Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:22 am
The Weald is an area of outstanding natural beauty in South East England that, broadly speaking, stretches through the counties of Surrey, Sussex and Kent, between the chalk of the North and South Downs. It is characterised by small farms and fields, sunken lanes, gentle hills, deep deciduous woods, pretty picture-box ridge-top villages and attractive pubs. On the downside, my word, the roads can get busy; and drivers, high on testosterone and low on courtesy, sometimes do not take prisoners. To be fair, this can be a feature of many parts of modern Britain, not only the relatively affluent South East. Fortunately, these people appear to stay away from the many footpaths that cross the Weald – though, it is noticeable (and, normally, I avoid generalisations) that walkers in the south of England are less prone to spontaneous friendly greetings than those in the north; maybe it’s a cultural trait.
We were meeting Son and Daughter of Britain with their respective partners. It was a particularly joyous reunion because – like millions of others – we had not seen each other for more than a year due to Covid restrictions. Illness had added the cold hand of anxiety to the separation. So, in short, the occasion was happy and precious. Son of Britain had planned a series of walks to help celebrate the reunion, the first of which was a gentle 50-mile (it may have been less than that) route march through the Sussex and Kent countryside.
The Weald is an ancient and unique area. To the Saxons, it was part of the dense forest of Anderida, Andredesweald, Anderida being the name of the Roman fort at Pevensey and weald (modern German Wald) meaning forest or woodland. However, human presence in the Weald goes much further back, to the end of the last Ice Age, and it has an industrial history of ironworking and pottery dating from prehistoric times. In the Roman period and again in the 16th and early 17th centuries, long before the Industrial Revolution, the Weald was Britain’s main iron producing region. Echoes of the old industry can be found in coppices that were managed to grow the wood for charcoal, in the remains of furnace ponds and in place names; our walk began not far from the hamlet of Hammerwood, for example. The sunken lanes, droveways, are evidence of transhumance farming that took place over many centuries, the regular movement of beasts along the same routes to summer pastures and back again inexorably wearing down the ground into beguiling holloways. Unusually for England, Wealden settlements grew around smallholdings; there was no communal open-field agriculture. It is also an area of large houses, grand old estates and, these days, more than its fair share of vineyards. The Weald is also where Winnie-the-Pooh lived: no, not the Disney version – the real one.
What can I tell you about our walk? We were instructed to assemble in a lay-by near the hamlet (or golf club) of Holtye. Following a quick briefing and boot donning ceremony, we plunged straight away into light woodland. Dappled light flitted across the undergrowth and a warm, wet earthy, smell wafted up from the path. After a short while, Our Leader paused to introduce us to a segment of the Roman road that once led from London to Lewes (and back, presumably). We stood on its route, facing a fenced-off nettle-covered corridor. The road was built sometime early in the second century and much of it has been destroyed by ploughing, but this section was excavated in 1939. The surface was found to be layers of iron cinder, well-rammed and rusted together. In this leafy glade, it was hard to imagine the tramping of soldiers’ boots (“sinister dexter, sinister dexter etc…”), but the road’s primary use is thought to have been by commercial traffic, so if you close your eyes you may hear the rattle of waggon wheels, clopping of hooves and the nattering of traders. Oddly, the metal sign telling us a bit about the road had what looked like half a dozen bullet holes in it; perhaps the Romans were more technically advanced than I realised.
We emerged from the woods into a small field, planted with crops. And this was the pattern of the walk: woodland, often via an old holloway, small field, farm or some sort of impressive dwelling; repeat. It was easy going, and I found it particularly relaxing because someone else was doing the map reading. A herd of small deer watched us warily from the edge of a wood. They sniffed the air. I tried to take a photograph of them at maximum zoom, but all my shots were out of focus. This is a metaphor for life, I thought; the way ahead is unclear. In recompense, we came across a couple of friendly donkeys and spent a few pointless minutes passing the time of day with them. We picnicked in a field festooned with wild flowers, chatting and munching happily (us, not the flowers). Later, an impressive, Tudor-looking, house came into view through the trees. Then, behind a wall, loomed a large, brick, tower. This was the gatehouse to Bolebroke (or Bolebrook) Castle, a 16th century hunting lodge allegedly used by Henry VIII when stalking boar, deer – and young Anne Boleyn, who lived about 5 miles to the north at Hever Castle. Bolebroke is currently privately owned, though some websites suggest it may be open to the public. In any event, it looks pretty swanky and is (of course) meant to be haunted. An inquisitive grey squirrel paused to eye our passing and we watched him (or her) to see what it would do next. It didn’t do anything. Non-native North American grey squirrels are two a penny in urban parks, where they will often eat from your hand; but in the wild they’re less dependent, and more bashful.
After all this excitement, I have to mention a pit-stop at Perryhill Farm Shop and Tearoom, which I am happy to say is one of the most wonderful emporia I have ever been introduced to. Son of Britain and his delightful soon-to-be missus know it well. In addition to basic foodstuffs, it is a source of a whole range of imaginative and tempting condiments, as well as a wide selection of ciders. I don’t know about you, but I find part of the temptation with ciders is in the quaint names often bestowed upon them by their makers. Well, who could resist a flagon of Rosie’s Knee Trembler, or a couple of pints of Owd Cox Armpit? The trouble comes later. Cider invariably tastes so innocuous and then you discover it’s done strange things to your legs and vision. At Perryhill, you can taste before you buy and draw off your choice into a handy take-away carton. We had ice creams and coffee, but couldn’t resist purchasing a couple of ciders to savour later, when safely home and in a controlled environment.
Our leader took us on a loop north of Hartfield (once home to Winnie-the-Pooh – did we mention him?), with views of its church spire. We turned north through Basset’s Manor, where (as you can imagine), all sorts were expected. Horses grazed in neat meadows and a variety of businesses, equestrian and not, were based there. One calling itself ‘Mechanical Horses’ conjured up alarming images; on investigation, it turned out to be a form of training – like aircraft simulators for prospective riders. Another business seemed to be doing up old cars. With a faint whiff of nostalgia, I spotted a Ford Escort, circa 1968, and remembered convincing school-chums I was getting a bright orange one of those because I was sure to win a competition on the back of a breakfast cereal box.