“We shall not cease from exploration…..”- T.S. Eliot
The way-marker symbols for the New Lipchis Way depict the Downs and river valleys through which the trail guides the walker to the sea at Chichester Harbour.
With longer, warmer days I have been looking at ways to make the most of my days off every week, and also get to know our new area of West Sussex. Obviously walking is my chosen way of doing this, and a look on the Long Distance Walkers Association website revealed many way-marked paths that traversed the region. The National Trails like the South Downs Way are of course, well known, but the British countryside is laced with hundreds of lesser known trails, often themed or following landscape features such as rivers or ridge-lines. As I wouldn’t be camping initially, the challenge was to find a trail that I could access by public transport, so I could walk it in sections over a few days. My research led to the 39 mile New Lipchis Way, which runs from Liphook on the Sussex-Hampshire border, all the way south, via Chichester, to the coast at East Head. The route was first marked by the local Ramblers group and a quick online search revealed a website and downloadable guide to kick start my planning.
The New Lipchis Way follows existing rights of way and traces a cross-section through the major geologies (and thus landscapes) of West Sussex. Starting on the heaths of the Greensand ridges in the north, it dips down into the valley of the River Rother, before climbing over the South Down’s crest and descending out onto the coastal plain to the sea. This route would take me deep into the rural landscapes of Sussex and through the heart of the South Downs National park; more importantly, it would also give a fantastic overview of how the different parts of the landscape were connected and the subtle changes in its character. Observing this continuity over the seamlessly flowing miles allows me to ‘connect the dots’ between places, and has always been one of the biggest satisfactions of long distance hiking for me, and one of its unique privileges. This continuity is not just about landscape however, it also has a more unconscious appeal as an antidote to the disconnections I sense more generally. Sometimes it feels hard to live healthily, in body and mind, within all the contradictions of ‘modern life’, and taking time to walk the nuances of a landscape can feel like an attempt to reconnect something vital and find a more coherent way of being.
I was excited about embarking on ‘proper’ a hike again, the first of the year, and also saw it as a good opportunity to test the limits of the IT band issue in my knee, which seemed to be getting better with the help of strength training and a support strap. If I could walk the Lipchis Way, then Barry and I could commit to a longer hike at Easter and start looking beyond to something like the GR5 in the summer. I also chose to walk with a decent pack-weight (around 10 kg), to start building strength for later hikes when we’d be carrying all our camping gear. Barry would not be able to walk with me due to work constraints, but Oscar would come along as my wildpilgrim companion. What follows is a photo-journal which I hope captures the character of the New Lipchis Way, and the atmosphere of the two special, and often joyful, spring days we spent walking along it.
Day 1: Liphook – Stanley & Woolbeding Commons- Iping- Steadham- Midhurst (13 miles)
Our New Lipchis Way adventure began just after dawn on Day 1 as the sun rose above the misty meadows and we ran to catch the bus to Chichester, from where we caught a train to Liphook in Hampshire. The logistics of the trip were fairly easy and I planned early starts to make the most of the cool, quiet morning hours, when the quality of light made for atmospheric walking and better photographs!
In the still-cool morning, Oscar and I left Liphook, and the county of Hampshire, to head south, over the Greensand heaths and into the ancient sunken lanes of Sussex. There was the familiar excitement of having a new trail ahead, and the luxury of time just to walk and be light in body and mind. More than anything, I looked forward to the anonymity of the days ahead, of being free to absorb the landscape around me and, in that mysterious way with distance walking, being absorbed by it in return. I like the sense of disappearance that comes from this absorption, the walker growing smaller and being lost from view (literally and metaphorically) within the landscape. Maybe the allure of this anonymity is also a desire, temporarily at least, to escape identity itself. To go out and not have to ‘be’ anything or anyone is a great liberation.
The morning sunlight slanting into the sunken lanes was spectacular, throwing into relief the twisted forms of tree roots growing along the ancient woodbanks. Worn deep by centuries of feet, hooves and even carts, the green lanes on the New Lipchis Way were some of the deepest I have seen.The deep shade of these lanes for mist of the day means that their sides are often completely covered in moss. Oscar enjoyed scouting the banks for scents of rabbit and squirrel.
Huge veteran trees, both living and dead, were dotted all along the Lipchis Way and I spent a lot of time admiring them and trying to grasp their sheer ancientness. Here Oscar poses for scale on a grand, gnarly sweet chestnut.
Ancient, coppiced hornbeams grow along the line of a woodbank at the edge of Stanley Common. The woodbanks are old landscape features that mark boundaries of fields, parishes and common land, and would have helped to keep grazing animals enclosed. The strange contorted forms of these trees was constant source of fascination on the Lipchis Way.
Morning break on top of Woolbeding Heath with far-seeing views out over the wooded Greensand hills- time to enjoy the fluting song of Woodlarks and refuel with a trail-mix of almonds and peanut M&M’s.
It was rewarding walking in the warm sunlight on Woolbeding heath amid the blazing yellow flowers and coconut smell of gorse. The heaths (Stanley, Woolbeding and Heyshott) were a highlight of the New Lipchis Way, they had a wilder feel than the surrounding landscape because they have long been unfenced common land. In the past, the heaths were important as a communally managed resource for grazing and other raw materials, and it was the grazing livestock that stopped the heaths reverting into forest. Since the 1800’s, more than 80% of heathland has been lost in Sussex, partly because of the lack of grazing to keep the land open. The National Trust and Sussex Wildlife Trust, among others, have worked to restore what remains with conservation grazing, work which helps to maintain the open habitats and warm sandy soils preferred by reptiles, wildflowers and heathland-specialist birds like the Nightjar, Woodlark and Dartford Warbler. We will return to these heaths in the summer to hear the Nightjars churring at dusk.
Lanes and tracks through the woodlands would emerge at remote farmhouses and ramshackle barns in the hills, places far from anywhere. With the lack of traffic (or even sound of traffic), there were often very few indications of what century we were actually in! Before this walk, I wouldn’t have expected to find this sense of remote unchanged-ness in the busy south of England, and on that sunny morning, it reminded me strongly of the lonely farms we encountered deep in the hills of Spain. I realise this impression of timelessness was superficial, because the farms probably had internet and all other mod cons inside! As we descended from Woolbeding heath, we passed a large rambling house with a gypsy caravan in the lane outside. Apart from the missing wheels, the caravan was an original, beautiful and strangely exotic relic from another age.
The imposing Steadham Hall by the sedately-flowing Rother. Around Steadham and Iping we passed many manors and farms that were centuries old and, combined with the old-world landscape, I would not have been surprised to meet a Tudor king out riding with his hunting party…..
This footpath between the glittering Rother and birdsong-filled woods, was an utter delight, and I found myself slowing down and stopping often just to try and absorb the fizzing, springtime energy of it. Only a few miles short of Midhurst, I didn’t want the day to end, the New Lipchis Way had maintained such a high quality throughout and had far exceeded my expectations. I was grateful to the ramblers who had conceived-of and way-marked a route that had allowed me to enter into the landscape and discover so much. As we emerged into the afternoon traffic on Midhurst highstreet, I reflected that it had been the single best day’s walk I can remember doing in southern England. Later, speeding over the Downs ridge in the bus toward Chichester, I felt the rare satisfaction of a day that was whole and without regret, one that I wouldn’t have wanted to spend any other way.
Day 2: Midhurst – Heyshott- Singleton- Lavant- Chichester- Birdham- West Wittering (28 miles)
Day 2 was going to be more challenging than Day 1. Originally I had planned on 16 miles from Midhurst to Chichester, with a climb up and over the South Downs, followed by further climbs over Levin Down and St Roche’s Hill. After this, Day 3 would have taken us from Chichester out across the coastal plain to the sea. As it turned out however, we ended up walking all the way to the sea on Day 2, a total of nearly 30 miles (including extra bits and getting lost a few times)- the single longest walk I have ever done in a day. Although I still had to wear a knee support and be careful on the downhills, my knee did not restrict me, and it was a chance to push my limits a bit and see what I was physically capable of.
Oscar enjoyed the view from the top of the double-decker on the way back to Midhurst where we were to resume the Lipchis Way. As we climbed up into the Downs, the sun broke through the mist to reveal another glorious day. It was going to be a day of big miles and a steep climbs, so I was keen to get back on the trail as early as possible.
Early sunlight streamed through the beautiful wooded holloway on the route out of Midhurst. There is nothing that makes me much happier than being out on the trail in the cool hours, with fresh legs and the anticipation of all that lies ahead.
The walking towards Heyshott Common to the foot of the Downs was easy, on smooth trails through hollows and copses, where dew sparkled and the sun lit the blackthorn blossom. The way-marking was far from easy though and, as on the previous day, was patchy and confusing. I carried the OS Pathfinder maps (which were essential), but there was a small section on Heyshott common on Day 2 when the route went off the map and I would have to rely on the way-marking alone…the one place I didn’t want to get lost and guess what….! The many branching tracks on Heyshott Common and vague way-marking meant that I went wrong and had to double-back a number of times, but I suppressed any frustration and tried to stay tuned-in to the quiet atmosphere of the pinewoods.
Heading deeper into Heyshott Common, there was a sense of wildness and space that felt more like the forests of Abernethy in the Cairngorms than the South Downs. The New Lipchis Way continued to reveal places that I would come back to and spend more time enjoying. Oscar liked this section because it had squirrels aplenty…all of whom outpaced him with no trouble.
Looking north over the village of Heyshott and beyond to the Rother Valley and the Greensand ridges, which we had crossed the previous day. It is always satisfying looking at the far horizon knowing that we have come from there and seen all the places in between.
Approaching the steep scarp slope of the South Downs. By mid-morning the sun was already warm, the air had that concentrated stillness of a hot day and buzzards called in an unbroken arc of blue sky. The climb was tough, and I rested in the dense shade of the yew woods where sunbeams sliced trough the darkness.
On the Downs ridge the New Lipchis Way crossed the South Downs Way national trail. Elsewhere the Lipchis Way also crossed or coincided with a number of other way-marked trails, including the Serpent Trail, the West Sussex Literary Trail, the Monarch’s Way, the Centurion Way and the Sussex Border Path…..plenty more walking ideas then 🙂
Leaving the South Downs behind, and after a welcome descent through the shadows of Charlton forest, we started the climb up onto Levin Down. Levin Down derives it’s name from ‘leave-alone-hill’, a reference to the steepness of the land and the fact that it could not be easily cultivated. As a result, it is the largest area of chalk heath in Sussex and designated as a SSSI. Hiking up over the dome of the Down, with the views expanding around us, skylarks singing, and an unblemished blue sky above, was the distillation of truly joyful walking. Shortly after reaching the top, we took much needed break, sitting on the warm turf looking down into the village of Singleton and across the valley to Goodwood and St Roche’s Hill, our final climb of the day.
Oscar wonders when all the photo-taking will end and he can have his treat! The final climb of the day was up to St Roche’s Hill or the ‘Trundle’, which has been occupied since Paleolithic times and was later the site of an Iron Age Hill fort and the Chapel of St Roche. When we arrived at midday, the coastal plain was shimmering in haze and I could barely see the spire of Chichester cathedral (our next objective), From here the New Lipchis Way would get busier, being closer to roads and accessible to weekenders and local dog walkers, I knew that that we had left the best behind us. Already I felt regret at leaving those lonely footpaths, lost in the woods and heaths, but the route to the sea was a symbolic one and worth the effort, because it would complete our north-south traverse across Sussex.
Descending from the Trundle to the valley of the River Lavant, with the ‘mewing’ calls of Mediterranean Gulls in the white glare above, it felt like high summer. The Lavant is derived from the Celtic river name meaning ‘gliding-one’, and I could see why, as I watched the clear, cold water sliding south across the valley floor, while Oscar appreciatively took a long drink. The Lavant is a winterbourne, a chalk stream that flows mainly in the winter or after heavy rainfall, and the Lipchis Way runs parallel to it on the approach to Chichester.
Passing under one of many bridges on the the Centurion Way, which follows the track-bed of the old Chichester to Midhurst Railway line. The line closed in 1991 and is now a recreational path, it is called the Centurion Way because it also crosses the route of a Roman Road. The harder trail surface was painful for my now tiring feet, so I slowed my pace a bit and put on some music, enjoying the deep shade and dusty sunlight of the of railway cuttings, the lazy-hovering insects and smell of warm nettles and blackthorn blossom.
Some angry looking characters on the Centurion Way.
By mid afternoon we made it to the centre of Chichester and took time-out to rest beneath the cathedral walls, after 16 miles I was starting to ache and took ibuprofen to take the edge off. The plan had been to stop there, but the day was so beautiful and the evening long, so why not push-on further and try to make it to sea? I had walked the last 10 mile section to East Head before and knew it was nothing that special, so why not use it test my stamina a little? On the GR1, Barry and I always said we’d like to try a 30-miler one day, just to see what it was like. From here on though, I had to keep a careful eye on Oscar, he needed to stay hydrated in the hot afternoon, and I was prepared to stop at any time if he showed signs of tiring.
Out of Chichester, the going was easy as we followed the path along the (now defunct) Chichester Ship canal. Away from the city, it was a quiet waterway, bustling with nesting and squabbling waterfowl.
The coastal trail to East Head along the saltmarsh fringe of Chichester Harbour AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). In the late afternoon the quality of light deepened, and I enjoyed the lengthening shadows under the windswept coastal oaks, the distant cry of gulls out on the salt-flats and brisk clanking of yacht halyards in the rising breeze.
After a marathon final day, we arrived at the sandy spit of East Head by late afternoon, I was painfully sore but still happy. It was the perfect opportunity to bathe aching feet in the sea as we walked back towards the village. There was a chilly wind from offshore, and with my face burnt and feeling dizzy from squinting into the sun’s glare all day, I definitely had no more miles left in me.
Heading homeward across the sand, I was in no doubt as to who was the better-off of the pair of us. The beach always gets Oscar over-excited and he started charging around, running in circles, barking, jumping and digging in the sand, usually I would oblige and chase him, but not today!
So, I hope you have enjoyed this photo-journal of our walk on the New Lipchis Way, it really was a unexpected pleasure and a marvelous journey into the rural depths of Sussex. It was also great to have a hiking project to get me out and make the most of two stunning spring days. Many times along the New Lipchis Way, I had that familiar feeling when I’m hiking of needing nothing else, that the moment was complete and sufficient in itself. I wish I could live my life with that contentment and fullness always, but in walking at least, I know what to do when I need to find it.