Karl’s Chronicals. Article 36 Down and Out.
“The Downs .. too much for one pair of eyes, enough to float a whole population in happiness, if only they would look.”
-Virginia Woolf diaries.
Rich in history and perpetual beauty, the South Downs inspired great love from the 19th-century novelist when she was “overcome by beauty more extravagantly than one could expect.” Open fields, lazy rivers, hill forts, beacons and enduring stretches of crumbling coastline, invigorate all those who put on sturdy shoes and take in the realms of childish wonder. Dipping in and out with picnic hamper in tow or toughened to the vigours of multi-day hiking. Much of the trail is agreeably off-road, making it ideal for curious young ones, spotting butterflies and bird watching, observing the abundance of wildflowers with their entourage of labouring insects buzzing in between. Such scenes made all the more charming during the warm breezes of summer or when autumn mists line the valleys.
Crossing both the Hampshire Downs and the South Downs, and enclosed within the South Downs National Park. The 160km trail, the fifth of sixteen major walkways, and the first national bridal trail in England and Wales start its journey in Winchester Hampshire. Heading east through eccentrically named Cheesefoot Head, down to Arundel via Petersfield and the smaller villages of Storrington and Steyning. Devil’s Dyke, a hundred metre deep dry chalk valley was considered by the painter John Constable as ‘the grandest in the world,’ and rightfully warranted as a unique site of scientific interest. A few miles northeast rises Ditchling Beacon, the highest point in East Sussex, used as a local warning system from possible invasion. A notable example is the warning given to Queen Elizabeth 1st of the Spanish Armadas arrival into the English Channel on July 19th 1588.
The trail continues southeast around the market town of Lewes, traversing the Greenwich Meridian until reaching the river Cuckmere via Alfriston. From the nearby Seven Sisters, a line of dazzling chalk-white cliff, one looks out across the sea as the route convolutes across Beachy Head and down to Eastbourne. When it opened in 1972, the majority of the trail was confined to Sussex, starting at Buriton, on the Sussex border then extended fifteen years later to Winchester.
The route, comprising a series of linking footpaths has been popular as far back as the Mesolithic era (Middle Stone Age, between 10,000-8,000BCE), providing better accessibility than the wetter (often flooded) lowlands. But it seems the area wasn’t initially occupied until much later during the Neolithic period. As an act of defence, when tribal wars took greater numeracy, a hillfort built on a raised mound of earth known as tumulus afforded rudimentary protection. A good example is Winchester hill, 197m high and 11 miles outside the town.
Scientists and archaeologists have long-held speculation that the Romans must have created a road leading from Chichester soon after Britain was conquered in 43AD. Now confirmed by advanced LiDAR (airborne mapping) which unveiled the pattern of a direct route from Chichester’s Stane Street, through Binsted woods to Arundel. Aerial scanning also found evidence that parts of the Downs were arranged as a mammoth scaled farming collective. On par to the Greeks and Romans, then a sophisticated procedure expected to be found in pre-historic Britain.
A three-year archaeology project run by volunteers delving through ‘hundred years’ of archives have uncovered intriguing and surprising stories of the Downs during the second world war. That at Slindon, a POW camp held 200 prisoners in an enclosure comprising 19 huts, where facilities included a bath-house, dining room and electricity generator. Slindon also possessed space to moor three airships at a time. The Sea Scout Zero Class were 43ft long and 44ft high -the length of nine double-decker buses. Sent off to search the coastal waters for submarines.
Stationed at a military training ground in Kingley Vale, 2000 Canadian soldiers underwent drills and exercises in the lead-up towards D-Day. Newspaper reports tell of nine Canadians and a homeguard soldier being killed during training classes. An authorised clearance of the site in 1990 found an arsenal of 6000 varied bombs. Another Canadian training ground at Stanstead Park had a 19 stage assault course where anxious recruits pushed through under ‘live’ fire.
Up on Butts Brow, rightly commanding spectacular views across Eastbourne and the English Channel is a small ‘Liberator’ memorial to the ten-man crew of the Ruth-less. A US Airforce WWII B-24D Liberator Bomber that sustained severe damage to her 3rd and 4th engines from a bombing raid over a V2 rocket facility in France. The Ruth-less, named after the pilot’s wife, struck high ground at Butts Brow during poor weather conditions, a mile short from safety at Friston’s small grass airfield.
Further east, a commemorative monument on Beachy Head recognises the brave men who flew endless missions across Europe during WWII. The sacrifice of 55,573 men of bomber command. Paying special notice to the final mission on April 26th 1945 to destroy Hitler’s Nest. Both remain as poignant reminders of the many lives lost and sacrifices made by people who cherished the valued, precious and sacred right of freedom.
Beachy Heads strategic importance was re-employed during the Cold War in the 1950s. Under ROTOR, a secret plan that provided radar cover in the event of an air attack. Modernising the existing station with more significant reinforcements, generators and new ROTOR equipment. At the close of 1952, the station was handed over to Fighter Command. The Air Commodore who had suffered repeated difficulties with The Ministry of Town & County Planning scoffed about the happy freedom of people rambling over the South Downs. They could be rambling over the Russian Plains instead, invigorated by the cheerful prospect of salt mining when their hike finished.
The station fell out of use by the beginning of the 1960s, operating for less than a decade. But it stands as a further marker of the strategic importance the South coast and the Downs have played over several millennia in British security. Helping to maintain the sense of immense freedom and privilege when rambling across the headlands and through sloping fields replete with corn.
The National Trust is a good reference point for Devil’s Dyke and Ditchling Beacon while the government’s website on the South Downs offers further reading and planning,
National trails provide a thorough breakdown of the entire route from Chichester to Eastbourne. Giving distance, historical information and some transport coverage for side tours into the towns:
Secrets of the High Woods: Revealing Hidden Landscapes, edited by John Manley and covering 100 years on The South Downs is available to buy for £10 from: The South Downs Centre in Midhurst, Wheeler’s Bookshop (Red Lion St, opposite the parish church) Midhurst, Petworth Bookshop (The Old Bakery, Golden Square) and Fishbourne Roman Palace (Salthill Lane, Fishbourne) Barbican House, Lewes One Tree Books, Petersfield Kim’s Bookshop, Chichester Other sales points are being organised. To order a copy, please post a cheque for £13.50 (including postage and packaging) made out to the South Downs National Park Authority, to the South Downs Centre, North Street, Midhurst, West Sussex, GU29 9DH.
Further information on the Ruth-less story alongside other important events around the county can be found in Tony Ward’s book – Unravelling Sussex – Around The Country.
Herstmonceux Museum, Lime Park Heritage Trust, holds information about the radar station in light of the Cold War. Telephone the curator on 01323 831727. The website page is packed with historical news on the area. www.cherrymortgages.com/historic_britain/RAF_Beachy_Head_Royal_Air_Force_Radar_Stations_WWII.htm
Various charities organise walking events across the South Downs Way to raise money for their causes. The annual British Heart Foundations -randonée where some or all of the 100-mile course can be completed by bike. www.bhf.org.uk/thebhf
The South Downs Way is free and currently open. Government advice about social distancing still stands though the Prime Minister is under pressure to relax this to 1 metre. The immense space and the fact the majority of the paths do not follow the roads makes this easy to follow. Most of the walking is non-strenuous apart from a bit of extra effort traversing the coastline. The rise and fall of the Seven Sisters can be moderately demanding if you tackle all of it.
If you are seriously into walking, the South Downs Way forms part of the E9 Coastal Path. 5000Km long from Cabo de São Vicente in Portugal to Narva-Jöesuu in Estonia. Travelling through Spain and France before joining the southern coast of England. Incorporating the South West Coast Path, The Solent Way, South Downs Way and The Saxon Shore Way, before returning to Calais and north through Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Latvia and Estonia.