Starting from Thakeham Village Hall we can appreciate the size and scale of the building site that is turning the old mushroom farm into housing. The area is protected by tall security fencing. Inside the barrier huge, powerful machinery terraforms the landscape. Enormous earthbanks have appeared, and one giant uprooted tree stump sits incongruously on the grass. We turn our back to the work to pass through the cut, leading through the hedge and beside the stream to the road, and turn left. We walk less than a quarter of a mile to a flight of steps opposite the entrance to the Abingworth Hall Hotel.
The steps take us up onto a narrow footpath high above the Jacket’s Hill cutting, reputedly made by prisoners taken in the Napoleonic wars. Wild garlic leaves have appeared, and some bluebells, but no flowers yet, and the trees are still bare. We stumble single file over the tree roots, and turn right to walk between a garden fence and a hedge. At the end of the high fence there is a fine view of the South Downs to the left, over the horse paddocks. But there are still plenty of unexpected tree roots, and the narrow path is slippery and flooded in places, so we spend more time looking at our feet.
Pheasants are calling down to our left as we reach the end of the paddocks and go right through a gap in the hedge to continue West. There is an electric fence to regulate the cow pastures, and keep walkers to the path. It is clear today, but hard to see in dim light. At the end of the hedge to our left we continue along the ridgeway. With no shelter the wind is fierce, but there are good clear views to North and South. They show how wooded Sussex still is, I’m happy that now I can’t see houses for the trees.
Over the fields to cross a holloway, another North-South lane tramped deep below the level of surrounding fields by long-dead drovers. Over the stile opposite, more views of the Downs to the left, and a pheasant rearing copse to the right. Across a stubble field, and at the end of the copse a slide down a slip of a path to the next stile. Directly across the busy road is a short private road, after passing between a couple of houses there is another public road to cross, then climb a short house drive and over a stile to the right. Again a stubble field (last year this crop was maize) with hedges to our left at first, then the path is once more an open ridgeway, with more pheasants shrieking below us in copses to right and left.
A stile at the far side of the field leads into a path between dogproof fences, next to horse pastures, that leads down almost to Hurston Lane. We swing right at the bottom to go North along a bridle path, at first downhill between high banks, where the path becomes a stream, then through rough grassland before we reach Heather Lane. Right again here, with the woods on our left. We take a detour this time and loop through paths in the woods, around the fenced grazing area.
Snowdrops drooped prettily – to be admired not picked, my mother insists – bringing snowdrops into the house will bring news of a death. She feels the same about mixing red and white flowers. I begin to list the other superstitions my mother taught me. I pretend to laugh at them, but if I crash the car it will be because I am distracted, looking for a second magpie (one for sorrow, two for joy). I reflect that most of her sayings are warnings, all portents were ominous: If thirteen sit at the table one of them will die soon; don’t put (even new) shoes on the table, it’ll bring bad luck; if two knives cross their blades when you are laying the table, slide the bottom one out carefully or there will be a quarrel; stir with a knife, stir up strife. I start to hope a black cat will cross our path, it’s the only promise of good luck I can remember.
Back onto Heather Lane and along this private road to Monkmead Lane, which we cross to a narrow path beside a stream. There is no footpath sign, but a ‘clean up dogmess’ warning implies that dogs are exercised along the track, for the mess to be created, so presumably walking is permitted. The path curves sharply between the high fences of West Chiltington gardens and we reach the road called Common Hill. Today we turn left and follow the pavement uphill a couple of hundred yards to Crossways, which we follow until it reaches Lordings Lane where we turn right. But in this tangled warp and weft of private roads and footpaths we could have crossed directly into Fir Tree Lane, perhaps that route means further to walk along a public road (Roundabout Lane) without a footpath beside it.
At the end of Lordings Lane we turn right and cross over. Immediately, to the left of the opening into Threales Lane, there is a well-marked path through the woods. After a very muddy stretch the path takes us across more rough pasture, and then into High Bar Lane, which leads us back to our starting point – about 1 ½ hours after leaving it.
When I get home I admire the show of snowdrops in our own garden. Time to cast superstition behind me I decide. I need flowers for the house and pick a bunch, they look charming on the study desk. An hour or so later my 90 year-old mother phones. A friend has died, will I take her to the funeral?