Within the Hundred of Pevensey Lowey within in the Rape of Pevensey, and containing yet smaller divisions – Horse Eye Level, Down Level, Manxey Level, Whelpley Level, Hooe Level – Pevensey Levels are a strange land. Reclaimed flatlands of soft clay sediments between the chalk hills of the South Downs to the south-east, and the sandstones of the High Weald to the north and east. From a tidal estuary to saltmarshes to wetland meadows, hints of its past are printed on maps and embedded in place names. Names of farms and settlements scattered across the Levels on slightly raised land, once an archipelago of clay islands in the wide shallow tidal bay, retain suffixes derived from old English for island ‘eye’ or ‘eyot’ – Rickney, Manxey, Northeye, Chilley. Pevensey itself.
The usual markings covering the rest of Sussex on a map – orange contours, green shaded woodland, black lines dividing fields – are all replaced by a white expanse crisscrossed with an irregular grid of blue lines; streams, ditches, sewers, guts, havens, fleets. It feels inverted. Elsewhere hedges separate fields, and narrow lanes are worn into the landscape, here roads are raised above fields which are delineated by waterways. To the north you can see the hills of the High Weald, one of the domes of Herstmonceux Observatory peaking above the trees. To the south-east the familiar shape of the escarpment slopes of the South Downs. To the south-west it’s flat all the way Pevensey Castle and the English Channel beyond. However on those days when the clouds hang low and the land melds into the sky you are transported into an unfluctuating linear world.
New Bridge Road runs for 3 miles from near Herstmonceux in the north to Rickney Farm in the south. You ride New Bridge Lane in the hope of a few minutes respite from the exertion of the surrounding hills as you transfer from the High Weald to the Downs or vice versa. The wind usually sees an end to this hope. If you’re lucky you be pushed across the levels, but more likely you’ll be battered from the side or get a face full of wind. The road isn’t straight, it bends and weaves mirroring the streams that meander across the levels, finding their way to the sea.
From Herstmonceux you ride along a narrow hedgelined lane, around a couple of blind corners, and then suddenly the landscape opens in front of you. A couple of sweeping bends through reeds, past a farmhouse and over the red brick New Bridge. More bends, some tight, some gentle. There aren’t many trees here just occassional willows and hawthorns, but rushes and reeds line the road, green and lush in summer, spindley orange-yellow in winter. One day they will lean to the west, another day to the east, an evolving archive of the prevailing wind. Imitating the landscape the tarmac is smooth so you can spin along at a pace (when the wind allows you!) leaning in and out of corners like reeds flexing in the wind. If there are cars on the levels drivers here seem to be calmer and friendlier, always willing to give you space giving a wave or smile as they pass.
There is a slight bump as you pass Horse Eye farm on a tight corner then the road straightens, a stream on both sides, sheep usually grazing as far as the eye can see. Telegraph lines and power lines stretch away diagonally across the levels adding another layer of linearity to the view. Over another narrow brick bridge and you reach a T-junction and the end of New Bridge Road. Turning left here, you then have to avoid the turkeys, chickens, cats and dogs of Rickney Farm in the road before heading further across the levels to the castle or coast, or double back on yourself over another bridge for Hankham and the downs beyond.
First published by Nowhere Fast Cycle Club in October 2013