Windmills, acres of space, quirky villages, numerous country pubs and miles of public footpaths are all on offer in this often overlooked part of the country.
Nestled in the Weald between the North and South Downs is the area known by locals as ‘Mid Sussex’. This is the administrative name for an area which although mainly in the county of West Sussex, also incorporates parts of East Sussex.
"Jack and Jill went up the hill..."
There are many windmills dotted around the area; however the most famous is the pair that sits atop the South Downs: Jack and Jill. The names, synonymous with the nursery rhyme, are ideal for this pair, one black (Jack), one white (Jill). Jack is privately owned, but Jill, a corn windmill, has been painstakingly restored over the last couple of decades and is regularly open to the public (Sundays 2pm-5pm, May to September, other dates can be organised, as well as open days. See www.jillwindmill.org.uk for details). When open, you can see the mill in production, take a tour and talk to the very enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers. You can even buy flour milled by Jill!
In 2012, Jack windmill was sold and the new owners are undertaking the enormous job of restoring the windmill and reparing the damage suffered from many years of neglect. It currently (September 2013) is without the 'sweeps' (blades) whilst the top is repaired.
The windmills are located near the village of Clayton, easily accessed from the A23 (take Pyecombe exit then head north on A273, the windmills are signposted). There is a car park at the top of the lane from the main road and the fields around the mill are a perfect spot for a picnic or, on a windy day, a bit of kite flying (you won’t be alone!). A little further along the A273 is the Jack and Jill Inn, which has a lovely spacious beer garden; a recently re-furbished children's play area; a good range of locally sourced food on its menu, and also has en-suite rooms (from £65).
A Walk along the Way
Alongside the Windmills, runs the ‘South Downs Way’. This 160km ‘National Trail’ runs from near Winchester across the Downs to Eastbourne and is suitable for horses, bikes and walkers. (See www.nationaltrail.co.uk for maps)
A great walk for stunning views, (don’t forget your camera) and a chance to stretch your legs, runs from the Windmills to one of the highest points on the Way – Ditchling Beacon. It is a relatively easy 6km (round trip) suitable for all ages but ensure you wear decent footwear as some paths are chalk and flint and may injure un-prepared feet! It is a popular walk in all weathers and, be warned, on a sunny day, you will be joined by many others.
Starting at the Windmills car-park, head left up the hill on a chalky track which takes you behind the windmills. It meanders through the newly designated ‘South Downs National Park’ and en-route passes by dew ponds, wooded copses and farmland, often with sheep grazing (make sure you have a lead for dogs). On a clear day, the views north show the Weald of Mid Sussex with many of the towns and villages dotted between the patchwork fields and woodlands. The farmland, particularly in the summer, is a haven for insects and butterflies and many different birds can often be spotted soaring in the thermal currents above the hills.
As you approach the high point at Ditchling Beacon, it is worth glancing toward the south where the sprawling city of Brighton can often be seen in the distance below and on a good day, more of the South Coast is visible. At Ditchling Beacon there is also a car-park (the walk can be started from either end) but it is worth noting that this is a National Trust car park so charges apply (approx £2). For those wanting a little sustenance after the walk, there is often an ice cream van to be found in this car-park (yes, even in winter!) offering the usual fare. At this point you can cross the road (be careful – the bend is a blind corner for drivers) and continue along the Way, or turn around and retrace your steps back to the Windmills.
A Village with a View
At the base of Ditchling Beacon, or a short drive from Jack and Jill, is the quirky village of Ditchling. I say quirky as it mixes the ‘traditional’ English village with homes sought after by the ‘rich and famous’. The most famous resident is Dame Vera Lynn, who is often seen out and about in the area, as well as TV presenter Jamie Theakston. Raymond Briggs, the author and illustrator, is associated with the village and it has been often claimed that the home featured in ‘The Snowman’ is based on scenes at the bottom of Ditchling Beacon, within the village.
Wind your way through the narrow streets (they are very narrow and often very busy with cars, bikes and walkers!) to explore the range of shops offering local produce, antiques, jewellery and art. Art lovers should definitely take time to browse through the work of local artists at the Ditchling Gallery (High Street, www.ditchlinggallery.co.uk +44 1273 843342), who knows you may even pick up an image of Jack and Jill! Chestertons (1 High Street) is well worth a visit for a cup of tea or coffee and, for those who require it, Wi-Fi. There are numerous other places within the village for refreshment including (in my opinion), the best pub – The Bull. The Bull (www.thebullditchling.com) offers a lovely large garden for the summer, and a cosy inside for the winter, all set in a building over 500 years old. There is a wide variety of food on offer including an easily recommendable Sunday Roast and for those requiring accommodation, the pub also has 4 rooms available (from £80).
Ditchling village dates back to Saxon times and still retains many listed buildings which today can be seen easily on foot around the village including St Margaret’s Church (13th Century). It was also a popular stop on the coaching route from London to the South Coast, and has a long standing history of art, craft and sculpture, much of which is explored in the Ditchling Museum through frequently changing and updated exhibitions. (www.ditchling-museum.com) The museum is open May to November, Tues-Sun and Bank Holidays, admission £3.50 adults, children free. Note: The museum is currently closed for refurbishment and is due to re-open in late September 2013.
Accessing Mid Sussex
Ditchling and the Windmills are easily accessed by road (A23, see above) and by public transport. Hassocks railway station is on the main line from London to Brighton and local buses can take you from there to Ditchling. For those feeling energentic (the last section is particularly steep), it is possible to walk the 4km from the station to the windmills following public footpaths.
A recently opened (September 2010) venture - Hassocks Community Cycle Scheme now hire bikes from right outside the station (inc helmet, tool kit and pump). Open 9-6 Wed to Sat and 10-4 Sunday. Bikes start from £7.50 per day for children and £15 per day for adults. Call +44 752 1961909 for booking.
The nearest larger towns are Burgess Hill and Haywards Heath to the North (providing supermarkets, petrol and alternative accommodation: Hickstead Hotel +44 01444 248023 rooms from £100; Travelodge Hickstead +44 871 984 6038 rooms rates vary; The Birch Hotel +44 1444 451565 rooms from £80) and the city of Brighton to the South.
GPS co-ordinates for walk: Starting at Jack and Jill carpark: N 50° 54.330 W 000° 08.844 Starting at Ditchling Beacon carpark: N 50° 54.074 W 000° 06.324 (or alternatively easily found on OS Explorer 122).