Newhaven to Lewes (linear)
This is a linear walk along the riverside and into the Downs with plenty of botanical, historical and literary interest. It's about 7 miles long and mostly flat, with lots of stiles and some short climbs - the map for it is Explorer 122. There are wide views across the Ouse valley and signs of its earlier more industrial busy-ness. The paths may be muddy (and windy) in winter. The start point is Newhaven Town rail station and the finish is Lewes station so refreshments and toilets are available at the beginning and end. There is also a pub at Piddinghoe (just off the walk route).
1. Leave Newhaven Town station and cross the road. Turn left and follow
the road across the river. Stay on the same (right) side of the road and
continue, bearing right after the bridge until you are walking along North
Way. You come to a twitten on your right. Go down this narrow path a little
way and take the first right turn that you come to. You emerge from this
twitten into an industrial area. Turn left and continue walking northwards
until you cross a car park. In front of you to your right is a wide ditch.
Turn right and walk along the right hand side of the ditch, looking out
for kingfishers that live here. Follow the ditch until the path takes you
up onto the river bank, then turn left and continue northwards alongside
See story Newhaven Harbour and the River Ouse
2. Keep on the riverside path until you pass the lake at Piddinghoe.
See story Piddinghoe
As the path comes to the end of the lake, you will see a metal gate in front of you with a gap beside it. Walk through into a small grove of young elms and alders beside a creek. At the end of this grove turn right and follow the path that leads over a stile and back onto the river bank.
3. Turn left and, after passing an old boathouse on your left, you will see the path going away from the river up a grassy bank. Follow this between the old school house and the rectory and bear right to find the gate into the churchyard on your right.
See story Piddinghoe church and churchyard
Walk through the churchyard and when you come out, turn right and continue down through the village, past the village sign, until you reach the Lewes Road.
4. Turn right and cross the road. On the other side you will see a lane. Walk up the lane until you reach the finger post that marks where the footpath goes off to the right. Go through the gate and follow the path into the fields where a view of the Ouse valley opens out on your right.
See story The Downs
This path comes out onto a chalk downland bank where you will find several varieties of orchid, devil's bit scabious, fairy flax and other specialized plants - often very small - according to their seasons. The autumn gentian which flowers in September grows here.
5. Follow the path until it meets a lane doubling back towards the river. Turn right and walk down the lane to the main road, and on the other side of the road you will see a stile which you climb to find yourself once again on the footpath by the river bank.
6. Turn left and continue walking northwards along the river bank until you come to the bridge at Southease.
See story Southease
Cross the river here and look out for the narrow gap in the hedge on your left - just at the end of the bridge - where there are steps down to the river bank path, now on the eastern bank. This gap is easy to miss - it is right by the river bank.
7. Continue walking along the river bank towards Lewes past the remains of Asham Wharf
and over the footbridge that crosses Glynde Reach.
See story Asham Wharf
Stay on the path by the river until you come to the A27 road bridge. Walk underneath it and through a metal gate. After about 20 metres there is a small gap in the hedge on your right where you can climb the fence and go up through the trees towards the road. When you reach the road, you can turn right and walk across the bridge on the pavement - do not cross the road! Just a few steps past where the pavement ends, there is a gap in the trees on your right where you can step over the low barrier and climb down the bank to the west side of the river. (The alternative to this manoevre is to continue along the east side of the river and walk along by the road to South Street and into Cliffe.)
8. At the bottom of the slope you will emerge from the trees near the river. Take the right hand path nearest the river and follow it through shrubby wasteland keeping near to the river. You will go under the railway and come out onto the brooks - pasture fields with drainage ditches. This area was once busy with rail and boat traffic connected with Southerham chalk pits.
See story Southerham
Follow the riverside path again until you come to a footpath sign indicating the way across the fields towards the Railway Land local nature reserve.
See story Railway Land Local Nature Reserve and the Snowdrop Inn
You can see an old, well preserved signal box in the hedge across the field, and a wooden bridge that takes you across one of the brooks. Once in the Railway Land you can head west towards the station or north towards the town.
Newhaven Harbour and the River Ouse
Newhaven was established as a port in the later years of the 16th century when storms built up a shingle bank across Seaford Bay, and Seaford harbour silted up. A straight cut was made to allow the river to flow more swiftly into the sea at Newhaven. Before that, Seaford had been the major port and Newhaven a small fishing inlet called Meeching. At that time the river formed a delta with several channels, saltmarsh and mudflats and there was regular flooding right up the valley.
From the 16th century onwards the river banks were slowly built up so that brooklands could be used for grazing. These still flooded from time to time, but this enriched the pasture and protected the grass from frost and snow, thus providing very early shoots which were precious for the nourishment of sheep with early lambs. According to Sussex folk singer and writer Bob Copper, the Downs to the west of the Ouse were sometimes called "mutton barracks" because of the large numbers of sheep that grazed there. Cattle driven from the West Country were fattened in these water meadows before being taken on to market in London.
The Navigation Act of 1791 allowed big changes to the route of the river with bends straightened, banks heightened and dredging of silt. From 1830 onwards, the banks reduced flooding in the lower Ouse Valley, though they had to be raised and repaired regularly. One unforeseen consequence of the Navigation Act improvements to the river flow was an increase in tidal range in Lewes from less than 1foot to 10ft, which had serious repercussions.
The recent Ouse Estuary Project is designed to contain flood water to protect the newly developing East Side Business Park and a new access road which may well lead to further development of the port.
Newhaven was a principal supply port for the western front during WW1 and when the military presence was reduced after that war, the economy of the town suffered. The French have taken over the port and there has been a considerable amount of investment from regeneration funds in the area. The recreation area which you walk through on the western side of the river at the beginning of the walk has been developed on the site of a landfill tip.
Piddinghoe had wharves for cargo boats until the early 20th century, receiving cargoes of stone from Caen, and iron and steel for the Phoenix ironworks further up the river. The cargoes were taken by poling barges which used the tidal flow up the river. Locally made bricks were transported the same way - many Piddinghoe bricks are in the great Balcombe railway viaduct.
A Sussex tradition has it that Piddinghoe folk are very odd: they shoe magpies, hang their ponds out to dry and fish for moonshine. These riddles refer to the custom of shoeing working oxen, which, if black and white, were called magpies. Whiting was manufactured by the river at Piddinghoe, which involved wetting and then drying chalk for whitewash and similar products, and "fishing for moonshine" refers to a smuggling story. A shepherd was up in the nearby Downs one night when he heard voices. He hid amongst some gorse and watched a group of men, clearly smugglers, hide some barrels of good French brandy by rolling them into a dewpond. After the men had gone, the shepherd used his crook to try to get one of the barrels out. When he felt the presence of an Excise man behind him, he continued "fishing" in the pond, saying, "Look at the moon there in the water, look - the moon be drowning". It seems that the Excise man was convinced that the shepherd was an idiot and so left him to his work.
Piddinghoe church and churchyard
Piddinghoe church has an unusual round tower, built during Norman times. There is another at Southease, further up the valley. It may be that this design was used for defensive reasons - a round tower is a harder target to hit than a square one, or because it is easier to build round when using flint. The church is on a mound and it may have been a site used for pagan practice in Saxon times. There are many Saxon burial sites between the Ouse and the Cuckmere valleys. The weathervane is said to represent a salmon trout. The river was rich in fish in the Middle Ages, with herring and porpoise among the catches. I have seen many good sized fish in the river near here - they come close to the weeds by the bank, perhaps to feed. I've been told they are mullet.
A parishioner of Piddinghoe, Mrs Elizabeth Croft suffered a series of bereavements between 1866 and 1869, losing her husband, her only son and a beloved grand-daughter. Elizabeth Croft then devoted herself to raising money for the village and left a bequest for its children which is know as Little Edith's treat, and which continues still. On her grand-daughter's birthday, July 19th, the village children receive a tea-party and prizes for good attendance at school, needlework and drawing. The event was featured on Pam Ayres' Radio 2 programme in 1997.
The path takes you up into the Downs where there are slopes of unimproved chalk grassland with lots of plants associated with that environment. Devil's Bit Scabious is one of them which flowers through summer and autumn and is named because of the bitten off look of its roots - as if someone has bitten it from below the ground. The Devil features (just) in a story associated with Rodmell, a village further up the valley. It is said that there was once a miller who lived in Rodmell and who loathed the sound of the church bells. Whether this was because the bells (or the bellringers) were of poor quality, or the miller a pagan, the story doesn't say, but it seems that the miller cursed the bells and became so obsessed with silencing them that he went to see a witch to see what might be managed. She told him that to bewitch the bells he must get a hair from the devil's tail. The miller realised that this was a quest too far, and so resigned himself to the bells. Some years later he was walking back over the brooklands from an errand on the coast, when he was caught by a thick fog, and then nightfall. He lost his path and was floundering in the marsh, in danger of being drowned or dying of cold if he couldn't find his way. The miller, terrified, heard the sound of the hated bells, and recognised it. As the bells continued to ring, he was able to orientate himself and use the sound to guide him home. Some people say that when he died, he left a bequest to cover the cost of new bells.
This is another of the series of villages on the rising ground to the west of the river valley. When you come to the bridge, it is worth looking around to the north of it before crossing over. There you will find the remains of machinery used to assist boats in passing under the bridge. When the tidal flow is at its strongest, there is tremendous turbulence here and boats and barges would moor by the bollards north of the bridge to wait for the water to calm down. You can see that the iron bridge was a swing bridge that could be opened up to allow large vessels to go up the river. It hasn't been opened for several decades now. In the area between the river and Southease railway station there used to be a race-course. The stand and winning post were near the east bank of the river, and the remains of stabling can still be seen in the fields nearby. The race-course is shown on maps published during the 1930s and appears to have fallen out of use during WW2.
As you continue the walk up the east side of the river, you come to a disused wharf. Where the landfill site is now, there used to be a large cement works, Asham works, which operated until 1978. The wharf was used until the late 1960s. Boats brought clay from Piddinghoe, and coal for the kilns, and transported cement away, mostly to the Isle of Wight. Boats of 4 - 500 tons docked here, sometimes 2 at a time, and were piloted up and down the river by tugs. The cement was carried by an aerial ropeway to the wharf and loaded by crane. The foundations for this equipment are still visible. Boats had to use the tidal flow of the river carefully, otherwise there were problems - on one occasion the footbridge at Glynde Reach was destroyed by a boat, and several went aground because there was only just enough draught in places. Gradually road and rail transport took over and after WW2 river traffic rapidly declined. The railway line from Lewes to Seaford opened in 1864. It is said that the cement works had a devastating effect on Asham House and all the land around during the 1930s, covering everything in thick white dust.
This is where Virginia Woolf's body was found 3 weeks after she drowned herself in the river in late summer 1941. She had spent time at Asham House (now demolished) between 1911 and 1919, and at Monks House, Rodmell, after that. She was a familiar figure, walking in the brooklands and the Downs during those years, often alone and rather dishevelled looking. She said that walking kept her sane - she had had a breakdown in 1912. Her ashes are buried in the garden at Monks House.
As you approach Lewes, you can see abandoned quarries and pits to your right. These were the hunting grounds of Gideon Mantell the fossil hunter. He was born in Lewes, son of a poor shoemaker. His father was a keen supporter of Tom Paine, which didn't endear him to the establishment in Lewes. Gideon became a doctor by apprenticeship and spent his spare time hunting for fossils around Lewes and Cuckfield, where sandstone was being quarried for the development of Brighton Pavilion. He wrote "Fossils of the South Downs" in 1822 and "Age of Reptiles" in 1831. He was one of the first people to propose that the earth was once populated by "oviparous quadropeds of most appalling magnitude" (he'd found a succession of iguanadon teeth as evidence for this), but because he didn't coin the word that caught on - "dinosaur" - he did not receive much credit for his discoveries. More of his story can be found in Bill Bryson's "Brief History."
Railway Land Local Nature Reserve and the Snowdrop Inn
As you emerge from under the A27 bridge and walk into the brooklands that are part of the Local Nature Reserve, you can see ahead of you a group of buildings nestling under the great chalk cliff created by quarrying. In 1830 during the week before Christmas, there were tremendous storms with high winds and heavy snowfalls. The wind blew the snow into great drifts, some 20 feet deep. All the roads into Lewes were blocked - the only way into the town was by river. A snow drift formed on the cliff - an enormous curve of a drift 10 - 15 feet thick, which overhung the houses that formed Boulder Row. People could see what was going to happen and some residents left their homes. Others refused to leave, or stayed to collect possessions. The avalanche, when it came on Christmas Eve, engulfed the houses in a scene of "awful grandeur" according to an eye witness. The sheer weight of snow destroyed several houses and left 6 women and 2 men dead. They are buried in Malling churchyard, and the pub, the Snowdrop, is named in memory of the event.
The Railway Land Local Nature Reserve occupies land that used to be railway sidings and a freight depot for lines that went to the various quarries and pits in the area. The Winterbourne stream runs through the reserve and there are brooks with many species of plants and creatures including 2 kinds of frogs one of which makes a tremendous and distinctive racket on spring evenings. There are some splendid mature "Railway" poplar trees and an unusual swamp cypress. A reedbed is being developed as part of the "Heart of Reeds" environmental art project in the hope of attracting reed loving birds and sustaining a diverse eco-system in the Reserve.