Monday, 10 December 2012

The Serpent Trail Section 3 Woolbeding Common to Petworth

Easebourne Priory

In the period that had elapsed between my last walk and this one (12 days), the season had suddenly changed from autumn to winter.  It’s amazing how a couple of sharp frosts can hasten the change of seasons!  I was lucky enough to have a weekday available for this walk and so I took the opportunity to do the next section of the Serpent Trail between Woolbeding Common and Petworth.  This part isn’t possible to do on a Sunday since there is no bus service between Petworth and Easebourne.

Old Buddington
I found a nice free car park in Petworth and caught the bus for the short journey over to Easebourne.  This is about 3 miles from Woolbeding Common but the nearest I could realistically get to the start of the walk.  It also enabled me to do a more satisfying length of the trail without finding a looping route.  It was a very cold and fresh start to the day although I had a feeling it would warm up sufficiently that it would be soft going later.  I got a few provisions from the village store in Easebourne before setting off across the fields from the village to head up onto the sandy commons.

Festive Season
Once away from the main roads the countryside was eerily quiet, as it generally is during the winter months.  Birdsong seems to cease and woodlands in particular seem very strange places without tweeting birds.  I stomped across a few fields and was immediately struck by the yellow window frames of the surrounding farm housing.  I guessed that this signified ownership by the nearby Cowdray Estate and found later via an internet search that this is indeed the case.  Many of the houses in question were pretty old, some dating back as far as the 1600s.

Hollist Common
I plodded steadily uphill towards the Common eventually coming to thick woodland where my navigation skills would be tested to the limit.  Some parts of the woods were being forested while there was also evidence of some coppicing going on, quite typical of this part of the County.  As I meandered through the woods I came upon a huge building that used to be King Edward VII Hospital from its opening in 1903 until closure 100 years later.  It is still complete but is housing now rather than the sanatorium it once was.  The path steered a course along the southern perimeter, giving me scant opportunity to inspect in more detail.

Former King Edward VII Hospital
I eventually came out on the Common and it was a relief to have some open countryside for a short while.  The Common was by now a mixture of brown tones, with the only bits of green the odd patch of grass and the holly bushes.  I was rather pleasantly surprised to find a portaloo installed alongside the path and made use of it before continuing.  Having ‘facilities’ is a rarity deep in the countryside and are always to be welcomed!

Lord of the Forest
I crossed what felt like the perimeter of the Common and regained the Serpent Trail eventually, although it wasn’t easy to relate what was on my map with how the signage and paths looked on the ground.  I was pleased to be on a signed path once again and I have found the signage on this route to be a consistently high standard, perhaps due to its recent opening and the fact that it crosses some fairly remote (at least for West Sussex) countryside.

Mossy World
Upon leaving the Common I wandered through some horse fields.  All the horses and ponies were dressed up in winter coats and looked pleased to see me as they came cantering over.  They soon lost interest when they saw I had no food available!  The ground through here was pretty solid and thus far I had not had too many problems with mud.  That soon changed when I swapped the field for a track and had to fight my way through some pretty churned up conditions as I headed towards Henley.

Henley View
As I headed down the hill through more woodland I realised that my onward journey today would see little in the way of sunlight for some time as I would be walking below the ridge line with the sun not high enough in the sky to clear it.  This was rather disappointing and unexpected, but initially I did find the new world I was entering rather interesting.  This was a damp and murky world, full of moss and bracken.  It was all rather Tolkien-like and for awhile at least was quite interesting.  What I wasn’t prepared for was quite how much of this kind of scenery I would ‘enjoy’ for a big chunk of the rest of the day.

The Duke of Cumberland Arms
I continued downhill for some time, eventually coming to a small group of houses that form part of the village of Henley Common.  These houses were clearly for well-off people, with large outbuildings and views across the Weald to the north.  For me though there were only glimpses of the views as for the most part the houses hogged them without allowing lowly walkers a look in!  At the houses I then had to climb back up a portion of the hill that I had just come down.  Below me I could hear the busy A286 road and eventually I had to cross this to make further progress.  I took the old road down through the village, which was like a skating rink!

Henley Colours
The Duke of Cumberland seemed an odd name for a pub, but looked like a very inviting place to spend the afternoon.  I logged that in my memory bank for another time, passing through the village quite quickly.  The path seemed to disappear out through a ‘tradesman’s entrance’ between two houses along a narrow alleyway.  Part way along there was a tree planted in the middle, which didn’t seem terribly helpful!

Looking Back to Henley
My onward route changed character and for some time I walked through what could only be described as a deep dark forest.  This was mostly due to the fact that my path continued along the foot of the sandstone ridge that I had descended the other side of Henley.  Sadly for me this meant that for some distance I didn’t enjoy the sunshine; only the blue sky high above me.  It also meant that the frost was still clinging on in places, whereas it had disappeared everywhere that the sun shone.  This stretch of countryside had a very lonely feel and for me at least this was a part of West Sussex completely unknown hitherto.

Frosty Woods
It felt like this stretch of woodland would go on forever and in places the going was really hard work as the path clearly meandered across the sandstone (well-drained) to the adjoining clay (mudbath).  Occasionally my nostrils were filled with the acrid smell of wood smoke from the chimneys of odd cottages along the route.  This was the only sense that really had any work to do however as I soon started seeing less and less detail of the woods and the air was still and silent.

After almost an hour of this kind of walking I was very relieved to come out into a sunny field close to Redland Farm.  Ahead I could see views across to the Downs and it felt good to see the outside world once again after so many trees!  As I wandered down along the field edge I spotted a couple of deer grazing.  There was luckily enough time to change the lens and grab a couple of shots before they inevitably got spooked and ran away.

Checking Me Out
I crossed a couple of fields before heading back into the woods.  This time though the woods were light and airy and not the oppressive shadowy places of earlier.  The walking conditions deteriorated though and it was tough work wading through thick clay mud.  The pheasants along the route appeared to mock me, flying up in front in a bid to startle me.  This was clearly shooting country although thankfully I didn't have to witness any shotgun action today since it was a Friday.

Clinging On To Summer
The sunny weather that I had enjoyed in the earlier part of the day was giving way to hazy sunshine and I faced the possibility that it would get dark rather sooner than I would have hoped.  As I passed through the woods near to Tillington I came across the first walker I had seen all day.  He was a very engaging elderly gentleman who very helpfully told me that he was the footpath warden for Tillington and that I should report any problems to him.  However, he neglected to tell me his name or contact details so if I had found any problems (luckily I didn't), I wouldn't have known who to report them to!
Lodge Farm

I had a little shock as I proceeded through the woods when I came upon an unexpected hill to the edge of Petworth Park.  Have waded through clay mud for some time I realised as I climbed the hill how much energy I had used up earlier in the day.  Even though it was a fairly modest hill, I did find it quite a struggle!  The top was worth getting to though as I was confronted with a rather unusual tower that guarded the wall of the park. 

Dripping Catkins
Although perfectly possible to wander around the parkland surrounding the beautiful Petworth House, sadly it wasn’t possible to enter the park at this point (I probably would have taken a detour from the official path if it had been).  I had to settle for wandering along the road that runs around the perimeter of the park.  After all the mud of earlier though this made for a good proposition and I was pleased to be free of the woods at last.  It was pretty easy going alongside the road down through the villages of Upperton and Tillington.  At the latter I paused briefly to inspect the church and its rather unusual adornment on the top of its tower.

Petworth Park Tower
The official path left the graveyard of Tillington Church and met with the A272 just below the village.  I walked along it only as far as the first available gatehouse of the Park so that I could have a change of scenery from the main road.  I took the route across the park, enjoying the views of the main house and the landscaped grounds laid out by Capability Brown (who else!?).  It was one of his trademark parks, laid out like an idealised piece of countryside and with a large lake as its centrepiece.  This gave some very good reflections of the house although I was rather too late for any really good pictures of the old place.  By now the sun was too low in the sky and the wispy cloud had built up too much for decent photography so I had to do my best.  I did however see enough to suggest that this would be an excellent place for winter walks with the family.

Tillington Church
Building work at the far end of the track across the park precluded me from taking the path I had originally intended to take.  It looked like quite a big project to the side of the main house but it was till too early to determine whether it was part of the National Trust facilities or the private housing that still exists on the estate.  I slipped out through a side entrance to the park and returned to the car park just across the road, finishing my walk well before it got dark which was a relief.

Petworth House

Although I enjoyed the fresh air and the sunny clear conditions on this walk, it was a bit of a curate’s egg.  The section on Woolbeding Common was enjoyable as was the finale in Petworth Park.  Sadly though there was far too much monotonous woodland walking for my liking.  Maybe it would have been better for me to do this section in another season?