Sitting alongside the English Channel in the southeast corner of England, East Sussex is famed for its rolling hills and magnificent wealdland, Norman battlefields and charming medieval villages, towering chalk cliffs and hip seaside resorts. The county is also traversed by the South Downs Way long-distance walking route and is home to England’s newest national park, as well as miles of beautiful sandy coastline. From short forays into wildlife-rich wetlands, nature reserves and woodlands to longer riverside meanders and rollercoaster treks along spectacular sea cliffs, the 40 varied walks in this guide cover the best walking this glorious county has to offer.
While visiting the Sussex village of Burwash on a summer’s day in 1900, the writer Rudyard Kipling set his heart on a nearby Jacobean house called Bateman’s. Two years later he completed the purchase and settled into the house that he would make his home for the rest of his life. Kipling died in 1936 and ever since then his literary reputation has divided opinion, but it is clear from many of his writings that Sussex became his adopted home and affected him deeply. At about the time Kipling moved into Bateman’s, he wrote the poem Sussex. For anyone today standing on the crest of the downs that lie between Lewes and Eastbourne or on the sea cliffs that stretch eastwards from Hastings towards Rye, the series of images evoked in Kipling’s poem can read not so much like a list of locations to be visited but rather a litany of sacred places to be revered.
With his poetic eye, Kipling conjures up Sussex’s ‘fair ground’, far from Baltic pines and palm groves, far even from Surrey glades. What he loves about Sussex is a surprising promise of wildness and perspective – the chasing shadows on the whale-backed downs, the gnarled and writhen thorn, the Channel’s leaden line. He imagines the signs of past inhabitants – the barrows and camps and old gods of a heathen kingdom. Others, Kipling surmises, may prefer the places and English counties that lie from the Thames to the Tweed, but for him there is nothing fairer than the land of Sussex between ‘Rake and Rye, Black Down and Beachy Head’.
Kipling was born in India, sent to Britain to be educated and then returned to India for his early life as an adult. When first married, he also lived for a number of years in the United States. By the time he arrived at Bateman’s Kipling was in search of a more settled, peaceful life. Near the end of the poem comes his expression of hope that if we can but give our hearts to the land, even to just one small spot of earth, then something magical happens and its effects can be beyond the limits of speech and thought and reason. Kipling came across his ‘earth to love’ unexpectedly and, as he describes in the poem, it fell to him by lot on the bare slopes of the downs, along the white cliff edges, in the woods of the Weald, beside the wide-banked Ouse, among the shaws and deep ghylls and under the rolled scarp. In whichever of these places Kipling found himself, he experienced a simple and profound joy, shared by many since, in his beloved ‘Sussex by the sea’.