An all-time favourite West Sussex walk, just to the west of Horsham and Stane Street (the renowned Roman road that runs from Chichester to London) lies Roman Woods near Rudgwick. There is a theory that there may have been a Roman villa at nearby Dedisham Manor, and there’s evidence of a courtyard style Roman posting station at Alfoldean on Stane Street so it’s not hard to work out how the woods got their name. Although these days, if you walk through Dedisham, you’ll realise how far you are from the rest of the world!
There is something about Roman Woods that provides food for the soul. There’s a mixture of trees which include pine, beech and oak and a surprising sense of tranquillity. In the winter, the paths can get almost unbearably muddy (which keeps the crowds at bay) but bearing in mind the nearby main route of the A281 east to west was only built in 1810, you get a sense of how slow and difficult travel must have been for our forefathers.
Sandwiched between the Sussex Border Path to the north and the Downs Link to the south, you can enjoy a short Sunday amble under the Roman Woods trees from Rudgwick to Rowhook or tackle a more ambitious country meander from these other routes, circumnavigating the worst of the mud or ploughing on right through the heart of the forest.
A cheeky 12 km
My favourite way to tackle this West Sussex walk involves roughly a 12 km jaunt that takes in Warnham, Rowhook and Slinfold. You can park in any of those villages to start but for my purposes, I began in Warnham and made my way to Warnham Manor (or as it used to be called Ends Place). As you look through the gates at the main house, take the path to the right, passed the giant carp and up into the woods. Halfway up through the woods, there is a footpath across fields to your left which if you stick to it, will take you over to and across the A29, through what feels like someone’s garden and up the hill to Rowhook.
From The Chequers at Rowhook, you take the little lane to your left which eventually curves round into Roman Woods. It gets muddy here but just after the charcoalers, fork left and that takes you all the way down to Furnace Lakes where you cross the A281 and wind your way passed the cows and up through Dedisham. You’re aiming for the long straight concrete track which takes you in the direction of the Downs Link and Slinfold. You can either walk from the Downs Link into the village and up to the church or you can turn left before you get to the Downs Link and cross the A29 just north of Random Hall Hotel. Either way, you eventually come out on Clapgate Lane where you pick up the West Sussex Literary Trail (WSLT) and follow it to Nowhurst and back to Warnham. As the WSLT forks right to Broadbridge Heath, you go left back to the village. For a longer route, stick on the Downs Link and follow it all the way to Broadbridge Heath and then loop round to Warnham on the WSLT.
The Alfoldean Bell
Just south of Roman Woods, where Stane Street (AKA the A29) meets the A281, there’s a bridge called the Alfoldean. This little corner of Sussex is a flood plain for the River Arun and pity the little house on the corner which every winter loses its land to the water. Legend has it* that long ago (possibly in Roman times, possibly later), a bell cast in Rome fell from a cart and was lost here. A local white witch then recommended that the retrieval attempt was carried out at midnight, in total silence with 12 white oxen.
The searchers complied but as the bell was finally heaved from the mud, one of the men shouted, “We’ve got the Alfoldean gurt bell, in spite of all the devils in hell” at which point, the bell broke free and was forever lost! Even excavations in the 1970s with the help of a dowser failed to retrieve it. I knew the family in the nearby house for a while and can’t help but wonder whether they’ve ever heard ghostly bell peels.
*Folklore of Sussex by Jacqueline Simpson (The History Press).
Charcoalers and wigwams
The woods have a timelessness about them, and you can be lucky to have them to yourself often enough. There are babbling brooks, little bridges, bluebells in spring, peeping glances of beautiful houses and the mysterious camps of the charcoalers.
Having walked from the timber yard at Clemsfold up through Townhouse Cops and on into the woods, I was intrigued to read the account of one Luke Toft in the BBC’s WW2 People’s War archive (as submitted by the Surrey History Centre). The account describes the young author staying at the timber yard during the war and visiting the wigwam homes of the charcoalers up in the woods. Whole families lived in the wigwams back then but passing these camps on a bleak, winter’s day recently and you can’t help feeling not much has changed in the 80 odd years since. The timber yard is still there, as are the woods and the camps. As long ago as the 16th century there were ironworks at Dedisham and who knows, maybe there’s been charcoalers in the woods since the Romans were here. It’s reassuring that old traditions still linger.
The same WW2 account also describes the young author seeing a German airman on a parachute falling from the sky and a nearby building on fire as a result of a crashed aircraft. These woods are so quiet but there’s so much history here too.
Refuel and refresh
Whatever your approach to walking these woods, you can be reassured that there is a good pub at either end. In fact, as a dedicated pub-goer you could actually start your walk at The Greets in Warnham, refuel at The Chequers in Rowhook and The Kings Head in Rudgwick, push on via the Downs Link to The Red Lyon in Slinfold and The Shelley Arms in Broadbridge Heath and then head back to The Greets to finish. Now that’s what I call a great West Sussex walk!
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