The old village of Alfriston sits on the river Cuckmere and tries in vain to soak up the throttling stream of tourists within its narrow, high street. The South Downs Way also passes through and rises from the valley just to the south in the village of Litlington, where it heads up the down and over to the great forest of Friston. Looking back, the views are of flint grey houses and churches half-hidden within a Wealden sea of ash and oak. The views on the up are distant and golden, industrial and uniform. Downland has always possessed a restful monotony of line.
The South Downs Way twists on up through the forest but another path heads east along the base of a dry valley beneath great ash trees and rough grasslands grazed by black-faced Suffolk sheep and in the distance a feisty herd of brown cows.
The footpath heads in to the forest and then north through wide rides full of black knapweed Centaurea nigra and wild parsnip Pastinaca sativa where butterflies abound. The path exits the forest along tracks of flint and chalk dust; it provides brief views of the heath beyond a dense but uneven wall of whitebeam Sorbus aria, dogwood Cornus sanguinea, gorse Ulex europaeus and other shrubs. Many now dressed in the dead greens of early autumn and covered in rich red and black fruits.
Further up and Lullington Heath spreads over the hills; a neat rectangle of rare chalk heath and managed wilderness. A National Nature Reserve and well-hidden gem. All paths seem lead to Winchester’s Pond, a dew pond built to provide water for sheep and where, on heavy-footed approach, a grass snake Natrix natrix rushes into the water from the edge.
The walk down gives a view of the abandoned grasslands beneath Windover Hill. The scrub battles successfully to take hold but is beaten back by grazing sheep and physical clearance. In W. H. Hudson’s day, the downs would have been an endless smooth and springy turf grazed by shepherded sheep flocks with little scrub in sight. It was intensive agriculture back then but one that filled the sky with larks, pipits and buntings. Today, just the occasional chime of a linnet Carduelis cannabina or quiet wheeze of a bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula pair from deep in the thorn. In spring however, the place rings with the peel of nightingales Luscinia megarhynchos.