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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

Sheepwash Gill, St Leonard's Forest; relic Atlantic period bryophytes of 5000 years ago. 19.10.23

St. Leonard’s Forest SSSI (84.5 ha) supports remnants of a formerly more extensive deciduous forest on the Tunbridge Wells Sands (Hastings Beds). The gill streams that have carved channels through the clay and sandstone support relic bryophytes that have survived from the ‘Atlantic’ period of some 5000 years ago High_Weald_FDP_text_6_compressedimages_Jan09 (

I reached St Leonards Forest by train and walking. I took the train from Brighton to Horsham; a cheaper but slow way of getting to Horsham station is by the 17 bus 17 Bus Route & Timetable: Horsham - Brighton | Stagecoach ( From the back of the station on Station Road,(there is an exit to Station Road over the station platforms footbridge) follow the well-signed High Weald Landscape Trail into the woods east of Horsham.

When you enter the woods just outside Horsham you can take a slightly longer route by turning left (south) off the trail and taking a path which passes the ponds of St Leonards Park Ponds SSSI (for the SSSI citation see1000715 ( This was the route I took on 19.10.23; alternatively you can carry on the High Weald Landscape Trail.

Screenshot from Apps from Ordnance Survey

If you take the detour via the ponds of St Leonards Park Ponds SSSI you will end up back on the High Weald Landscape Trail between Dry Pond and Stew Pond.

However you get to the the High Weald Landscape Trail between Dry Pond and Stew Pond,

Screenshot form Apps from Ordnance Survey

you can either:

(a) then continue east along the High Weald Landscape Trail; and you will enter St Leonards Forest near the top of Sheepwash Gill; where you can turn left and walk down the east side of the gill, or walk on past the Lily Beds (where Sr Leonards in legend slayed the last dragon in England); see: The Story Of St Leonard, England's Last Dragon Slayer | Spooky Isles, or

(b) turn on to the path (going south) that goes through the Sun Planation to the Hammerpond Road; then turn left (west) on to the Hammerpond and walk 500m toward the Roosthole Car Park (the St Leonards Forest carpark). This was the route I took on 19.10.23. I entered the forest on a foot path on the east side of Sheepwash Gill, before crossing the gill on the road to Roosthole Car Park. The footpath on the east of the Sheepwash Gill is where I walked and I think gives the most spectacular views of the High Weald Ghyll Wood landscape. Alternatively, if you walk into Roosthole Car Park you can walk up a path west of Inholmes Gill.

If you walk down the path that goes through the Sun Plantation you will pass the magnificent 800 year-old Sun Oak as you approach Hammerpond Road; see Tree - Ancient Tree Inventory ( for details of the Sun Oak

St Leonards Forest

St Leonard's Forest was one of the Royal hunting forests of the Wealden Forest Ridge which runs from Horsham to Tonbridge; it is the most westerly of the forest. The Wealden Forest Ridge includes Tilgate Forest, Worth Forest and Ashdown Forest. Much of the former St Leonards Forest gone as a result of urban development, farming and replacement by commercial conifer forest but a large area is still wooded; including the area under the management Forestry England, Called St Leonards Forest (289 ha. (714 acres) which is open to the public ). Owlbeech (mainly heathland) and Leechpool Woods (Horsham District Council) to the east of Horsham, Buchan Country Park to the south west of Crawley and Leonardslee Gardens are all relicts of the larger St Leonard's Forest. Part of the area (the Forestry England St Leonards Forest and Hawkins Pond) is a designated Sight of Special Scientific Interest St Leonards Forest Site of Special Scientific Interest.[1]

The Forest Ridge which were part of the ancient Andreaswald or Andreadswald, now the Weald. Earlier used for hunting, by the 16th century they were the centre of the English iron industry. The hammer ponds (mill pond of an iron forge, in 6th and 17th centuries) remain, the dams of those in St. Leonard's fore0ts are crossed by Hammerpond Road between Horsham and Handcross, and today are mostly used for fishing.

Nature England St Leonards Forest SSSI specification

The SSSI is a Forest Conservation Area owned by the Forestry Commission, while parts of the site are managed by the Sussex Trust for Nature Conservation. Large areas have been deleted from the former boundary.

Reasons for Notification: This site includes the remnants of a formerly more extensive deciduous forest on the Tunbridge Wells Sands (Hastings Beds) 3km east of Horsham. Examples of high forest remain and the ground vegetation is still varied, and the streams which cross the site retain relict flora from the ‘Atlantic’ period of same 5000 years ago. The woodland bird population is varied, and includes some of the more local species of old woodlands. The woodlands also support a population of the purple emperor Apatura iris, a butterfly with a restricted British distribution. Much of the deciduous woodland is dominated by pedunculate oak Quercus robur with silver birch Betula pendula, common birch B. pubescens and beech Fagus sylvatica. The shrub layer includes holly Ilex aquifolium and hazel Corylus avellana with hawthorn Crataegus monogyna, blackthorn Prunus spinosa and guelder rose Viburnum populus. Also included in the site are areas of conifer plantation, largely consisting of Scots pine Pinus sylvestris and Corsican pine P. nigra. The ground flora of the deciduous woodland is dominated by bracken Pteridium aquilinum, bramble Rubus fruticosus and honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum, with bluebell Endymion non-scriptus, primrose Primula vulgaris and common violet Viola riviniana. At Lilybeds there is a large colony of wild Lily-of-the-valley Convallaria majalis. In the more open areas of woodland, and along the rides in the plantations, species characteristic of heathland occur including ling Calluna vulgaris, cross-leaved heath Erica tetralix and ivy-leaved bellflower Wahlenbergia hederacea. The humid microclimate of sheepwash gill has enabled the ‘atlantic’ bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) Hookeria lucens, and Hyoconium flagellare to survive. The presence of these plants indicate the continuity of woodland cover at this site for the past 5000 years. The damp areas adjacent to the gills have stands of alder Alnus glutinosa with common sallow Salix cinerea.

Sheepwash Gill

The beginning of the path that follows Sheepwash Gill

A wateful, about 500m up from the bottom of the path

The wall on the side north side of the plunge pool of the waterfall; covered with liverworts.

and ferns grew on the banks of the ghyll, here a Male Fern, Dryopteris filix-mas; a very typical fern of High Weald Ghyll Woodlands

On a tree fallen across the ghyll grew the fungus, Candlesnuff Fungus, Xylaria hypoxylon

Some of the liverworts growing on the walls of the plunge pool:

a Pellia sp. liverwort

Great Scented Liverwort, Conocephalum conicum

Endive Pellia, Apopellia endiviifolia

Probably a Deceiver, Laccaria laccata, growing from the clay of the ghyll bed

Probably a Hydropus so fungus growing on the algae and liverworts of the wall of the plunge pool, above a Great Scented Liverwort, Conocephalum conicum

More Great Scented Liverwort, Conocephalum conicum

Alga growing on sandstone bottom of the shallow ghyll

Hart's-tongue Fern, Asplenium scolopendrium

Common Tamarisk-Moss,Thuidium tamariscinum

An ancient Beech, Fagus sylvatica

Higher up Sheepwash Gill

Flagellate Feather-Moss, Hyocomium armoricum

An Atlantic relict bryophyte; its distribution is in Atlantic climate zones and the High Weald

Distribution map for Hyocomium armoricum from Atlas-of-British-and-Irish-Bryophytes-V2-550.pdf (

Hart's-tongue Fern, Asplenium scolopendrium

White Earwort, Diplophyllum albicans

Lecanactis, sp. probably L. abientina [I did not take a sample to do chemical reagent tests to confirm L. abientina]; a lichen of veteran and ancient trees

on this old Oak, Quercus robur

Giant PolyporeMeripilus giganteus

on ancient Birch

Light green lichen: Common Powderhorn, Cladonia coniocraea

Left hand liverwort: probably White Earwort Diplophyllum albicans; small light green liverwort in middle: probaly Two-horned Pincerwort, Cephalozia bicuspidata; moss on right Bank Haircap Moss Polytrichum formosum

Two-horned Pincerwort, Cephalozia bicuspidata

Probably, Elegant Silk-Moss, Pseudotaxiphyllum elegans

The ghyll

Possibly Wavy Hair-Grass, Avenella flexuosa

Neat Feather-Moss, Pseudoscleropodium purum

Sheepwash Gill

Witch's Broom, Taphrina betulina

Where the south-north Sheepwash Gill path path meets the east-west High Weald Landscape Trail path the landscapes becomes lowland heath, with planted conifers and some relict ancient broadleaved trees. The mix of lowland heath (with planted commercial conifers) on the high ground above the ghyll wood with abundant ferns, bryophytes and lichens, is the landscape pattern the royal hunting forests of High Weald Ridge (S Leonards, Broadwater Worth, Ashdown),

Heathlands were first created by clearing and were then maintained by grazing on the poor, sandy soils that occur on the high, sandstone ridges of the High Weald. ... [The]

ormer Royal hunting forest, Ashdown is the best surviving example of four medieval forests that existed on the AONB’s highest sandstone ridge, known as the Weald Forest Ridge – the others being: St Leonard’s, Worth and Broadwater Forests.

In much of England heaths have disappeared, but the High Weald area is an important stronghold for this dramatic type of landscape. Heaths, with their special conditions, support rare and unusual wildlife species, Field and heath - High Weald:

In Anglo-Saxon England substantial parts of the country remained uncultivated and sparsely populated. Forests were extensive in the Weald,... Kings hunted in these forests, but no serious restrictions to what the population might want to do there were imposed. This all changed quite dramatically with the conquest of England by the Normans in 1066. William the Conqueror brought with him from the continent a Frankish legal system concerning hunting. The 'beasts of the forest', principally deer and wild boar, became the property of the crown. Forest Law was imposed on large tracts of land that included the Anglo-Saxon forests .... It even included grazing land, farmland and villages. A Royal Forest became the official hunting ground of the king, where Forest Law, not Common Law, held sway. This law sought to protect the deer and their habitat, i.e. the trees still present after centuries of deforestation. The 'venison and vert' were declared to belong to the king and 'tresspass of the venison and vert' were serious offences. A special court, the Assize of the Forest, traveled through England, divided into two jurisdictions north and south of the River Trent, to hear and adjudicate offences. Under Henry II (r. 1154-1189) the Royal Forests reached their maximum extent, but after his death they went in decline. Even earlier, the kings, strapped for cash as always, had discovered that certain offences such as 'assarting' which amounted to creating farm fields in the forest could be made profitable by imposing fines. Under King John (r. 1199-1216) one of the grievances of his barons was their exclusion from the hunt in the Royal Forests. This led to the granting of more and more 'chases' and deer parks, so that the Royal Forests became more fragmented and smaller. Eventually, whole forests were 'disafforested' which did not primarily mean the cutting of trees, but simply that they were taken out of the jurisdiction of Forest Law. Finally, this law was last brought to bear in 1635 after which growing trees for timber, not hunting, became the primary objective in what remained of the Royal Forests. Ancient Oaks of England: Royal Forests (

Soft Rush, Juncus effusus

Purple Moor Grass, Molinia caerulea

Common Heather, Calluna vulgaris

Cross-leaved Heath, Erica tetralix

Within the heathland are areas of bog where there are streams

Probably Cypress-leaved Plait-Moss, Hypnum cupressiforme

Probably Eurasian Armoured Long-jawed, Spider Metellina segmentata

Autumn Hawkbit, Scorzoneroides autumnalis

In one area of bog ...

(probably Blunt-leaved Bog-moss, Sphagnum palustre)

.... between two tributary streams of Sheepwash Gill, are the "Lilly Beds", now in a conifer plantation, where wild Lily of the Valley Convallaria majalis grow in the summer

By tradition, the flowers have grown there ever since St Leonard slew a fearsome dragon that was terrorising the neighbourhood in the 6th century. The hermit-saint was wounded during the fight, and wher­ever his blood fell, lilies-of-the-valley sprang up. As a reward for the brave saint’s courage, God also decreed that adders in the forest would never sting again, and that nightingales, which had disturbed the saint’s prayers, would never sing there. But apparently, St Leonard did not free the forest of dragons, for three local villagers claimed to have come across a “strange and monstrous ser­pent” in 1614, and rumours of hideous creatures lurking among the trees lingered on until well into the 19th century. The Dragons of St Leonard’s Forest | by John Welford | Medium

Devil's-bit Scabious, Succisa pratensis

Common Bent, Agrostis capillaris

Bank Haircap Moss, Polytrichum formosum

Meadow Waxcap, Cuphophyllus pratensis

Marsh Thistle, Cirsium palustre

Gypsywort, Lycopus europaeus

Creeping Cinquefoil, Potentilla reptans

A few bonus photos from my walk from Horsham to St Leonard's Forest

St Leonards Park Ponds SSSI

Dead Man's Fingers, Xylaria polymorpha

Dead Moll's Fingers, Xylaria longipes

Rigid Hornwort, Ceratophyllum demersum

Lady Fern, Athyrium filix-femina, growing with a Hard Fern, Blechnum spicant

Yellow Pimpernel, Lysimachia nemorum

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