Start The Ram Inn, Firle, St Leonards-on-Sea
Distance 5 miglia
Time 2½ hours
Total ascent 200 metri
No artist has captured the curves and chalky pastel colours of the Sussex landscape like Eric Ravilious (1903-1942). In his book The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane writes glowingly of Ravilious’s “dreamy watercolours” and calls him “an artist of the path”. Ravilious grew up in East Sussex but spent much of his adult life away from the area, returning throughout the 1930s to paint the landscape of his childhood. From his timeless depictions of the Long Man of Wilmington to his paintings of Cuckmere Haven and the serpentine Ouse, the brooding skies, furrowed land and undulations of the Downs are ever-present in his work.
This circular walk from the glorious Ram Inn at Firle journeys through countryside that has changed little since Ravilious first painted it over 70 anni fa. It climbs high on to the Downs and offers spectacular views of East Sussex and the coast – should you choose to do it during the day. But for a more unusual experience, this walk, with its clearly marked pathways, can also be enjoyed by night. Leave at twilight in the daylight-saving months and you can enjoy a nocturnal ramble and still be back at the Ram in time for dinner. Or you might prefer to eat first, then take a moonlit hike to walk off a hearty roast and a pint of Harvey’s. Inutile dire, this is best done when the moon is plump and bright.
From the front of the Ram Inn, head south towards the Downs through the village, passing the old store, village hall and Little Talland House, which Virginia Woolf rented for a year from January 1911. She described the house as “an ‘inconceivably ugly and hideous suburban villa”, but was charmed by the village itself. Firle remains a handsome sleepy hamlet, a time capsule of brick and flint houses, many covered with ivy. It is the imagined village of every classic children’s adventure story.
The route towards the Downs passes Firle’s 12th-century church and the Burning Sky brewery. When the road bends to the right, carry straight on, keeping a long flint farm building on your left. The path soon curves to the left with a long high wall and the Downs to your right. Whether lit by moon or sun, the combination of rolling farmland and hills can be enchanting. Stay on this path until reaching a fingerpost and a triangle of paths with a tree in the middle. Go through the gate on your right and you’ll soon be ascending a steepish path to the top of the Downs. The chalk path may glow in moonlight but can be slippy and sticky if wet, so watch your footing and use a torch if necessary. A post halfway up is perfect for taking in the view and enjoying a breather. Look for the round turret-like folly on the Firle Estate to your left and the ripple effects – terracettes – on the closest slope, caused by centuries of grazing animals. Continue climbing; when the chalk path gives way to grass, you’re almost there. On reaching the top of the Downs head towards the fence to be rewarded with glorious views of the sea. The town straight ahead of you is Newhaven.
Day or night, there is an otherworldliness to being up on the Downs. These hills were once believed to be the playground of fairies, goblins and that most mischievous and ancient of spirits, Puck. A “Puckhill” was listed in local parish records close to here as early as 1350. Many a strange encounter has been reported on the Downs. An hour’s drive to the west, Chanctonbury Ring has long held a reputation as a meeting place for witches, and unearthly sightings of demons and the like. A few miles away, on a walk around the lost village of Balsdean, Sussex folk singer Shirley Collins saw a ghostly apparition of a group of Roman soldiers, which she writes about in her book All In the Downs. And it was here above Firle, 81 anni fa, that shepherd Fred Fowler had a life-changing experience. “Mine’s a simple life,” he told the Daily Mirror on 8 novembre 1940. “I just have me two dogs, me sheep and me missus way back at the cottage and I come to church on a Sunday. That’s all I sees or knows of life; that’s all I really want to see or know.” Yet, in broad daylight, Fowler had a vision of Christ on the cross, surrounded by six angels, in the sky above Firle Beacon.
“It be like what they tells me cinema is like, but I think it be more real,” Fowler concluded. Despite three other residents recounting that they too had seen the vision above the Downs, Firle’s vicar, the paper noted, dismissed it all as “nonsense”.
Keeping your feet on the ground but your eyes on the heavens, continue east across the top of the Downs for nearly a mile, passing a few copses and ignoring paths leading to the left or right until the trail drops sharply to a couple of gates, a tarmac road and the Bo-peep car park. Follow the road – you won’t encounter much traffic – to the bottom. In daylight, you may be treated to spectacular views of red kites, buzzards and ravens. At night it could be a barn or tawny owl quartering the fields.
On reaching Bo-peep Farmhouse, follow a clear sign west to Charleston and Firle. The track cuts across open farmland, with the South Downs on your left and another Raviliousesque landscape of muted colours, undulating lines, wide-open spaces and rolling hills.
After a mile, you’ll see a pretty house with cathedral-shaped windows. Skirt round it, keeping the house on your right and take a sheltered, tree-lined path. Reaching a gate, the path ascends slightly to the triangle of tracks and tree from the beginning of the walk. Retrace your steps, with that long flint wall on your right now, as the path curves back towards the village and the Ram Inn.
This lovely 500-year-old pub has dark walls, stone floors, open fires and fine local brew Harvey’s on tap. There are three dining areas, a large grassy back garden and a front “beach” – though it’s so popular it’s worth booking. Despite operating principally as a gastropub (on the inside at least), the Ram retains plenty of character and charm. The fare, made with locally sourced ingredients, might include grilled sea trout, braised shoulder of lamb, mussels, mixed nut roast and roast haunch of Heathfield venison (£14-£18). But who’s the guy at the bar dressed like Crocodile Dundee? That’s local clergyman, pilgrim and TV presenter Peter Owen Jones. If you do happen to have a Blakean vision on the Downs, slip this vicar a pint of Harvey’s and he, almeno, will be all ears.
The Ram has five individually designed rooms styled with contemporary furniture and local antiques. Three have freestanding baths; four are dog-friendly. The most luxurious ones – which also offer the best views of the Downs, should you be inspired to bring your easel – are Beacon View and Bloomsbury.
Doubles from £130 B&B
Thanks to author Martine McDonagh for invaluable help with the route