I’ve always loved walking. As a child, up north, I’d walk the Cleveland Hills, the North Yorkshire Moors, the Yorkshire Dales, the Cumbrian Fells. When I left home for art college in Brighton I hiked the South Downs, ultimately spending thirty four years exploring their chalky spine and the flat country beyond: the ancient Weald, heathery Ashdown Forest, lush Sussex plains. Now we’ve moved to north Devon and the walking is, once again, entirely different. Here’s my take on hiking in dry, smooth Sussex versus lumpy, wet North Devon.
About hiking in Sussex
In Sussex everything’s laid out for you. Official Access Land is clearly marked, beautifully fenced and peppered with convenient wooden stiles. There are countless walking trails, also clearly marked and easy to access: the Vantage Way, South Downs Way, Downslink, 1066 Country Walk, Beachy Head and Birling Gap, the Brighton Way, the Wealdway and more. Many of them link up to make even longer and more interesting walks.
Mud is rare. On rainy days on the Downs the fine dust turns to white mud, fast absorbed into the thin, pale, flinty soil before trickling away through thousands of feet of pure chalk to end up goodness knows where. There are very few streams, rivers and ponds as a result, except for beautiful, perfectly circular man-made dewponds high on the Downs, lined with thick clay from farther north.
Big skies rule the day from the top of the escarpment, with vast views north into Surrey, towards Eastbourne and the Seven Sisters to the east, and Shoreham-by-Sea to the west, where the hills steadily grow softer and lower on their march towards Winchester. As long as you’re on the Downs the sea is almost always within sight, which makes it hard to lose your sense of direction.
Farther inland you leave the salty tang of the sea behind and warmer inland scents take over: flowers, fresh grass, cool, dense woodland, the chalk itself, the good, crumbly earth. Again, the distant downs are your constant companion, arching away to the south as they mirror the coast.
We’d call anything up to ten miles a short walk in Sussex. A medium walk was anything from 10 to 18 miles. 18-25 miles was a long one and our longest, almost 38 miles, took all day and most of the evening, trekking along the pretty disused railway line between Guildford and Shoreham.
About hiking in north Devon
In north Devon the public byways and footpaths are more secretive, less well known, often barely used. This is the countryside proper, not the least bit manicured. It’s real farmland, often private.
The Tarka Trail is the main artery for cyclists and walkers, 180 miles of disused railway line. Here and there it collides with the 630 mile South West Coast Path, a dizzying affair of constant, steep ups and downs very like the terrain between Cuckmere Haven and Eastbourne in Sussex, which robs your breath and turns your legs to jelly but delivers endless awe-inspiring vistas in compensation. Most of the time, though, we tend to hike the tiny, winding, grass-centred lanes, which serve us well as quiet footpaths with very little traffic.
North Devon’s extraordinary Devonian geological series informs the landscape here, with a much wider variety of habitats than Sussex. Everything from estuaries stuffed with amazing bird life to sinister, smelly mud flats and brackish salt marshes, dense oak and beech woods rich in bird life, tangled hazel coppices, water meadows at every turn and an incredible number of ponds, streams and rivers. Every field boundary is a stream, every road is edged with deep drainage ditches. And there’s no such thing as flat. It’s lumpy and bumpy, like over-sized snow moguls.
But the Devon banks are the stars of the show, the feature that makes walking really interesting. It’s a drama thing. You can walk hundreds of metres without seeing the wider landscape. Many of the banks are ten feet high, plenty fifteen, and eight footers are the norm. Then a gate into a field presents a gap, and endless stunningly pretty Devon countryside – with the sparkling Bristol Channel and Atlantic Ocean in the distance – is revealed. The contrast is magical.
There’s more. The Devon banks are also remarkable for the sheer variety of plants they contain, something new every week. Right now they’re vibrant with celandines, wild snowdrops and pale yellow native primroses. Give it a few weeks and there’ll be ragged robin and campion (the pink, white and globe varieties), old man’s beard, violets, speedwell, bluebells, beech and hazel, agrimony and vetch, trefoil and comfrey, dodder and clover. And that’s just a few, off the top of my head.
Over here it’s relatively tough walking ten miles on the up-and-down roads compared to the well-trodden trails in easier, flatter Sussex. We’ve clocked up an eighteen miler, combining time on the hair-raising coastal path with a variety of inland tracks and roads. Whether we’ll achieve much more in a day is debatable, thanks to the hilly landscape. But wow, it’s gorgeous, and the pleasure’s in the sights, scents and sounds, not the distance covered.