Car-free tour of East Sussex: waterside walks, woods and delicious food stops

Car-free tour of East Sussex: waterside walks, woods and delicious food stops

Ancient oaks flash past the train windows. There are wide views across a medieval patchwork of farmland and rolling downs scattered with conical oast houses and tile-hung brick cottages. The railway line to Hastings runs straight through the High Weald, England’s fourth largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Unlike Cornwall or the Cotswolds, this pastoral landscape is sometimes overlooked. But it’s easy to reach by train and ideal walking country: picturesque timber-framed villages with cheerful pubs and cafes set among gentle wooded hills with a choice of footpaths.

E Sussex/Kent map

From Wadhurst station, the recently renamed 1066 bus takes me down into Wadhurst village. I pick up savoury olive-studded bread and mulled apple crumble cake from Delicatus and begin to make my way cross-country towards Bewl Water, the largest lake in south-east England. This reservoir on the border with Kent, storing water from the River Medway, sprawls into numerous tree-lined creeks. Thirteen miles of trails circle its straggling shores through waterside woods and meadows. I’m following them today as far as Downash Wood, an imaginative collection of secluded cabins and treehouses close to Bewl Water. Downash is a beautiful afternoon’s hike from Wadhurst or a few minutes’ stroll from the Tinkers Lane bus stop in neighbouring Ticehurst.

Bewl Water is set in lush Weald countryside.
Bewl Water is set in lush Weald countryside. Photograph: Nathaniel Taylor/Getty Images

Aromas of bonfires, leaf mould, fermenting crab apples and faded bracken waft along the paths as I walk. The sky is noisy with rooks and jackdaws, and squirrels, busy in the hazel branches, have left a litter of husks. Rosehips, hawthorn berries, holly and twining bryony have turned the hedges blood red. The bending orchards are bowed with fruit, and cottage gardens are full of hanging yellow gourds and branching fennel.

The Church of St Peter and St Paul, Wadhurst.
The church of St Peter and St Paul, Wadhurst. Photograph: Andrew Hasson/Alamy

I follow a sunken lane, a typical feature of the Wealden landscape, between mossy mazes of tree roots and ivy. After nine hilly miles, my rucksack feels heavy and my feet are getting sore. Arriving eventually at Daisy Chain Cabin, I find sharp-sweet apple juice from nearby Ringden Farm in the fridge and a huge, claw-footed bath outside on the veranda with plenty of hot water on tap. Immersing my aching shoulders, I watch the last sunlight percolating through oak leaves overhead and listen to the cooing wood pigeons. Somewhere in the trees nearby a thin, high-pitched call suggests a goldcrest, Britain’s smallest bird.

Almost magically revived next morning, I set off early through dew-spangled spiders’ webs and birdsong to complete the circuit of Bewl Water. I stop for coffee at the reservoir’s Waterfront cafe, near an 1,800-metre-long dam built in the 1970s.

Herons stand sentinel along the shoreline and a rabbit lollops over the path. Banks of wild mint and chamomile near the water are pungently evocative underfoot. A grebe surfaces just a few feet away and dives again. Nearby, bleached fishbones lie discarded on the mud – remnants of some cormorant’s dinner.

The path around Bewl Water is perfect for a long walk or cycle.
The path around Bewl Water is perfect for a long walk or cycle. Photograph: asmithers/Getty Images

Crossing a stile near Bewl Water woods, I walk the last mile over fields to Wadhurst, passing oast houses, vineyards and a field of hop poles to reach the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul. Unusually, there are more than 30 cast-iron tomb slabs inside the church, the largest collection in England. The Wealden iron industry, which flourished here in the 17th and 18th centuries, used ironstone from local clay beds and charcoal from the woods.

Daisy Chain Cabin.
Daisy Chain cabin. Photograph: Saltwick./Saltwick

It’s easy to spend a happy afternoon cafe-and-pub-crawling through Wadhurst and Ticehurst (a hurst was a hill or clearing in the Wealden woods). I start with curried root veg soup in Wadhurst’s Artful Grocers among piles of purple kohlrabi, and end with a half of Sussex Best in the The Bell in Ticehurst. This characterful pub, with its old beams and flowers in silver teapots, has shelves of eccentric ornaments, such as a stuffed squirrel with pipe and hat in a miniature rocking chair.

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“There are talking points everywhere,” says Daniel Courtney, the Bell’s general manager, who frames the quirky decor as part of the pub’s emphasis on storytelling, connecting and community. Standing near the hop-wreathed fireplace, he waxes lyrical about the area’s riches, from the walkable countryside to the variety of food producers. A half-mile path across sunset fields back to my cabin starts almost next door, through a narrow alley between The Old Haberdashery and a model railway shop.

Wadhurst’s Artful Grocers.
Wadhurst’s Artful Grocers. Photograph: Andrew Hasson/Alamy

I meet friends in nearby Stonegate the next day for a station-to-station hike. Last autumn, we used this railway to walk the 31-mile 1066 Country Walk from Pevensey to Rye, both with good transport connections from Hastings. The route, which takes in a beautiful stretch of the High Weald, is packed with memorable sights, from green-flashed teal on the sedgy levels to the deep indigo and turquoise stained glass of the church of St Thomas in Winchelsea. Spike Milligan is buried in the churchyard with “told you I was ill” inscribed in Gaelic on his grave. We stopped for a picnic in the undulating fields near six intricate wood carvings around yellow-leaved hawthorn saplings. This work, called Farbanks Henge, is one of 10 new sculptures unveiled for the 2021 relaunch of the 1066 Country Walk. East Sussex sculptor Keith Pettit, inspired by scenes from the Bayeux tapestry, also installed an image of Halley’s Comet near Herstmonceux Castle, and a crown in Battle Great Wood. Ten minutes’ walk from the railway station, Battle Abbey and the nearby battlefield are now offering 20% off to people who arrive by train, bus or bike.

Winchelsea’s St Thomas the Martyr church.
Winchelsea’s St Thomas the Martyr church. Photograph: Andrew Hasson/Alamy

Today, we reach Stonegate station via Robertsbridge, a medieval village with half-timbered and weatherboarded cottages lining the hilly high street. Bus 1066 winds past pubs and churches, village greens with lime trees and honesty stalls of homemade jam. Like most buses in England, the 1066 is charging no more than £2 for single tickets until December 2024. From Judges Bakery, opposite the bus stop and wreathed in crimson creeper, I pick up a vegan sausage roll and salad to eat later in the woods.

Batt’s Wood, a couple of miles from Stonegate station, has been transformed from storm-damaged conifer plantation into a wildlife-rich coppice. There are bluebells in spring and gold-leaved avenues of elegant autumn hornbeams. Some woodland animal has been truffling through the mossy grass beside the path. Stepping out of the trees, we take in the views across Wadhurst Park with its lake and meadows. The estate has a web of public and permissive paths and we follow them through the wooded hills to reach Wadhurst, with its regular trains and wealth of cafes, just in time for tea.

Accommodation was provided by Downash Wood (cabins from £295 for two nights). More information from highweald.org and visit1066country.com

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