High Weald Hike: Slaugham & Staplefield

Kept it nice and easy and very local for the first hike of 2021, venturing just a 15-min drive from Horsham to the High Weald. I parked in Staplefield (more about the village and its famous residents later), just by the cricket pitch, which proved to be a good starting/finishing point for the 13½ km circular walk.

I headed to the neighbouring village of Slaugham, a route which passed under the A23 (through two quite impressive limestone (?) tunnels supporting the carriageway above).

Before arriving into the village itself is the area of woodland known as ‘Church Covert’ (named for the Covert family that owned nearby Slaugham Place from 1495 until 1735). It’s managed by the Woodland Trust, and, from here, one can view the ruins of Slaugham Place. The remains aren’t gettable-to as they’re in an enclosed area, seemingly managed by the owners of The Moat House and flogged as a wedding venue for handsome sums of money.

From here, one can access St. Mary’s Church and marvel at the magnificent yew tree that dominates the graveyard (shown in the header photo), purported to be 1,000 years old – and see the grave of Catherine Matcham, sister of Admiral Lord Nelson. Catherine married George Matcham in 1787 and lived in nearby Ashfold.

My route went north from the church and, quite by chance, past the restaurant, ‘Heritage‘. This is the latest venture of former head chef at The Pass at South Lodge and Great British menu winner, Matt Gillan. I had a fabulous birthday dinner at The Pass a few years back, when it was under Matt’s command, and, on the strength of that meal, I would be very tempted to give Heritage a go… when eating out is ‘a thing’ again, that is! But I digress…

Don’t be deterred by the electric gates at the top of the hill – they do open eventually! The public footpath follows the path of the Sussex Ouse Valley Way through Slaugham Park and takes you all the way to Handcross. From here it is a short distance to the Nyman’s estate (managed by the NT). I deviated a bit here and wandered around the woods at Nyman’s and made a lunch stop on a log by the lower pond, fighting off numerous hounds that were after my cocktail sausages.

‘Old House’ at Nyman’s was the country retreat of Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret. There’s a photo of the pair (before their marriage in 1961) in the Slaugham Archives attending a church service at Staplefield.

The next part of the hike took me up onto the High Weald, with splendid views of the South Downs and past a few interesting manor houses. Ditton Place was built in 1904, replacing an older manor house, home to author and playwright, Charles Reade. It was used as a single residence until WW2, when it was commandeered by the Canadian military to use as a base. It then became a school and has now been converted to private apartments.

Crossing Brantridge Lane takes you through a fabulous pine forest. It was here I came upon ‘Yellow Brain’ (right). No, it’s not a remnant from an alien autopsy, nor something that fell out of my ear, but a yellow, jelly-like fungus, Tremella mesenterica. It’s also known as ‘Witches Butter’ as, according to myth, if it appears on your gate or door, it signifies that a witch has cast a spell upon your home. The only way to break the hex is to pierce the fungus repeatedly with a straight pin until it dies. In Sweden, the fungus is burnt to ward off evil spirits. Meanwhile, in China, it’s added to soups to give texture. Vive la différence, eh?

After crossing an open meadow and a little slip-slide along a lovely, muddy track skirting Seyron Wood, one descends the hill through a farm and on towards Staplefield. There are two houses of note on the way: White House and Old Hall. The White House (no, not that one!) is a late 16th century manor house, and, from a little detective work, this beautiful house belonged to Ole Peder Bertelsen, the Danish entrepreneur credited with bringing the Ralph Lauren brand to England. There is a lovely pond at the foot of the hill, home to mallards and herons, before a fairly steep climb up a chillingly eerie, hollowed track, Whitethroat Lane. There is a presence here, however, I can find no reference to any historical evil doings. This lane emerges onto Brantridge Lane, on the corner of which, one finds the impressive estate of Old Hall. The house, a mock Tudor castle built in 1842, is concealed behind a maze of immaculately clipped hedges the height of a giraffe. However, from the road, one can see a statue and a huge conservatory purportedly built to house the current owners collection of tropical plants. This is the country pile of Maurice Saatchi: Baron, Lord, advertising impresario, Tory peer. The lake in the grounds is named Lake Hart, doubtless in tribute to his late wife, the novelist, Josephine Hart.

The lane continues for about a kilometre, past St Mark’s Church and arrives in Staplefield, back at the starting point of the walk.