At the May Meeting of the Gardeners’ Club, Graham Harding gave a talk with accompanying slides on his walking the South Downs Way, which he undertook with his wife Helen in 2011. It was a most entertaining talk before an audience of about 50 members. The Way which went from Winchester to Eastbourne was first developed in 1971 and extended to its present length of 100 miles in 1995. He first gave a brief geological outline of how the South Downs developed many millions of years ago from a giant chalk dome. After much erosion only the South and North Chalk Downs remained at either end and in the middle was the thick Wealden Clay.
After leaving Winchester, they visited Cheeesfoot Head which is a large natural amphitheatre and beauty spot where General Eisenhower addressed his troops in June 1944 before the D-Day landings. Graham then described their travelling through Exton with its small church before crossing the Meon River which flows through the Meon Valley. They then climbed to the top of old Winchester Hill for some outstanding views. Here was the site of Iron Age hill fort, which is one of Hampshire’s great hill forts, splendidly situated on the southern chalk. They then visited Butster Hill rising to nearly 900 feet, and thence to the Iron Age Village nearby, which regularly features in TV documentaries when describing life in those times. They walked along the North Ridge of the South Downs through Uppark and the National Trust House there. It was there that they came across an old man who had travelled this route no less than seven times before.
He described walking through the well-marked chalky paths and showed a picture of a German Luftwaffe pilot’s grave which was bedecked with flowers. He was the first German casualty of the Battle of Britain in 1940 and flowers are still laid on his grave. Passing Cowdray Park they came to the popular Weald and Downland Museum, consisting of a great number of original medieval buildings, which had been physically transported from across the country to the Museum.
The sheep which inhabit the South Downs cannot easily be watered on its top as the dew ponds which feature along the Way could not hold water because of the instant draining effect of the chalk. So shepherds filled in the ponds with Wealden Clay so that when it rained the waters remained in the ponds, which also became a thriving habitat for wild life in the locality.
The next port of call was the Chanctonbury Ring, which was originally planted in the 18th Century and consisted of about eight concentric rings of trees. One of the numerous myths associated with this place is that if all the trees in the Ring are individually counted no less a person than Julius Caesar will appear! The Ring is also said to be haunted and no person has ever been able to sleep the night within it without having to escape before dawn. Around this part of the Way many charity walks and cycle relay events take place, including the famous South Downs ‘Plod’. On this trip, they met Helen Lloyd an intrepid cyclist who was on a Charity cycle ride and who had just ridden from one end of Africa to the other.
After this he showed slides of Devil’s Dyke just above Brighton. Apparently the Devil was digging up the area to allow salt water to come up from the sea and drown what he thought was a plethora of Christians in the area. Whilst working away he heard a dog barking which had then started a nearby cockerel to crow. As this signalled the end of the night, the Devil gave up but not before sending a vast shovel load of earth over his shoulder, which as it happened became the Isle of Wight. Graham accompanied this story with appropriately loud dog and cockerel noises, much to the amusement of the audience.
He then showed slides of the famous pair of windmills called Jack and Jill, before showing photographs of Charleston where Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Set lived and worked. Then they visited Alfriston on the Cuckmere River and the wonders of Cuckmere Haven. From thence to the Long Man of Wilmington, which is a huge human hill figure holding two staves originally marked out in chalk. It’s a fairly easy climb on a good path with splendid views of the South Downs and the coast to enjoy. It’s a well-loved area made up of chalk heath with heather and bell heather, surrounded by gorse bushes. The walk then wended its way towards the famous Seven Sisters, which are a series of chalk cliffs, but because of erosion are now actually eight. He showed slides of the cliffs since the 1920s and these dramatically showed how the cliffs’ erosion over time had caused many of the houses to disappear. They then entered the environs of Eastbourne and their walk along the South Downs Way was complete.
Graham answered numerous questions from the appreciative audience, many of whom had themselves visited the places described.