Wilmington and The Long Man

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Long Man of Wilmington © Pam Brophy
The Old Rectory, Folkington © Simon Carey
Sea of yellow near Folkington © Simon Carey

Starting at the feet of the famous Long Man of Wilmington, this is an exceptionally varied and highly recommended walk. It starts with a climb round to his head followed by a walk along the top of the Downs with outstanding views. The descent could not be more different, using ancient, sunken tracks that lead to Folkington, a tiny Downland hamlet with a 13th century church. The route then leads round the bottom of the Downs by quiet field paths to a tea garden on the edge of Wilmington before a gentle stroll through the village back to the start.

There is a good view of the mysterious Long Man of Wilmington from the car park. The 226 foot high figure was carved into the chalk hillside sometime before1779, the year it was first mentioned in print. Theories abound, from a Celtic god, opening the doors of heaven to the sun, to Hercules or Balder, a Norse deity, or maybe an 18th century joke. The most remarkable feature of this geoglyph is that it takes account of perspective and the slope of the hill so that it maintains the proportions of a man when viewed from below. A carving in the chalk would rapidly be grown over unless maintained. In 1969 it was made more permanent with over 700 concrete blocks marking the outline.

1. Return to the road and take a footpath opposite, signed 'Footpath to Long Man', to meet a cross path at this feet.

2. Turn right to reach a gate and cross path.

If you look at the vegetation around your feet you will see that it is not just grass but a rich variety of short herbs. In summer when they are in bloom, the sight is a delight. This typical downland ecosystem results from grazing by rabbits and sheep and without the nibbling animals, it would quickly revert to scrub and then woods. The animals' teeth nip off any tender, germinating trees or shrubs and prevent them becoming established. There has been a substantial decline in chalk grassland in recent decades. Much has been ploughed up on gentler gradients. On steeper slopes, the threat is from changed economics of farming making sheep rearing less attractive and smaller rabbit populations due to myxomatosis allowing scrub to invade. As you climb, a second carving in the chalk can be seen across the valley to the right (see walk 13 of this book).

3. Turn left, uphill. The path joins a track coming up the hill from the right. Bear right on this track and continue uphill, pausing to admire the ever-expanding and wonderful views. When the track levels out, press on past tumuli on the left and through a gate.

4. At a fork bear left away from a fence. At the time of writing, the path is not continually obvious on the ground but occasional posts show the line. Go through two gates and into a wood to meet a cross path some 100 yards after the second gate.

5. Turn left. When the path forks, bear left, leaving the South Downs Way. Continue ahead as a path joins from the right.

6. After a good quarter of a mile, watch for a post with red and blue arrows. Turn left on a hedged path. (Note: do not mistake a path 150 yards earlier on a bend where an apparent path on the left leads to a field gate for the route.) Follow this path for about 1 1/4 miles.

7. At a lane, turn right through the hamlet of Folkington, passing the church on the right.

8. When the lane bends right, turn left by a letterbox on a path signed 'Wilmington 1 mile'. After passing through a gate and by a brick pillar, the path lies along the top left hand side of a field to a gate. Through the gate, turn right to the end of the field. Do not go through the gateway but turn left along the right-hand side of a field. When the hedge on the right ends, go ahead on a bank to walk to the left of a line of small trees. Go through a gate and continue along the right-hand side of the next field for about 100 yards.

9. Cross a stile on the right and bear diagonally left across a field and across the corner of the next field. Now cross two small fields, then go diagonally left to the A27 and the tea shop on the right.

10. From the entrance walk ahead along the verge to a lane, signed 'Litlington 2 1/4'. Turn left through Wilmington to the car park where this walk started.

After the Norman Conquest the Benedictine Abbey of Grestain in France acquired the manor of Wilmington. The Priory was established in 1088, to house the two or three monks who were the Abbot's representatives and their household. This alien order was regarded with suspicion during the Hundred Years War and the Priory was seized by Richard II in 1380 and fell into disuse. The present buildings date from 1243 onwards and are not open to the public at the time of writing. The church was built for both the monks, who would have used the chancel, and local people, who would have used the nave. There is more information about the church available within but look particularly for the charming butterfly and bee window. This is in what was the North Chapel, now used as a vestry and located behind the organ. A massive yew in the churchyard has a girth of over 23 feet and is over a thousand years old - older than the church. It is held together with chains and supported by props.

When Wilmington Priory was active there was a brisk flow of pilgrim traffic between Canterbury, Chichester and Winchester that used the dry high ground of the South Downs. One theory about the Long Man is that he was carved as an advertising boarding to help travellers find the lodging at the Priory.

Location

The starting point is Wilmington car park. From the A27, Lewes to Polegate road, 2 miles east of Polegate at Wilmington, take a minor road, signed 'Litlington 2 1/4', through the village to a car park on the right at the far end of the village. The tea shop is close to the end of the walk. If you wish to visit it first, turn left out of the car park through the village.

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