History and science at Herstmonceux

A wooded walk passing a medieval castle and a 20th-century observatory.

NEAREST LOCATION

Herstmonceux

RECOMMENDED BY
DISTANCE

3 miles (4.8kms)

ASCENT
153ft (47m)
TIME
1hr 30min
GRADIENT
DIFFICULTY
Easy
STARTING POINT
TQ654103

About the walk

A romantic-looking 15th-century moated castle set in beautiful parkland and superb Elizabethan gardens, Herstmonceux perfectly captures the essence of medieval England, although it is actually inspired by the French chateaux of the period. At the time William, Duke of Normandy marched through Sussex to do battle with Harold and his Saxon army, Herstmonceux was probably no more than a small manor. Herst is a Saxon word meaning ‘clearing’, and Monceux comes from Drogo de Monceux, a relative of William.

The land later passed to the Fiennes family, ancestors of Ralph Fiennes and his brother Joseph, two of Britain’s leading contemporary actors. It was in 1441 that Sir Roger de Fiennes, treasurer of the royal household, applied for a royal licence to build a castle here – though he wanted to use it to entertain his friends, not to defend his country. When first erected it was the only building in England of its size to be formed of bricks. Herstmonceux is also perhaps the first example of a ‘sham’ – a country pile disguised as a castle. Much of the interior was demolished in 1776 to build nearby Herstmonceux Place, which is glimpsed from a distance on this walk, and which from 1807 to 1819 was the residence of Thomas Read Kemp, the founder of Kemptown in Brighton.

By Victorian times, the castle was little more than a romantic ruin. Herstmonceux Castle was rebuilt in 1911, and in 1947 it became the home of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, which had been established on the east side of London in 1646 under Charles II, with the purpose of recording the position of the stars as a navigation aid to sailors. Due to increasing light pollution, the observatory relocated again in 1984, this time to La Palma in the Canary Islands. The castle and grounds were bought by Queen’s University, Ontario, for use as an international study centre, a role that continues to this day. During late August, the whole site is transformed by a huge medieval festival featuring knights in armour, falconry displays, jousting tournaments, strolling minstrels and jesters. In sharp contrast to the castle are the buildings of the Observatory Science Centre next door. These famous green domes still house large telescopes, and it is possible to come on open evenings and see the night sky close up.

Walk directions

From the lay-by, make for the entrance to the Science Centre, cross Wartling Road to a stile and enter the extensive woodland. Turn left at a T-junction by a signpost and continue on the straight footpath, picking your way through the trees.

Eventually you will reach a stile. Turn left, then immediately left again onto Wood Lane. Follow the road, with the coppiced woodland and an ancient boundary bank seen on the left.

Reach a road junction and cross over to a signposted bridleway. Continue ahead through the woodland on a path that is initially concrete. Just after a path joins from the left, pass a reed-clogged lake (one of a chain of ponds), and carry on along the wide path between the trees.

Emerge into farmland by a galvanised gate, with a view of 18th-century Herstmonceux Place. Turn left along a track across the field, then turn left again at a junction of tracks, before forking right to go through a gate. Veer left at a waymark by a concrete trough. Cross the field, heading up the slope to reach a line of trees. Look for a gate, avoid the immediate fork to the left, and follow the level path through the woodland. Cross over a path and then continue walking along the bridleway.

Reach the road and turn left. Just past Herstmonceux church, turn left on the 1066 Country Walk and follow the concrete drive to a gate to the left of the entrance to Church Farm House.

Cross over a tarmac lane serving the study centre and, as you descend the slope, the domes of the old observatory begin to peep into view just above the trees. Make for the next galvanised gate and an impressive view of Herstmonceux Castle over on the left. Cross a footpath to another gate. Begin a gradual, though not particularly steep, climb and continue on the 1066 Country Walk as it runs hard by the Science Centre boundary. Follow the woodland path to the road, turn left and return to the lay-by.

Additional information

Woodland and field paths, country lanes

Wood, farmland and parkland on edge of Pevensey Levels

On lead in woodland, off lead on 1066 Country Walk

OS Explorer 124 Hastings & Bexhill

Small lay-by on Wartling Road, south of A271, near entrance to The Observatory Science Centre

None on route

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WALKING IN SAFETY

Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.

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About the area

Discover East Sussex

East Sussex, along with its western counterpart, is packed with interest. This is a land of stately homes and castles, miles of breezy chalk cliffs overlooking the English Channel, pretty rivers, picturesque villages and links to our glorious past. Mention Sussex to many people and images of the South Downs immediately spring to mind – ‘vast, smooth, shaven, serene,’ as the writer Virginia Woolf described them. She and her husband lived at Monk’s House in the village of Rodmell, near Lewes, and today, her modest home is managed by the National Trust and open to the public.

There are a great many historic landmarks within Sussex, but probably the most famous is the battlefield where William, Duke of Normandy defeated Harold and his Saxon army to become William the Conqueror of England. By visiting Battle, near Hastings, you can, with a little imagination, picture the bloody events that led to his defeat. East Sussex’s pretty towns such as Lewes, Rye and Uckfield have their charms, while the city of Brighton offers museums and fascinating landmarks, the best-known and grandest feature being the Royal Pavilion. 

 

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