This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Vanguards, a distinguished group of walkers who invented the 66-mile Vanguard Way between Croydon and Newhaven, and thence to France. To celebrate their anniversary they organised a walk of the way in seven stages, ending on 25 September with the walk from Berwick Station to Newhaven harbour. I was invited to join them and to present the certificates to those who completed the route—in part to celebrate the Open Spaces Society’s 150th anniversary: the OSS is a century older than the Vanguards.
The Vanguards are redolent of the age of ramblers’ excursions by railway, from London and other cities, into the countryside for a day’s hike, returning late in the evening (trains then were more frequent, reliable and affordable). Vanguard Colin Saunders wrote in the anniversary booklet VG50 how they were conceived:
… on Easter Sunday 18 April 1965, during the homeward journey of an excursion to Axminster and Seaton in Devon. They wanted to sit together but all the compartments had been taken. So they commandeered the guard’s van and sat on the floor. Someone produced a bottle of Drambuie and passed it round, which led to a certain amount of bonhomie, merriment and singing of rugby songs.
They wanted that congeniality to continue, and agreed to meet next day, Easter Monday, for a walk in Richmond Park, when someone suggested they should establish their own rambling club. For a name they had only to remember the previous day’s outing… and the Vanguards Rambling Club was born!
Colin is quite a historian, and he has also written an excellent book about the early rail rambles—Rambling Away From the Smoke (Footline Press, £6).
The rule for the Vanguards is similar to that for public paths—instead of once a highway always a highway, it’s once a Vanguard always a Vanguard. So they have over 400 members, some of them now overseas.
The organisation probably survives because it is informal, it is not bureaucratic, there is no constitution, the membership fee is small, (£8 by email, £10 by post), there is a monthly newsletter, a series of walks and various social events. They are a happy band of walkers.
The Vanguard Way was opened by the Ramblers chief executive, Alan Mattingly, on 3 May 1981 at Gill’s Lap in Ashdown Forest. On 6 May 1998 when I was chairman of the Ramblers, I unveiled a plaque on Berwick Station to mark the relaunch of the way, its extension from Seaford to Newhaven, and the third edition of the guidebook.
So I was delighted to step off the train on Friday and find the plaque in good order. Colin gave it a quick polish, we took group photos and then set off.
We crossed the fields and the A27 road, with the magnetic lure of the downs ahead of us, to Berwick village where we took the path by the church. This crosses open fields to Alfriston and is a fine example of a path which has been left unploughed.
The law is that a farmer must not plough a cross-field path where it is reasonably convenient to avoid doing so; too often this is ignored but clearly this farmer is able to avoid ploughing the path and has obeyed the law.
After a stop in Alfriston for coffee or beer, we followed the path beside the River Cuckmere to Litlington.
Then it was up the hill and down through Friston Forest and West Dean, and up another hill from which we enjoyed a magnificent view of the meanders of the Cuckmere River.
After lunch at the Cuckmere Inn we followed the river down to Cuckmere Haven, with a view of the Seven Sisters. Here the cliffs are falling away at an alarming rate. When Natural England maps the coastal access here it will make provision for cliff erosion by identifying the points to which the coastal path will roll back, so we shall retain our coastal access as the coast moves.
We climbed the hill, constantly looking back as the view of the Seven Sisters unfolded. A cry alerted us to a peregrine with prey in its talons being pursued by a gull and we were rewarded with a fine sighting of the peregrine perched on the cliff.
We went on to Seaford Head (where the trig point has already crumbled into the sea) and after a last look at the Sisters, turned to face the towns below—Seaford, Newhaven, Shoreham, Brighton, right round to the Isle of Wight in the mist.
We went down to the Martello Tower where I presented certificates, carefully designed by Lesley Secker, to all those who had completed the walk, and received one myself (not strictly correct I’m afraid as I decided to peel off at Seaford to catch a train home before dark).
Then we parted, and thus ended a perfect day of walking in bright sunshine and grand scenery, with excellent company.