the High Weald Landscape Trail, a 90 mile long-distance route which starts in Horsham and ends in Rye. According to Chris, it is "one of the most beautiful and undiscovered walking trails in south east England”. The High Weald is the fourth largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in England and Wales and covers an area of 1,450 square kilometres across the counties of Surrey, West Sussex, East Sussex and Kent.
So far, so very good. But the best is yet to come. I'm twisting and turning across the Ouse valley and then, there it is, the viaduct.
It marches across the horizon in immense loops. The red brick, perfect symmetry and gorgeous detail demand your attention ruthlessly. And then there's the light of this incredible autumnal day. The low sun causes sun shafts to hit the viaduct and create shadows of archways across the grassy field before it.
As Chris says, "do not let the view distract you from paying attention to the road, which can be busy." Sound advice! I was in genuine danger of zombie-walking right up to the viaduct, oblivious to all else.
When you do this walk, you must stand under the viaduct and look through it, at the ever-decreasing loops. It’s one of the best sights of the walk. I go one better and sit inside one of the arches to eat my sarnies, as the trains rattle overhead and startle birds from the nearby trees.
There's a slight confusion with a footpath sign near Pilstye Woods, but it's worth the concentration to ensure you walk through another empty field, with a raised path edge by a hedgerow. The blue sky contrasts against the clay brown of the field and the reds of the hedges and, with a burst from the bracken to my left, I realise I'm not alone. There are literally hundreds of pheasants, white bands around their necks and red and blue faces betraying their position across the field. The burst of their brother birds signals my approach and they begin to run with their necks stretched upwards, making them even more visible. It seems a poor getaway. They crow and cough in alarm before leaving me to the wood-smoke drifting on the breeze.
Through Pilstye Wood, I meet a lot of the pheasants again, who pop their eyes and raise their necks before running away for a second time. There’s an impressive coloured rock face, with a tree hanging on its edge, its roots exposed. It has all the earmarks of a magic rock, one that should slide aside to reveal mysteries, Merlin in his hollow hill.
Towards the end of the walk, Chris highlights Cuadrilla’s proposed oil extraction site, near to the path. "Fracking", as a renewable ernegy source, is dividing opinion and apparently there was a large camp of protesters here when the site first opened. The main concern is the use of chemicals so close to Ardingly reservoir, which supplies water to Lewes and other towns. Today there’s no-one about, but plenty of info can be found by googling ‘Balcombe’ and ‘fracking’ and you can also read the Ramblers position statement.
The walk ends in the pretty village of Balcombe, after a slighty hairy high-speed train level crossing (you really do need to use all your sense for this one!). I’m dying for a cuppa and disappointed to find the tea rooms closed and the village shop out of takeaway tea. This is what comes from walking during the week! The pub landlady kindly offers me an old mug to take away with me but in the end, the pub atmosphere seduces me and I enjoy my tea in situ. Listening to the comforting chatter of the locals, I almost wish I didn't have to catch a train back to London so I could enjoy more of this wonderful part of the world.
Walk this route from Hayward’s Heath to Balcombe.
Sarah Gardner blogs about solo hikes, walking with groups, and working alongside volunteers. Find out more about her and read her previous blogs.