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The SOUTH DOWNS is one of England’s epic walks. Barnaby Rogerson and Mary Miers walk from St Swithun’s tomb to The Old Man of Wilmington, from Winchester to Eastbourne along a hundred miles of the South Downs Way.

This is the full version of the article; a shorter version appeared in COUNTRY LIFE, June 29, 2011


"Seductive, almost pagan, loveliness of the western hills, which hold us in the strong semblance of beauty. They are the masters of this country, which demand the surrender of the heart of every man who enters this domain."

Say the South Downs and what comes to mind? A wind-swept hilltop of ancient pasture on which a hangar of beech trees stand - this woodland turned into a bright Persian carpet at the time of the blue bells. A lone, white drove road cutting across the grassy banks of some ancient dyke, from which emerges the gnarled trunk of a hawthorn, bright with the pink-white blossoms of the may-flower that must never be gathered. Sit down on the turf and what do you see? Yellow banks of cowslip, that give-away sign of old, undisturbed pastureland, flecked with wild orchids, whilst in the autumn you watch over wind-sculpted blackthorn bushes heavy with berries. In the distance stand the green circular earth-banks of an Iron Age hill fort, itself speckled with elements of our even earlier history - broken barrow-tombs of chieftains from the Bronze Age and the collapsed pits of Neolithic flint mines. Beyond stretches the long reach of a dry valley, twisting like a dragonıs tail further into the Downs, leading the eye to a sinister block of black and dark green, a remnant of the ancient indigenous yew forests of England, garlanded with honeysuckle and sacred to the god Odin.

"The great hills of the South Country
They stood along the sea.
And its there, walking in the high woods,
That I would wish to be,
And the men that were boys when I was a boy
Walking along with me"
Hilaire Belloc

The South Downs stand like a line of gigantic beached whales that guard the southern foreshore of England. Mellow, rounded and rolling and merging into each other to create an infinite variety of graceful form. These green hills are composed of vast banks of bright, white chalk threaded with seams of flint, which are now and then exposed, to reveal the pure white dashes of a farm track, a sheep run or an old quarry. Modest in height yet equipped with an undeniable grandeur of line, the South Downs can be bleak but are never forbidding ­ even when the prevailing south-westerly wind blows a sudden and violent storm across its summits. They have been repeatedly punctured by river valleys (whose very names read off like an ancients spell; Itchen, Meon, Arun, Adur, Ouse and Cuckmere) so the Downs can never lay claim to be a mountain-range or a geographical barrier. Indeed they were never a frontier, but always a crossing place, for the easy gradients, dry tracks and firm pasture have always made them a natural highway for man and his herds. Looking north from the Downs, you look across the Wealden plain, which is like an idealized vision of England with its ancient manor-houses wrapped in parkland, interspaced with spring-line villages. In the near distance stand oak woods and a succession of handsome market towns before the land rises up into the famous commons and heaths of Surrey. Looking from a south-facing Down, you survey the flat, well-farmed sands and clays of the coast and a string of sea-struck cities and ports; Southampton, Portsmouth, Chichester, Worthing, Hove-Brighton, Newhaven and Eastbourne, which at times threaten to merge into one large blot of post-war bungalows and late Victorian terraces. But that coastal sprawl only adds a curious fascination to the view from the hill, and helps to emphasise the quiet, ancient, untouched otherness of the South Downs that continues to rise above it all.

"The sight dwells with pleasure on the downs, because they are, in appearance, easy to walk upon, and in a sense are being walked upon when looked at" W H Hudson

The succession of views garlanded from a walk along the South Downs are the single strongest and abiding memory. Time and time again, we met locals who had at last got round to climbing up a well-known hill, and stood gaping in awe at their world laid out before them, before unfolding a picnic. Guided by either map or memory, I could never tire of the jigsaw like mental game of identify distant hilltops, spires and farms as well as the route you have slowly forged across this ancient horizon of hills. Not to mention the fun of trying to identify a pub, tea-room or the location of one of our hand-picked hosts. But once you have breathed in your full fill of the view, you slowly discover the quieter glory of the inner landscape of the Downs. For only by walking along the Downs, do you appreciate their depth and complexity. That initial rolling, green horizon of hills actually shields a hidden hinterland of combes, shoulders and bournes or Œbottomsı ­ long dry valleys ­ that twist away out of sight, to add mystery to the pastoral landscape. So that as a long-distance walker, slowly walking their way through 110 miles of this landscape, you naturally begin to appreciate its ancient purpose, as a pastoral range. The abandoned sheep-folds and the famous dew ponds tell their own story, of how the wealth of old pre-industrial England was once so aptly represented by the Chancellorıs Wool Sack. But the traces of old dykes, ditches and drove roads that criss-cross the Downs also tell of the complexity of the old agricultural system. For these drove roads, were not just a one way route for driving stock to the winter markets, but for a constant restless movement of animals that under-writ British agriculture for over 4,000 years. For the Downs were not a place apart, but essential elements in the economy of each manor and each hamlet. Collective herds, trusted to the care of professional shepherds, would be driven backwards and forwards into the Downs, to allow lowland meadows to be set aside and cropped for hay, but also to give safe birth to the flocks on the hills, before then being bought back down again for their vital role in manuring the strips of plough-land. Teams of shearers, in companies of thirty strong men under a captain, would work their way along the farms and folds, each man shearing forty head a day, and expecting to start and finish their day with a healthy meal of meat and beer. In our distant past, the manorial courts are full of the intimate details of this animal husbandry, who had the right to collect dung, and from where, which meadow had to be vacated at such a saints day, who was liable to work on maintaining the roads, and how the plough fields were to be rotated, strip ploughed and allocated. The drove roads also hark back to an older pre-Roman period of pagan magnificence. When the wealth of the land was expressed in flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, pigs and horses, when the four great seasonal festivals (Samhaim, Imbolg, Beltane and Lughnasa) were celebrated with the driving of these herds past great hilltop bonfires, with races, games and feasts held beside the great hill-forts. Echoes of this time, still flicker down to our age, with the recurring folk tale of how you must circle the barrows seven times to see the Devil, of the midsummer festivals that survived into the 19th century complete with the scouring of chalk figures.

This is the complex, if workaday heritage of the South Downs. These are the ghosts of our ancestors, who we might try to imagine, as dusk descends on a hillfort. There is history enough here without any need of false claims. So we must be clear that the South Downs Way follows no known pilgrim road or merchants route. Trade always flowed on the easy north-south connections provided by the river valleys, and even the drove roads were made to get Œacrossı not Œalongı. Yet history wafts over the Downs like the morning sea-mist if you wish to look for it. We have Romans cutting a marching route, Stane Street, through the Downs to make a quick way between London and Chichester ­ though they left the hill-forts alone. Saxons settle the shore, and though the last garrison of Arthurian Britons perish at the fall of Pevensey 491, it is thought that much of the forested Weald remained in their hands. The Normans would land at the eastern-most edge of the Downs, and they subsequently fortified this strategic coast, which lay right between their two domains, into the Six Rapes: with castles built at Chichester, Arundel, Bamber, Lewes, Pevensey and Hastings. A Barons rebellion in the 13th century would lead to thousands of loyal knights drowning in the swamps around Lewes. Centuries later we can all imagine the beacons burning on the hillsides to warn of the threat of the Armada, just as Drake advised Walsingham, ³prepare England strongly and most by sea. stop him now and stop him for ever. look well to the coast of Sussex.² Then the threat of Napoleon tends to get all muddled up in our imagination with tales of naval prizes and smugglers, before we reach to that great testing time of Albionıs power, fought by a few young knights in the skies over the Downs during the Battle of Britain. But then the sun burns through the mist of the past and we are once more at home, resting on the green turf.

"There is no solace on earth for us ­ for such as we
Who search for a hidden city that we shall never see;
Only the road and the downs, the sun, the wind and the rain
And the watch-fire under the stars, and sleep, and the road again."


I have been walking in and amongst the South Downs for forty years. But until last month, I had never quite managed to walk the whole way. I should have paid more attention to Evliya Celebi, the great Ottoman traveller, who emphatically warns, ³first the companion, then the way.² For what I was missing was a suitable companion, with stamina, enthusiasm and proven organisational skills ­ which all came together in the shape of Mary Miers, one of the editors at Country Life.

My first, and most important piece of advice is to the walk in the exact reverse of what is suggested. Start off at Winchester, which allows the landscape to progressively grow ever more grander as you walk south-east towards the English Channel. My second useful tip is to make a formal start of things with a prayer to St Swithun. This is the Saxon bishop who insisted on always walking and eating with the poor, and asked to be buried not in a proud tomb but under a humble path that was trod by his fellow man and watered by the rain. Some believe that he walked the whole way to Rome with his friend King Alfred, that he can be appealed to for good weather and that his feast day, of July 15th, sets the pattern for the rest of the summer.

St Swithun's day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun's day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain nae mare

St Swithunıs bones have been moved in and out of the Cathedral like a weather vane of history. The verger on duty that morning at Winchester Cathedral proved himself to be astonishingly helpful, pointing out all the variant sites of the Saints burial place, before unlocking an enclosure that stands in the open air just outside the west entrance. There we knelt. Then after a breakfast picnic, we were off, winding our own idiosyncratic way through cathedral cloister, Jane Austenıs house and a fragment of Roman wall in the morning light before circling St Giles Hill (seat of the greatest wool fair of medieval England) and then off up into the South Downs, via Cheesefoot Head and on across Gander Down.

14 miles later, having taken in the gorgeous view from the Meon Valleysıs Beacon Hill, our day concluded at The Shoe Inn at Exton - then tea, and local Saxon history, with an old naval friend of my fathers (Admiral Sir Simon Cassels) before being whisked off to have supper with my mother in her 16th century cottage perched above the banks of the Meon. She baked us Œtravellers troutı, wrapped in an old newspaper in our honour.

Day Two saw a dawn start to the day, helping my mother feed her cows, chickens and retired polo pony. Then equipped with the lone of just two of her lurchers (Black Boy and Billy ­ see photo) who helped us up across the ancient Celtic fortress dykes of Old Winchester Hill, then along upto Butser Hill fort above Petersfield (where by pre-arrangement we found my wife, two daughters, another lurcher and a picnic). We finally stopped above South Harting, after a 19 mile walk, then hobbled our way downhill to find a pub.

Day Three we took off, driven off the Downs by the most appalling weather ( and not a little foot-weary) but were all mightily chaired-up by taking shelter with the Boxer family at Pound Farm ­ who took in five sodden walkers, without so much as a blink of an eye-lid, and added us to their very late, very hospitable Sunday lunch.

Day Four began back to Harting Down and then all the way to Amberley, a wonderful 19 mile hike with hardly a soul in sight, through Graffham Down, across Stane Street and Bignor Down before dropping down to the Arun valley. There we hit hospitality gold, in the shape of Bill Furse in an open top ancient sports car. Bill is something that only Britain can produce, for he is both a vet, a traveller, a writer, a bon-viveur and a farmer. Not only did he give us bed, a lift and breakfast, he gave a dinner party in our honour and by chance, whilst following him in his morning rounds, I met Englands only practicing Anchorite.

Day Five was shorter than normal, for breakfast at Billıs was too interesting, but we headed east along the Downs for 8 miles to Chanctonbury Ring, then diverted 3 miles to the south to join the daughters of Rose Baring and Hannah Rothschild, who had cooked up tea (spread out over a Moroccan rug beside a camper van) at arguably the best hillfort of them all ­ Cissbury Hill. I was in heaven, prehistory combined with an elegant al fresco tea party.

Day Six, saw us start back at Chanctonbury Ring having flagged down a taxi outside Worthing station. This car journey was totally fascinating, because we ended up hearing how the adventures of modern smugglers easily live up to the reputation of their 18th century predecessors from the tattooed driver. Then up through ancient beech trees to the Ring, and then east, to pass the magnificent Devils Dyke hillfort. A place to dream up the history of the Downs, be it the chain of tribal kings that ruled from these heights before the coming of the Romans or those knights of the air that saved Albion during the Battle of Britain. Then onto meet up with my walking companionsı uncle, Tim Ireland, at The Plough Inn at Pyecombe, some 16 miles later. I took immediately to this man, whose ancestors had farmed in Sussex for 500 years (and whose fields had marched with those of my great-uncle), though arguably in an effort to be hospitable to each other we drank too much, and then found Mary had settled the bill.

In the morning, James Graham-Stewart, an old university friend (who combines a life of hunting-shooting-fishing with dealing in priceless old English furniture) joined us for breakfast at this hospitable household and then drove us to Pyecombe. Limping a little in his wake, we yet managed 16 miles of Sussex downland that day, taking in the views from Ditchling Beacon and Black Cap before ascending Newmarket Hill, and then the slow descent to the enchanting hamlet of Southease with its Saxon church. To liven up our dinner conversation we had arranged to dropped in on a debate held at the annual literary festival staged at Charleston, the ravishing shrine to Bloomsbury. Another pub supper allows me to add my third considered tip for walkers contemplating the South Downs way, which is to always try and drink the best bitter of Harveys of Lewes. Then we tried to remember the names of the six rivers that break the lines of the Downs: the Itchen, Meon, Arun, Adur, Ouse and Cuckmere, whose very names rattle off like an ancient spell of doom. Followed by the Six Rapes of Sussex, as fortified by the first Norman Kings with castles at Chichester, Arundel, Bamber, Lewes, Pevensey and Hastings. But enough of Sixes.

Day Seven started early and well, setting off straight up Illford hill from the banks Ouse, and just got better and better. The ancient tombs on Beddingham hill and Firle Beacon allowed us to look down over Charleston farm and the grounds of Firle Place, the ancient seat of the Gage family. Thence across Bostal Hill to drop down on the bewitchingly little village of Alfriston, complete with bookshop, antique shop and roadside café to die for ­ with a vast range of other pubs and hotels. Normally one would follow the Cuckmere river to the great white sea cliffs of the Seven Sisters, surely one of the iconic experiences of England. But I had done this walk many times and so we decided to avoid the weekend crowds and find the Long Man of Wilmington tucked into the ancient pasture of Windover Hill. He is the real thing, a true and mysterious slice of our ancient religion to be placed beside the Cerne Abbas giant and the White Horse of Uffington. Sometimes consided to be depiction of the Celtic god Bran, though sometimes associated with Hercules, he looks down on the ruins of Wilmington priory form pasture flecked with rabbit warrens and orchids. Then south-east to the hamlet of Jevington, which has all that a passing walker requires, an interesting old church, a restaurant and a tea-garden right beside the path. With the wind now howling across the Downs, with the full force of a south-westerly, we were fair blown along the last few miles of turf, before suddenly catching site of the sea, low-lying Eastbourne and a glimpse of the turrets of Pevensey Castle.


SOUTH DOWNS Useful Addresses for stops along the South Downs way

  • Milbury's, 17th century Pub and restaurant. Beauworth, Nr Cheriton, Hampshire SO24 OPB, tel 01962-771248
  • The Shoe Inn, Exton, Hampshire SO32 3NT, tel 01489-877562, Website www.theshoeinn.moonfruit.com/
  • Meon springs, Fly-fishing, small café and Yurt campsite. tel 07500-947810, www.meonsprings.com
  • Sustainability centre at old HMS Mercury, Droxford Road, East Meon (though it is way outside the village), Hampshire, GU32 1HR. A hostel like Eco-lodge with cheap rooms and beds to hire, a campsite (which includes two tipis and a yurt to hire out, café. Tel 01730-823549/823166, or 07884-258713, E accommodation@sustainability-cente.org
  • Richline Manor Farm, hill barn Lane, Cocking, Midhurst, West Sussex, GU29 OHS ­ on the way path, just east of. A model of family enterprise, a working farm (on the southern edge of the Cowdray estate) with a shop selling their own organic meat, branching out with a tea room, with another local farmers delicious ice-cream on sale (www.carolinesdairy.co.uk) as well as sister-in-laws brown wool bonnets and knitting sets. Currently open Friday, Saturday and Sunday 11am to 4pm, tel 01730-814156
  • Noisy but irresistibly well placed for the tired walker. The Plough Innıs bar and restaurant is open all day, seven days a week. Tel 01273-842796, London Road, Pyecombe, Sussex. BN45 7FN. We also noted down two convenient B and Bıs in Pyecombe village: The White House, tel 01273-846563, and 1 Church Cottages, Wyke, tel 01273-844036
  • Devils Dyke, Dyke Road, Poynings, Brighton BN1 8YJ, tel 01273-857256. Unmissable bungalow blot on an ancient landscape, but this large and cheerfully run pub is also perfectly situated for a meal, drink and/or taxi pick-up.
  • For those keen to escape the Devils Dyke trippers, just half a mile east of the Devils Dyke, there is a quiet, and family run tea-room run at the back of Saddlescombe Farm, open 11-3pm weekdays, or 4pm on the weekends, closed Wednesday.
  • Alfriston. Bags of choice at every level of pocket, as you can see on the village website - www.alfriston-village.co.uk/ -
  • Jevington Tea Garden. Lesley Colwell runs this perfect tea stop, homebacked scones and cake in her back garden, in the village of Jevington, beside the way. Open 11-5pm from Wednesday to Sunday, tel 01323-489692, E Lesley.colwell@o2.co.uk

SITES ­ distractions from walking the Downs

  • Uppark, magnificent 17th century mansion built on South Downs where Nelsonıs Emma once frolicked as the young mistress of the landowner. House, garden, shop and restaurant, open between March and October for details tel 01730-82587 (an infoline) or 01730-825415, E uppark@nationaltrust.org.uk
  • Bignor Roman Villa is open from March to October. Sometimes slightly over-busy with school groups but nevertheless of great interest, Bignor, Pulborough, West Sussex, RH20 1PH, www.bignorromanvilla.co.uk , tel 01798-869259, e enquiries@bignorromanvilla.co.uk.
  • Arundel Castle, generally between 10am and 5pm, shop, restaurant, gardens, castle and rooms. www.arundelcastle.org
  • Parham House, gorgeous house and grounds and tapestries, with fascinating back story which includes the manuscript hunting Robert Curzon, author of Visits to Monasteries in the Levant. www.parhaminsussex.co.uk/
  • Monks House, Rodmell, the home of Virginia Woolf, is open between April-October, for details ring 01323-870001, or check nationaltrust.org.uk/monkhouse
  • Charleston, open 30 March to 30 October, wed-sat, usually from 1pm in the afternoon to last entry about 5pm, shop and café, summer festival. www.charleston.org.uk
  • Alfriston Clergy House, The Tye, Alfriston, Polegate, East Sussex, BN26 5TL ­ a charming garden wrapped around a small 14th century hall-house. For prices and opening hours, tel 01323-870001, E alfriston@nationaltrust.org Firle Park ­ currently closed for restoration, but will no doubt be re-opening its treasures in a year or two.
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