Monday, 21 April 2014

Black Cap Ho!

A post modelled loosely on the lines of Charles Kingley's Westward Ho! By Jingo, here's the very chappie, as I saw him last, turned to stone in Bideford:

Wikipedia has an article on him, with links to his famous novels Westward Ho! (1855) and The Water Babies (1863). See Kingsley, incidentally, lived in an era when it could justly be said that 'Britain is a Christian Nation'. The Prime Minister's very recent remarks to the same effect (presently hot news, as hot as a veritable Hot Cross Bun) would appear to be 150 years out of date.

But if you thought I was going to be all West Country and Maritime North Devon - or indeed moralising in the High Victorian Manner - then be not afeared, m'dears! For this is a tale of a Healthy Walk on the Sussex South Downs the other day; and all that it has in common with the plot of Westward Ho! is that it's a there-and-back story. In which I get to play the part of shepherdess, as you will see.

It was late afternoon, and having been spending far too much time indoors, and it being a glorious afternoon, I decided to take Fiona up to Ditchling Beacon (observing speed limits while doing so), don the Alt-Berg boots, and set forth eastward for a return tramp of five miles or so, with the high-point called Black Cap as my target.

In the bag (my favourite orange Florence bag, not my black rucksack) was Demelza, with the Memory-Map app running, and GPS turned on, so that my precise position would be shown in the map on the screen, inside a small red circle. And the stages of my walk would be shown as red track lines on the map. And there would be a pull-down list of relevant statistics, such as how far I'd walked, my average speed, and my present altitude. All jolly interesting stuff.

I didn't need GPS to find my way, but it would be nice to see how well Memory-Map performed out in the open on the powerful Demelza. I'd often got only crashes on her predecessor, Eloise. Now I anticipated a solid result, with no problems. And that's exactly what I got.

So, bagged up and booted, I left Fiona to do whatever she gets up to while I'm away from her...

...and set forth in brilliant sunshine. It wasn't hot though: there was a cool breeze. But after a couple of miles, I did have to peel off the cosy jacket, and then carry it. The views were good all round. It was an exhilarating late afternoon, and I was glad I was making the effort.

Outside the South-East, I don't suppose many are that familiar with the South Downs National Park. It's not like the Lake District or the Peak District. It's basically a very long line of undulating uplands, pierced at intervals by the rivers Meon, Arun, Adur and Ouse; with a gently-sloping southern side, and a steep northern edge. On the map its shape resembles a tall, thin, crooked church spire that has flopped sideways. The Park begins near Winchester in Hampshire, where it's geographically broadest, and then it spreads itself (as a strip of mostly open high ridge country) across West Sussex, and then East Sussex, ending in the abrupt cliffs of Beachy Head near Eastbourne.

It's undemanding walking: there are no desperately steep bits along the South Downs Way, the long-distance footpath and bridleway that is the backbone of the Park. There are indeed no especially wild parts, lush green turf grazed by sheep being the typical scene inside Sussex, and sweeping farmland in Hampshire. And yet, as with any exposed upland area, one would be unwise to underestimate the risks of hypothermia or dehydration in winter or summer. It's not at all dangerous, but you could suffer at least a degree of discomfort if you set forth improperly attired, and without at least a water bottle. However, I'd say the most serious hazard is the chance of being run down by a swift mountain bike rider on a narrow stretch of the path.

Naturally, the views north and south are very fine. It's always worth taking a camera - or binoculars. There's a lot of nature to be seen.

And it's all on my doorstep. Lucky me!

Well, I started my walk well. The Alt-Bergs were a dream. From Ditchling to the track up to Streathill Farm - the first half of my trek to Black Cap - the South Downs Way is a broad grassy greensward, with a northward view like this:

We're looking at Westmeston in the lowland below. I took that shot with Demelza's camera, and it repays zooming into to examine how well a top-end 2014 phone can deal with a far-off landscape. She had 16 megapixels to throw at the scene, but the lens is tiny. The exposure is actually spot on, and there's a lot of detail, but the foliage of the trees has been smeared by the camera's software. That's why I still prefer using my little 10 megapixel Leica: no such smearing. There are other reasons too: the Leica is made of metal, and having a handgrip and a wrist-lanyard is not going to slip out of my hand. It has a proper shutter release button. The Leica's pictures that have better depth and tonality, and it's easy getting photos off the camera in bulk. But I'd be perfectly happy to use Demelza's camera as backup holiday shooter if the little Leica ever died on me. (All the other pictures in this post were taken with the Leica)

I passed one of the South Downs' many 'dew ponds', tucked away off the main track.

There are no rivers up on the chalk Downs; any surface water just drains into the ground until it hits the underlying water table. So over many centuries farmers have created hollows, lined them with clay (or concrete in modern times) and let them fill (with rainfall, rather than dew). Some of these ponds might be really ancient. Maybe this one.

Eastwards from Streathill Farm the track is confined for a while between fences, with grazing or crop fields on either side. There were sheep to my left as I stepped along this part of the track.

Then I noticed an escaped sheep in front of me, not in the field but on the track, darting about in a distressed way. She had obviously discovered a way out of her field and had seized her chance, tasted freedom, but then couldn't find the way back. And here was a human, coming ever closer to her. And yet she clearly wanted assistance, and so did not scurry too far ahead. She would come a bit towards me, as if I could help. I would make encouraging noises. Then she'd panic, and we'd go through a cycle of running away, turning round, and panicking again.

Clearly something had to be done. I went seamlessly into Shepherdess Mode. Cape and all. My super powers told me that if I could get ahead of her, I'd be able to herd her towards a kissing gate that was approaching, and thence back into the correct field. A chance came. She turned for a moment down a track that led off the Downs. I stayed on the main track, but cut across so that as she came back up from her detour I was able to get in behind her, and then begin to move her back towards that gate. It was easy-peasy. She scampered through the gate, no doubt with huge relief, and trotted calmly out into the field. Job done.

I wasn't too far from Black Cap, and in fact was soon there.

The 'cap' is a rise with a mature wood planted in 1953 on top of it, as seen behind my right ear in the shot above. Here is a closer shot of that wood, and the view further east towards Lewes, with Firle Beacon on the horizon:

Black Cap is the kind of spot that people make for, rest a while at, then return whence they came. I had a brief and pleasant chat with a nice middle-aged man on a mountain bike, who had come up from Lewes the hard way, and was now going to freewheel all the way back. He was very interested in what I could tell him about our altitude, from looking at Memory-Map on Demelza. He's the pink figure in the lower centre of the bottom photo above.

This part of the South Downs is in the care of the National Trust, who describe the place in these terms:

Blackcap, in East Sussex, occupies 623 acres along the ridge of the South Downs, just west of the historic old town of Lewes. This stunning hilltop area offers fine views over The Weald to the north and across the dip-slope to the coast. In summer take scented walks across the wild flowering majoram which grows in abundance over the hillside. You'll find nearby Ashcombe bottom a short walk south of Blackcap. Known locally as Bracky Bottom, because of the bracken growing in the coombe, you can enjoy an evening walk with the scent of honeysuckle and maybe a sighting of the white admiral butterfly. There are bottoms all over the Downs, and this is truly one of the finest.

Fine bottoms to be seen all over the South Downs? What can one say?

I saw a stone in the wood, with a plaque on one side of it.

Replanted in 1953
to commemorate
the coronation of
Her Majesty
Queen Elizabeth II

I wondered whether the stone itself might be ancient, and sure enough on the other side of it was a Runic inscription, which I copied as best I could with the drawing app on Demelza. Enhanced at home to make their shapes clear, these were the letters:

Hmmm, runes of the Anglo-Saxon sort, I dare say. But what could they mean? A magical incantation? A message that this is Olaf's boundary marker? Who knows.

It was time to turn back. The sun was getting lower, and I suddenly felt desperately peckish. It was a two and a half mile tamp. But with the Alt-Bergs on, a piece of cake (not that I had any in my bag: a silly omission).

The landscape began to take on that golden look as the light changed. Any keen photographer will tell you that the best times to shoot anything are shortly after sunrise, and shortly before sunset. The quality of the light is wonderful. This was the view looking south towards Brighton and the sea, the shadows lengthening:

Back at Fiona, who was waiting for me, I studied Demelza's map display:

Altogether I had walked 5.07 miles (with several stops, and a spot of shepherdessing). It had taken me 2 hours and 11 minutes. My average speed had been 2.33 mph. My fastest speed had been 2.57 mph - not impressive, but hey, it was a walk for admiring the scenery, taking photos, assisting errant sheep, and chatting to people a bit!

I reckon the exercise did me a lot of good. There'll be more of it.


  1. Runes, eh? Well, I have to look that up!
    ...ooh, that's going to leave a mark.

  2. Beautiful countryside. I look forward to seeing it myself later this year.

  3. There's a name for people who play around with sheep out in the countryside........LOL

    Shirley Anne x

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. My comment was posted twice. I don't know why so I just deleted one of them

    Shirley Anne


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