Chelwood Gate Walk
by Robert Veitch
Take a stroll through history as this walk takes a trip back in time to WWII, the visit of an American President and a transatlantic summit in the pub.
Finding the start of this walk will mean venturing across Ashdown Forest. It’s a place where recorded history began shortly after the Norman Conquest. In centuries past, the forest was covered in trees and used as Royal hunting grounds. Later on the Iron industry began here during the Tudor period, in the course of which, most of the trees were removed. The current proliferation of Scots Pine trees is a Victorian import, a desire to create ‘Scotland in Sussex.’
Park at the Churlwood car park on the A275, half a mile south of the junction with the A22 at Wych Cross. Walk to the northern end of the car park, ambling between the pines. Turn left near the end and find your way along a solitary railway sleeper, then after going up and over four small earth dunes turn right on to the main track.
After 350m, a clump of tall Scots Pines will be on your right. Take time to orbit the plantation and what appears to be a gravestone will become visible. On closer inspection this will reveal itself as the marker of the Kennedy Clump.
US President John Kennedy made his final trip to the United Kingdom on 29-30th June 1963, staying less than a mile away with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, at his Birch Grove home. The visit took place three days after Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech at the Berlin Wall and five months before his assassination in Dallas.
The following year Macmillan unveiled the stone surrounded by newly planted trees, as a memorial to mark the visit. Back on the track and striding north, continue as far as the main road, which appears as a slender tarmac ribbon bisecting the heathland. Look south to see the Downs above Plumpton, a baker’s dozen miles distant.
Across the road the path continues through ferns, emerging soon after at a junction by a covered reservoir on the left. Ramble on, bearing right as you go, ignoring the narrow path on the left. The path will glide downhill, through pine trees, which open out and give way to gorse and grass. Keep going for almost half a mile enjoying the scenery, wide-open spaces and birdsong.
The path sweeps left and right along the way, eventually ending at a T-junction. Turn right and look up at the skies, to the modern jets with their turbofan engines on their final approach into Gatwick. Then look back at the track and try to imagine the past and the thrumming sound of propellers. For this was once an emergency runway built by Canadians during WWII. It was used only once, on 6th September 1943 when a US Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress returned from a raid on Stuttgart. The bomber ran out of fuel and landed here. Once fuel had been sourced it was able to continue its onward journey. With war over, and military installations removed, the runway slowly returned to its former state. Nothing remains these days, except the memories of those who survive and the imagination of those who’ve heard the story.
At the end of the ‘runway’ take in the panoramic spectacle of the Downs before it disappears when the path drops away underfoot. Carry on along the sandy walkway and take the opportunity to rest at ‘Lee’s Seat’ should the need arise.
Ignoring the option of the bridleway adjacent to the seat, the path turns sharply right and the sand slowly turns to earth. It bears left, then straight on and past two posts in the ground. About 200m beyond, it ends at Beaconsfield Road, with Chelwood Gate Church located on the left. Civilisation might come as a surprise after the natural wonder of the heath. Turn right and continue along the path for half a mile until the main road is reached. Turn right at the junction, following the pavement past the Chelwood Gate village sign.
There is a pub on the right for the thirsty. Rumour has it that ‘JFK’ and ‘Supermac’ popped in here for a quick drink and transatlantic summit on the evening of 29th June 1963. Witnesses to the event are thin on the ground these days.
Crossing the slender tarmac ribbon once again by the sign for Birch Grove Road, walk between the seat and the Ashdown Forest sign. In the distance is the clearly marked Harold Macmillan Clump in memory of the former Prime Minister: A sibling to the Kennedy Clump.
Veer left and downhill along the grassy track, then gently uphill through the woods until one of the county’s most idyllic cricket grounds is stumbled upon. At the end of the path, turn right onto the hard track that runs along the western boundary of the ground.
The path leads north, beyond the pavilion and back onto the heathland. After one-third of a mile it turns 90° right and then shortly after 90° left. Here the path forks three ways, but take the central prong and after a few more steps the familiar scene of the car park will materialise. All that’s left to do now is head for home, put on the kettle and have a well-earned rest.
Distance: 3.25 miles
Map: Ordnance Survey Explorer 135
Parking: Churlwood car park
Refreshments: Take them with you, or stop at the pub
Public Transport: None
Whilst Les Campbell is recuperating from an accident, Robert Veitch has taken on the role of being Les’ legs. We hope that Les will be back out and walking again soon and wish him all the best with his recovery. Robert has tested the route personally, making sure it is suitable for walking. However, even he cannot guarantee the effects of the weather, or roadworks, or any other factors outside of his control. If you would like to send your feedback about a local walk, please email firstname.lastname@example.org