Date: 13th October 2019. Which happens to be my Mum’s 75th birthday, so many happy returns to her. If it wasn’t for my parents’ interest in walking, and ownership of Wainwright’s Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells when I was a child, I am sure I would be a quite different person today.
Weather conditions: Tolerable at first, if rather gloomy, but on the summit it began to rain: a condition which persisted until my arrival at the pub.
County Top bagged: Blackdown (or, Black Down) which at 280m/918ft above sea level is the highest point in the county of West Sussex — and indeed the whole of Sussex [see the commentary below].
When I first wrote this page I stated that it is the highest point in the South Downs, but this is incorrect: in fact it is a summit on the Greensand Ridge, a less extensive, but higher, range of hills running parallel to the North Downs. (To unpick all this, see the relevant Wikipedia page.) And Blackdown is not the highest point of this ridge either, this being Leith Hill, County Top of Surrey.
Rankings by altitude:
- 65th of the 91 historic Tops;
- 82nd of the 172 modern Tops;
- 102nd of the full list of 196.
It is one of seven county tops to be “Black” (along with Black Hill [Cheshire/Kirklees]; Black Mountain [Herefordshire]; Black Chew Head [Greater Manchester]; Blackstone Edge [Rochdale]; Blackcraig Hill [East Ayrshire]; and Blackhope Scar [Midlothian]).
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Start and end point of walk: Haslemere railway station. This can be reached by trains which connect London Waterloo and Portsmouth. There are regular services, although not all trains on this line stop at the station so check before you get on one. The walk took me about two and a half hours.
Pub at end: The White Horse, Haslemere. Excellent music. Decent beer and food. Not as busy on a Sunday lunchtime as I would have expected.
Distance walked: 6.75 miles/10.9km approximately.
Feet of ascent: 500 feet/150m approximately.
Difficulty: ★★, The gradients are easy. As is often the case in Sussex, you amble through woodland and sunken lanes and suddenly realise you are hundreds of feet in the air. But the walk is very muddy, most of the time I suspect — so don’t wear shoes that won’t survive becoming caked in crud.
Ease of access: ★★★★. This can be easily picked up on a day trip from London. Although I was down south anyway, I could probably have done it on a day trip from Yorkshire, although I’d have needed to cross London (King’s Cross to Waterloo) at both ends of the day, and that would have been a long journey for a not-very-exciting walk. But if you’re in the area, Haslemere sees plenty of trains and Blackdown is not far outside town (although it’s not as near as Cleeve Hill is to Cheltenham).
Scenic qualities: ★★. I’m saving one-star awards for truly urban tops without redeeming features. But there’s not much on Blackdown to really get excited about. The walk takes place almost entirely in woodland. Occasional views are seen when you emerge from the trees, but even these, while extensive, are not dramatic.
The best bit scenically is Tennyson’s Lane, pictured here and in the banner image. This is an extraordinary ‘sunken lane’, noticeably eroded down between high earth banks, for no possible reason other than constant use, by people and livestock, over hundreds and probably thousands of years. It looks like the place where Frodo and the hobbits meet the Nazgul in the early stages of The Lord of the Rings. According to Wikipedia, Arthur Paterson described it thus in 1905, and it is the same today:
Trees meet overhead, copsewood surrounds it, and later, it is hedged by high sandy banks thickly overgrown with plant and scrub; squirrels and rabbits, and all other small woodland creatures, disport themselves over it. It twists and turns, and to the stranger appears to lead nowhere in particular.
The area: Not all this walk takes place in West Sussex, as Haslemere is actually in Surrey. Still, it looks like a Sussex village to me (and I do know what one looks like — see the commentary), with its houses half-tiled in red, and lots of trees everywhere. But does anything much happen here? Probably not. If it does, it wasn’t happening on the rather damp October Sunday morning on which I visited.
Tennyson’s Lane is called that after Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who lived here on and off for the last quarter-century of his life, and died in the house of Aldworth in 1892. The walk goes close by the property but you don’t actually see it.
Map: OL33 Haslemere and Petersfield. Even with this to hand, not to mention a decent number of signposts on the ground, I still found this a relatively tricky walk to navigate, so you would benefit from bringing a map along.
On the summary map here, the station is to the top left, and the walk proceeds clockwise around the elongated circuit to the summit of Blackdown at the southernmost point of the walk.
Route: Outside Haslemere station, turn left and follow this road into the town centre, which you then leave along the B2131, Petworth Road. Have a look at the OS map at this point. All the way to the summit of Blackdown you can follow a waymarked path known as the “Serpent Trail”, indicated by little purple markers (see picture). Although the map suggests that in the town, following the road will be a shorter route compared to the path, bear in mind this road is not very safe for pedestrians.
Therefore, you will have a more pleasant passage on the walk if you follow the Serpents. So instead of risking the road, turn left down the lane beside the veterinary surgery, and follow this lane until it comes out at a National Trust-owned farm. Go through the field to the left and follow the markers up through the wood until you come back out on the road, which cross, and follow the ‘Public Bridleway’ sign ahead.
This lane heads past various pieces of expensive real estate and then farms and fields full of horses. To the left are glimpses of distant vistas to the east, but blink and you will miss them. Keep following the purple signs and eventually you will come out onto Tennyson’s Lane, where turn right. At this point it really does look like a scene from a fairy tale, or Tolkien. But remember that cars still use it, and with no pedestrian verge, you need to keep your ears open.
Follow the lane up the hill to the first National Trust sign, where there is a car park off the lane to the left, rather hidden from the road. A sign post (see picture) makes it obvious where to go from here, but once through the gate, there is a maze of paths through the wood and it becomes a matter of keeping an eye on the map and orienting yourself in the right general direction. Put it this way, if you start going down any steep slopes, you’re off route.
The OS trig column that marks the summit of West Sussex (grid reference SU919296) is a hundred yards or so to the right (west) of the Serpent Trail, but not visible nor signposted from the main way. The place to go for it is just after a path, which eventually goes down to Lurgashall, branches off to the left. Again, check the map.
It was raining by the time I got to this point and with a lot of luggage on my back, extending the walk to the viewpoint marked on the map a few hundred yards south of the summit as “The Temple of the Winds” seemed an unnecessary extra luxury, but on a nicer day it’s probably worth considering. Either way I then headed back north through a fairly clear path that left the trig point.
I was looking for the “Sussex Border Path” that would have headed downwards here, but got my bearings slightly mixed up and turned right at a critical point instead of left, meaning I ended up back instead at the main car park on Tennyson’s Lane, quite close to the one I passed through earlier. But in the end this slight navigation error didn’t matter much as I still returned by a different route. There is a path that runs parallel with the lane at this point and can get you off tarmac.
Once out of National Trust territory (and back out of Sussex and into Surrey), the lane starts to be lined by houses even more opulent than those passed earlier. At the crossroads at the bottom, go straight on down Haste Hill — the steepest slope encountered today — and at the bottom of that, turn left, being very wary of the lack of a pavement for the next hundred yards or so. Keep going along this road and you will be back in Haslemere town centre in a few minutes. The White Horse pub is on the right, and as long as you don’t over-indulge, you can remember the way back to the train station from here, I am sure.
Sussex-by-the-Sea (ish) Commentary: For twenty-eight years now I have lived in Yorkshire. It happens to be in West Yorkshire. There are also South, East and North Yorkshires, administratively, and depending on your time horizon there was also once a North, East and West Riding. As a non-native I’m not sensitive to whether there are any real differences between the regions, however they’re divided.
Until 1991 I lived in Sussex, another county divided, into East and West, on seemingly arbitrary grounds. I love Yorkshire — or I wouldn’t have stayed there for nearly three decades — but I still consider Sussex my home county. As the one I grew up in, it inevitably shaped my view of the world and its possibilities. An obvious consequence of this is the fact that I am a Brighton and Hove Albion supporter. And I do love its landscapes, to this day.
I do not regret the fact that I no longer live here. With the exception of Brighton (where Sussex is at its best) and London I prefer the northern parts of Britain and that’s just the way it is. But physically it’s a very beautiful county. The view of the red-and-white lighthouse below the stark chalk cliffs of Beachy Head is one of the few landscape shots that almost any Briton could identify instantly by name. Ashdown Forest, very close to where I grew up, was immortalised by A. A. Milne and his illustrator E. H. Shepard in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.
And while Sussex doesn’t have the mountains of the north, it certainly has the hills. It’s the place to bring anyone who thinks that the south-east corner of England is as flat as a billiard table. As was apparent on several occasions today, you can go ambling through woods and lanes and suddenly come across a viewpoint that extends over a dozen miles or so, proving you are eight or nine hundred feet up. Unlike in Yorkshire there are no predictions of this, no obvious transition between valley and hilltop or moor. In Sussex things feel much more random, habitations speckling themselves across an unpredictable network of contours. I always rather liked it.
The thing is that these feelings extend in me only to East Sussex. There is a definite border between the two, both administratively and, at least in my mind, culturally. East Sussex extends to Brighton and Hove, but everything west of that is definitely West Sussex, and thus different. East Sussex has Beachy Head and glorious coastline: West Sussex, drab caravan hells like Bognor Regis and Worthing. Inland, East Sussex has leafy lanes and Winne the Pooh, West Sussex has Gatwick Airport and Crawley. If you want to know what growing up in Crawley was like, listen to the early music of The Cure. I rest my case.
Of course I am being highly parochial here but in defining my list of historic County Tops I have made a few decisions along the way about where to draw the boundaries. Yorkshire is one example. Some historic counties that I could have split further, like Lincolnshire, have been retained as one. But I couldn’t do it with Sussex. The highest point of East Sussex is Ditchling Beacon, one of only a couple of county tops that I had visited before starting on this project (I will visit it again however). Having been there, I know now that it is a far superior top than my destination today, Blackdown. Were the summit of West Sussex bereft of trees and therefore with more extensive views, perhaps that would improve it, but then again the landscape does need trees and the area around Blackdown is characteristic of Sussex, a relatively afforested county in English terms. That makes the walking pleasant enough, but little more. Of the four tops I’ve visited thus far, this was the first to not really feel like the highest point for miles around.
Still, it’s good to get these done without significant grief. I should manage another by the end of October, too, with a trip to central Scotland planned for two weeks’ time.
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