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The Cockshut from Source to the Ouse

The Cockshut

Ever since the talk given by Marcus Taylor at the River Festival in September on the Cockshut I’ve been waiting for enough rain to have replenished the aquifer so that I could go on a hunt for its source. I was there yesterday (2 November 2022).

The Cockshut rises below Kingston Ridge on the eastern edge of Kingston village and enters the River Ouse on the other side of the Railway Bridge at the end of Ham Lane behind Lewes Recycling Centre. 

The word ‘Cockshut’, Marcus explained, derives from middle-age English to describe ‘netting used to enclose an area to trap snipe or woodcock’ – suggesting that what was once a large marshy area south of Lewes was used in this way as a ‘cock shute’. He offered some additional possible derivations of the name, but favoured this one. The marshiness and tidal flooding has now long since been managed by culverts and drainage ditches, though persistent heavy rain will still swamp the fields around where the Cockshut runs.

The Cockshut always has water in it, though where, when and even whether it flows is another matter. It rises from a spring, to quote Marcus ‘under a hawthorn bush’ just west of Stanley Turner Recreation Ground in a field on the other side of Spring Barn Farm towards Kingston.

On close inspection you find a hawthorn hedge rather than a bush, with the Cockshut appearing either side of a farm drainage pipe which allows access between fields for animals to two adjoining fields. After heavy rain there is a steady trickle of water under the hedge which runs towards a large busy farmyard. For a hundred yards or so the Cockshut and the hedge are synonymous, until it appears as a narrow stream for 50 yards and then goes through another pipe, again to allow access to the field and runs the length of the farmyard just north of a couple of fishing ponds. 

The Cockshut continues, contained in a straightened ditch or culverted its entire length next going under the Kingston Road now hidden under a dense bed of brambles and nettles or appearing between the low branches of shrubs and trees by the road. With barely any incline the lack of gravity appears to bring it to a halt and you have to wonder how the Cockshut can run at all. Signs point you back and forth along various South Downs Walks, including the Egret’s Way. 

For a stretch by the pedestrian and cycle path it is hidden in a wet ditch, before being culverted for a short stretch to appear along the southern perimeter of Stanley Turner Rugby and Cricket Ground.

Much of  the lower Ouse from here south to Newhaven flooded with tidal water making this entire area south of the A27 to the Ouse a marsh. Drainage ditches now abound and generally do the job and cattle are often on the fields. 

The Cockshut is its most enchanting around the meadow south of Stanley Turner, bordered as it is with mature, mostly pollarded willow and home to swans and moorhens. The Recreation Ground, parking, walks around the sports fields and onto the meadow make it a busy spot for dog walkers.

It also provides panoramic views southwest to the Downs and Kingston Ridge, south east to Firle, east to Mount Caburn and at various points north to Lewes Castle.

Mist fills the hollows in winter and rows of a variety of mature deciduous trees announce the seasons. By chance you will cross the Greenwich Meridian here as you join the Meridian Walk for a matter of a few steps: it runs north through Lewes (Southover, High Street, Landport and beyond) and south to Southease. Don’t let me paint a picture of tranquillity though, as the experience requires acceptance of the noise from the often busy A27 Lewes by-pass. 

The straightened length of the Cockshut that forms the boundary of the Recreation Ground was last cleared in 2013. Since then something of an avenue of willows has grown up through the sludge by the path around the meadow. 

There are Lewes District Council plans for the meadow and Cockshut to reduce the presence of parrot feather which is choking the water, slowing down and preventing flow. It outcompetes native vegetation and blocks light. The idea, once the funding is in place, is to create a wetland habit – to ‘put the wiggles back’ and to include a couple of ponds. These plans were shared in separate talks at the River Summit given by Peter King of the Ouse and Adur Trust, and Matthew Bird of Sussex Wildlife and Lewes District Council – details can be found on their respective websites. 

Planning Application SDNP/21/06027/FUL 6.8ha wetland habitat north of Lewes Brooks, including realignment of the existing Cockshut channel with the current route being infilled with spoil, a new channel created and groundworks creating a series of pools and raised areas. Construction of a bund to the southern boundary of the site. Alterations to access to the site and creation of a circular walk with bridge crossings and some areas of paved footpath. 

South Downs National Park Planning 21 December 2021

We might skip the history of the building of the Lewes bypass (unless others would like to enlighten me) and move on to Southover Sports Club, Ham Lane and the more intriguing 940 year old history of Lewes Priory. 

The Priory, was the First Cluniac priory in England, was built not long after Norman Conquest as part of the Rape of Lewes by William de Warenne who was also responsible for the Castle. Both the Winterbourne and Cockshut, more akin to small tributaries of the Ouse or tidal creeks, flooded with the high tide and gave access to the Priory and to town at the bottom of Watergate Lane, by low draft boats.  

The Cockshut and Winterbourne have flooded six times in 120 years. Persistent heavy rain on an already saturated chalk aquifer combined with a spring tide will do the job. In October 2000 a month’s rain over a couple of days combined with an incoming tide to cause flooding, as in 1911 and 1960. As I write the Environment Agency are completing repairs to the embankment along the Ouse from the A27 into town via the Railway Land, which should provide protection from the river, flooding again – though it won’t stop rain falling across the Downs pooling where it gravitates –  the length of Winterbourne and Cockshut.

The other side of the A27, the Cockshut, straightened with a narrow path alongside it, is little more than a wide, water filled ditch, with a preponderance of parrot feather, dense beds of nettles, and until removed a year ago and burnt, a patch of invasive Japanese knotweed. There is access to Southover, the Priory Ruins and Convent Field and the path offers pretty views of the Castle,, though it is considerably blighted by the traffic that thunders back and forth along the dualled A27 Lewes bypass as it races between the Ashcombe Hollow and Southerham roundabouts. 

Though easily followed via Ham Lane the Cockshut is barely visible and not accessible behind dense overgrowth just north of the Lewes Waste Recycling Centre – its journey ends through a sluice in front of concrete legs of the railway bridge which carries trains between London and Brighton to Eastbourne and beyond via Lewes. It is always covered in assorted graffiti tags and urban art.

By walking under the bridge onto the water meadow you can walk into town along the Ouse into Town to the Railway Land and enjoy views of distinct white chalk of the Cliffe. 

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Malling Down Nature Reserve, Lewes Sunday 21st November 202

I have to admit to ticking off a walk out of Lewes I have never done before, although I have approached parts of it from the north and south. My desire is to see autumn trees but with the sun so low we decided to keep out of The Combe. 

As each of these maps from OpenStreetMap, Google Maps and Ordnance Survey show the same thing: a strip of trees in the shady lee of the coombe. Instead we parked on the street off Malling Hill and took a path onto Malling Hill to Cliffe Hill, walked around the side of Lewes Golf Course then battled a chill northerly wind to the old chalk pit and the walk back.

I can’t say I took much pleasure in it.

In a ridiculous over statement Sussex Wildlife call the Malling Nature Reserve ‘a superb chalk grassland and scrub’. The same author calls Lewes ‘quaint’. The clichés depress me.

I would call Malling Nature mediocre; it gives the impression of a patch of exposed Downland that is overgrazed, over managed and over trod. It is an urban park, a dog and human playground squeezed in against the edge of a popular town with busy roads in ear shot and a golf course along its southern boundary.

There are multiple gates to negotiate each with a set of signs with conflicting messages regarding ownership, what you should or should do with your dog and the presence of sheep in the field (or not) – though there were no sheep present anywhere when we visited. The signs warning of sheep are secured by clips to the wooden gates and are clearly left in place regardless of whether there are sheep present or not. Someone has not been told the story of the boy who cried ‘Wolf!’. Ignoring the signs is inevitable.

Here at least the importance of picking up dog shit is explained; on the Landport in the distance across to the west of the town and visible from Malling Hill the attitude I have had expressed to me in person on the ground and online in meetings of the Friends of Landport Bottom that on ‘open countryside’ dogs can do what they please, were they please.

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