A fascinating villa, illustrating the talent and enterprise of the Roman people, lies close to the start of this superb downland walk.
Distance 5.3 miles (8.5km)
Minimum time 2hrs
Ascent/gradient 773ft (235m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Downland and woodland tracks and paths, some road
Landscape Rolling countryside and well wooded slopes
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 121 Arundel & Pulborough
Start/finish SU 974128
Dog friendliness Quiet lanes with little traffic. Parts of walk follow tracks and paths where dogs can run free.
Parking Bignor Hill free car park
Public toilets Bignor Villa - open March to October
1 From the lofty vantage point of Bignor Hill, which rises to 737ft (25m) and is cared for by the National Trust, follow the tarmac lane down towards Bignor Roman Villa. There are classic views between the trees over extensive Sussex landscape. The lane descends through the woodland, passing a bridleway on the right as it bends left. On reaching Bignor village centre, take the road signposted 'Sutton and Duncton'. Pass a telephone box and on the right is picturesque Wealden House. To visit the Roman Villa, one of the largest in Britain, turn right here and walk along to the entrance.
2 To resume the walk, retrace your steps to Wealden House and continue ahead along the road. Swing left at Manor Farm and pass the Parish Church of Holy Cross. A yew tree, so familiar to country churchyards, can be seen in the corner. Follow the lane as it descends steeply through the trees and then climbs between high hedges towards Sutton. Pass the village sign and follow the road as it bends left by a bridleway running off to the right. Walk into the village and when the road bends right by the White Horse, go straight on towards Barlavington and Duncton.
3 Follow the lane between stone-built houses and cottages, pass Sutton Farm and head out of the village. Keep left at the fork and follow the 'No through road'. A glorious tree-clad scarp, the walk's next objective, looms ahead. When the lane bends left, continue on the bridleway. Further on, the track can become wet and muddy underfoot, at the point where you share the route with a stream. You reach drier ground soon enough. Begin a gentle, slow ascent through the woodland and gradually the path narrows and becomes progressively steeper. The dramatic ascent eases further up and here you pass a left-hand footpath. Keep right at the fork and soon daylight can be seen ahead, reaching through the trees.
At a meeting point of tracks, go forward and then bear left after about 50yds (45m). A gate can be seen here, leading into a field on the right. Follow the chalk track as it climbs gently, with glorious views over remote, well-wooded country. The track curves towards several transmitters which can be seen peeping above the trees.
4 Pass a National Trust sign for Bignor Hill and a bridleway on the right. Cut through woodland and now the track begins a gentle descent. Gradually the views widen to reveal glorious woodland and downland stretching into the distance. Head down to a junction, keep ahead on the South Downs Way and avoid the signposted route to Gumber Bothy. Shortly the car park comes into view ahead.
Discovered by a ploughman in 1811, Bignor features various mosaics which are considered to be among the finest in the country, depicting scenes of gladiators and representations of Venus and Medusa. Originally the villa consisted of about 70 buildings situated in a walled enclosure of over 4 acres (1.6ha). The entire estate may have extended to about 200 acres (81ha), confirming that a wealthy or influential person would have lived here, possibly the equivalent of a modern aristocrat. Construction of the building was probably started around the end of the 2nd century ad and it may well have been occupied for at least 200 years.
Near the end of the walk is a charming dew pond, one of a number to be found on the South Downs. Originally used for watering sheep before there was piped water and troughs, these traditional ponds are important wildlife habitats as well as a classic feature of the landscape. Dew ponds really owe their name to folklore. The vast majority of the water that fills them comes from rainfall.
Bignor Roman Villa includes a free picnic area for visitors and a cafeteria providing tea, coffee and light snacks. The White Horse pub at Sutton lies at the foot of the South Downs, directly on the route of the walk. There is a good choice of imaginative food and a selection of popular beers.
Pause to appreciate the landscape and history of the South Downs near Bignor. There is strong evidence of the Roman occupation here and running across Bignor Hill is Stane Street, a Roman road constructed about ad 70 to connect the port of Chichester with London. The National Trust owns several miles of it.