RICHARD WILLAMSON: Country walk: Stoughton and The Mardens

In wet muddy weather, one can always walk along deserted country lanes and keep dry.

This walk is about six miles (13kms) on roads through beautiful farm and downland with visits to three Saxon-cum-Norman churches that have been left in peace to a large extent by the fussy Victorian rebuilders who destroyed much of our ecclesiastical history.

Park off-road in Forestry Commission land between East Marden and Stoughton, SU815126. Southwest to Stoughton through farmland with the old yew woods of Bow Hill on the left that contrast so well in autumn with the 1940s beech plantations.

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St Mary’s is up a short lane above the farmyard, looking pale and acerbic outside, but rich inside.

I liked the cockerel weathervane and the new gold leaf Millenium sundial with blue ears of wheat.

The graves have been cleared of headstones that now make a paved yard.

There are two oldish female and one male yew trees. Inside I liked also the dozens of kneelers, many with wildlife subjects such as the pair of partridges (see Nature Trails) and also the heron, the huntsman, the hares, and butterflies.

The building is on the cusp of Saxon-Norman overlap. So we see a very high interior and fairly thin walls with massive corner stones.

Now on southwest for half a mile, then right turn to Up Marden, two miles ahead.

This winding valley is bordered by very tall hedges and the fields with old oaks, all making a landscape of almost Georgian proportions. You almost expect haywains and tumbrils drawn by carthorses either side.

However in the hamlet, down a muddy lane to the left, you will come upon a 1780-ish sheep-cum-implement barn presently being fully renovated by the County Council, Open Air Museum and South Downs Park Authority.

I am so glad this wreck is at last seeing expert repair. It is to become a sort of medieval Coldharbour, or travellers’ rest for walkers and cyclists. It could be completed by the new year, weather permitting.

St Michael is next door, and is also anciently remote in time, having the resonance of a Proustian madeleine of times past.

All-cream interior like the fine wool of a flock of sheep and one can almost sense the presence of shepherds in their smocks. There are also paintings on the walls that look like the watermarks of another millennium.

Continue north with Apple Down to left through a lovely avenue of old oaks, beech and yews.

Turn right down Long Lane, or short cut across meadows to East Marden below to the right on footpaths marked with dotted lines on my map. St Peter is on the crossroads next to the thatched well-head. It was rebuilt in the 13th century. This is another pride of the village and like the others, well cared for.

Note the small organ with its shining sun head, the instrument brought here from St James Palace and once played by Prince Albert. As with the other three churches, there is a seat outside to rest your weary feet after all this tarmac tramping so now it is time to wend home to the car through the deep, steep wooded valley between the beech trees and in summer, the songs of blackcap warblers and chaffinches. England at its best, Constable would have recognised it even in this 21st century.