Early recollections of the Downs
Before the Second World War
What are my more distant memories of the Sussex Downs? I say Sussex Downs for it was only in later years that I visited the Downs of Hampshire. As a boy living in Middlesex in the 1930s I still had regular contact with the Downs. Our annual family holidays were almost always spent at Eastbourne, where my mother once lived and other relations still did. And while sandcastles and learning to swim in the sea were the main part of the holiday, I was always conscious of the bare line of the Downs standing above the town. A regular highlight was a visit to Beachy Head and to gaze down over a concrete wall to the lighthouse. We would also take one of the boat trips rounds the lighthouse, landing to see its great lantern from within if the state of the sea allowed. These trips also gave passengers a view of the 500 feet chalk cliffs from below.
Several of our Eastbourne relations and friends worked in O’Hara’s butchers shops, which in those days closed on Wednesday afternoons each week. It was their habit in the summer to spend that afternoon walking on the Downs, and I would be taken with them while my parents and younger brother went to the beach. That was perhaps the seed of my lifelong walking on the Downs. Such walks in those days usually ended at a teashop, much more of an institution then than now. One was Wannock Tea Gardens on the road from Polegate to Jevington. The shop had an array of tables ready to receive any large party arriving in a charabanc: the word redolent of popular access to the countryside in the 1930s.
I have inherited some family snapshots of times on the Downs, sadly uncaptioned and undated, but I can identify one of a boundary stone on Beachy Head. Another shows stooks of corn, always seen at harvest time before they were replaced by the rolls of today. It demonstrates, incidentally, the falsity of the myth that the Downs were previously one sheepwalk from Beachy Head to the Arun.
During the War
1939 saw the end of those peaceful days. An uncle in Lewes suggested that if war came we should evacuate to their home in Southdown Avenue. When the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was signed in August, my mother took me and my brother to Lewes, my father staying in Harrow and visiting us at weekends. My recollections of that wonderfully sunny September include hearing Chamberlain’s broadcast that we were at war, followed immediately by air raid sirens and a local rumour that Brighton had been bombed.
As we know, nothing much happened, apart from the rape of Poland, and after a month we returned home and to school. While in Lewes we saw the daily arrival of evacuees from London, and, from the end of my uncle’s garden, convoys of commandeered commercial vehicles taking troops along the old A27, doubtless to Newhaven to join the British Expeditionary Force in France. A distant view from the garden was a trail of white smoke from the Asham cement works, carried by the south west wind. Beyond was the prow of Firle Beacon, noblest of the Sussex hills. Driving at dusk along the A27 just before the blackout was imposed my uncle remarked that it would be a long time before we saw the glow of Brighton again above the Kingston Downs: indeed a very long time. Once France fell in 1940, Sussex was no longer a safe place and the coast was now the front line.
The war years meant the end of annual seaside holidays. In fact Eastbourne was closed to non-residents and the sea front prepared to repel the expected invasion. Strangely as a child I don’t think I was frightened by this, perhaps because of my unlimited faith in the power of the Royal Navy. The Wish Tower became an emplacement for artillery. A nearby resident was reported to have asked, what about her windows if those guns went off. To this the reply was, “Madam, if those guns have to be fired, you won’t be worrying about your windows”.
After the war
The Allied advances following landings in France in June 1944 enabled more normal life on the coasts of Kent and Sussex to resume, and my family visited our Eastbourne relations again. On Christmas Day 1944 three of us walked from Willingdon to Beachy Head, where access was closed to the west. It was there that I later saw artillery practice in progress and was surprised that it was possible to see the shell as it passed over the sea.
The military withdrawal from the areas around Birling Gap revealed a devastated landscape, marked in white by excavated trenches and dugouts. There was a rail line down the hillside, used to carry moving targets for gunners. It was pleasing to see how these scars disappeared as the plough and sheep returned.
As it became possible to walk on those Eastern Downs, the evidence of their use as a vast training ground was widespread. One would encounter a half-buried mortar bomb, which might still be live. At the top of Bo Peep bostal was a great pile of rusting munitions and barbed wire. On Firle Beacon was a large corrugated iron hut with an open side facing the sea, probably to shelter artillery spotters during firing practice. On flatter stretches along the crest of the Downs were metal poles carrying cables, no doubt to deter glider landings as part of an invasion. Interesting remnants of the Downs at war are still to be seen: pillboxes above the Cuckmere at Exceat, a long line of concrete tank obstacles behind the beach there, and more pillboxes and the remains of a Churchill tank on Barnsfarm Hill, near Storrington. The brick steps to be seen to the right of the road from Willingdon to the clump on Babylon Down were built in the war for a prime ministerial visit to troops in training and were known locally as “Churchill’s Steps”. There is a sort of posthumous relic in some of the masts that have sprung up on the Downs in post-war years, such as at Beddingham Hill, Glatting Beacon and the Trundle. These often replace latticed radar masts erected in the war.
The greatest change wrought on the Downs was not from the war but from the agricultural revolution that followed. In the quest for increased food production vast areas were ploughed and the thin, flint-strewn soil fertilised to produce rich crops. Of course many regretted the changes to the landscape and the replacement of the sheep. But it can be argued that ploughing at least kept the landscape open. In contract the final easterly range of the Downs, standing above Eastbourne, has through neglect become smothered in scrub, succeeded by trees. The spurs and hollows of the bare chalk scarp have been lost. Many of the trees are ash and have succumbed to the deadly ash dieback disease and are being clear-felled over the next five years. It is hoped that the restoration plans will include substantial areas of grassland.
Friends of the South Downs
I had heard of the Society of Sussex Downsmen both through my uncle in Lewes, who was a member, and through reports in the Eastbourne newspaper. In one their reporter had attended the Society’s AGM when there was much discussion of restoring the roads metalled by the army to the former chalk tracks. The Society clearly wanted to protect the Downs from motor vehicles, a policy that had been maintained since its foundation in 1923.
I joined early in 1947 during the long reign of Mrs Lilian Bately as Honorary General Secretary. Living in Middlesex I was very much a distant member, but on marriage in 1956 we set up home in Horsham. In 9162 we attended a Society autumn lecture by Harold Abrahams, the Olympic athlete, who was the first Secretary of the National Parks Commission, set up to oversee the national parks being developed in the 1950s. Abrahams told the story of being approached by a manufacturer who offered to supply iron railings to put around the parks. Misconceptions about the national parks are still encountered today. At that time I had been in correspondence with the Society in opposition to a telecommunications mast to be erected at Butts Brow above Willingdon, which the Society preferred to another site. My wife persuaded me to introduce myself to Gerard Ryan, Chairman of the Downs Preservation Committee and son of Mrs L V Ryan, the Society’s Honorary General Secretary. As a result of this I was invited to work with the Society and the following year became a member of the Preservation Committee. So began many years of driving to Hove for monthly Friday evening meetings and subsequently on Saturdays for Downsmen Council meetings.
The 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act provided for definitive classification of public rights of way, vital in the new cultivated landscape of much of the Downs. Once marked on the OS maps, the walker could proceed knowing that they were legally entitled to use the paths. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000 further aided the walker through Open Access land, though this has been limited on the Downs. Under the 1949 legislation the Sussex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty was created in 1966 and the South Downs Way national trail opened in 1972.
The Society had been walking the length of the South Downs Way, through its annual walk over the four days of Easter, before the national trail was designated. The Downsmen’s route was carefully mapped and timed so that members and their families could join and leave the walk to complete any section. A bus was hired to shadow the Lewes to Buriton sections, the section between Beachy Head and Lewes having convenient public transport. The Easter walk went from east to west and west to east in alternate years. The trail was later extended to Winchester to encourage the authorities who were still considering whether to add the 20 odd miles in Hampshire. The Society also organised single walks through the year. Path clearance parties were led by a particularly enthusiastic member.
Although joining in the Easter walk and other walks and clearances, it is fair to say that most of my downland experience was in walking alone. In the 1940s I found that the Southern Railway and the ever-reliable Southdown buses enabled me to roam the Downs in a single day from Harrow. I was inspired by the writings of Hilaire Belloc, and what better companion on the Downs than the robust verse of Kipling’s “Sussex”. Now that I live in Sussex the Downs and the Downsmen are a continuous part of my life, but I still retain the memory of the thrill of first seeing the Downs travelling south from London, and of the parting sadness returning home as I watched the evening shadows deepening on the scalloped scarps of Windover, Firle and Ditchling Beacon, with a final brief glimpse of Chanctonbury and the Downs of the west. I hope that youngsters growing up today will find the same joy in these immemorial hills.