Park Centre, Gravel Hill, Horndean, Portsmouth, Hampshire, P08 OQE
On A3 between Petersfield (4 miles) and Portsmouth (13 miles) -well-signposted Map reference: SU 719
Four trails covering different aspects of wood and downland conservation area: Centre Trail – 3} miles; Holt Trail – 21 miles; Butser Trail – 21 miles; Tree Trail -11miles (level, suitable for disabled people)
Illustrated trail brochures and maps; several car parks; picnic areas; exhibitions and displays in Park Centre; ancient farm demonstration; regular calendar of events
There is no mistaking the scenery of the South Downs in Sussex. Broad sweeps of wooded valleys and miles of rolling country, with flint-faced cottages and rambling arable farms: telltale characteristics of chalkland. This ridge of hills, so beloved of walkers, rises humbly in the east of Hampshire and ends in a spectacular 575ft drop of dazzling white rock at Beachy Head.
Impressive though the South Downs are, they lie fairly low on the skyline. Major summits are at Ditchling Beacon (813ft), Win-dover Hill (707ft) and Firle Beacon (713ft). Highest of all is Butser Hill, at almost 900ft, which is part of Ramsdean Down and within the boundaries of the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, south west of Petersfield.
The Park covers 1400 acres of downland and mixed beech and coniferous woodland and is administered jointly by the Forestry Commis-sion and Hampshire County Council. Not sur-prisingly, the Park offers far more than an enjoyable afternoon’s walking. It would proba-bly take a full day to sample all the attractions which vary from hang gliding to an Iron Age farmstead.
The centre of activity is the Park Centre, which is built on the path of the old coach road (A3) and today welcomes new arrivals much as did the coaching inn that used to stand near here many years ago. It is a good place to start from to gather booklets and information on the Park and to return to for some light refreshment in the cafe. A colourful exhibition draws attention to the objectives of the Park and the species of birds and animals to look out for, while various slide programmes and lectures are given in a small theatre.
As the name implies, the Tree Trail identifies familiar and lesser-known foliage along the way. Much of the land now within the Park 28 was bare hillside shadowed only by the inky needles of yew. Beech was planted in quantity in the early Twenties and plantations of Norway spruce, western hemlock and red cedar followed, with whitebeam, oak and silver birch establishing themselves naturally.
These extensive beeches have been highly valued by small local industries over the years. The wood makes excellent charcoal and was used for smelting iron ore in the furnaces of the neighbouring Weald. A glassworks was built nearby in the 1 7th century, beech piles were used to support Winchester Cathedral, and the wood is pliable and suited to the manufacture of furniture and kitchen utensils.
Three-and-a-half miles long, the Centre Trail combines woodland and open downland walking, with the option of completing only half. The gravel path passes the spot where a flint knapper may have sat under a yew tree, breaking flints. These rocks, which can measure over a foot in length and width, were widely used throughout Hampshire and Sussex to build and decorate walls, cottages and churches. They were also a profitable export (especially to America) as gun flints for flintlock rifles and pistols.
Centuries of sheep have nibbled the soft turf’ of the downland and it is studded with wild flowers at all times of the year. Butterflies such as the Duke of Burgundy fritiflary, flit among the scrub of gorse and thyme – their larvae feed on the leaves of the tall-necked cowslip in spring. Another native is the yellow ant which creates giant hummocks across the downs. It is said that the snails which infest the grass and are in turn eaten by sheep, impart a subtle flavour to mutton.
Butser Trail offers more of a challenge to the serious walker. It begins gently, following an ancient trackway, Lime Kiln Lane. There was probably an outdoor lime kiln here over a hundred years ago, where chalk was burnt to produce building material or fertiliser. At the foothills of Butser hilltop, known as Little Butser, is the Ancient Farm Research Trust Project. Because an attempt is being made to simulate the conditions under which Iron Age man lived and worked, the farm is kept isolated. A demonstration area near the Park Centre provides an interesting precis of the work being undertaken. Livestock of the period, Dexter cattle and Soay sheep, are being reared and ancient crops sown. What would have been daily chores, such as smelting metal, firing pottery, spinning and weaving, are com-pleted using the limited tools available to our ancestors. At the centre of the area is the largest reconstructed Iron Age ‘house’ to be found anywhere.
From the blustery top of Butser Hill there is a stunning view to every compass point. South is the busy blue Solent, north the Hogsback; to the east runs the chalk chain of the South Downs, while behind, the fields roll through Hampshire and Berkshire to the West Country. Grazing sheep share the view with sportsmen. Kite flyers and model gliders harness the wind which whistles over Butser (sometimes it reaches a gale force 10); hang gliders use the air currents for their one-way flight and on summer Sundays, grass skiers may be seen speeding down the steep green slopes.
The Park has other family attractions, too: orienteering, pony-trekking, forest drives and picnic spots. Special events and demonstrations of country crafts and farming skills are held throughout the year and published in a calendar of events.
At the heart of the South Downs is Singleton, the home of the Weald and Downland Museum. Here, among wooded meadow-land, historic buildings from the Weald and Downland areas of Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire have been rescued and faithfully reconstructed. Among them, in this far from conventional museum, are a charcoal burner’s camp, a wheelwright’s shop, a mediaeval farmhouse and a 15th-century granary.
Singleton also has a vineyard which produces Childsdown wine, and there is another at Hambledon. At both, admission covers a tour and a sample tasting. Goodwood House is one of the finest examples of Sussex flintwork, and its rooms are graced with collections of tapestries, porcelain and French and English furniture. Meetings at the famous racecourse culminate in the celebrated event at the end of July — Glorious Goodwood.
Holiday spots along the Sussex coast vary from the organised resort of Bognor Regis to the quiet, unspoilt beaches of the Witterings. There is little choice of campsites in the area, but fishermen fare better, with both river and sea angling. One of the chalk streams visible from Butser Hill is the Meon, and it and its tributary, the East Meon, offer sea and brown trout, while the Western Rother, which flows to join the Arun, has the added promise of barbel. For saltwater sport, the best place to hire a boat is Littlehampton.
Queen Elizabeth Country Park makes a good starting point for walking the eighty-mile long-distance South Downs Way. From here to Beachy Head the path is edged with a profusion of wild flowers, birds and butterflies with picnic sites at Harting Hill and Bo-peep Bostal. Outstanding sights along the route are the Long Man of Wilmington – the figure of a man of uncertain date cut into the chalk and visible for miles; Chanctonbury Ring and Ditchling Beacon. The South Downs Way is also popular with pony trekkers and cyclists.
For harmonising the old with the new. When it was developed, just after the Second World War, the idea was to incorporate Old Harlow and three villages in the immediate area. The biggest sacrifice was borne by agriculture. Twenty-five farms, some small, others extensive, were affected to make way for the homes and amenities of an estimated 80000 people.
Much was kept intact: the old part of town is still lined with thatched cottages and the scent of lime tree flowers around St Andrew’s church pervades the air each summer. Even the new part is given an air of the wide open spaces. Green lawns intersperse the bricks and mortar and, rather wistfully, the town’s public houses are named after species of butterfly (Purple Emperor, Small Copper, White Admiral, Essex Skipper).
The trail, which keeps one foot in the town and the other in the country, starts just outside the centre at the Museum. Cars can be left either at the town centre or museum car parks, but even without following this trail, four wheels are superfluous. Harlow is criss-crossed by pedestrian byways.
Early steps are uphill and follow the steep slopes of Willowf ield Ravine. There used to be a stream here, fed from the fields after rainfall, but since houses, not cereals, now cover the land, the water rushes into land drains and the stream only flows occasionally in winter. Gone, too, are the elm trees that used to stand, like mighty sentinels, along the path, Dutch Elm disease claimed them and limes were planted in their stead.
After crossing Tendring Road, the trail plunges into a patchwork of homes, gardens, schools and recreational areas. Harlow is espe-
cially proud of the Bishopfield development. Flats, maisonettes and patio bungalows smother a hillside in ordered profusion, each with a secluded patch of garden. Although too small for growing much apart from flowers and rose bushes, the town council has allocated seventy acres to allotments dotted about between developments. Here the scarlet blooms of runner beans climb skywards at almost the same density as the houses at Longbanks (nearly twenty-four to an acre), which lie to the right of the trail.
Each housing estate has a character of its own. Barley Croft (the name was taken from a Tithe map of the 1840s) was built of pre-cast sections of timber and steel. While Peters-wood’s flats and town houses are of black brick.
Maunds Wood with its oak and coppiced hornbeam has been here for years, but it is hardly peaceful. Children have tunnelled into bramble hedges to make dens and the well-trodden ground is often scattered with broken boughs and sweet wrappers. Squirrels are the only creatures to have withstood the invasion, but by contrast, Parndon Wood is a quiet haven where animal and plant life flourish undisturbed. Nobody is allowed into the Reserve without making an appointment with the warden.
Much of the trail crosses rolling terrain so typical of this part of Essex. Fertile boulder clay and a temperate climate combine to make excellent arable and dairy farming country. One of the largest farms is Dorrington, with 300 acres sown with wheat, barley and clover. Lesser crops are beans and potatoes, but a herd of Friesian bullocks being raised indoors for beef, never see the sun.
There is evidence of Saxon and earlier con-nections around the southern limit of the trail where the ancient Forest Way is joined. This long-distance footpath links the forests of Ep-ping and Hatfield, while other tracks lead off across the countryside to the right and left of Rye Hill Road. Underfoot the cropped grass is studded with fleshy plantains and yellow cin-quefoil, and hedgerows centuries-old grow species that would defeat a botanist.
Saxon words can be traced, too. Tye Green Village, around which much of the new town has grown, takes its name from a clearing in the forest. Berecroft housing area is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for barley — Even Harlow new town has called its municipal offices Moot Hall.
The villagers of Netteswell would have relied upon the waters of the River Stort to irrigate their farmland and to drive their mill wheels, but these days it is used mainly by coarse fishermen and visitors are welcome. Further upstream at Stansted Mountfitchet an 18th-century red brick windmill has been restored with much of its machinery and furnishings intact. Scouts now use it as one of their headquarters.
At Broxbourne on the River Lee, a boat centre is open in summer months where rowing and motor boats can be hired by the hour and a large waterbus carries trippers downstream towards the ruins of Waltham Abbey. Part of the abbey, the Crypt, is now a museum of local antiquities. The village whipping post, stocks, pillory and stake (which was said to stop the restless spirit from moving a buried corpse about) are grim reminders of the past. Brox-bourne also has a zoo with around 250 species of animals and birds.
At Bishop’s Stortford, an 18th-century house is devoted to the memorabilia of Cecil Rhodes and aspects of his life and work in Africa. Hertford Museum has objects of local archaeological and natural history interest -two indoor excursions for dull days.
Hayes Hill Farm, at Waltham Abbey, is a working dairy and arable farm that specialises in showing city children just how their food is
produced. Even those familiar with the country will enjoy the summer demonstrations of country crafts such as wood-turning, corn-dolly making, thatching and sheep shearing.
In the extensive grounds the Jacobean mansion at Hatfield stands the ancient oak tree in whose shade Elizabeth Tudor was sitting when she heard the news of her succession. It is so old and damaged now that the trunk is propped up on crutches. It symbolises what new towns such as Harlow are doing.
In a changing, shifting world, our national heritage should never be rooted up and dis-carded; the old and the new can live side by side. That is what makes Harlow Trail unique.