The lure of sunny skies and green lanes on a bank holiday weekend at the end of May is almost irresistible. We decided to take what I like to refer to as ‘The Two Churches Walk’. The route takes us from the church at nearby village of Cocking, to its neighbour Heyshott, before climbing uphill and following the South Downs Way back west again and descending down into Cocking village to complete the journey.
Two Churches Walk
Cocking to Heyshott and along the South Downs Way
- Circular walk, 4.3miles/7km
- Includes one steep uphill climb. A shorter route is possible (3.5miles/5.6km) avoiding the hill.
- Parking may be available in roadside lay-bys in Cocking village (please be respectful of and considerate to local residents) or the walk also starts and finishes on the route of the No.60 Stagecoach Bus, which runs between Chichester & Midhurst. Timetable available here: Rte 60 010816-web
- Refreshments available at either the Blue Bell Inn pub (Cocking), or Cocking Village Shop. There is also a pub in Heyshott, The Unicorn, although this requires a diversion from the main route.
Cocking is a small West Sussex village found at the point where the steep northern slope of the Downs begins to flatten out into fertile farmland. Here, water that has taken the long route downhill, percolating slowly through the porous chalk rock, emerges crystal clear and sparkles along shallow gravel bottomed stream beds. This watercourse, and the many others like it in the area, is an example of a rare and wonderful chalk stream. The water that fell as rain on the exposed hilltops is filtered as it journeys through the rock, so the stream is particularly clean. Reliant on the high-land’s rains, the stream here at Cocking is also fickle and impermanent, sometimes appearing to disappear entirely on hot dry summers as the water table drops and the stream retreats below ground, earning it the term ‘winterbourne’; West Sussex has many winterbournes around this location.
The village itself is unusual in that it has retained its local pub, corner shop, children’s play park, village hall, and even an independent motor vehicle garage serving the surrounding community. Until the ‘Beeching closures’ of the early 1950’s a railway line passed through the edge of the village, (the station platform and the former bridges built of locally made bricks can still be discovered, but that’s another walk) and the main road that passes through the centre of the village is the principal route north-south, to and from nearby larger towns such as Midhurst and the population centres of the coast, namely the cathedral city of Chichester. In very close proximity to Cocking are also the famous Goodwood racecourse and motor circuits, a major venue for both horse and motor racing events each season, and the national walking trail, the South Downs Way, which we will touch on later. Each of these factors, from the transport links to the tourism temptations may have aided the village’s survival, but nonetheless, a small village of such quality is something to be celebrated in the modern era.
(If you are interested in the history of the village, I have heard that a book “A Short History of Cocking” published in 2005 by the Cocking History Group can be purchased at the village shop and Post Office.)
To start the walk, we followed the signs to Cocking Church. This 11th century place of worship has only relatively recently received a formal dedication. In 2007 villagers decided to dedicate the church to St Catherine of Siena, whose name is engraved on one of the church bells. The quiet church yard is a haven of wildflowers, and leads us out beside the war memorial to cross ‘Costers Brook’, the chalk stream, via Sunwool Lane. This area is apparently known locally as ‘Bumbles Kite’ although I haven’t been able to discern the origin of this name. The chalk filtered waters here historically fed watercress farms.
Our route between Cocking and Heyshott winds along quite back lanes, with high hedges, occasional over hanging trees, and lovely views of the South Downs. The hills accompany us on our right, and it is worth pausing whenever a gateway suggests a place to stand, to take in their forms and shadows, textures and shades. On those sections of the lane when the hedgerow and banks impede the view of the hills, it is an opportunity to appreciate the variety and excellence of the local flora. Butterflies and other insects bask on sunny blooms during the summer months, and the twisted branches of the oak trees that protrude from the hedge-tops, provide the perfect song perch of the chaffinch. If lucky, the walker might be treated to the ‘little-bit-of-bread-but-no- cheeeeese’ song of the yellowhammer, but these, as with many farmland songbirds, are becoming increasingly rare. Brown hare, and deer, can sometimes be spied at the edges of the fields. Buzzards soar on thermals over the fields and hill-slopes, sometimes joined by Red Kites. Both these birds of prey were driven to the point of near extinction in the past, but have made an impressive recovery in the past couple of decades, more recently so in the case of the kite which I first saw in the South Downs area in 2006.
Like Cocking, Heyshott is a beautiful picturesque village, and it too has retained a church and thriving pub. Although it has lost its shop and other amenities the community is strong, as demonstrated by the growing success of the traditional Heyshott bonfire and firework display held each autumn. As we walked into the village you will notice that here, as with Cocking, many of the houses are in keeping with the traditional style of the locality, their walls being faced primarily with flint. This skill is becoming rare within the construction trade, as the pressure of housing demands calls for quick and easy builds in uniform brick designs. A fine example of this flint-facing is the village church, dedicated to St James the Great.
Notable former residents of Heyshott include Richard Cobden a British politician known for his fight for the 1846 repeal of the corn laws and advocate of free trade.
We entered the village via Leggs Lane, past Leggs Farm and The Cobden Club Hall. The church sits behind a flint wall across the road from the end of the lane. Large yew trees frame the view. There are many theories about the frequency of yew trees occurring inside churchyards. One is that yew wood was essential for bow making, and as it was poisonous to livestock, it was allowed to grow inside the churchyard where animals were excluded. Other more likely theories are that the trees often outdate the churches themselves, and show how these focuses of worship have evolved on the same site since pre-Christian times when the yew was considered a symbolic spiritual being.
We took a moment to wander around the churchyard and look at some of the graves. It is impossible to walk these inter-village lanes and downland tracks and not think of the rural folk, livestock drovers and journeying tradesmen, young soldiers, cattle boys and maids, that have passed that way in all the centuries past.
Continuing on our walk we backtracked past the Cobden Club Hall and turned left, following the signs for the New Lipchis Way. Leaving Heyshott village, our walk joined the West Sussex Literary Trail for a while. This recently developed walking route in its entirety, stretches from Horsham to Chichester, winding through 55 miles of West Sussex countryside. It celebrates the many writers and literary figures that were drawn to the county or called it home, from Hillaire Belloc to Shelley. (More details on the trail, its background, and to order a guide book, visit: http://www.westsussexliterarytrail.co.uk/)
We walked along the field edge until a signpost directed us straight across the field along a narrow path through the crop. As we emerged from the arable area, we were guided up the bank and through the hedge onto a track. The route turned left here then almost immediately right. We were now facing an uphill climb. At first the gradient was gradual, a steady pull through waving grasses and verdant hedgerows, until we reached the boundary of Heyshott Chalk Downland Nature Reserve, managed by the Murray Downland Trust. This protected area is a living time capsule of pristine chalk downland including Bronze Age earthworks and teeming with rare flowers and butterflies. It was very tempting to stay a while and explore. Today however we decided to press on, and tackle the steep ascent that follows the edge of the reserve, up through yew woodland. To the right of the path, the dark and tangled yew trees clung precariously to the thin chalk soils as the hillside fell away into the valley.
Emerging at the top of the hill, into pastureland was quite a relief after the sharpness of the hill.
The field we found ourselves entering was populated by sheep that gazed warily at us as they lay around chewing the cud in the hazy sunshine of early afternoon. It is lovely to see sheep on the South Downs, although the older breeds have mostly been replaced by commercial flocks, it is good to see a continuation of the grazing and farming that made the Downs the way they are today. Wool and sheep were historically one of the most important products of the area, the activity of which had a large part to play in the shaping of the hills themselves and the creation of the open, wildflower rich chalk grassland of the hilltops that is so iconic.
A short walk across the field and we were through a gateway onto the main South Downs Way. The South Downs Way National Trail runs for 100miles, east-west from Eastbourne to Winchester and is mostly accessible by walking, riding, or cycling along the whole route. We turned right, heading west. The banks of the track were filled with wildflowers, including bladder campion, crosswort and wild roses. Two fallow deer were spied grazing just a short way from the edge of the woodland on the far side of the fields. The wide and firm track took us gently downhill towards the farm buildings that clustered near the point where the South Downs Way crosses the main road.
Before the road, as soon as we were amongst the buildings we turned right to take the final leg of the walk. The farm here is the location for a timber yard and a farm shop. Richline Farm Shop sells a variety of fresh and frozen local meat from the farm along with a small selection of jams, chutneys and other local products.
The last stage of the walk was a downhill route past the chalk quarries and emerging back at the war memorial and the stream. Sometimes in Summer, small blue butterflies can be seen taking minerals from the damp chalk rocks, but I think we were too early in the year and the weather too cool for these tiny and delicate insects to be active today.
Rather than go back through the churchyard, we stuck to the lane itself and walked up to the village shop. This tiny shop, which is in an old toll house, is the prefect place to pick up an ice-cream to finish off a lovely walk, or essential supplies to take home.
If you would like to follow this walk and discover the villages and landscape the Cocking, Heyshott and The South Downs for yourself, you can download the full directions with accompanying images to guide you on your adventures here: Two Churches Walk – Directions
Map also available at Plotaroute.com https://www.plotaroute.com/route/381125
Disclaimer: The directions and map provided is a guide only. Please take care when walking on roads and be aware of traffic and other users. The author of this blog holds no responsibility for any changes to the route including but not restricted to closures or blockages, nor any accident or injury to any persons following the directions provided. Please follow the Countryside Code when out walking, and show respect for the land, wildlife, livestock, and other people. Please take your litter home.