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St Leonards Forest: Action for Access Walk

April 4, 2011

Please support the event below if you can. It is this Saturday and is organised by Action for Access.


Meet: Roosthole car park, Hammerpond Road, St. Leonard’s Forest, nr Horsham at 12 noon.  Map ref: TQ 208298

Transport: From Brighton, public transport is difficult on this on so let’s get a car pool operating.  11am sharp, South side of the Level, by the “Loving Hut” cafe. BN1 4SA.  Please get in touch if you can drive & offer lifts, thanks.   Tel: Brighton 235580.

St Leonard’s Forest walk notes

The route of our walk in St Leonard’s Forest is intended to take us to some of the special places where relics of the ecosystem of the ancient royal hunting forest survive.

The part of the ancient forest that the Forestry Commission owns holds only some of those fragments. For those on the walk who are interested, I am happy to describe where they can look for the other surviving gems, most of which are not on public land. Just bring your maps.

St Leonard’s Forest was HUGE a millennium ago. In the days when it was a royal hunting forest of the Saxon Kings of Sussex, and later of Wessex and England, it likely stretched all along the high sandstone watershed eastwards from Horsham, past Crawley almost to East Grinstead. It embraced all those parts which now come under different ‘Forest’ names…St Leonard’s, Tilgate, Worthlodge, Highbeeches, Balcombe, Brantridge, Holmbush and Monks Forests, as well as Leonardslee, Oldhouse Warren and much, much else.

The Forest was probably made up in roughly equal parts of ‘high forest’ (no doubt with some enclosed coppice) and open ground of heath and grassland. The woodland would largely have been a mixture of Beech, Oak and Birch with some Lime, over Hazel, Hawthorn and Holly, with Bluebell, Bilberry, Broom and Heather beneath. The open ground would probably have been like the New Forest today, with a mixture of ‘lawns’ and heather, and areas of soggy mire. Black Grouse would have been common, with Curlew and Snipe abounding.

Scarcely any parts of the present forest ecosystem can now boast continuity with this ancient hunting landscape.

But a few can.

It is reasonable to hypothesise that some of the humid, shady ‘gills’ (steep sided clefts containing fast running streams); some of the clusters of gigantic pillared veteran Beeches and Oaks; and some of the heath and unimproved grassland fragments, like the ‘Lily Beds’(Lily of the Valley) have a continuity going back to the royal forest and possibly to the primeval ‘wildwood’.

Climb down into those green gills and look down into the clear water – as through a looking glass – and see little bits of leaf and twig walking themselves slowly across the stream bed. These are the larvae of different species of Caddis Flies, each encased by their own extraordinary little personalized ‘sleeping bags’ of cemented leaf, twig, sand, or pebble.

On the banks there are rare mosses surviving from the time – 7 or 8 thousand years ago – when the climate was much wetter and warmer. Most of them would be happier in Wales or Scotland.

Some of the ancient trees are amongst the biggest in the country. The enormous ‘Sun Oak’ is over five spans in girth and dates back to around 1210 – just before Magna Carta. The ‘Whitevane Beech’ is now only a fragment, but there is still enough of it to envision its immense past girth. (Our route won’t take us to those two, but I can take folk to see the Sun Oak, if they want). The Forest Grange Beech is also five spans in girth, and I have seen Stock Dove nesting there, alongside Woodpeckers.

In a good autumn the groves of veteran trees are full of many-coloured fungi. In spring the Bluebells are out, and the May blossom buzzes with old forest insects – beetles, bees, moths and flies. In summer the heather is in bloom. Nightjars churr from dusk onwards. Silver-studded Blue has now gone, I think, but it may return.

You will see that the Forestry Commission is in the middle of a huge programme of restoration work to bring back the heathy rides and the old broad-leaved forest, to make glades and restore worn pathways. This is brave work, and comes not a moment too soon, for the early decades of their ownership, after their purchase in circa 1951, did great and harsh damage to what was left of the old forest ecosystem.

They are more than atoning for those old sins now.

Much of the rest of (private) St Leonards Forest is now a rich persons’ playground, with villas and toy farms and horsey paddocks and ‘Keep Out’ signs and deer-and-human-proof fencing.

Much of it is no longer a friendly place for nature or people.

Give thanks, then, for our Forestry Commission and the reformation it has undergone in the past generation – at last allowing it to work truly in the public interest and not just as a narrow support system for capitalist industry.

Our walk will take us from Roosthole Car park, out alongside Sheepwash Gill, up past the Lily Beds, round by Highbirch Hill, down along Combe Bottom past the site of the medieval Ranger’s Lodge, up over Mick’s Cross, down through Scragged Oak Wood, and back to the start. It is 5-6 miles long.

The walk is partly on good forest tracks, but there will be muddy bits and gentle slopes to climb.

Bring a light picnic, tough shoes, binoculars if you have them, and your curiosity and wonder…



Saturday May 7th “Access in Arlington”, walk in Abbot’s Wood, north of Wilmington.  Meet 11.20 North side of Berwick Station or 1pm Abbot’s Wood car park.
Saturday May 14th Worthing ‘Keep Our Forests Public’ rally and walk in Houghton Forest, near Arundel. Meet noon, Whiteways car park, at N. end of Arundel Park – Map ref: TQ 001 108   Join us on a second day of celebration and forest rambling to mark the government’s climb-down from its proposal for the total privatisation of the English Forestry Commission’s estates.


walking and working for a people’s countryside

Downlanders (Action for Access) is a Brighton-based campaign group aiming to highlight access and conservation issues on our local Downs. We regularly organise walks up on the Downs across ‘private’ land.

Our main focus is on Access Land, the areas designated as ‘Open Country‘ by the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000.

We argue that these places were restricted at the time, both in number and in size, by landowners’ objections and by the opaque and closed process by which Natural England chose them. In Brighton and Hove, for example, only 220 ha of land was designated Open Country, a mere 2.6% of Brighton’s local authority area – and much of this was open to the public already!


What’s more, many of these places remain today practically inaccessible, fenced in with barbed wire and lacking stiles or signs, leaving members of the public to think that they may not walk there. Some are little more than ‘islands’ in the midst of swathes of private property, so that trespassing is the only way to reach them. And still others are being allowed to ‘scrub up’, making them not only utterly impenetrable but also potentially disqualifying them as ‘Open Country’ in the future.

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