A 100-mile pub crawl
PUBLISHED: 12:51 08 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:09 20 February 2013
To celebrate the official opening of the new National Park, Aaron Millar set out on a pub crawl across the South Downs
The South Downs is our youngest National Park and its new Authority takes up its powers on April 1. In celebration of this fact I decided to embark upon a 100-mile pub-crawl along the length of the South Downs Way the national trail that spans the breadth of the park from Eastbourne to Winchester.
Each night Id be staying in the best pubs on the trail and stopping off at a few good ones en route too. And crawling 100-miles was worth every inch of the effort because, as I was to find out, the Sussex of the South Downs is overflowing with rich history, gentle landscapes and warm welcoming people. Not to mention a good pint or two.
The trail begins at the western edge of Eastbourne seafront and immediately gives no quarter; rising sharply over 500 feet to the summit of Beachy Head, the highest chalk cliff in Britain. From here the land stretches out west across the steep rolling pastures and jagged white buttresses of the Seven Sisters Country Park. The walking is challenging, and the wind can be fierce, but its also never more dramatic, following the cliff edge steeply up and down seven times one for each sister before finally descending to the relative calm of Cuckmere Haven and Friston Forest below.
Toad in the hole
Along the way I stopped for a drink at the Plough & Harrow in Littlington, a 17th Century ale-house where locals like Dennis Morren drink their real ale from their own pewters hanging on the back wall. An hour up the other side of the valley, in Alfriston, and I was warming my windswept hands beside the large stone fireplace at The George Inn, imagining the many travellers that have followed this route, and done just that, since the pub first received its licence over 600 years ago.
Belly full, and beer giddy, I followed the trail another couple hours up towards Firle Beacon once used as part of a lighting system to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada and then dropped down to my home for the night, the Ram Inn, in the village of Firle itself. There I got talking to a group of young lads playing a curious game in the corner. Its called Toad in the Hole, Richard, captain of pub team The Ram Yobs, explained to me pointing to a slanted leaden table with a thin coin slot on top. You get two points if the coin goes into the hole; one if it lands on top. You work your way down from 31, finishing on zero. Its a real old Sussex game. As it turned out they were playing a match that night so I stayed to cheer them on. Later a local fiddle group started an impromptu jam in the next room and the whole pub spontaneously erupted in the kind of enthusiastic foot stomping only Irish music can truly provoke. Tomorrow will bring with it a sore head, I thought to myself stumbling to bed, but one well earned at least.
Climbing back on the Way the next day, the sun pushed the cloud low into the valley and afforded me 360-degree views across the county. I crossed the river Ouse, peered my head into the Southease Church to see her wall etchings beautifully restored and still visible 800 years after they were first painted and then stopped at the Abercavenny Arms in Rodmell, to have a pint and throw a coin into the 10m deep well inside the pub itself, making a wish for good travelling adventures to come.
Nearby is Monks House one time local writer Virginia Woolfs country home. This part of Sussex is still rightly proud of its literary heritage and nowhere more so than around the corner in Charleston House a well known retreat for the writers and artists of the Bloomsbury group whose cultural and intellectual activity in the early part of the past century was infused with inspiration from this part of the South Downs.
After lunch I sweated north towards the heights of Ditchling Beacon. But, just as I was near the top, my ankle gave way. Or at least the bruise that my boots had been gnawing at the last two days finally refused to go any further. I was in the midst of calculating how long five miles would take me at the rate of 0.2 miles per hour and if I could achieve that in the half hour of daylight I had left when I realised the only thing for it was I needed to remove my boot.
Now, should you ever happen to find yourself walking with only one boot on in the middle of the night, the one thing you definitely dont want to read when you open the guidebook is the path climbs gently through a field of stingy nettles and large piles of cow dung. Nevertheless, this is precisely where I next found myself. Thankfully stiff upper lip is a phrase we Sussex folk adhere to well and so with a few groans but ultimately a loud laugh at my own ridiculousness I sloshed the last five miles one-booted, wiggling my toes between steps to keep them warm.
Bass and mackerel
By the time I got to the Jack & Jill my pub stop for the night I was starving and Id come to the right place because owner Rob is a keen fisherman. The trout he serves up are the ones he catches in the nearby rivers, or if youre lucky he might have just got back from one of his jaunts out on a sea kayak searching for bass and mackerel.
After dinner and a few drinks at the bar with local Jez and barmaid Belle I went to my bed and fell asleep instantly, dreaming of wide-open Sussex views and the miles of adventure to come. And, if Im honest, I dreamed of appropriately fitting footwear and warm right toes.