60 miles or so with only scenery, ourselves and sheep for company… and we still like each other!?
The idea to take this multiday walking trip began in September, when my parents and I followed along the trail of the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain. We went from Finish to Start and I enjoyed checking in with walkers along the way; learning why they were doing it and how long they had been on the road. I sort of.. wanted to do it, and it got the wheels spinning…
Then I moved to England where there is a strong ‘walking culture’. No, no, not in London, but out in the countryside – people will start their days with tea, walk along a marked route through rolling hills and farmland, and sleep at an inn for the night. Was that dreamy picture the real one? How “marked” are these trails? Is there someone who would want to do something like this with me?
Tristan bought his ticket to London for my fall reading break and I was quick to bring up ‘a long walk’. He loved it. It was something he’s always thought about doing but didn’t know how feasible it could be. We researched and narrowed down our favorite walks, and after figuring out that we could be in the area of Lewes (the biggest Guy Fawkes festival location) for the 5th of November, we realized we had to take that route: The Old Way.
‘The Old Way [to Canterbury] Walk’ traditionally takes 3 weeks and covers 250 miles. It starts in Southampton and follows a route to Canterbury: England’s “most popular pilgrimage destination”. This route can be traced back to medieval times, with the trail found on Britain’s oldest road map, the Gough map (c. 1360). Pretty neat! We would be following many famous footsteps…Bronze and Iron Age people, Normans, Saxons, King Henry II, King Henry VIII, war heroes… it’s a perfect trail for two nerds like us.
The main concern we had was whether the markings on the trail would be clear. In 1538, around the time of the Reformation, pilgrimage was made illegal; the path of the Old Way was overgrown and forgotten… until the last year or so. The path has since been mapped with GPS points, but no markers are going up until 2020. We downloaded maps, printed off copies and Tristan brought a compass so we would be covered on all accounts. Thankfully, The Old Way follows multiple already established routes, so as long as we knew what the trail head markers looked like, we would be okay.
We would only be doing a portion of the route… about 60 miles. After monitoring the weather for a few weeks, it continued to look daunting and we packed rain pants, plenty of pairs of socks, gloves, hats- the whole nine yards. Sure, November, what could we expect? But it’s England, so we would probably pack the same if we were doing this in the middle of June.
There you have it: 4 days, 60ish miles, from Battle to Lewes in time for Guy Fawkes night.
Day 1: Battle to Catsfield
~ The day Tristan’s childhood fantasy becomes a reality ~
Train delays in London due to high winds and bad weather got our trip off to a concerning start. We took a slightly different train route and still arrived with plenty of time to see our main focus for the day: the site of the Battle of Hastings. To brush up, here in 1066, William, the Duke of Normandy, defeated King Harold II to become William I (a.k.a. William the Conqueror). King Harold II famously, and supposedly (as Tristan was sure to mention), died with an arrow to the eye. After the Battle was concluded, the Benedictine Abbey was founded as a memorial to those who had died in battle and as an atonement for the bloodshed; the high alter is even placed so that it marks the spot where Harold was killed.
So of course, Tristan did some reenacting and I took on the role of filmmaker- I truly have never seen someone get so excited about a field before.
The small town of Battle was gradually built around the Abbey, developing a reputation for high quality gunpowder and even supplying Guy Fawkes with his explosive material for the big night. Who knew! Even with the high winds and drizzling weather, shrubs were being piled up in the center of town in preparation to be burned in 3 days. Hopefully the weather held out over there and the town of Battle was able to light their bonfire!
Our walk to Catsfield was supposed to be 45 minutes and 2.2 miles. Pouring rain and too much faith in the signposts meant we were off the trial in no-time. When we later checked how far we ended up walking that day, it was 4 miles over 2 hours. It was fun at the very beginning and we didn’t mind the mud or cowpies, but after we took that wrong turn and ended up slogging along by the side of a road it was quite disappointing. Where were our idyllic countryside views? Why won’t cars care about pedestrians? Why won’t it stop raining!?
We arrived in Catsfield soggy and muddy and were overjoyed to shower and change into cozy clothing. With an electricity malfunction at hand we took advantage of the little bit of daylight left, quickly showered and headed downstairs to the pub part of the inn for a pint and the pub’s weekly ‘steak dinner night’. We reviewed our faults of the day, our plans for the next, and with plates of delicious food in front of us, we were soon back in high spirits.
Day 2: Catsfield to Jevington
~ The day we see some castles, eat some cake, and walk a whole awful lot ~
Electricity was back up by the time morning came around and the Innkeepers did everything in their power to make sure we had a lovely breakfast and an overall great time. They were so apologetic with the lack of evening lights that they took a huge discount off our stay and it hit home how great hospitality was in the countryside. These people don’t get a lot of business yet the money doesn’t matter to them. He asked us where we are going and when we told him Jevington and that we would be there by nightfall he was shocked with the number of miles we would do (21!) and nearly offered us a ride (“it’ll only take 20 minutes!”). What a fabulous night and breakfast, thank you Charlie!
Around the corner of the Inn was the next section of trail. We followed the little red signposts for the ‘1066 Country Walk’, learning from our mistakes the day before and checking the GPS quite regularly. Expansive fields, turn-styles, old growth forests and gray-coloured clay ground brought us to our first stop of the day: Herstmonceux Castle.
Herstmonceux Castle was built in 1441 and is one of the oldest brick buildings still standing in England (used as a foreign exchange centre now). It’s pretty, has a moat, but most importantly, a tea shop. The weather had been on our side all morning and seeing the blue sky reflected in the water before grabbing a bite to eat was a joy. The seated sugar-intake amped us up and we moved on from the Castle to the Pevensey Levels, where we would be walking for the next two hours or so.
The Pevensey Levels are listed as a special biological site but truly it’s where sheep and cows get to roam around without much interruption or human interaction. The weather continued to be gorgeous and we found ourselves shedding all waterproof layers early on. As we progressed further through the levels, we began to notice white chalk beneath our feet… were we getting closer to the cliffs? As we looked up to check, we noticed (in the distance for sure) the ruins of Pevensey Castle – woohoo! Time was going by much faster than expected…
And how did we fill the time? We laughed at silly cows, ate dried apples we’d made in Wisconsin this summer and talked about everything. Truly, everything. You have so much time on your hands and only one other person around so anything from future plans, to funny stories from when you were a kid, to what you would order at a restaurant if you had a bazillion dollars to spend… it all got covered. And yet we always found that we had more to talk about… and thank goodness too, this was only our second day!
We talked about considering a new plan once we reached the Castle. If we were to take an uber or taxi through the large town of Eastbourne it would cut out an hour and a half of our walking, plus it would be through the city which might not be too nice to walk through. Although it felt like we were cheating a bit on our full walking length it was smart for our legs (which were slowly increasing in soreness) and we decided it would be the move we’d make.
Pevensey Castle is a medieval castle and former Roman Saxon Shore fort. It was built around 290 AD and is thought to maybe have been a part of a Roman defensive system to guard the British coast against Saxon pirates. It fell into ruin at the end of the Roman occupation but was reoccupied, of course, by the Normans (in 1066 – what a year!). In WWII it was used again for control of the flat Pevensey land against German invasion. This place has seen a lot of action! We chatted with an English Heritage guide for a bit before snacking and touring the grounds: we had made it!
We finished seeing the Castle, sat on a bench and called for an uber. There were none. We stopped in a pub to ask for the local taxi phone number. A man offered his phone and we learned that they were not in operation. Alright… maybe a bus or train. The train station was closed and the bus system required tickets sold only at a train station. If those weren’t enough signs for us to simply keep walking, I don’t know what else we would’ve needed. We gave up our ‘shortcut search’ and worked our way across town.
We walked through winding neighborhoods, through partially flooded fields and across freeways (yes, the trail went across busy roads!) until we made it to the North side of Eastbourne, a place called Willingdon. Willingdon and Jevington are both said to be the real-life setting for George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and you could definitely see it: simple country living must have originated from here.
As we were crossing through town and nearing Willingdon, we continually kept an eye on the looming hillside in front of us, wondering if we were going to have to climb it. We realized at that point that there had been no topographical analysis prior to the trip and we were going to have to learn the hard way what our future held. At the base of ‘Butt’s Lane’ we looked up to a hill that could only be climbed by consistently walking at a 45 degree angle. The sun was setting and we knew that if we climbed up fast enough we had a chance of catching the last rays of light.
Slightly soggy boots, too many layers and legs that could do with a rest, we quickly climbed (one of us decided running was a smart move) up the hill. Breathing hard, we were rewarded at the end of a long, wonderful day with the most beautiful sunset. And even better, a bench to enjoy it on.
After the sun went over the horizon we walked the final little stretch to Jevington, realizing that our stomachs were starting to do some talking. Sunday night. Would the pub be open? Would it be serving food still? It was nearly 5 o’clock…
The trail into Jevington ended with a path through some trees and a staircase, leading us directly to the steps of the Eight Bells Pub. It was like we had seen the holy grail! We walked in, the bottoms of our pants covered in dried mud and asked if they were still serving food. “For 10 more minutes, yes.”
And that’s when we had the best Sunday Roast we could possibly have asked for, the kind where we were both so focused on eating that we were silent for the first time all day.
We hadn’t seen anyone on the trail… maybe it isn’t a common route or we’re doing it at an unusual time of year but when we told pub workers or innkeepers that we had walked there, they nodded their heads like it was old news. ‘Charlie from the White Hart in Catsfield’ even asked us to send our greetings to ‘The Young Male Bartender at the Eight Bells’ in Jevington as we were walking through. Which we happily did before turning in for baths and an excellent sleep.