Out and about on the South Downs

The horse’s blunt white nose pointed towards the sea. Its tail streamed backwards in the direction of Alfriston, the charming, teashop-laden village where we’d parked our red Beetle. As we made our way up High and Over Hill, our way barred momentarily by occasional buffets of sea-scented wind, the horse cantered silently, chalkily, across theDowns. The hillside was shadowed, but as we stood on the crest, the soft sweeps of land below us were highlighted by a mellow late summer sun. The river Cuckmere meandered unconcernedly across the marshes of theSevenSistersCountryPark. At the end of its journey, a few miles south, it would spill out onto the beach at Cuckmere Haven, a pebbly cone at the foot of the first of the austere white Seven Sisters, the famous chalk cliffs that form part of the Sussex Heritage Coast.

Crouching behind the huddle of trees in the valley bottom below us was the village of Littlington, where we’d admired the tiny church of St Michael the Archangel, bright and welcoming despite its peeling walls and pervasive whiff of damp. We’d made it to the eccentric Littlington Tea Rooms just in time – or rather, five minutes after closing, which the waiter obligingly overlooked – to have tea in the enclosed country garden, edged with cute wooden summer houses bristling with tea tables. The tea garden is rumoured to be one of the earliest inEngland, dating back to the Victorian era. It certainly retains a timeless sense of peace in its lush gardens frothy with colourful flowers. We’d passed trees drooping with tight clusters of gleaming black elderberries on our walk over, so nibbling on Victoria sponge filled with elderberry and raspberry cream felt like an appropriately seasonal treat.

Earlier we’d lumbered up Windover Hill, after skirting around the Long Man of Wilmington etched into the grass on its flank. His origins and significance continue to baffle historians and archaeologists. According to the guidebooks, there is some debate as to whether the vertical slashes at the man’s sides are walking poles or whether he is at the threshold of a doorway; my companions were more concerned with his anatomical deficiencies. As we descended from the top of the ridge towards Littlington, a strip of constant blue sea was laid out before us and our path was trimmed with hedgerows bursting with blackberries, milkwort, thistles and even a few poppies, standing out like vermilion splashes of paint. Tightly rolled bales of hay dotted the fields. It was easy to see why artists like Constable were inspired by quintessentially English landscapes like this.

Returning to Alfriston along the banks of the river, we delighted in the proud, spiky-headed teasels fringing the path and could scarcely believe the abundance of sloes, hanging in dense clusters from their spiky branches like diamonds nestling in a jeweller’s window. According to the intriguing site, www.sloebusiness.com (strapline: ‘There’s no business like sloe business’), the main use of this dusky-purple berry is in flavouring gin, though you can also use it make jam, flavour game – and should you choose, to make children pull funny faces when they taste its sharpness! It’s advised that you shouldn’t pick sloes until after the first frost, so if we decide we want to make some sloe gin (tempting!), we’ll need to go back to harvest nature’s bounty in a few month’s time.

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