SOUTH DOWNS MEMORIES from Nigel Brown, SDS Trustee – May 2020
Born in 1942 in London, my earliest memories are of rockets, sirens, and shelters, and not going out except for essential local shopping trips with my mother. So when the war was over and we could actually go travelling by train, it was very exciting. Family trips were mainly from Waterloo to Southampton by steam train to see my granny and aunts. Summer holiday trips were by electric train from Victoria to Bognor Regis, where there was sea and a bit of sand to play on, although restricted by the residual wartime stores and shore defences. The train journeys were as memorable as the destinations, particularly once London was left behind, and there were expansive green views of Wealden farmland and the contours of the South Downs beyond, and I wished the trains could slow down for the fresh country air and views, rather than rush through.
Later there were other trips by coach (we had no car till the 1960s) which did stop for a tea break and leg-stretch close to or in those tantalising South Downs. I remember particularly day outings from my local London church, to Eastbourne stopping in Lewes, to Brighton stopping at Ditchling, to Littlehampton stopping in Arundel, and to Portsmouth stopping in Petersfield.
So when my firm relocated from London to Portsmouth in the early 70s and there was an opportunity to actually live near the South Downs, I jumped at the opportunity, and my North Yorkshire-born wife wasn’t too unhappy to be somewhere rural with some hills to walk, even if not on quite the same scale as the Dales. We bought a cottage in a small Downland village, which was commutable for me to Portsmouth and for my wife to Chichester, and had a local junior school for our two young children. The cottage overlooked a tranquil old mill and millpond, near to the village pub, and there were two small shops nearby (now alas gone). Best of all, at weekends, we could be out of the village, along the lane or footpaths, and up in the Downs in minutes. Bliss!
We spent almost 40 years there, enjoying life in the South Downs, exploring and walking whenever we could. We got thoroughly involved with village life: church, parish council, music and drama groups, WI etc – and made many lasting friendships with people who liked the Downs too. We joined the Friends of the South Downs too, in their Sussex Downsmen days. That involvement increased greatly when discussions began (again, after nearly 50 years) about the Sussex Downs AONB becoming part of a South Downs National Park, with additional scope, powers and protection.
I found myself supporting these discussions, personally and as then chairman of the local parish council, because protection of the Sussex Downs AONB seemed to me so low on local authority priorities relative to housing, infrastructure etc. As the discussions moved onto possible boundaries of a National Park, it also seemed rather ridiculous to confine it to the AONB’s existing chalk upland boundaries and ignore the southern slopes and northern wealds, their attractive scenery and distinctive communities, that historically and visually were integral to the South Downs. I also had in my mind’s eye those parts of the Hampshire downlands seen from the Waterloo train. All beautiful, geographically linked, and equally deserving of greater long-term protection. To be appreciated as living rural landscapes, they needed to be linked to the lives of townspeople as well, through good communication and easy access.
So I joined in the South Downs Campaign group, along with many other enthusiastic lobbiers for a National Park. The time was at last right for Government support for the idea, and jointly we made submissions through the various consultations and inquiries. At a local level, I was inspired by John Templeton and the Chichester Society to jointly propose that the National Park boundary should come closer to Chichester than the AONB did, and recreational access from the city and transport hub to the Park should be much improved. Various factors ultimately restricted this ambition, but the boundary did come closer, some of the attractive nearby downland villages were included, and the concept was established.
So 10 years ago, to wide rejoicing, the South Downs National Park was officially designated, generous borders across Sussex and East Hampshire agreed, and a National Park Authority established to emulate and surpass other National Parks. The South Downs Campaign re-formed itself as the South Downs Network, a forum for conservation bodies, big and small, across the Downs, and the Society of Sussex Downsmen re-shaped itself as first the South Downs Society then Friends of the South Downs, the membership organisation for Downs supporters everywhere.
As a member, I became more involved personally, as a District Officer on the Planning and Conservation Committee of the Society, keeping an eye on planning applications in my area that might impact on the local landscape, heritage, wildlife or amenity. With so many pressures on land in the crowded South East, the D.O’s vigilance is important. Recently I’ve been honoured to be asked to join the Society’s Council and hope to play a useful part there also, as the Society’s reach and activities grow. So those South Downs of my childhood memory remain very important in my life today, 70 years on, and I still enjoy putting my boots on and getting out on the Downs whenever I can.