Hill forts, Neolithic flint mines, a rusty old WW2 tank and some rare Saxon churches. These are some of the many layers of history across these glorious South Downs.
“..the fruitfulness of the everlasting hills.” (Deuteronomy 33:15)
Not all parts of these downs are as dramatic as the famous ‘Devil’s Dyke’ near Brighton formed by a landslip at the end of the last Ice Age. (photo above). These ancient downs with their rounded graceful shapes are a unique feature of our English landscape.
This much photographed view draws many by its dramatic cliffs, as the downs disappear into the sea.The sea mist adds a sense of mystery here as our minds try to imagine what the landscape would have looked like before the sea eroded the downs. Here England ends abruptly. Out there is France!
“…Clean of officious fence or hedge,
Half-wild and wholly tame,
The wise turf cloaks the white cliff edge
As when the Romans came.”
From Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Sussex’
A mere 3 miles from us lies this remote part of the downs. An area of about 50 square miles with no public roads. Here big skies spread over the landscape.
“The heart can be happy on these great downs, so much are they a part of England, with their close sheep bitten paths and always the wind blowing the grasses.”
Now the breeze that used to blow through the grass moves through the swaying corn, creating a rustling wave effect which travels across the fields. Instead of the bleating of sheep, a silence, with not a single car to be heard, a rarity in our overpopulated South of England. Now, apart from a few farms, this place is largely deserted. Peace reigns here. Without the ever present noise of traffic the mind is free to enjoy the space and quietness of these hills as you watch the cloud shadows lazily caressing the flowing contours of the landscape. These hills have been called “the solemn slope of mighty limbs asleep” and you can see why.
A large part of this area has been owned by the Dukes of Norfolk at Arundel since the times of William the Conqueror. Studying the local map you can see numerous tumuli, and ancient pathways criss-crossing the landscape. The word ‘downs’ comes from the old Celtic word ‘dun’, which refers to a hill or fort – these were the places of settlement in the earlier pre-Roman periods. One of these sites, Harrow Hill (on the right of this photo) has a history going back to the Neolithic age. The collection of flint mines there are 6000 years old, one of 12 such sites in Britain.
This is ‘South Saxon’ country – Sussex. Saxon settlements, following the Roman pattern, are found at the base of the hills, witnessed by the many village names ending in the Saxon ‘ing’. While few remains are to be found, the Saxons did leave their mark in the form of some beautiful stone churches. Sompting Church has an historic Saxon tower with a ‘Rheinish Helm’, the only example of this style in Britain. It sits in quiet seclusion up a small lane in huge contrast to the very busy A27 nearby. This is a real treasure. There are other Saxon churches at St Botolph’s, near Steyning and at Bishopstone near Lewes.
Yet another layer of history is the ‘Monarch’s Way’ footpath which runs across this landscape along which the future King Charles II fled after the defeat at the Battle of Worcester.
This would have been sheep country with grassy hills stretching away into the distance. At nearby Findon, there used to be an important sheep fair. But since the WW2 demand for more food, much of the area came under the plough, and sadly some tumuli and earthworks were lost in this process. The area was also used as a military training ground. An old rusty WW2 tank sits in the fields as a poignant reminder of what has been lost here over the last century.
This grand view will go with you as you travel along the ancient South Downs Way and look out over the Weald’s patchwork quilt of woods, fields and farms, but very few houses. With the North Downs in the distance you can imagine other distant voices saying “Over there are the South Downs”.
There is much to see in these glorious South Downs. Three cheers for those who campaigned for this to become Britain’s newest National Park. We are so privileged to live here in ‘Sussex by the Sea’.
Thank you for your company. Join me next time for some peaceful riverside moments “On Banks of Green Willow“.