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Thursday, 17 September 2009

Kingley Vale

Kingley Vale, north of Chichester, has been one of my favourite places since I moved to Brighton. I have spent the night up there several times, one summer solstice keeping vigil with the movements of the moon and stars. Recently I went for the first time in a couple of years.

I took the train to Chichester, which has shockingly increased to £10 each way. There is a bus, but it takes several hours. I arrived mid afternoon and walked up the Centurion Way cycle track from the centre of Chichester. The beginning of the track is slightly difficult to find and would benefit from some more signage, but once on it I was safely away from traffic and supplied with plentiful juicy blackberries. I had a pleasant conversation with a local chap on his walk home from work. From the top of the cycle track I took a slightly different route from usual, taking the bridleway along the east edge of the beginning of the Kingley Vale environs, rather than walking along the road to the car park at West Stoke. There is little to choose between the two routes and the entire area smelt strongly of anaerobically fermenting slurry.

Crossing the boundary into the Kingley Vale nature reserve, there seemed to be a subtle but palpable change in the air quality and the nature of the landscape. I felt a sense of relief, nourished by the healthy greenery, and remembered just how beautiful this little enclave is. The sun was descending as I made my way through the woodland paths into the start of the ancient yew tree grove. I had a quick break for one of my home-made energy bars before the difficult climb through the woods to the hilltop at Devil's Humps.

The Devil seems to have been particularly active in Sussex, leaving humps, jumps and dykes all over the landscape. The Humps are a set of three tumuli on the high South Downs at Kingley Vale, disappointingly not laid out on the pattern of Orion's belt. They are fairly large and collapsed at the top, presumably where they have been raided at some point in the past. I am informed that round barrows like these are Bronze Age in origin, while long barrows, also appearing at Kingly Vale, are Neolithic. That's about the limit of my historical knowledge on the matter. The view from the top of the tumuli extends spectacularly in three directions, over Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight to the South, and across to the North Downs in the North. The woods behind the tumulus in the above photo are where I rough camped that night among the ancient yew trees.

I went to bed early but got up later to look at the stars, reading my star chart by the light of my mobile phone as my head torch had failed. I took my camping mat and lay on my back in the dip at the top of a tumulus. I am beginning to try and learn my way around the constellations. The stars in almost half the sky were not visible due to the light of the moon, so I could not find Ursa Major, which was the starting point for the first beginners' star chart in my book. I recognised Orion, and a very bright object I guessed was Venus. Even without knowing the constellations, it was fascinating to look at the celestial objects. I probably spent about an hour there.

I got up early, after a night of the strange deep dreams I often experience in the yew forest. I had planned to walk down to the coast but vacillated about my route when I realised the one I had chosen was too long for me to enjoyably walk with a full pack. I spent a slightly frustrating day walking through second-rate scenery, frequently changing my mind about where I was going. I soon realised that Kingley Vale was by far the prettiest place in the area and I wouldn't find anywhere better. My mood was improved by frequent foraged meals of plums, blackberries and yew berries (yes, just spit out the seeds). Finally I headed towards the coast, attracted by a National Trust area marked on the map at Bosham Quay. The tidal areas were quite interesting, including a great crop of marsh samphire which I joyfully sampled. However the coastal track to Bosham Quay was closed by the tide. I decided to head back to Chichester via the Roman palace at Fishbourne, which I did not actually visit as it turned out you have to pay to see it. Next time I think I'll just spend the day at Kingley Vale.

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