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Wilmington's Mystery of the Long Man

This magnificent downland walk visits a legendary chalk figure which has baffled archaeologists and historians for hundreds of years.

Distance 6.2 miles (10km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 465ft (152m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Downland paths and tracks, stretch of country road, 1 stile

Landscape Dramatic downland on east side of Cuckmere Valley

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 123 South Downs Way - Newhaven to Eastbourne

Start/finish TQ 543041

Dog friendliness Some of enclosed tracks suitable for dogs off lead

Parking Long stay car park at Wilmington

Public toilets At car park

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1 Make for the car park exit and follow the path parallel to the road, heading towards the Long Man. Bear left at the next gate and take the Wealdway to the chalk figure. Climb quite steeply, curving to the right. Go through a gate, avoid the Wealdway arrow and go straight ahead towards the escarpment, veering right just below the Long Man.

2 Go through the next gate, cross a track and bear left on reaching a fence. A few paces brings you to a gate and a sign for the South Downs Way. Pass a small reservoir and follow the track to the road.

3 Turn left and walk down to a signpost for Lullington church, following the path alongside several cottages. After visiting the church, retrace your steps to the road and turn right. Head down the lane and look for Alfriston church on the right. Pass a turning to the village on the right and continue ahead towards Seaford. Look out for a post box and swing left here, signposted 'Jevington'.

4 Follow the bridleway as it climbs steadily between tracts of remote downland. Keep left at the next main junction and there is a moderate climb. Avoid the bridle track branching off to the left and continue ahead towards Jevington. Lullington Heath National Nature Reserve is on the right now. Pass a bridleway to Charleston Bottom on the right and keep on the track as it climbs quite steeply. Pass a second sign and map for the nature reserve and make for a junction with the South Downs Way.

5 Turn left and follow the enclosed path to a gate. Go straight ahead alongside woodland and pass through a second gate. The path begins a gradual curve to the left and eventually passes along the rim of a spectacular dry valley known as Tenantry Ground. Keep the fence on your left and look for a gate ahead. Swing right as you approach it to a stile and then follow the path alongside the fence, crossing the top of the Long Man.

6 Glance to your right and you can just make out the head and body of the chalk figure down below. It's an intriguing view. Continue keeping the fence on the right and descend to a gate. Turn right here and retrace your steps to the car park at Wilmington.

One of Britain's most impressive and enduring mysteries is the focal point of this glorious walk high on the Downs. Cut into the turf below Windover Hill, the chalk figure of the Long Man of Wilmington is the largest representation of the human figure in western Europe and yet it remains an enigma, its origins shrouded in mystery. For centuries experts have been trying to solve this ancient puzzle but no one has been able to prove conclusively who he is or what he symbolises.

For many years the earliest record of the Long Man was thought to have been a drawing by the antiquarian William Burrell, made when he visited Wilmington Priory in 1766. Then, in 1993, a new drawing was discovered, made by John Rowley, a surveyor, as long ago as 1710.

Though the new drawing has confirmed some theories, it has not been able to shed any real light as to the Long Man's true identity or why this particular hillside was chosen. However, it does suggest that the original figure was a shadow or indentation in the grass rather than a bold line. It seems there were distinguishing facial features which may have long faded; the staves being held were not a rake and a scythe as once described and the head was originally a helmet shape, indicating that the Long Man may have been a helmeted war-god.

Until the 19th century the figure was only visible in a certain light, particularly when there was a dusting of snow or frost on the ground. The Long Man's ghostly aura, the chill, wintry conditions and the remoteness of these surroundings would surely have been enough to send a shiver down the spine. In 1874, a public subscription was raised through the Times and the figure re-cut. To help define the outline of the Long Man, the site was marked out in yellow bricks, though this restoration work may have resulted in the feet being incorrectly positoned.

In 1925 the Long Man of Wilmington was given to the Sussex Archaeological Trust, which later became the Sussex Archaeological Society, and during World War II the site was camouflaged to prevent enemy aircraft from using it as a landmark. In 1969 further restoration work began and the yellow bricks were replaced with pre-cast concrete blocks. These are frequently painted now, so that the shape of the Long Man stands out from a considerable distance away.

Photographed from the air, the figure is elongated, but when viewed from ground level an optical illusion is created and he assumes normal human proportions. The walk passes as close as it can to the Long Man before heading out into isolated downland country where the trees of Friston Forest can be seen cloaking the landscape.

Where to eat and drink

At the far end of the car park, where the walk starts and finishes, is a very pleasant picnic area. The Giant's Rest in Wilmington is a popular pub at the northern end of the village. They serve soup, ploughmans lunches, jacket potatoes or rabbit and bacon pie.

What to look for

Wilmington Priory, by the car park, was founded for the Benedictine abbey of Grestain in Normandy, and much of the present building dates from the 14th century. As few as two or three monks resided here and they used the parish church in Wilmington rather than build their own place of worship. The monks were engaged in managing the abbey's English estates. The priory is in the care of the Landmark Trust and used as a holiday let. It is not open to the public. Only 16ft (5m) square, 13th-century Lullington church stands on a hill above the Cuckmere valley and is one of the smallest churches in the country. It was originally a much larger church and it's not clear why much of it was destroyed but only part of the chancel remains.

While you're there

Make a detour to look at the Lullington Heath National Nature Reserve, which consists of scrubland, chalk grassland and the best example of chalk heath still surviving in Britain. Various heathers and orchids also grow here. Study the maps displayed along the reserve boundary to help you follow the reserve's paths and bridleways.

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