The rolling, open, hills and large skies of the South Downs calm and captivate the senses. The gentle chalk landscape and images of a bucolic way of rural life, seems the very essence of Englishness. Little wonder the Downs were the backdrop of the war-time poster ‘Your Britain, fight for it now’. Nor is it surprising that millions of tourists go looking for this evocation of England at places like the Seven Sisters, Beachy Head and Devils Dyke, all at the eastern end of the Downs. However, there is more to the South Downs National Park than its central and eastern narrow, chalk downland rim. Plan a trip to the western edge of the National Park, the Western Weald, to discover why the west is actually the best!
© IWM Art.IWM PST 14887
At the time of the formation of the National Park in 2010, there were debates about including the Western Weald within the new park boundary. While undeniably beautiful, planners felt the area was distinct from the chalk escarpment which forms the backbone of the central and eastern sections of the park. It was a hard-fought battle, however we made it in thanks to the support of many people including writer and campaigner Bill Bryson. In an article published in Country Life he wrote that a failure to include the Western Weald in the new park would be a ‘national tragedy’.
Good To Be Different
While there is something both alluring and comforting about the uniformity of the white, chalk ridge as it gently snakes across the countryside from Winchester to Eastbourne, the views over the picture-book landscape below is equally inspiring. It is the fusion of these two very different, yet complimentary, terrains at the western end of the National Park that makes the Western Weald so unique.
The Western Weald is an informal region that roughly spans an area of undulating countryside bridging Hampshire, Surrey and West Sussex. It is largely within the boundary of the National Park. Downland expert Peter Brandon described it as “a countryside of infinite variety where a tumble of green hills, coppices and woods, commons, meadows and arable melt into one another with springs and brooks embedded in the remains of heaths, which were once widespread, to form an exceptionally lovely and lovable landscape.”
Variety Is The Spice Of Life
A rich array of geology is responsible for this ‘lovely and loveable landscape’. It also provided the father of English naturalism, Rev Gilbert White, with the ideal setting for his pioneering studies in ecology. In his home village of Selborne, open windswept chalk downs, with their calcareous soils and lime-loving plants, are on one side. While, on the other coarse, acid sands of the Lower Greensand predominate. These are too poor to attract the farmer so are given over to heathland and woodland. In between the two are the Gault vale with its heavy clay soils and the magnificent “foxmould” developed on the Upper Greensand. This is one of the finest agricultural soils in the whole of Britain. This picture of a varied topography is not unique to Selborne, it is reflected across the whole Western Weald.
This assorted canvas provides walkers, in particular, a wealth of opportunity. Up high on the chalk downs shiny white paths, pockmarked with butterscotch flints, weave between the sheep, wildflower meadows, burial mounds and forts. Sightings of deer in the wooded coombes, even in daylight, are also commonplace. Meanwhile, down below in the weald the gorse, heather and birch of the area’s rare lowland heath shelters endangered, ground-nesting birds, reptiles, and yet more antiquity. If you prefer your nature a little more unkempt there are the deep, sunken lanes and wild, high beech and yew woodlands of the East Hampshire Hangers. These gave poet Edward Thomas much of his literary inspiration. In stark contrast to the Hangers are the orderly chestnut and pine forests of the grand Cowdray, Leconfield and Goodwood estates. Delve a little deeper into all this woodland, you will stumble across the remains of the Wealden iron industry.
Taking It More Leisurely
If leisurely strolls are more your thing, then look no further than the area’s glistening chalk streams. Fed by the aquifer, their crystal-clear waters offer some of the best fly fishing in England. Evoking a scene similar to “The Wind in the Willows” you might also spot some of the recently reintroduced water voles to this area. Continuing the sporting and leisure theme, the large estates also present an opportunity to dress up and partake in all manner of traditional country pursuits. Spectating at a glamorous horse race, motor sport or polo match combines deliciously with a pint of local Langham’s beer or glass of the finest English sparkling wine. We have plenty of that too out west. In fact, the UK’s oldest vineyard of the modern era can be found in Hambledon, Hampshire.
Image: Mark Beaumont
Redressing The Balance
Kipling, Blake, Woolf and others all contributed to the Eastern Downs being elevated to the fairest and most famous landscape of Southern England. However, poet John Davidson compared the bare, nakedness of Kipling’s “blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed downs” to “the limbs and shoulders of plucked fowls” and yearned for them to be “clothed in trees”. Well if it was trees AND curves he was after, he should surely have travelled to the western end of the park.
American writer Bill Bryson, who has a home in the Western Weald, famously described the area as ‘safely obscure’. Perhaps there is an argument for keeping it this way. Is it better to be a secret gem than a tourist honeypot? However, just as Cinderella got to go to the ball, I feel the story of the Western Weald deserves to be told. It is a rich and varied tale that weaves together geology, history, heritage, nature and folklore all within the protection of the National Park. It is best conveyed on foot. The simple process of putting one foot in front of the other gives us ample time to observe and understand how layers of nature and history have shaped the landscape. Why not let Rural Strides show you the way and tell you the tale…of why the west is indeed the best!
If you like this post about the Western Weald you may enjoy: Western Weald Revealed