The follies were built by John (“Mad Jack”) Fuller, who was Squire of Brightling in the late 18th and early 19th century. As well as fostering an aura of eccentricity, Fuller was a philanthropist, member of parliament, patron of the arts and sciences, plantation owner, vocal supporter slavery and noted drunk.
After parking in Brightling, the Tower is our first stop, just a short way over the fields and between the hedges. A sweeping view opens up as we walk, with the dark green Netherfield Woods running down to the bright blue mirror of Darwell Reservoir and the Rother valley beyond. Fuller is rumoured to have built the tower to spy on Bodiam Castle, which he bought in 1828, but while I climb the wobbly ladder at the top of the tower to look out the window, I have not brought my binoculars to test this theory.
Back into the fields, it’s possible to see the next two follies: the round Temple on a low green hill and the thin triangle of the Sugarloaf, which could almost be the spire of a church on the horizon. The Temple lies at the centre of our circular walk, but after heading down past the Ox Lodge sign, over the duck ponds and up past the barn, we’re as close as we can get. Did Fuller host wild gambling parties here? Rumours abound, but we may never know for sure!
We slither our way down the fields and through the ankle-deep mud in the woodland making quite a racket, which might explain why our wildlife tally boasts only a few curious sheep and one robin.
Next stop: the Sugarloaf and a flask of tea. This folly was supposedly built when Fuller made a drunken bet that he could see the spire of the neighbouring church from his window. When this proved untrue, he quickly ordered the Sugarloaf built on this spot to win the wager. Apparently, the folly was inhabited until the 1930s, and we can see where the beams for the second floor would have been set into the walls.
After all that mud, we welcome a bit of road walking. The road runs along a long stone wall, which Fuller commissioned after the Naploeonic wars at a time of high unemployment, ensuring the livelihood of many locals. We spot the Observatory, but decide against the detour for a closer look - we subsequently also miss out on seeing the Needle. However, by all accounts the Observatory never worked particularly well, and the Needle is a fairly plain obelisk, so we don’t regret it.
Instead, we head back into the woods and pick our way along a permissive path until we emerge into a field and find ourselves above the temple on the opposite side to before. In the distance, the sea glinting in the low winter sun. Behind us is the first folly Fuller built: a gothic Summerhouse. The view is spectacular, with the Temple below us and the sea in the distance, glinting in the low winter sun.
We follow a horse ride through the woods to Fuller’s house, then step through a Secret Garden-esque door into the churchyard. Fuller’s final resting place, built 20 years before he died, is known, for reasons that soon become obvious, as the Pyramid. Two centuries later, his legacy is as remarkable and ostentatious as ever.
Unfortunately, there's no pub in Brightling, but the Netherfield Arms, only a short drive away, is a cosy and exceptionally friendly spot for lunch.
One of our favourite walks to do with visitors is this loop around the Brightling follies. History, views and odd local characters all included!
A walk from Camber to Rye along a beach, over sand dunes, up a tidal river and along an old tramway.
A shorter version of this article first appeared as "Walking the railroad from Camber to Rye" in the Battle Observer, Friday 28 November 2014, p34.
There is something magical and slightly eerie about walking in a heavy mist.
On this early morning in autumn, the world seems small, still and hushed. Down Battle High Street, the top of the abbey gates fade into fog. The view from Whatlington Road towards Battle Great Wood is a soft, featureless glow. Instead of distant vistas, my attention settles on closer, more intimate details. Precise, silver-spun spiderwebs drape over the trees and fences, glistening with tiny beads of water. My breath stirs the mist, which swirls in a brief dance as I pass. A family of sparrows chirrups quietly in the brambles and I disturb a watching cat – he flashes me a wide-eyed glance, then slides around the corner and disappears.
This mist-bound world moves with me as I turn down a narrow farm track. The hedge melts into view when I step forward, then dissolves away behind me.
The landscape hidden by the fog is infinite. What lies beyond those trees, across the field, in the valley? The mist is keeping secrets. Maybe the High Weald has been replaced by a towering mountain range. Maybe the sea has swept in overnight, quietly but completely submerging everything around Battle Ridge. Maybe the ghost armies of 1066 are clashing silently just out of sight. Maybe I am displaced. Is this burnt-out corpse of a 1970s ambulance a figment of my imagination? Have I stepped out of time itself?
I entertain these thoughts with a little thrill, almost certain the everyday world will return soon, when the mist disperses in the sun.
The human world is waking up. I hear the ringing clangs of someone working on their home extension, and there’s an old Land Rover idling, door open, next to a field of excited Shetland ponies. I cross the rail line just in time to see the tail of the London-Hastings train. But despite these signs, I meet no one. I circumnavigate a damp field, pick my way along an overgrown path, and meander beside a stream through a beech wood. I peer into a derelict shelter that looks like a horror movie setpiece, wave to an empty train, dash across the A2100, greet some friendly horses and find myself in Mountfield.
The mist has burnt off now, and the eeriness has gone with it. I receive a hearty, “Good morning!” from a group of adults and children trailing bikes and horses, out to make the most of a beautiful sunny day. It’s so sunny that after climbing across the stubble fields to Mountfield Church, I stop to put on some sunscreen.
It’s a lovely spot. I end up sitting in the well-kept churchyard a while, drinking tea from my thermos, nibbling a biscuit and watching buzzards wheel and spiral above. Organ music from the Sunday service drifts from the church. It mingles with the whistling cries of the buzzards, the grunt of a distant tractor and the quiet bleating of sheep to create an idyllic rural soundscape. I start to feel a certain companionship with the people who rest here more permanently – this is as good a place as any to stop.
But the path calls me onwards, up the grand sweep of road to Mountfield Court, then over the rise beyond. Fields fall gently away to a treeline starting to blush with autumn colour: yellows, oranges and browns mingle in with the lingering dark greens of late summer. The view towards Robertsbridge makes the town seem tantalisingly close. The path sinks into the valley, then twists swiftly northwards between the stream and the railway line.
I pause at a laden sloe bush and pluck a few handfuls of ripe, purple fruit to make sloe gin. As I do, I spot an odd thing: a crow with white wing tips flaps past me and begins strutting across the field. I later learn that these white feathers are a sign of leucism and they aren’t too rare an aberration. But for now, the puzzle stays with me as I head into Robertsbridge.
The train back to Battle seems to take seconds. Scenes whiz past too quickly to take in. “I walked there! And there!” I think. There’s nobody in the field where I waved to an earlier train, so I raise my hand to past-me, instead.
This article first appeared as "Taking steps from Battle to Robertsbridge" in the Battle Observer, Friday 12 October 2014, p65.
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