Distance: 8.5 km. Elevation: 112 m. Difficulty: Medium.
What I love about this West Sussex walk near Christ’s Hospital is that there are all sorts of things hiding in plain sight to add interest as well as some spectacular views. This route also combines some easy walking on the flat and a couple of nice hills. Park near Christ’s Hospital station or even arrive by train. You need Ordnance Survey OL 34.
Christ’s Hospital and the Downs Link
If you don’t know Christ’s Hospital, it is one of our country’s most remarkable schools. Established in 1552 in London as part of the Royal Hospital of London schools, Christ’s Hospital has survived the plague and the Great Fire of London.
It moved to the current site in 1902 and pupils stand out for their distinctive uniform that is still based on the Tudor fashions of a long, belted coat, knee breeches, yellow socks and a white neckband. The school has always had a very specific mission, which started as providing education to the poor and has evolved into providing a transformative educational experience and opportunities to children who otherwise might not be able to access them. Understandably, you can’t just walk around the school, but you can’t help but admire its architecture from a distance, and further into this walk, you look back down on it from above and get a sense of its beauty. You can find out more about Christ’s Hospital here.
From the station, follow the signs to the Downs Link (southbound towards Southwater). Again, if you don’t know the Downs Link it is a 59 km footpath and bridlepath that follows two dismantled railway lines, and runs from the North Downs down to Shoreham. For this part of your walk, it’s flat and you walk down the side of the school grounds on one side and the railway on the other for about a kilometre.
As you leave the school behind you, you take the first footpath to your right. This takes you across the railway (please take care) and then into a small but pleasant wood (look out for the bluebells in spring). Then you climb up Sharpenhurst Hill.
Stop at the top because there are fantastic views here. Look back down at the school from above, or across to the North Downs (on a clear day you can make out Leith Hill Tower). Or turn around and follow the undulating line of the South Downs on the horizon.
There are two things at the top here that are hiding in plain sight. The first is a copse of trees which has a small (and very easy to miss) plaque that reads “Bede’s Copse”. This is in memory and celebration of Bede Griffiths who has been described as “man, monk and mystic”. During his life, he was an author, a priest, a Benedictine monk and a noted yogi and born in 1906, he was also a student at Christ’s Hospital from 1918 to 1929. He died in 1993 “barefooted and clothed in the colour of the sun, in his thatched hut in Shantivanam in South India“. This particularly resonated with me, because I was in this part of India at about the same time.
The other notable thing at the top of the hill, is a fenced-off mound. It’s unmarked and you can’t get in (although you used to be able to). What a shame you can’t, because this is in fact a magnificent underground reservoir. Sadly, photos are hard to come by but imagine a large cathedral underneath you, with a nave and arched aisles, presumably Victorian or Edwardian. It was built to supply the school with water from a sufficient height to get the pressure high enough and it was used right up until the 1980s! I honestly think they should operate tours because it’s so interesting but also so easy to just walk on by and not realise what is beneath you.
From the hilltop, follow the footpath down to a lane at which point you turn right and then very quickly left and into the small village of Itchingfield. You are heading to the church. Opposite the turning to the church there is a footpath across the field. It’s worth a short deviation here, because there are more fantastic views across towards Christ’s Hospital and Horsham. Then resume your walk to the churchyard.
St Nicolas church dates back to about 1125 and has two original 12th century walls, an aumbry (small cupboard) and original windows. It also has Norman stone as part of the alter and 15th century windows and tower with the original medieval staircase. In the churchyard is the 16th century Priest House which was a clerk’s cottage and almshouse before falling into disuse in the 1860s.
There is a wonderful sense of tranquillity in the churchyard and it’s a worthy pitstop. There are some interesting gravestones too including two Commonwealth War graves.
At the back of the church, this West Sussex walk near Christ’s Hospital takes you via a footpath down over a little river, and then straight on up through some woods (don’t take the footpath to the right). As you leave the woods behind you, you’ll see a large sloping field head. You follow the footpath up and across it, stopping at the top to look back to yet more stunning views!
The home straight
As you arrive at a lane, you have to zig-zag a little. Turn left onto the lane, then right onto the footpath, right again and then left. After a nasty patch of mud, you come to the A29 which you go straight across.
From here, stop at the top for some more great views and then walk more or less straight down through fields and woods for about 1 km until you reach the Downs Link once more. Turn right, and follow it back to the start. This is a pleasant stretch of the Downs Link with great views in various places all along it. In fact, if you know what you’re looking for, you can see Itchingfield and the way that you travelled from the footpath just before Christ’s Hospital. When you see the old disused railway platform, you know you’re nearly back at the beginning.
There are no pubs or cafés en route but you could try Westons Farm Shop (in between Itchingfield and Christ’s Hospital), the Red Lyon in Slinfold or head to The Queens Head in Barnes Green when you’ve finished.
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