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The Battle of Lewes and the Battle of Offham Combe

 

picture- view from the possible site of the Battle of Lewes

A walk following the fortunes of Edward, son of King Henry 111 in the battle of Lewes, with additional stories of battles in access land.  Townscape, downs, woods and rivers. (and possibly a swim)

 Distance, Terrain and Time

 9.16 Km / 5.69 Miles 2.5 hours, hilly

 Start and finish points

 Lewes railway station or the bus stops in Lewes High Street

 Getting there

 Trains run to Lewes from London, Brighton, Ashford, Seaford and Eastbourne

 Buses run to Lewes from Brighton, Tunbridge Wells and surrounding villages.

 The walk can be finished at Offham, for a walk of about 4 miles, but check the bus times first as there is no timetable at the bus stop

 For bus and train times see Traveline South East

 Date researched

 22/4/2104

 Ordnance Survey maps

 Explorer series number) Landranger series 198

 Refreshments

 Blacksmiths Arms in Offham, numerous shops pubs and cafes in Lewes

 Public toilets

 En-route, in Station Street, Lewes, just north of the station, others in Lewes off route.

 Song to get you in the mood or to sing on the walk

 London Calling by the Clash

 Route instructions

 1). If arriving from the station, leave by the main entrance and turn right.  Cross the bridge and walk straight ahead up Station Street.  Turn left at the traffic lights at the top (The tourist office is on your right at the lights if you want more information)

Walk along the High Street.  Pass bus stops on either side of the road (If you are arriving by bus start the walk here).  Turn right up pedestrianized Castle Gate, past  Lewes Castle, where Edward spent the night before the battle.

 Continue along Castle Gate under the gate house and then past the bowling green.  Come to a viewpoint with an interpretive board which gives information about the battle.  On the hills in before of you to your left you can see distant views of the battle site.

 King Henry had been managed to alienate many of the nobles in the land during the 13th century and they had rallied to Simon de Montfort, who raised an army against him.  At first Simon had great success, controlling much of the south-east, but gradually he lost much of that territory, and by the time he met the King at Lewes things were looking desperate.  The king had a much larger army and would have been the bookies favourite to finish the rebels off.

 Turn left down a path, Castle Lane.  Ignore a path that goes off to the left.  You are now walking roughly on the route that Edward’s troops took, although of course they did not have to negotiate all the houses that are there now. 

 Edward was to take the right flank.  Troops commanded by Richard of Cornwall were to take the centre and the King, who had stayed overnight at the priory to the south of the town, was to take the left.  London was a rebel stronghold and the king’s wife, Edward’s mother had been pelted with rubbish and insulted last time she attempted to enter the city.  No one likes having their mum insulted and it seems likely that Edward was thinking hard as he prepared about how to get his revenge.  He knew that a large contingent of Londoner’s were in the opposition army.

 Come to a street.  Take the footpath opposite which continues to descend.  At a further road turn left and climb up to the entrance of Baxter’s field on your right.

 Baxter’s Field was once the playing field for Baxter’s printing works, which were based in Lewes.  It is now managed by a community trust. Dogs are not allowed and walkers with dogs should take the next road right instead.

 Walk through the field keeping the fence on your left reasonably near.  In front of you is a ramp which leads to the road. Leave the park and turn right. Cross the road and, about 10 metres after the park, take an alley which climbs up hill. The alley emerges in a narrow street. Keep straight ahead.

 2). Come to a five way junction. You are in the Wallands area. Take the road diagonally to the left (Gundreda Road). Walk up this till you come to a turning to the right leading to Wallands  School. Take this turning and then take a footpath straight ahead that runs down the right hand side of the school.

 Turn left at the end of the school grounds and climb gently up to Nevill Road. Cross the road and see a small road ahead.  Cross to this.  On your right a gate gives access to open land.  Go through the gate.

 The battle of Lewes was a long time ago, in 1264, so it is not clear exactly where it was fought.  Some experts say that it was very near the town, perhaps in the Wallands, but this seems unlikely since the area is highly undulating and it would be very difficult for both armies to deploy. Additionally the King’s army would try very hard not to find themselves in a position where they had to fight uphill (although there is some suggestion that they were surprised by the early hour at which they were attacked).  The ordnance survey map shows the site as being at the top of this field. Some experts say that it was fought even further north, near Mount Harry, which you can see on the map.

 There is a slightly sunken track ahead of you. Follow this as it leads uphill, gently curving to the left.

 Imagine yourself as Edward, angrily leading his army up this hill determined to avenge his mother and preserve his father’s throne.  Edward would not have curved to the left, but we do so, because the field straight ahead is sometimes ploughed up and there is no right of way.

 3). Come to a lane. Turn immediately right through a gate and walk ahead through a tunnel of trees.  At the end of these turn right and walk alongside the fence.

 This area is my bet for the battle site.  Notice how the land is fairly flat and there is enough space for the armies to deploy. Imagine what it must have felt like for the two armies facing each other.  Simon de Montfort’s men had climbed the north face of the downs near Offham early in the morning and spread themselves out overlooking Lewes.  A picture shows the sort of view that they might have had.

 Armies at this time preferred to avoid the chaos of set-piece battles, where anything could happen and instead to use siege craft and similar tactics, so it is likely that many of the participants had never fought in anything like this before.

 De Montfort had managed to deploy his army of Londoners on his left side, right in front of Prince Edward.  They taunted Edward, telling him his mother was welcome to return to London any time, where she would get the same treatment.  Perhaps as a result of this provocation the young Edward drove his knights towards them.  The Londoners had only primitive weapons and no military training. De Montfort seems not to have utilised his knights to defend them.  They fled.  Edward’s troops pursued them mercilessly, leaving the field of battle and chasing the Londoners towards Offham.

 The path bears slightly left to avoid some trees and then meets another track.  Turn right.  Go through a gate. After a further 20 metres come to a junction.  Turn left here and then left again, following a path at the edge of the woodlands.

 It is likely that most of Edward’s troops would have turned right, chasing the Londoners towards Offham, although they may have spread out.  But we have the site of another battle to inspect. 

 Walk round the edge of the wood for nearly a kilometre.

 4). You come to the end of the wood. There is now open countryside to the left and the right. There are some pylons ahead.  Turn right here, following the fence line.  You come to a gate in the fence. Just to the left of this is a sort of stile  Turn right and cross the stile. .Offham Coombe is laid out before you.

 

Although there are no signs to tell you, this is access land, which was made available to the public to roam freely under the countryside and rights of way act.  The attractive valley before you is one of the least well known access lands in Lewes.

 Initially you follow the track ahead, but as soon as you can descend into the valley bottom and walk along it. 

 5). Look out for a lollypop shaped evergreen tree (pictured) on your right.  Here you leave the valley bottom. (Do not go through the gate on the valley bottom. If you reach this you have gone too far.) As you stand on the valley bottom looking at the tree you can just see a faint track to the left of the tree.  It climbs gently away from the valley, becoming clearer as you follow it. In 2017 this track had become a little overgrown. Keep on the same contour as the tree if unsure of the way, going neither up nor down.

Pass through some scrub and a metal gate.  The path now follows a level course above the valley along the boundary of the access land.  Confusingly the fence shown on maps as the boundary is no longer there.  Keep straight ahead. There are a couple of paths leading up hill. Do not take these unless you want to explore the Coombe.

 Come to a point where the path becomes vague.  There are thee trees in front of you and a pylon to the left.  Behind the trees you will find a stile. Cross this. The path turns right and then immediately joins a track.

 It is probably up this track that de Montfort’s army would have climbed in the early hours of the day of the battle of Lewes and that Edward would have chased the Londoners.

 Turn left down the track. Another track comes in from your right.  Bear left here to reach the main road. Turn left.

 You will see the Blacksmiths Arms pub, at which you may wish to stop.  The route crosses the road here.  Be careful!  Offham Church is opposite, down a lane.  Walk down the lane, which bears right past the church.  The road then turns left, but the route takes a track straight ahead.  There may be cars obscuring the entrance.

 Walk along the track towards Lewes. In what were then the marshes to the left Edward slaughtered many of the Londoners.

 6). Come to a junction.  A path leaves the track to the left.

 You must now leave Edward behind.  After sating his lust for revenge he returned up the hill, only to find that, in his absence, De Montfort’s men had defeated his father’s depleted armies.

 The main route turns left along the path, passes under the railway bridge and then follows the bank of the river Ouse to the right until the edge of Lewes is reached. When the tide is high this is a particularly attractive entry into Lewes.

 After periods of heavy rain the main route may be very muddy or even flooded.  The first part after the junction is the worst bit.  An alternative is to keep straight ahead on the track, and continue straight ahead when the track emerges into the Landport estate.  Walk along the edge of the estate nearest the river, past the youth club and past Pells school on a path.  Walk gently up a hill and, half way up, see a narrow pathway going off to your left.  Take this. Cross a bridge and continue straight ahead to join up with the main route by the Pells open air swimming pool.

 7).  The main route turns right on reaching a bridge over the river and passes the Pells Pool (The alternative route re-joins the main route here)  Why not have a swim here?

Climb St Johns Hill straight ahead and continue ahead on St John’s Terrace.  Meet the main road by the Elephant and Castle pub (noted for its burgers).  Turn left here. After Sun Street turn right along Fisher Street (not narrower Castle Ditch Lane unless you wish to visit the famous Lewes Arms, which was the subject of a picket when the then owners tried to stop selling Harveys Beer).  Walk along Fisher Street (the pavement to the left is easier) to reach traffic lights.  The bus stops are to your right here.  The station is down Station Street, opposite.

 POINTS OF INTEREST

 A). Lewes Castle

 One of a number of castles built by William the Conquerer.  The battle of Lewes was the only time it saw any action.  There is a museum and shop on your right as you go past the castle. This will have further information about the battle.

 B). The battle of Lewes

 Norman and Plantagent kings of England had been forced to share power with other major landowners for some time and it was a matter of diplomacy how they handled this.  Henry 111 was particularly bad at it.  One of his key problems was that he tried to wage wars in the continental parts of his kingdom using taxes imposed in England.  Another was that he imported supporters from the continent who were unpopular and, apparently, above the laws of the land.

 Various powerful barons, including his brother in law Simon de Montfort, attempted to curb his powers, but Henry did not keep his agreements with them.  By the period of the battle of Lewes Simon was leading an open revolt to curb his powers.  Initially the rebellion was highly successful, but Henry fought back and, by the time of the battle, had the upper hand. His armies outnumbered De Montfort’s and, but for the rashness of his son Edward, he would probably have won.

 As it was, De Montfort took the Edward hostage and the King ruled in name only after the battle.  But De Montfort was apparently as arrogant as Henry had been and his support fell away.  Edward escaped and gathered armies around him.  At the battle of Evesham he defeated and killed De Montfort and reinstated Henry on the throne. On Henry’s death he became king himself. He was, by this time, a formidable warrior, unlikely to be swayed from his course by people being rude to him or his mum.

 C). Access Land and the battle of Offham Coombe 

Access Land in Offham Coombe 

For over 50 years the Ramblers Association campaigned for the right to wander freely over uncultivated land in England and Wales, a right our ancestors took for granted before the enclosure of land in the 18th and 19th centuries. Why, we argued, should penned in city dwellers not be able to escape to open land if they did no harm?

At the beginning of this century we achieved the statutory freedom to roam freely over unimproved mountain, moor, heath, downland and registered common land. In many areas huge tracts of land were made available to walkers. But in the Downs things are more complicated. It can be hard to tell the difference between land which has been improved for cultivation and land which has not.

Explorer maps show where access land is. It is shown marked in light yellow with brown edges.  encourage you to explore it. You can explore, play, botanise, sit and take in the view or have a snack. Obviously, you must do no damage.

 Naturalist Dave Bangs says that the Coombe contains Milkwort, Cowslip and lesser Dandelion in Spring, Glow worms, Bastard Toadflax and Sussex Rampion.  The higher land is more acidic and you may find Viola canina, rare mosses and a good display of fungi.  

The battle of Offham Coombe. 

In Dave Bangs’ book “the Brighton Downs” Dave describes this battle, which took place in 1997: 

“Though it is part of a site of special scientific interest the farmer wished to plough much of the tractor-accessible ground to grow flax, which was then attracting huge EU subsides even on such protected sites.  English Nature, as usual, failed to use their powers and the farmer commenced ploughing. Nature conservationists attempted to block the plough, but the farmer returned at night. The struggle then escalated and conservationists demonstrated, set up camp on the land and started to organise unploughing- turning over and re-fitting the sods. …… Luckily the battle took place in a general election, so the Conservatives and Labour competed to show their conservation mettle.  We won that time.” 

D). The Blackmiths Arms and Offham Church

These and a few houses make up the hamlet of Offham on the busy A272.  They make a good break in the middle of your walk.  You can also get a bus to Lewes here, but check the times before you go as there is no timetable on the bus stop. 

E). Offham Chalk Pits 

There have been chalk pits in this area since before the battle of Lewes, but the ones that you can see now are of more recent origin.  Just after waypoint 6, on the alternative route, you can see the remains of an incline which connected the navigable river Ouse with the chalk pit above.  The adventurous can scramble up it to the Chalk Pit in, although the return descent is more difficult. 

F). The Pells Pool 

As the web site says:  

 “the oldest documented freshwater public pool in the country. We celebrated our 150th anniversary in 2011 and continue to welcome thousands to our unique pool in the summer months each year.  The Pells Pool is a spring-fed pool - 46 metres long by 23 metres wide pool. There are facilities for the whole family to enjoy, from our tree-lined green lawn, sun terrace and exercise lane, to our children's paddling pool, rafts and other recreational equipment. Come for the day and enjoy a picnic on the tree-lined lawn. We serve pizza, coffee & tea, soft drinks & ice cream. Pleasant Stores stall at the pool also provides delicious baked goods.” 

A possible pleasant finale to your walk, and much better than Edward’s result.  Alternatively you may prefer a pint of local Harvey’s beer in one of the pubs in town.  

© Copyright Chris Smith except where otherwise stated and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence