Geologically speaking the South Downs that run from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east are the remnant of a great bulge in the Earth’s crust caused by Africa colliding very slowly with Europe. This ripple in the land was eroded away by time and water so that all that is left are the edges – which together make up the North and South Downs. Composed of Chalk, with layers of flint scattered throughout, the Downs’ alkalinity greatly affects the flora that grows on its surface – which in turn affects the fauna that scrambles over the turf. The result of the chalk bedrock is that the South Downs are host to many rare and interesting plants, as well as scarce and important animals (mostly invertebrates) that in one way or another rely on the rare flowers. The specialty and nation-wide importance of this long chain of hills was recognised in 2011 when it was made a National Park.
The Downs have long been of great importance to man; as far back as the Stone Age people inhabited the tops of the hills and during the Bronze and Iron ages major forts and enclosures were constructed on the highest peaks. Back then the hills would have been mostly tree-covered, but around the forts there would have been clearance of this woodland – allowing a view across the forest of Anderida that covered the Wield below. People were afraid of the great Wield forest and the Downs provided safety and security, as well as strategic importance from both human and animal enemies. As the centuries went by humans cleared the Downs of trees and used them as vast pastures for their sheep; as they were too steep and the soil too shallow to cultivate crops on. This use as sheep pasture has had the most significant effect on the Downs of all; the close-cropped grass and removal of trees created the flower-rich habitat which has become so valuable for rare wildlife today.
Many poets and writers have admired the beauty of the Downs and written about it, indeed these hills have inspired many artists and photographers over the years and they have played a great cultural role – especially in Sussex. Personally the South Downs are a great love of mine; I spent many childhood days upon their knee-cap like slopes and I have walked their entire length before. They are interesting to me biologically – for the many plants and animals that live on them, as well as geologically and historically, but most of all I admire the beauty of the hills.
I think that the South Downs come into their own at two specific times of year; in Summer, on a hot and sunny day and in Winter on a frosty or snowy day. At the height of July, when the sky is the most perfect blue and the clouds are simple fluffy mounds, that is the time to be on the Downs. Standing on the top of Chanctonbury ring or Devils Dyke with the vast map of the Wield spread out below you as a quilt of green, bees and butterflies and beetles rummaging in the multitudinous flowers at your feet, children flying kites and people having picnics – and far below in a tiny village you can see a cricket tournament. Lovely. To walk along the Downs in Winter, early in the morning when the ground is frosty as though it were coated in crushed glass, looking at the glazed-white woods below and the low, pale-yellow sun – is also lovely. Or on a snowy day with the smoothness of the Downs’ surface accentuated by the untouched icing of snow, the air clear as crystal and biting at your lips, a fox trotting past or a flock of Fieldfare creeping along a hedgerow and there is not another soul to be seen.
I will leave you with a stanza from a poem written by Robert Bloomfield, which to me perfectly sums up the essence and atmosphere of the South Downs.
…the famed, the brave South Downs,
That like a chain of pearls appear;
Their pale green sides and graceful crowns
To freedom, thought, and peace how dear.
To freedom, for no fence is seen;
To thought, for silence smooth’s the way;
To peace, for O’er the boundless green,
Unnumbered flocks and shepherds stray.