Climb high above a sprawling estate and look towards distant horizons on this superb downland walk.
Distance 4.2 miles (6.8km)
Minimum time 2hrs
Ascent/gradient 476ft (145m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Tracks, paths and roads
Landscape Downland and farmland
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 123 South Down Ways - Newhaven to Eastbourne
Start/finish TQ 468075
Dog friendliness On lead in vicinity of Firle Place and near livestock
Parking Free car park in Firle
Public toilets Firle Place and Charleston Farmhouse
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1 Turn left out of the car park, pass the Ram Inn and follow the road round to the right, through the village of Firle. Walk along to the village stores and a footpath to Charleston. Pass the turning to Firle's Church of St Peter and continue heading southwards, out of the village.
2 Turn right at a junction of concrete tracks and make for the road. Bear left, head for the downland escarpment and begin the long climb, steep in places. On reaching the car park at the top, swing left to a gate and join the South Downs Way.
3 Head eastwards on the long distance trail and, as you approach a kissing gate and adjoining gate, turn sharp left.
4 Follow the path in a north westerly direction, down the steep slopes of the escarpment. On reaching a wooden post, where the path forks, take the lower grassy path and follow it as it descends in a wide sweep. Drop down to a gate and walk ahead, keeping a fence on the left. Skirt around Firle Plantation and follow the track all the way to the junction.
5 Bear left and walk along the track, keeping the dramatic escarpment on the left. As you approach the village of Firle, the track curves to the right towards the buildings of Place Farm. Cross over the junction of concrete tracks and retrace your steps back to the car park at the other end of the village.
Stroll along the South Downs Way between Alfriston and the River Ouse and you can look down towards the sleepy village of Firle, nestling amid a patchwork of fields and hedgerows below the escarpment. There is something that sets this place apart from most other communities. Firle is an estate village with a tangible feudal atmosphere. .
At the centre of the village lies Firle Place, home to the Gage family for over 500 years and now open to the public. The 18th-century house is magnificent, though it hardly looks classically English. It's built of a pale stone specially imported from Caen in Normandy, with hipped roof, dormers and a splendid Venetian window surmounting the rusticated central archway in the east front.
Firle Place is surrounded by glorious parkland and set against a magnificent backdrop
of hanging woods. The name is Old English and means 'oak'. No house could occupy a finer location. A tour of the house reveals some fascinating treasures, many of which were brought back from America by Sir Thomas. The paintings include an important collection of Old Masters with works by Van Dyck, Reynolds, Gainsborough and Rubens, and there are also collections of Sèvres porcelain and English and French furniture.
The present Palladian mansion conceals part of an older Tudor building. This was later enlarged by Sir John Gage, Vice Chamberlain and Captain of the Royal Guard in the court of Henry VIII. In 1542, when James V of Scotland was killed at Solway Moss, he commanded the King's troops against the Scottish army. He also superintended the executions of Queen Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey, while Constable of the Tower of London. Sir Edward, his son, as Sheriff of Sussex, was responsible for ensuring that the Lewes Martyrs were burned, but the family later converted to the Roman Catholic faith and the family were forced to retire from public life.
Little remains of the external features of the original courtyard house. The house underwent major changes in 1745, remodelled by General Sir Thomas Gage who was Commander-in-Chief of the British forces at the beginning of the American War of Independence He and his cousin and successor, Sir Thomas, rebuilt the house in Palladian manner with rococo elaborations.
Firle is a perfect example of what landscape historians describe as a 'closed village'. Such settlements, growing up on private estates, enjoy a unique status and are a vivid reminder of the autocracy of generations of powerful landowning families. The development of Firle was severely regulated and it was virtually impossible for outsiders to move into the village. which has long provided employment and accommodation, operating as a self-contained community.
It's always pleasing to find a church open to visitors, and many in Sussex keep their doors unlocked throughout the year. Firle church is no exception and the sign at the entrance states that the door is open from dawn to dusk. The parish refuses 'to be deterred by occasional thefts, believing it must be available to the people of the village.' There is a fee for brass rubbing, which should be paid at the village stores. The church includes a window dedicated to Henry Rainald Gage KCVO, the 6th Viscount who succeeded to the title in his 17th year in 1912 and died in 1982. The window was designed by the late John Piper and is possibly his last work in stained glass.
In Firle's main street is the quaint old village stores. Up until cars began to make shopping in towns and cities easier, Firle benefitted from a tailor, a bootmaker, a butcher and a baker. A blacksmith, a miller and a harness maker also operated in the village.