Hidden Valley. That’s what they called it. Not everyone, just a few friends, some of the ones that ride mountain bikes. Not everyone knows about this place. Hidden Valley. It sounded mythical or far away, but it’s not, it’s on the edge of the city, right behind the houses. Though once there you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. Secluded, seemingly isolated. Hidden Valley. That’s not the name printed on the OS map. On the map it has many names as it is formed of a handful of combes – Balsdean Bottom, Falmer Bottom, Newmarket Bottom, Standean Bottom, Stump Bottom – it is from that first one that it has inherited its given name, Balsdean. In the South Downs country of the Deans; Saltdean, Woodingdean, Rottingdean, Ovingdean, Roedean, there was also the hamlet of Balsdean. Once all villages located in the shallow valleys of the Downs between Brighton and Lewes and the sea most have been consumed by the urban spread of the south coast, still separated by hills but the old village centres lost amongst modern housing and busy roads. However Balsdean – Beald’s Valley – is a truly lost village.
Existing from medieval times, with human activity as far back as Roman and Saxon times, the hamlet consisted of two farms, Sutton and Norton, the first commonly known as Balsdean Farm. There were also a couple of cottages and a Norman chapel. The chapel was deconsecrated and used as a barn by the 20th century but by halfway through the Second World War none of this existed anymore. It wasn’t destroyed by enemy bombing though, the valley was used by British and Canadian troops for practice in the lead up to the Dieppe Raid and it is they who flattened it. There are still clues to what happened here. There are small dips and divots that don’t comply with the usual soft lines of the Downs. Then you realise they are the remains of old craters from bombs and ordnance slowly softening back into the landscape. It is still farmed though, both crops and grazing. Many evenings I’ve ridden through here when tractors at seeming impossible angles draw stripes across the hillsides.
The chapelry of Balsdean existed within the parish of Rottingdean but separated by High Hill, and if you enter the hidden valley using Bazehill Road you cross over High Hill which is where the modern Balsdean farmhouse stands. From here you can still see Brighton to the west and Rottingdean and the sea behind you, but within a few metres you have dropped into the quiet of the valley. I say quiet, I did once follow the sound of an illegal rave from the top of the hill outside Newhaven five or six miles away all the way here. Ravers, they know the hiding places too. They were in Falmer Bottom and that night I wild camped with friends on the side of Standean Bottom one hill away and we barely heard a sound. The wind didn’t carry the music around the corner. Hidden from each other in Hidden Valley and all of us hidden from everyone else. Despite that fact you are within a mile or so in various directions as the crow flies from towns and roads you are oblivious to it all. In Standean Bottom we were barely a few hundred metres from the houses of Woodingdean but down here you are in a pool of silence sequestered in the downland. The valley wriggles through the hills, something that is not so obvious when you are in it but is clear when you view it from Kingston Ridge or Swanborough Hill to the north. Up there you can see the farm tracks twisting between the hills which look to interlock like teeth from giant green cogs. On days when a fret hangs low in the bottoms they look more like headlands disappearing into a white sea.
Brighton based band Grasscut made an album about this place. Their music is often about place but their debut album 1 inch: ½ Mile is firmly located in this very particular space. It even comes with a map of the valley with marked locations for listening to each song, from the gate off Norton Drove between Newmarket and Bullock hills down to the ruined barns in the valley. Barns built and left to decay since the war time destruction. I’ll often find my way into the valley from that gate, and following that path skirting in an arc around the contours of Bullock Hill into Standean Bottom. A path cut into the hill by Italian prisoners of war I’ve been told. Dropping smoothly into the valley, sometimes fleet skies above, rapidly shifting and morphing clouds cast a shadow map of an ever changing sky across the soft curves of the shallow valley. Other times at dawn on clear days sunlight catches on the edges before being slowly rolled out down the hillsides. One winter’s morning I entered the valley through this gate in cloud and the valley slowly revealed itself as I descended to its base, mist wrapping around trees and getting tangled in the branches, cold wet air catching the back of my throat as my tyres struggled for grip on the mud and leaf mulch below.
From the south I rarely enter from Bazehill Road (I come to this place to avoid tarmac) but from the paths from Telscombe Tye or Swanborough Hill, both paths converging near a gate where the track dips in and out of a field along a fenceline, a track called You Never Can Tell With Heffalumps to even fewer of the same friends that know this place as Hidden Valley. No one remembers why. The hills are low this end of the valley but at certain times of year ploughed ruts make the contours of the hills more pronounced, shadows cast by a low sun accentuating them even more. Mostly crops are grown at this end, but the other end is for grazing, usually sheep in the middle by the barns and cows at the far end below Kingston Ridge. It’s not often I venture that far, into Balsdean and Stump Bottoms where it is often boggy and rutted and to get there you have to cross a field where the path is not always obvious amongst the barley or beets. One morning I got to a gate in the shadows of Balsdean Bottom and a bull just stood and stared at me, turned to look at his cows, turned back to me and snorted. I turned around and went back the way I came. I often think that the farmer would prefer it if there wasn’t a path through this end of the valley. The twist and curve of the hills close in on you this end and it always seems damp and cold. I remember Shirley Collins, the English folk singer, also saying this in The Quietus Hour, “cold, even in the height of summer” and going on to say she feels there’s “something unpleasant there”.
Maybe that’s why I don’t venture to that end of the valley that often, or maybe because the other way in and out at this end is a steep path of rubble of chalk and flint. There are other ways into the valley too. A steep chalk path from Castle Hill through the nature reserve, or through the field on the side of The Bostle that turns into what seems to be an old drovers track worn into the chalk, steepening as it turns and sharply drops to the junction of paths and tracks near where the old village of Balsdean once stood but now only trees stand.
It’s not really on the way to anywhere but always worth the detour to visit, often an excursion on the extended work day commute between Brighton and Lewes. Hence more often than not I am here at the start or end of the day when the light is fading and the colours muted. Spring and autumn the base of the valley will be in shade because despite the shallowness sunlight rarely reaches down here when I’m passing through. At twilight there’s little to see other than the ripple of hilltops against the deepening blue-black. Some mornings I might be running a bit late and don’t stop but most times I’ll stop just for a moment to listen to the silence or watch the stillness, forgetting how close I am to busyness of life just over the hills in all directions. Even the low level traffic hum of the A27 present elsewhere on the Downs around here doesn’t encroach upon this place. Early mornings you have the place to yourself. Not quite yourself maybe, this place belongs to the cows and sheep, the larks and crows. I just borrow it for a few moments every now and again. It’s a good place to hide, to be alone, to think.