Ashdown's Western Warrens: A Hike into the Sussex Highlands
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The Victorians, whose romantic spirit led them to re-evaluate the area as beautiful, celebrated Ashdown Forest as 'The Sussex Highlands'. This name conveys the ruggedness of the landscape, the steep ascents, the deep gills and the sense of isolation, even if it is oversell (I could joke that the only summit here was the one Harold Macmillan held with JFK at his house, Birch Grove, which we'll see). But this is not just a place of natural beauty, but of history and mystery too: a convergence of ley lines on the Greenwich Meridian has dotted a beautiful half-timbered town centre with alternative therapy clinics, and a few of the many fine Jacobean and Arts and Crafts mansions house religious groups.
Ashdown Forest and the western Warrens: Occupying a ridge of sandstone that gives the High Weald (much of it an AONB) its name, Ashdown Forest allows views across the heavily wooded hills of the Weald to the chalk escarpments of the North Downs and South Downs. In places it is 223m high, although the highest point on our walk will be 181m. Ashdown Forest was orginally the property of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, as a hunting forest from 1372. The forest was despised for its wildness and lack of agricultural viability except as common land (In 1822, William Cobbett called it 'the most villainously ugly spot in England') until the Victorians began to appreciate its rugged beauty. It is divided into common land and private enclosures called warrens. Our walk will explore the woods and heaths near the western warrens of Press Ridge, Hindleap and Broadstone.
East Grinstead: 'The core...is intimate in scale and shapely, a High Street nicely punctuated by an island and a large, dignified church lying just behind it' (Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Sussex). St Swithun's Church is 1789 by James Wyatt, restored 1876. Many houses of note: Dorset House, 1705; Cromwell House, timber-framed and twice jettied C16-C17; Clarendon House, late C16. Sackville College is stone, 1619, with a long and handsome facade. Statue of Sir Archibald MacIndoe, pioneering wartime plastic surgeon, who treated burned RAF pilots in the town.
Weir Wood Reservoir: Built in the 1950s by damming the River Medway to supply Crawley. Large areas of the reservoir are a nature reserve and SSSI. The Greenwich Meridian runs through it.
Birch Grove: Built in a Georgian style in 1926, the home of Dorothy and Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963. It was here that in June 1963 President Kennedy paid a brief visit. Macmillan stepped down in October 1963 and Kennedy was assassinated in November. (Other visitors included Charles de Gaulle, Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Krushchev.) Macmillan died at this home in 1986 aged 92.
Ashdown Park: Once a convent, now a hotel, gothic in style, of 1867. Our route uses a footpath through the grounds giving good views of the formal gardens.
Forest Row: Holy Trinity Church, 1836, imposing but spindly. A commuter settlement but rather unexpectedly with many alternative religious groups (Scientology, Rosicrucianism, Opus Dei) and health practitioners present, lured by the convergence of ley lines on the place and a well-heeled populace. A resident commented in the Guardian that it's 'easier to get your chakras read than buy a pair of tights'.
Brambletye House: A fine country house, built in 1631 in a conservative Elizabethan-Jacobean style with no sign of the classicism of Inigo Jones. It was allegedly destroyed during the civil wars by Parliamentary troops, but it had certainly become a ruin by the 1830s.
The route (please click the link in red):
We start the walk in the western hemisphere. The B2110 will take us southwest out of East Grinstead where we'll pick up the High Weald Landscape Trail then a byway to Boyles Farm and Busses Farm to Weir Wood Reservoir. Then, rounding the eastern end of the reservoir we'll pick up a footpath from South Park Farm to Springhill Farm and then into the open country in Ashdown Forest, where we'll cross the prime meridian into eastern hemisphere for the rest of the walk. We'll head south, crossing Press Ridge Warren to see the gates to Birch Grove and the magnificent trees. We'll then turn east to cross the Isle of Thorns, then north to cross Broadstone Warren past Ashdown Park. Venturing further north we'll cross the course at Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Club and reach Forest Row. After a brief detour to see Brambletye, the old railway line, now the Sussex Border Path, will bring us back to East Grinstead for a walk through the town back to the station.
I welcome dogs on the walks I lead. On the one hand, this is great dog walk as much of it is through heathland and woodland and little is on lanes and roads or across pasture. On the other hand, it is not so great as it is long and warm weather could be exhausting for them. A dog off its lead must be obedient.
COVID-19 - IMPORTANT: Please read the following before you sign up to this event:
- Anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, even if they are extremely mild, or who lives or is in a support bubble with someone showing symptoms, is asked not to attend. This is in line with the government’s coronavirus advice.
- All are required to practice social distancing – staying 2m (not 1m) apart at all times, including the lunch stop.
- Unfortunately, there won’t be any planned pub / café stops en route or at the end, and please don’t share sweets or snacks with others – we’re sorry!
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- Much as it's difficult - no handshakes or hugs!
COVID-19: Participation Statement
OutdoorLads draws your attention to the fact that travelling and being away from home increases the risk of receiving and transmitting Coronavirus, whilst it is present in the UK. You are likely to choose not to participate in OutdoorLads events whilst there is a risk of Coronavirus transmission. However, should you choose to participate in OutdoorLads events whilst the risk is present, you must be aware of and follow the law and government guidelines, both when travelling to and from events as well as when participating in events.
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(Picture credits: North of the Ashdown Forest by Oast House Archive; View from the upper terrace at Standen by Chris Gunns; View towards Standen by Robin Webster; Weir Wood Reservoir by N Chadwick; Ashdown Forest at Hindleap by Chris Thomas-Atkin; Tall Trees by Chris Thomas-Atkin; Birch Grove entrance by Nigel Freeman; Track off Coleman's Hatch Road by Oast House Archive; Ashdown Park Hotel by Martin Horsfall; Church of The Holy Trinity by N Chadwick; Ruins of Brambletye House by David Kemp; Ruins of Brambletye House by N Chadwick; Constitutional Buildings, East Grinstead by Robin Webster; Half timbered buildings by N Chadwick; Church of St Swithun by N Chadwick; Cromwell House by N Chadwick; View Towards Sackville College, East Grinstead by Peter Trimming. All pictures are attributed to their copyright holders and are licensed for re-use under Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0.)
What to bring
Walking boots will be essential to cope with the rugged terrain. Consider also wearing two pairs of socks and bringing blister plasters.
I advise against wearing shorts because of nettles and ticks on vegetated paths.
Please bring and apply a high-factor suncream and a hat if sun and is forecast, or a coat if rain is.
Food & drink
Please bring a packed lunch and plenty to drink (two litres at least are recommended). Also bring snacks.
Bringing sufficent liquids for this long hike is essential as there will be few places to top-up.