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The Winterbourne from source to the Ouse, Lewes, East Sussex
The Winterbourne is a fascinating seasonal stream cum ditch, often in a culvert which runs through Lewes from a little East of the town out along the A27 Brighton Road to West, entering the River Ouse next to the Linklater Pavilion. Its history and geography were explained in an illustrated talk by Marcus Taylor, who has lived in Lewes since the late 1960s, taught Geography for 35 years and was a trustee of Friends of Lewes for a decade.
The word ‘Winterbourne’, we learn, describes what is, for much of the year. A dry channel most of the year. It is a stream or brook that is literally ‘born again’ in the winter once the water table has risen high enough – though it failed for two years in the late 1980s and some years will be late to run, and early to run dry. Living close by for the last 15 years I can record that the Winterbourne has run, even flooded occasionally, though never earlier than December and then sometimes lasting in flow through to early May before drying out completely for the rest of spring, summer and autumn.
The source of the Winterbourne is somewhere west of the Newmarket Inn. The spring is illusive – it is somewhere in a ditch between the A27 and the railway in the lowest lying land that drops down from the Downs north and south. It is only obvious when the water table is high.
Anyone travelling regularly on the A27 will be familiar with flooding between the Ashcombe Roundabout and Newmarket Inn, for short spells these days after intense rainfall (early September 2022) or every five or so years in December after a longer period of rain when the water table has been saturated.
In the 1960s water flooded the Brighton Road and was photographed flooding off the Downs in a torrent.
From an inauspicious start in a hard-to-find spring, followed by a short section of ditch, the Winterbourne, in short order, somewhere around Ashcombe Hollow, is channelled under the A27 dual-carriageway, the roundabout and Bright to Lewes rail line, only to reappear intermittently (if at all) as a stream or ditch between the Brighton Road into Lewes and Hamsey Riding Stables. It finally emerges from a large drainage pipe or tunnel next to Houndean Allotments.
The banks of the Winterbourne are dark and damp enough to favour ferns. On the right the oh too close A27 dual-carriageway thunders by; at one spot (there must be others unless everything is funneled in through this one spot) the A27 run-off drains into the Winterbourne.
On the opposite side are Houndean Allotments. This year there was some water flow along the higher reaches of the Winterbourne from 17th October.
Onwards under a canopy of leaves in summer you might spot the four strange sculptures before you get to a patch of lawn and Lewes Pigeon fanciers.
Once again, the Winterbourne is channelled under the Brighton to Eastbourne rail line, only to emerge close to the detached houses along Glebe Close, running in a ditch by the road opposite the WInterbourne Stores and over the back garden fences of houses along Winterbourne Close.
The Winterbourne then runs along Winterbourne Lane, close to the road and verges on its northern bank and abuts to the rear gardens of Winterbourn Close to the south. At the foot of Delaware Road there is a measurement station.
The Winterbourne then runs under Bell Lane and along Winterbourne Mews.
Sadly there is an issue with garden and household waste being dumped over the back of garden fences here and fly tipping from the lane.
This is another stretch of road often prone to flooding with rainwater quickly pooling in the south-westerly corner of Bell Lane Park exactly where there is a pedestrian crossing.
The Winterbourne is culverted on two sides by concrete and walls behind the stone or flint walls of the Cemetery on one side and Bell Lane on the other.
Historically Bell Lane has flooded, turning it into an impromptu lake on one occasion in the late 1960s. There were floods the length of the Winterbourne through to St Pancras Stores and beyond in October 2000, and before that in 1915 and 1911.
There is another measuring station where the Winterbourne leaves Bell Lane Park where these ia an impressively old pollarded willow bricked into a garden wall.
As it passes through the south of the town the Winterbourne is either culverted or covered. Grills at various places where the Winterbourne enters a tunnel collect flotsam and jetsam and are from time to time cleared by the Environment Agency.
The Winterbourne is culverted for the last stretch of Bell Lane, going under the houses at St. Pancras, emerging for a short section by St Pancras Stores, then disappearing under St Pancras Road. This is site of some historic photographs of flooding at the beginning of the 20th century.
It then passes under The Course, under Southover and Western Roads Schools and sports fields only to re-emerge in Southover Gardens where it is a feature of Grange Gardens.
It then passes out of sight once more …
… passing under Gardens Street, the houses of Tanners Brook and the old Market, then under the Railway Station and lines to London/Eastbourne only to re-emerge just north of the rail line to Eastbourne, in an area that once included a manor house and formal gardens, the line to Uckfield with numerous sidings – it is now collectively the Lewes Railway Land Wildlife Nature Reserve, which includes the former gardens and pond of Leighside House.
The Reserve consists of five distinct sections: a wet wood (former Leighhouse Gardens), the Heart of Reeds, the developing meadow created where the railway sidings were most densely packed, the former allotments, the river bank and the water meadow.
The Winterbourne passes through the former gardens of Leighside House with its restored pond and viewing platform to the north by the entrance from Court Road and then winds its way towards the River Ouse which it enters via a sluice just to the south east of the Linklater Pavilion.
In March each year grey mullet can sometimes be seen in. a large shole by the spot where the Winterbourne joins the River Ouse.
And so, for now, ends my story of the Winterbourne, which can only be followed by adding stories of these who lived beside it: those keeping horses in the fields alongside the A27, people who have an allotment in Houndean, the pigeon fanciers and sculptor, the dog walkers and runners, those with gardens abutting the Winterbourne, use Bell Lane (recreation ground), living on Rotten Row, St Pancras and the Grange, along to Southover Gardens – its house, cafe, Sussex Arts & Crafts gallery and annual skittles show, to the station and beyond to the stream’s terminus in the Railway Land Nature Reserve with its hub, the history of the old railway sidings and Leighside House and gardens, the Linklater Pavilion and the constant activity it attracts.
The Railway Land Wildlife Trust
There are days when I visit The Railways Land Wildlife Trust land in the morning and late afternoon without fail – and more often if they have an event on.
Longer walks are now being measured by how long we have been told our dog Evie should be out – 20 minutes, not an hour or more. So we do a short circuit taking a different route each time we return.
A morning walk on the Railway Land with heavy due glistening in the low sun. Capturing the delicacy and brightness of due on the rushes needs something better than the lens in my phone, but who carries around a DSLR anymore?
Lewes Present tells me I am looking at White Poplar here, something I confirm by putting some closer images through the App Picture This and then reading up some notes from The Woodland Trust.
From the Woodland Trust British Trees App
The thing I should look for is this bright, white shininess in the canopy. Knowing that the underside of the leaf is paler than the upper side explains the effect they produce as you walk around the trees from a distance.
The visit ends at Bake Out for a coffee, or later in the day at the John Harvey Tavern for a pint of Harveys.
Lewes has it all. Though some benches along the river bank would be welcome. A project for the Town Council.