Beginning in the Cuckmere Valley, this breezy walk climbs high onto the Downs before visiting a church renowned for its striking wall paintings.
Distance 4.5 miles (7.2km)
Minimum time 2hrs
Ascent/gradient 464ft (141m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Exposed paths and tracks, 7 stiles
Landscape Downland to west of Cuckmere Valley
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 123 South Downs Way - Newhaven to Eastbourne
Start/finish TQ 519033
Dog friendliness Mostly off lead but not permitted at Alfriston Clergy House
Parking The Willows fee-paying car park, Alfriston
Public toilets Alfriston
1 Turn left on leaving the car park and make for the centre of Alfriston. Pass the cross in the main street and turn right by the Star inn, following King's Ride. Go straight over at the junction and continue on the South Downs Way. The road climbs, though not steeply, dwindling to a flinty track further up. This was originally a drovers' route for sheep being driven to market. Pass a bridleway on the right and follow the wide track as it curves gently to the right. This stretch of the walk is dominated by glorious views over the Downs and towards Alfriston. As the track begins to veer left, keep right and continue on the South Downs Way. Go straight over a junction and keep going over this high ground until you see a gate on the right.
2 Turn right here for Berwick, following the path between fences. Descend to the left by clumps of gorse bushes and look for Berwick church in the distance. The smooth expanse of Arlington Reservoir is also visible. Go through a gate and 75yds (68m) beyond it turn sharp right at a junction. Follow the clear path across the fields, keeping right at a fork. The path runs along the foot of the grassy slopes, cutting between trees and bushes. Bear right to join a track, then immediately swing left. Pass a bridleway on the right and continue on the track. Swing right when you see a sign for farm vehicles and walk along to the Cricketers Arms.
3 Join the path opposite the pub and follow the Vanguard Way. Keep right at the sign by the pond and head for a stile. Cross a field towards the shingled broach spire of Berwick church, heading for a stile to the left of it. Enter the churchyard and visit 14th-century St Michael's and All Angels.
4 Leave by the same route, returning to the Vanguard Way. Go straight on at the right-hand bend, heading towards Alfriston. Cross four stiles and begin a moderate climb to the next stile. Join a drive which soon becomes metalled and go straight ahead at the junction, avoiding Winton Street on the left. Descend the slope into Alfriston, bear left for the car park or continue ahead into the village.
With its charming shops, inns and parish church, Alfriston is a classic Sussex village and a key attraction on the tourist trail. Delightfully situated at the foot of the South Downs in a gap fashioned by the Cuckmere River, it's the perfect place to explore on foot. The church, known as the 'Cathedral of the Downs', occupies a secluded setting by a spacious green, hidden away from the main street. Standing on an ancient Anglo-Saxon mound, it is said to mark the spot where four oxen, carrying building materials, lay down to rest.
Inside St Michael's and All Angels church, look for the time switch and light up the interior of the church. That way you can appreciate the magnificent wall paintings in all their glory. These brilliant murals were commissioned by Bishop Bell of Chichester in 1943 and are the work of Duncan Grant and Vanessa and Quentin Bell, members of the renowned Bloomsbury Group.
During the World War II many church windows were destroyed by bombs and the Bishop of Chichester considered it more appropriate for artists to decorate church walls rather than design windows. Familiar landmarks were used in the paintings and local people took part as models. In one scene, over the chancel arch, a soldier and airman from Firle and a sailor from Berwick are seen kneeling.
Visit the National Trust's Clergy House at Alfriston. This oak-framed, thatched building dates back to about 1350 and was built to cater for a number of confined parish priests in the aftermath of the Black Death. The National Trust acquired the Clergy House as their first property in 1896, paying just £10 for it!
On the edge of the green at Alfriston is an old mine, washed up on the Cuckmere River in October 1943 and rendered inactive by the naval authorities in World War II. Read the notice here which invites you to spare a coin - 'in grateful thanks that Alfriston is not just another ruin which would have been the case had the mine exploded'.
The Star at Alfriston describes itself as the hotel that likes to say 'yes' to locals and visitors. There are log fires in winter, and breakfast, morning coffee and bar meals are served throughout the year. The timbered 14th-century George in the High Street is a cosy place to stop. Oak beams and a large inglenook fireplace add to the charm and fresh local fish appears on the menu. The Singing Kettle serves morning coffee, light lunches and afternoon tea while Old Saddlers offers tea, coffee and cakes. Both are in the village centre. The Cricketers Arms at Berwick serves traditional home-made food, with the emphasis on local produce, meat and fish.