War walks in East Sussex

Following on from 2018’s moving events commemorating 100 years since the end of World War I, and with the recent 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the World War II, Ali Rowsell decided to go and explore her local area to see what remains of East Sussex’s wartime relics and memorials.

From military defences and training areas at Seaford Head and in the Cuckmere Valley, to underground radar stations at South Heighton and in the Ashdown Forest, East Sussex has a lot of recent history to discover. Most of the locations are accessible only on foot, making use of OS mapping to navigate your way to Battle of Britain runways and memorials hidden on the South Downs.

Friston Airfield
Friston Airfield

The Cuckmere Valley to Seaford (8.5km)

The Cuckmere Valley played a very important role during World War II. For a start, in 1940 Hitler identified the area, along with 200 miles of the south coast of England, as the perfect location to invade and land troops as part of Operation Sealion. As a result, the nearest large town, Eastbourne, was bombarded by the Luftwaffe in order to reduce resistance if, and when, the invading troops landed. Luckily, the RAF maintained air supremacy through the Battle of Britain in order to stop Hitler’s plans. A reminder of this can be seen on route to the Cuckmere, at Gayles Farm near East Dean.

A worthwhile stop on the A259 Eastbourne Road near Exceat New Barn, the memorial to RAF Friston can be located via a footpath from the road at TV 5345 9816. The pre-war civilian runway at the farm was requisitioned early in World War II to act as an emergency landing ground, although soon saw active use with 32 Hurricane Squadron in 1942, followed by 402 Spitfire Squadron shortly afterwards. Friston also became home to nine anti-aircraft squadrons, who were credited with 75 V1 Flying Bomb kills, reducing the number of casualties in the local area and further afield.

It is possible to make a circular walk, taking in the end of the runway to the trig point at Haven Brow, with views across the iconic Cuckmere Haven. Follow the footpath south from the memorial, to the coast at Short Brow to open access land. Descend the steep Cliff End on to the permissive footpath to access the beach and a large selection of pillboxes, anti-tank stop-lines, ditches and coastal defences. The eastern side of the valley was heavily defended and still has a variety of machine gun emplacements, anti-aircraft mounts, Type 25 (circular), Type 23 (rectangular), Type 28 (square) pillboxes and heavy machine gun bunkers to explore, in addition to the main walk to Seaford.

Starting from the bridge at Exceat, which can be accessed by public transport from Seaford or Eastbourne, locate the entrance of the overgrown, underground control centre and repeater house for the valley at TV 5130 9936. During the early part of the war, the Cuckmere acted as a night-time decoy for the nearby port of Newhaven. The valley would be lit up like the port during bombing raids in an attempt to draw bombers off course and minimise the barrage of the town.

Following the Vanguard Way south, you pass an anti-tank wall and ditch before a final pillbox at the head of the beach (TV 5142 9776) by the Coastguard Cottages. The panorama east over the iconic beach and white cliffs offers views of the heavily defended eastern side of the valley. Hope Gap is located 1km west (TV 5099 9734), with access to the beach where submarine cables can still be found buried in the bedrock. These were laid between France and the UK in advance of D-Day in February 1944 to assist with communications.

The walk to Seaford encompasses a large variety of relics and history. Two large camps were located on the headland here during World War I for training and transit before troops were shipped to France. Metal tank tracks can still be seen in the local area on farm paths to assist with training and manoeuvres during World War II, particularly near the golf course on South Hill. Seaford Head has a significant number of relics, ranging from trenches to a variety of bunkers scattered across the headland. The 1.6m deep firing, cover and communications trenches are overgrown in places, although can still be explored and followed at TV 4993 9831. As you descend to the promenade at Seaford, three Type 25 pillboxes and an Artillery Battery situated on the golf course (TV 492 982) can be discovered, alongside Martello Tower number 74, home to Seaford Museum and housing a 24-pounder cannon from the 19th Century.

Further along the coast on the Vanguard Way is another worthwhile stop should you choose to extend the walk; the evacuated, ghost hamlet of Tidemills. Originally established as a tidal mill and merchants, it flourished in its heyday back in the 1700s. During World War I a seaplane base and wireless relay station was established to combat the threat from submarines. Evidence of runners from hanger doors can still be found. Evacuated and demolished at the start of World War II, the area was used by Canadian troops who practised beach landings in preparation for the raid on Dieppe in 1942. Furthermore, in the run up to D-Day in 1944, the front was concreted over to provide a platform to load landing craft. The story of the area can be found on numerous information boards, making it an enjoyable walking tour of bygone times.

Tidemills walk
Tidemills walk

The GHQ Stop Line: Newhaven to Barcombe Mills (20km), then on to the Thames!

The GHQ Stop Line was a defensive line that ran along the River Ouse, the River Uck and finally into the Thames, via the River Medway. Due to the geography of the waterway, it seemed to be an obvious route choice for invading armies, providing a course all the way to London. As a result, the heavily defended GHQ line was created in 1940, with several hundred Type 24, 28 and local ‘Crowborough’ pillboxes being built. The bunkers can be found on the western side of the river, as well as around villages such as Southease, Rodmell, Hamsey and Barcombe. Many of these remain today and can be discovered along the Sussex Ouse Valley Walk from Newhaven to Barcombe Mills.

Newhaven played a pivotal part in World War II due to its geography, amenities and resources such as its port, a large radar station for HMS Forward and a large fortress dating back to the Iron Age. You could walk miles around the numerous footpaths encompassing the West Pier, Castle Hill and Harbour Heights, all of which contain a substantial number of wartime relics. Newhaven Fort and surrounding areas on Castle Hill are worth exploring further. The open access land nature reserve to the west of the fort provides a series of cliff top footpaths and tracks through undergrowth to discover 12-pounder gun emplacements, a coastal battery, radar site, observation posts and blast walls, the majority of which can be found between TQ 4456 0010 and TQ 4472 0012.

A mile north-west of Newhaven lies the village of South Heighton. In 1941, Royal Engineers from 172 Tunnelling Company started excavating a 60ft deep Royal Navy Intelligence and Command Centre providing surface coverage of radar from Fairlight to Bognor Regis. Every 20 minutes, 10 coastal radar stations reported to HMS Forward so that they could plot enemy movements; thus, providing a pivotal role in the war effort. The entrance to the tunnel can still be seen on the A26 at TQ 4482 0267.

Following the Sussex Ouse Valley walk from Newhaven, on the west bank of the river, you pass by several points of interest, such as the Grade II-listed 1880 swing bridge at Southease. Four Type 24 and one Type 28 pillboxes can be found on the outskirts of the village of Southease near the bridge. Further north is the village of Rodemll where a very interesting pillbox can be found in the shape of a sight screen for the cricket field (TQ 4223 0633)!

After passing through the county town of Lewes, the walk turns into Pillbox Alley! Most of the pillboxes are of a type 24 variety and are all numbered with a prefix A on the internal blast wall. Of the 15 bunkers between Lewes and Isfield, 10 sit in and around the Barcombe Mills area, the majority of which can be accessed, although some are overgrown and hidden from sight. The nearby village of Barcombe also has relics and memorabilia on show in the form of anti-tank cylinders that would have been used as a roadblock to prevent enemy movement (TQ 420 159). Public transport is accessible from the village.

The Chattri Memorial

Sitting atop the South Downs, overlooking the city of Brighton, lies the Chattri Memorial, a resting place for World War I soldiers who were hospitalised at the Royal Pavilion Hospital and the Dome in Brighton. During the war, more than 1,500,000 Indian Army Soldiers fought alongside British troops, with over 12,000 Indian soldiers hospitalised locally. Hindus and Sikhs were cremated on the crematory site that is now situated under three large granite slabs. A memorial was built in 1921 and there is an annual service to commemorate.

The memorial (TQ 3045 1107) can be approached only on foot by the Sussex Border Path, from the South Downs Way in the north (TQ 3164 1292) or 1.6km from the car park off the A27 roundabout at TQ 3021 1094. The rolling open access hills of the South Downs provide a perfect location to complete a circular walk overlooking the English Channel.

Ashdown Forest

Ashdown Forest has played a very significant role in military history over the years, with its earliest account dating as far back to the time of Henry VII when iron shot was commissioned for a military campaign against Scotland. Not only has it been used as a training area and encampment for both world wars, it played an important part during the Cold War.

Rifle ranges at Old Lodge and New Pond Cottages, alongside training trenches and tunnels scattered throughout the forest, can be tentatively explored in the undergrowth, although are hard to find. There is lots of evidence of anti-tank bollards and concrete roadblocks at several locations such as Duddleswell crossroads and on the A22 near the Old Airstrip.

The friends of Ashdown Forest have produced several circular walks incorporating two specific wartime relics that are easy to follow and provide mapping for the area. The old airstrip was a mile long, flat piece of land built for practice during World War II. It was constructed by the Canadian Army in 1942 as an emergency landing ground and put to its uses when a B-17 Flying Fortress landed after running out of fuel after a raid on Stuttgart. The airstrip started at TQ 4263 3093 and headed south-west towards the village of Chelwood Gate.

View from the Airman s grave
The view from the Airman's grave

The Airman’s grave is a worthwhile circular hike and easily accessible from the local village of Nutley where the public transport links with towns such as East Grinstead, Uckfield and Haywards Heath. Located at TQ 4590 2764, the memorial marks the site where a Wellington bomber crashed in July 1941 due to poor weather and engine trouble, killing all six crew.

During World War II the Aspidistra Radio Station, at times the world’s most powerful radio transmitter, was situated at Kingstanding, which is now a Sussex Police training area. Due to its present role with the police, the former radio station and extensive Cold War nuclear bunker is still under lock and key, although a walk making use of the Vanguard Way and other Ashdown Forest tracks circumnavigate the training area.

East Sussex played a pivotal role in both world wars and it’s important we do not forget our past. It is our turn to keep their memories alive, and what better way, than to get out and explore!

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