South Downs tea walk
Walk this circular route from Firle, near Lewes, taking in the Beacon and a lovely hidden tea garden
“I’m coming without the children now, so we can do a longer walk and there won’t be any moaning,” came the message from our friend Victoria over the bank holiday weekend, as she headed out of London.
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” was my response. We’d been out later than intended the night before thanks in part to a train cancellation saga and to add to our grump neither my other half or I is that enamoured with walking. A laze on the beach was looking far more attractive.
I’ll happily put in hours on my feet if I’m city sightseeing, am willing to go out for a lengthy spin on my bike, and I love a good picnic somewhere leafy, but a walk through fields with the scenery seeming to move a few centimetres an hour I just can’t get excited about. There was a teenager in our party of five approaching the day with similar suspicion, so Victoria had her work cut out.
As it turned out, she’d planned the perfect circular route for walking refuseniks like us, with knockout views, picnic and tea garden stops and, at about four miles, it didn’t prove too arduous. Plus, though we had an OS map with us, with easy landmarks involved it didn’t require any special navigational skills.
We turned off the A27 and started at the entrance to Firle village turning right up the hill here (Firle Bostal Road). If you are arriving by car you’ll need to park a little further on, in the village car park, or on the road, and back track a little. The nearest station is Glynde if you are arriving by train but you’ll need to cycle from there or order a taxi.
The first 20 minutes were unpromising – up hill on a road in searing heat. We actually emerged by a free car park at the top, so if you’re not doing a circular walk, as we were, it’s possible to start here.
We were now right on the South Downs Way. The sky really opened up and we could suddenly see for miles. We picked out the Bloomsbury Group’s Charleston Farmhouse on our way and of course it’s a great walk to combine with a visit to the house. We stopped for sandwiches not far off the Firle Beacon marker and watched some distant paragliders.
It’s a bit windy up here so remember a hat or hair band if you don’t want to end up eating your tresses. If you’re picnicking like us, look out for one of the handy hollows that are actually bronze age burial ground barrows also known as the Giant’s Grave beside the beacon marker.
From here it all got a bit Switzerland. Our lofty views were soon combined with a big herd of cows and calves ripping their own lunch up by the roots. In fact I was reminded of a three-day walking trip I was once talked into on the Italy-Austria border (minus the massive dehydration that time because I mistakenly thought I could refill my water bottle from streams – until out guide enlightened me that sheep and cows wee, poo and sometimes die in them).
Besides the cows there were also lambs in the adjoining fields on the beacon so plenty of diversions if you want to make a short walk along with ridge of the Downs here with children or other less able walkers.
The scenery was just as great on our descent down a chalky path.
Our destination was the charming Beanstalk Tea Garden on Old Coach Road, Firle which is open afternoons Thurs to Sun (check and book on 01273 858906).
Tucked away beside a cottage, this tea garden comprises a large Indian tent and a surrounding garden filled with wildflowers. The tent is great for cooler days but being a scorcher on our visit it was stifling inside and we opted for an alfresco nook, the wilting staff being very obliging about moving tables out and into the shade. Several of the tables had further Indian parasols and everything was served on vintage crockery.
The cakes looked fantastic with some interesting flavours like Moroccan orange and pistachio and a lavender iced sponge.
Most of our party opted for traditional scones which were beautifully fresh from the oven. No Cornwall/Devon cream/jam first debate here – they came preloaded with more jam than I’d eat in a year. I scraped off the excess, which my husband then shovelled from my plate to his gob with a spoon in a none-too refined manner.
The cafe is reasonably priced (it’s £13 if you want the full afternoon tea with sandwiches, cakes and scones). It also does lunches, and look out for its themed evening supper clubs on certain dates in August and September.
It’s a hidden gem of a place with lots of garden nooks and you can pull tables into shade or sun or eat indoors depending on the weather.
There was a further surprise when we left and, continuing the Indian theme, located a pair of peacocks we’d been hearing over tea which had wandered into the lane and fields alongside.
From here we took the public right of way across the grounds of Firle Place, following the line of stakes and with an eye on Firle church to lead us back to base. We passed several honesty box stalls in the village selling veg, plants, preserves, elderflower cordial and books. In Firle itself you could also end your walk at the lovely Ram Inn. I’ve eaten here before and the food is good.
We covered the walk, a short lunch stop and afternoon tea in about three and a half hours. You could pick a section, or extend it with longer on the Downs.
Want to do a circuit but skip the hill climb at the start?
If you get a taxi from the station you can have it drop you at the car park at the top of the hill, or if, like us, your party includes two cars you could do a relay, parking one in Firle village and the other at the top, with the top car driver getting a lift up to their vehicle afterwards (wish we’d thought of this at the time!)
If you reverse our direction and start by heading from Firle to the Beanstalk, the climb to the beacon is more pleasant as this is a walking path with good scenery and you’ll be doing the unexciting road we started with downhill at the end instead.
Scones, peacocks, and a view that reminded me of the mountains – not a bad afternoon’s walk after all.