Harting Down, Kingley Vale & The Old Admiralty Semaphore Line

Fresh from some fantastic hikes of epic distances in the Peak District, I was compelled to push myself even further distance-wise, and devised an ambitious 26km (that’s a shade over 16 miles in old money) perambulation on the South Downs just north of Chichester. A route that would take in woodland, wildlife, and afford me the opportunity to continue my research of the old Admiralty semaphore line (see the post on my visit earlier this year to the telegraph tower at Chatley Heath).

The starting point for my walk was the car park on the B2141. This area is managed by the NT, so parking is free for members, or, if you’re a non-member, like me, it’s only 2 quid for the whole day (you need the RingGo app thingy to pay).

The first section of my route followed the path of the South Downs Way, dodging the grazing sheep and traversing the open grassland of Harting Hill. The views across to the Hog’s Back and the North Downs are fantastic. It’s been gentle going so far, but it’s about to get real. To reach the summit of Beacon Hill you are faced with a heinous 1-in-2 ascent, however, once you arrive at the top, the views are even more breath-taking, looking south and out to sea. This is the site of a Bronze Age hillfort, and later one of the Admiralty telegraph stations, although all that remains of the latter are the footings of the old building. The trig point has a really useful direction finder on it (see below), highlighting nearby towns, villages and points of interest, one of which is the next signal station on the semaphore line, the Telegraph House at Marden. The house, now a private dwelling, is just beyond the point where I deviated off the South Downs Way, and sadly, was concealed behind high hedges and – like Chatley Heath – some unsightly scaffold.

Heading south, I skirted woodland and followed dusty tracks for about 3km. I met this Red Admiral having a sunbathe… Latin name is Vanessa atalanta, which I think I’m going to purloin for use in a future murder mystery with which to moniker a character of ill repute. These striking flutterby’s are migratory, arriving from warmer climes in May/June and then toddling back to the winter sun at the end of the summer. Only the hardiest of the population are able to survive the cold British winter. The females lay eggs on stinging nettles, which the caterpillars then love to eat. The more discerning adults tend to go for buddleia nectar. This one was chilling on a very deserted track leading to Bow Hill Farm (a caravan club site). The route here continues with quite a few inclines, so I took a leaf out of Vanessa Atalanta’s book and stopped for a brief rest and a swig of water, as I knew from the map I still had the steepest ascent of the day to come!

The hike up to Bow Hill was another tomato-face-inducing climb. The trig point was situated in an unimpressive clearing surrounded by the unmistakable odour of a walkers’ emergency toilet. Once you emerge from the woodland, however, your efforts are rewarded with a wonderful vista. This would be my lunch stop, on a bench under a tree with a view of Chichester, the harbour and beyond, the Isle of Wight.

This is Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve. A place is full of ancient history, myth and mystery. The ‘Devil’s Humps’ are Bronze Age burial mounds called ‘barrows’. Also known as the ‘King’s Graves’, they are said to be the burial site of Viking lords defeated by local men in the 9th Century. According to legend, the yew trees in the nearby Yew Tree Grove were planted to mark the graves of the Viking warriors and their ghosts haunt the Vale at night. The yew trees are over 500 years old and are some of the oldest living things in Britain. Another legend says that the ghosts are those of Druids, and that, somewhere in the forest, there is a solitary, sacrificial oak tree. Whilst another legend warns that at night, the yew trees themselves come alive. There’s much more exploration to be done here, so I’ll be making a return visit (and parking closer!).

In golfing parlance, this point marked ‘the turn’. Time to head back north in the direction of the village of Stoughton, passing a meadow that was once Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten’s polo field, and, rather more poignant, a WW2 memorial to Polish Pilot Officer Boleslaw Własnowolski. He died on 1st November, 1940, aged just 23, when, serving for the RAF out of Tangmere, his Hurricane V7221 crashed in the adjacent field following aerial combat with a German Messerschmidt 109. “He died defending Britain, Poland and freedom”.

I felt his presence on that day. He walked with me up the lane before heading back to patrol his resting place. He told me ‘to live’.

From Stoughton, I briefly followed a section of the hiking trail, the Monarch’s Way, before deviating again, towards Compton. Compton is the site of another Telegraph House in the semaphore line, and thus, there’s another steep climb. This signal station is much more visible, and therefore, a satisfying detour! From here on in, the going is flat and at sufficient altitude to see Uppark, the 17th century manor house where, it is said, HG Wells gained inspiration to write The War of the Worlds after finding a telescope in the attic. There’s another barrow, or burial mound, known as Bevis’s or Solomon’s Thumb, and, at 60m length, is one of the longest barrows in the south east.

The route concludes by crossing the B2142 and returning to Harting Down via Kill Devil Copse and a last mini-ascent back up to the car park.