The Wealdway is an intimate and heart-warming journey across the varied and tranquil countryside of rural South East England. Taking in two historic counties, two beautiful Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and one national park, it is a long-distance trail of high calibre.
It’s an 80-mile (127 km) adventure that effectively runs from coast to coast. Starting on the Thames Estuary at Gravesend, it journeys over the beautiful Kent Downs AONB; explores the verdant Medway Valley; crosses into East Sussex and the High Weald AONB, climbing to its spectacular high point in Ashdown Forest, before descending into the Low Weald; and finally coming to a climax on the South Downs above Eastbourne.
It is an undulating journey, with gradual inclines to escarpment viewpoints, followed by gentle descents to gorgeous river valleys thronged with colour and life. Quintessentially charming English villages dot the route, but the trail mostly seeks out serenity over settlement.
The region is rich in ancient history, from Neolithic times and the Romans, to the era of the monasteries and the boom of the industrial revolution and specifically the Wealden iron industry. The wheel of time has left its mark right across this ancient landscape.
Some choose to tackle the Wealdway from south to north, finishing in Gravesend. In this Collection, I have opted to go with the traditional bearing, starting at the Thames and heading south. This way the spectacular finale on the South Downs above Eastbourne is saved for last. I have split the route into 8 stages that vary in length between 8 and 16 miles (12.9 and 25.7 km). It is an itinerary that could be tackled any time of year, though the route is at its most colourful in late spring.
The kindness of the gradients makes this a hillwalking adventure that is suitable for all, regardless of age, experience or fitness. Better still, the route is waymarked throughout with finger posts and arrowed wooden pillars. Although the route purposefully avoids human habitation where possible, villages or towns are still visited during each section, with detours to other settlements also feasible.
There’s usually a couple of options for lunch during each stage, though advance planning and booking is recommended. This means you won’t have to carry too many provisions with you. However, some sections involve high walking on ground exposed to the elements. Warm layers and waterproofs are highly recommended, whilst the clay soil found in the Low Weald is especially boggy after rainfall, so study, waterproof boots are also a must.
Each stage ends near accommodation and, where there are fewer options, I recommend specific lodgings in the Tour descriptions. It is well worth booking in advance along the route or planning route deviations to alternatives before setting out on the trail.
Gravesend is an hour from Central London by train, whilst the A2 passes very close to the Wealdway’s official start point. Eastbourne is also accessible by train from London, with the faster services taking less than an hour and a half from Victoria. Brighton is also only a forty-minute direct train away.
The first stage takes you across the gentle hills of the Kent Downs, through some absurdly pretty villages, and to the crest of the chalk escarpment. From this vantage, orchards, fields and woodland roll away to the southern horizon. After descending from the scarp, you discover Coldrum Longbarrow, before ending the stage in the tiny settlement of Wrotham Heath.
Although the Wealdway technically starts from the A2, 2 miles (3.2 km) to the south, I have started the route from the train station in Gravesend town centre. Once you’ve picked up your hiking snacks and got your bearings, head south on Wrotham Road, joining the official start of the trail beyond the A2.
Now in the countryside, you ascend gradually and pass through the lovely villages of Sole Street and Luddesdown. I’ve added a detour to the picturesque village of Cobham, a conservation area that was beloved of Charles Dickens and featured in his original novel, The Pickwick Papers.
Continue south, with gently sloping, verdant hills on either side. At Whitehorse Wood, you come to a grand viewpoint at the crest of the North Downs escarpment. The Medway Valley sprawls below, and the Weald stretches as far as the eye can see. You descend the scarp and discover the Coldrum Longbarrow, one of the most important archaeological sites in Kent.
After this, you cross under the M20, stride on past Addington and arrive at Wrotham Heath. Its location close to a motorway junction means there is both a Holiday Inn and a Premier Inn to choose from here. For something a bit more intimate, there’s the luxurious bed and breakfast facilities at Pretty Maid House.
You leave the chalk downland of the previous stage behind and stride out into the clay and sandy soil of the Weald on this 13.8-mile (22.2 km) hike. Civilisation is sparser, so it’s a good idea to plan your meals ahead, paying attention to opening times.
From Wrotham Heath, you head south through pretty woodland and conifer plantations. If you hit the trail in late spring, the latter is pleasantly adorned with rhododendrons. You gradually ascend along the western flank of Mereworth Woods to an escarpment at Gover Hill. The view to the Medway Valley’s verdant pastures is particularly fine from this vantage.
After descending, continue along a flat path that is prone to muddy conditions after rainfall. You pass through West Peckham, the last village for 4 miles (6.4 km) and continue south. The fruit trees along this section are wonderful, particularly the apple blossom in late spring.
Eventually, the trail meets the River Medway, which it follows west all the way to the market town of Tonbridge. In spring, you can expect a riot of colour as you amble along the river, all to the soundtrack of birdsong.
Its honey-hued sandstone buildings and impressive 11th-century castle make Tonbridge a visual treat. The Best Western Rose and Crown Hotel is the pick of the accommodation in the town centre.
Get recommendations on the best single tracks, peaks, & plenty of other exciting outdoor places.
In this stage you cross delightful Wealden countryside, ascending to an escarpment at Bidborough and rambling up and down through rolling, rural pastures. There are some interesting cottages and manors to discover and more wildlife to spot along the River Medway.
You leave Tonbridge and head alongside the Medway once more. Compared to the previous stage’s river section, it is not as tranquil and feels less wild, but there is still plenty of interest. In late spring, large dragonflies zip about and birdsong can still be heard along the banks. Eventually you turn south, cross the river, the railway, and then the A21.
From here you ascend gradually to the attractive village of Bidborough, with a pretty church in its centre. The village occupies a lofty perch at the top of Bidborough Ridge at 470 feet (142 m), with pleasant views back into the valley. The Kentish Hare does excellent lunch, though advance booking is recommended.
Your path arcs around and bears south west on an undulating journey through meadows, fields and woodland, ascending little hills and descending into quiet dales. You pass through the village of Speldhurst on your way to the stage’s end at Fordcombe. I’ve added a short detour to Poundsbridge Manor, a wonderful 16th-century oak timber-framed house near Speldhurst.
Accommodation is sparse around Fordcombe, with Manor Court Farm the only option for a few miles. The other alternative is to head for the historic town of Royal Tunbridge Wells, either on foot or by catching the 231 bus service.
Glorious, open countryside awaits on this stage of the Wealdway, as you acquaint yourself with the River Medway once more, pass through the solitary village of Withyham and ascend to the heathland of the ancient Ashdown Forest. From this high ground, you discover some of the most soul-stirring views in the South East.
From Fordcombe, you head south west, rejoining the River Medway where it meets the River Grom. Bid farewell to Kent’s green pastures, as you follow the Medway into East Sussex. After spending 2 miles (3.2 km) following the river’s course, you make for Withyham. This is the only village you visit today, so a lunch stop at the Dorset Arms, which serves excellent food, might be in order.
After Withyham, the route begins its almost imperceptible climb towards the highest point on the Wealdway: Ashdown Forest’s Greenwood Gate Clump at 732 feet (223 m). Before this, you ramble through the wonderful Hundred Acre Wood, which has survived the effects of grazing, having been enclosed 300 years ago and planted with new trees.
Ashdown Forest’s heathland is the remnant of what was in Roman times the great Forest of Anderida. A panorama including the North and South Downs accompanies you, as you arrive at Greenwood Gate Clump. From here it’s another 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to the stage’s end point beyond Camp Hill. Poundgate Park Holiday Cottage, Dodds Grove B&B and Old Mill Farm B&B are all nearby. Due to lack of options elsewhere, advance booking is essential.
This stage continues to shun civilisation in favour of rural pastures, as you continue your ramble in the territory of Ashdown Forest and through Buxted Deer Park. The only village on the trail is Blackboys at the stage’s end, however a detour into Fairwarp, Buxted or Uxfield is perfectly feasible for a pub meal or a sandwich.
From the trail at Camp Hill, you descend to the level ground of the Low Weald, walking through a patchwork of heath and woodland. The colours delight in any season here, with deep purple heather in autumn, a dusting of white in winter or the cornucopia of late spring.
The going can be boggy after rainfall, but you won’t mind because of the abundant wildlife on display, from dragonflies in summer to hen harriers in winter. After Fairwarp, you pass through Hendall Wood and head for the estate of Buxted Park. Its artificial lake is inhabited by exotic birds and the park has a large herd of deer. This is a good time to divert to either Buxted or Uxfield for a spot of lunch.
After Buxted Park, you head south east through a mixture of woodland and farmland to reach the village of Blackboys. Its 14th-century coaching inn is the perfect place to rest your head. Along with a couple of holiday cottages, it is the only accommodation in the area so book in advance.
Having left the High Weald behind at Ashdown Forest, you now venture across the land of the Low Weald. Whilst not as windswept and rugged, this land is still less cultivated than you might think and settlements are sparse. East Hoathly and Chiddingly are the only other villages you will come across between Blackboys and Hellingly, at the end of the stage.
From Blackboys, head south through fields and woodland. After periods of rainfall, the clay soil found in this region can be boggy and slippery underfoot, so take care. Woodland sections are a visual treat in spring and summer. Those usual suspects, the bluebells, are out in force. Though they do not have the monopoly; other wildflowers also bid for your attention.
The Kings Head at East Hoathly is a Grade II-listed building and is a good shout for a spot of lunch. You continue south east through farmland to Chiddingly, where the Six Bells is another option for a refuel and where I’ve added an optional detour to the charming but small Bolt Wood. The trail takes you on, past several farmsteads, which represent the scattered nature of the parishes found in the region.
Eventually, you arrive in picturesque Hellingly at the confluence of the Rivers Cuckmere and Bull. Globe Place Bed and Breakfast is a good option, whilst there’s a Travelodge on the A22, a 20-minute walk to the south west.
The penultimate stage crosses the flat land between the Weald and the South Downs, ending at Wilmington. The surrounding countryside becomes more obviously fertile than on the previous stage, as you approach the springy chalk grasslands of the South Downs.
From Hellingly, you follow the River Cuckmere and skirt the market town of Hailsham. You amble through fields by the river and cross a bridge, where I recommend a detour to see the Michelham Priory. Next is the village of Upper Dicker, a medieval centre for trade. Here, the Plough serves excellent food and its sun terraces are wonderfully welcome on a summer day.
The trail continues to follow the Cuckmere, crossing once again and bringing you to the small village of Arlington and its St Pancras Church, which dates back to Saxon times. Beyond Arlington, you leave the Cuckmere behind, cross the railway and make for Wilmington.
The village of Wilmington is most famous for the Wilmington Long Man, an ancient hill figure carved into the chalk hillside. A closer acquaintance will be made in the next stage. There are a number of quaint accommodation options in the village but do book in advance.
You ascend onto the glorious South Downs for the final stage, before finishing in the seaside town of Eastbourne. There’s much of interest here, from the mysterious Long Man of Wilmington chalk figure, the ancient Neolithic remains at Combe Hill and two historic hamlets in Folkington and Jevington.
From Wilmington, head south towards the South Downs escarpment, with the Long Man of Wilmington clearly ahead. At 235 feet (72 m) tall, the Long Man is reputed to be the largest such representation of a human figure in Europe and its origin still remains a mystery. After taking the obligatory photos, you descend east to the village of Folkington, with its impressive manor house and pretty church.
After this, the trail arcs and heads south once more to the small village of Jevington, said to be the origin of banoffee pie. The Eight Bells is a good lunch stop, before you tackle the main ascent of the day.
You gradually ascend to Combe Hill at 636 feet (194 m), enjoying marvellous views of the rolling Downs and the sea beyond. If you look closely, you may spot clues to the hill’s former use as a Neolithic enclosure — some of the earliest evidence of animal husbandry in Britain.
Staying high, you traverse south along the escarpment towards the official end of the Wealdway at the A295. I have planned a route all the way into Eastbourne Pier, not far from the train station if needed. With magnificent coastal scenery and splendid countryside, Eastbourne is popular with hikers. Amenities and accommodation are plentiful in the town.