The early summer centre of Brighton might be bursting with half term hordes, but a short stride out of the city reveals its wilder side. A walk from Woodvale Crematorium over the Downs to Rottingdean grazes gravestones, verdant verges and blue/grey horizons, passing through probably the quietest and loveliest landscape within the city boundary.
Guarded by gothic gates (that annoyingly shut in late afternoon), the graveyard provides a gorgeous semi-kempt pocket of peace. The entrance to Woodvale, and starting point for this well trod walk is the Vogue Gyratory System. A chaotic accident and pollution hotspot is enough to drive anyone into a nearby garden of rest (voluntarily or otherwise). Forming a strip between busy Bear Road and hillsides of not quite Hanover houses, it’s a tranquil space inspiring musing among memorials.
Although ghosts of bluebells are fading in the shade, now, in early summer, the mood is more wedding white than funereal. Seeds from surrounding trees congregate like confetti on the kerb before the Coroners’ office. Armless angels poke heads through growing grass, and the A27 drone is subdued by a chorus of birds. New modes of mowing leaves margins wild so should be sombre tombs are laced with stems of cow parsley and time is marked by dandelion clocks. It’s the perfect resting place for quietening minds as well as buried Brightonians.
Winding steeply up the hill it’s easy to immerse in imaginings of people passed. Enormous anchors mark many graves – a reminder that this was a sea-faring town. Twin flint chapels are the marker that the meander through memorials is almost through – and a final push leads us back to the land of the all too lively.
Cars growl up Bear Road grinding gears, and it’s a short sharp hike to the top past Tenantry Down. Looking west beyond allotments and city skyline, the Isle of Wight is in sight on a very clear day. Heading on along the eastern ridge, past horses grazing brilliant fields of buttercups, we reach the muddy track of medieval Drove Road. Formerly the fishwives’ route to Lewes, this smuggles behind Woodingdean’s bungalows. Views expand – below Bevendean bends round contours of hills and ahead a mast marks the highest point of today’s trail – Newmarket Hill – nearly 200 metres above the sea.
Busy Falmer Road transects this drove now and a constant stream of cars heading for coast or country can only be crossed with courtesy from a sympathetic driver. Once safely back on track, we are nearly in the country – although still within Brighton’s boundaries. Heading in the direction of Lewes, to the north the Amex Stadium, roost of Seagulls (the Brighton and Hove Albion species) crowns a crease in the hills. Staring south east, the white cliffs of Seaford Head and the Cuckmere Valley hover before the milky bluish horizon of the English Channel.
For a short stretch we walk the South Downs Way (SDW), a sky lark serenade slightly suppressing traffic noise. On a fine day the SDW is the M25 of down land paths, with columns of walkers, cyclists and riders intent on following the branded track. Many miss Castle Hill Nature Reserve, one of the Sites of Special Scientific Interest at the heart of the Brighton Hove and Lewes Downs Biosphere bid. This partnership hopes UNESCO will recognise the unique environment of the downs, towns and seas between the river Adur at Shoreham and the Ouse in Newhaven
The descent into Castle Hill valley is steep, surrounded by scrub. It opens out on reaching ‘Bottoms’ – Newmarket and Falmer Bottom to be precise. Shielded from external city sounds, scuffle of boots on chalk, and bleating sheep are the sole soundtrack. Chalk grassland here is a quiet riot of colour through summer. Early in a chilly season, recent rains have left lush growth of grey green grasses. For now on the floral front a cruise through a corridor of cowslips slightly past their best brings some satisfaction. By July clouds of blue butterflies should be sharing pale pink scabious, bright yellow trefoil and purple orchids.
Striding straight through the winding valley shaved sheep are looking sheepish, and planted fields starting to shoot. An uphill tarmac slog is fringed by more curls of cow parsley, and by-passing Balsdean Farm and reservoir the final high is reached. Here the steely sea rises up to meet us, and the draw of seashore and thoughts of food pull us down.
Gentile Rottingdean greets with bowls politely rolled on the green by villagers in pristine whites. Posters by the pretty pond pronounce flower shows, fetes and collectables with flint pubs and tea shops to tempt. For the hungry hearty home cooked lunch at bargain prices can be enjoyed in the lovely Grange Gardens Cafe (in the local library). For a creative cuppa, the Open Art Cafe boasts crafts, exquisite egg florentine and a toilet full of poems. Beer and banter is on the menu at the Coach House on the seafront, which pulls perfect pints of Sussex ales (Harveys and Hepworths). Today we don’t have time to dally, so head straight for the top deck delight of the bus back to Brighton. A good decision, as another diversion appears – the ‘improbably nimble’ Brighton Morris Men have capered their way along the coast and are jangling between pubs … maybe there’s time for a pint after all.
… and, as a special treat –
A poignant poetical pontification by former Brightonian Cuttlewoman on an August re-visit to the valley Bottoms