A brief, blissful moment of late summer stillness on the South Downs brings back memories of past days walking in the silence of the Lakeland Fells.
The silence of the hills
It’s mid afternoon on a cloudless late summer day. A sultry heat haze hangs over these slopes and fills the valley, Everywhere there is the silent stillness of the hills. Not a sound, nor a breath of wind. For a brief, blissful moment my mind goes back to holidays among the hills of the North. I’m walking in the silence of the Lakeland Fells, Snowdonia or the Scottish Highlands again. Remote solitude with only the call of the sheep for company and the odd croak of a raven across the valley. Sadly there are no sheep, or ravens here today. The sheep have largely gone from these downlands which once used to be famous sheep country.
Today this is a moment of distilled late summer caught on camera to be remembered in the dark days of winter, like a painting of Eric Ravilious whose landscapes captured the peace of these downs.
‘Downs that almost escape the inquiring eyeFrom William Cowper’s ‘Retirement’
that fade and melt into the distant sky‘
This beautiful valley marks the dividing line between the open downs to the east and the more wooded hills of the west. Over there the Western downs stretch away to the beech-clad ‘hangars’ of Gilbert White’s Selbourne and also Edward Thomas’s country. Beyond them is Winchester, the capital of Alfred the Great’s real kingdom of Wessex.
The South Downs
East of this valley the great sweeps of the Downs open out expansively. In the past sheep roamed these hills and shepherds worked here. Today a patchwork of arable fields covers these downs, like a quilted duvet covering ‘mighty limbs asleep’ (W.H.Hudson’s phrase). Hudson was a lover of these Sussex hills and wrote about them in his ‘The Nature of Downland‘. He describes Sussex as:
‘this county, so near to the metropolis, so important geographically with its long coast line of over seventy miles on the Channel, the “threshold of England,” as it has been called, the landing-place of the Conqueror and eternal grave of Saxon dominion.’
A few sheep do remain keeping these steep slopes, too steep to cultivate, as close-grazed sward allowing the chalk downland wildflowers to thrive free from being swamped by lush grass. The beautiful, but rare, Chalk Hilł Blue butterfly lives here on hillsides over which the wheatears and skylarks sing.
A Sense of place
The writer Hilaire Belloc grew up in Slindon village not far from here. He loved Sussex, always longing to be back here.
‘among those great hills of the south country
they stand along the sea.’
His dream was to settle in old age back where he grew up and where his heart belonged and to gather about him old Slindon friends where:
‘there shall the Sussex songs be sung‘In the South Country’
and the story of Sussex told.‘
In these old poems the story and spirit of old Sussex lingers on.
Having been born in Berkshire with its Berkshire Downs and the Chiltern hills I, too, am very much at home among the southern chalk downlands. Now retired in West Sussex these South Downs with their welcoming rounded shapes have become my home and I belong here. Like this old breed of Southdown sheep (above photo), I too, feel ‘hefted’ to these hills.
God gives all men all earth to love,From Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Sussex‘
But, since man’s heart is small,
Ordains for each one spot shall prove
Beloved over all.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground– in a fair ground —
Yea, Sussex by the sea.