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Arundel Park and South Stoke

August 14, 2010

Just returned from a trip to the South Downs, soon to be England’s latest National Park. An opportunity to do a favourite walk from Arundel, through Arundel Park and to the delightful old church at South Stoke. This is grand walking country, helped by the Arundel Estate, home of the Duke of Norfolk, which has a very good open access policy which lets walkers ramble all over the parkland for 364 days a year away from the public rights of way – an object lesson to other landowners. It is perhaps a way of making amends for the Duke in 1806, who enclosed a great deal of common land to create this park, robbing the villagers of the Stoke parishes of their traditional grazing.

I walked up past Swanbourne Lake, busy with August visitors, who thronged its banks and rowed across its waters, a real honeypot on such a nice day. But as always with these tourist spots, walk a few hundred yards and you leave the people behind. By the time I was in the deep valley of Arundel Park, a fold in the Downland itself, I was completely alone, apart from the sheep and pheasants. These far parts of Arundel Park have to be one of the most peaceful parts of England. A gentle climb on a wide chalk track brought me up to a wooded ridge, with far distant views over the vale of the River Arun, Amberley Wild Brooks, and the high downlands above Burpham.

There is a bench I like to sit on at this point, a timeless place away from the world, where all is still and you can see for miles. If you are reading this you might like to seek it out. One of the places, a bit like a mountain summit, that is hard to leave, the restful atmosphere thereabouts a welcome relief from the speed and bustle of modern life.

Tearing myself away, I walked down to the Arun itself, beyond the great wall of Arundel Park, a veritable masterpiece of building in flint. All the way along the river I saw no one, not even in the tiny hamlet – it is too small to call it a village – of South Stoke, one of my favourite old parish churches in England, delightful in its simplicity, still lit only by candles, its quiet churchyard a haven of peace, where the walker might sit for ages on a bench and hear only the sounds of nature. If you cannot find peace of mind sitting in the churchyard at South Stoke, then there is something seriously wrong.

A walk along the Arun brought me back into the crowds by the Black Rabbit pub, all enjoying themselves in their own way, albeit different that day to mine. There is a lot to see around Arundel, with its castle, wildlife and wetland centre, antiquarian bookshop and antique shops. But the best thing of all is the setting, the fine River Arun circling to the south, and the folds of down and woodland around its northern boundaries.

I think it was the poet Edward Thomas who wrote that the way out of Arundel to the north was a heaven on earth. I agree. And let us hope that the area’s peace and tranquillity, amid the crowded counties of the south east, last for an eternity for walkers, and those seeking the simple pleasures of life, to enjoy.

If you are seeking a break from the turmoil of this 21st century, you could do worse than walk the chalk paths of this entrancing district of the Sussex downlands.

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