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Changing Times | Over the hill history on the South Downs

The SOUTH DOWNS are a chalk ridge formed in the late Cretaceous period (100 to 60 million years ago).


The chalk has layers of flint nodules, often used as building material and for flint tools.


The Downs stretch as far west as Winchester and eastwards to Eastbourne. Its highest point, Blackdown, stands at 919 feet (280m).


North of the Downs is the Western Weald, formed of sandstone and clay layers. There are four major rivers that cut through the Downs to the English Channel; the Cuckmere, Ouse, Adur and Arun.


People’s activity has shaped the South Downs over the last 500,000 years. Evidence of occupation on the Downs goes back to the Palaeolithic (from at least 900,000 years ago until around 9500BC) and Mesolithic (9500BC – 4000 BC) periods evidenced through the remains of flint tools and other features of the landscape.


Later in the Neolithic period (4000BC – 2500BC) people left behind causewayed enclosures, long barrows and flint mines. The flint mines were still being used into the early and middle Bronze Age (2500BC – 800BC).


The South Downs Way, which visitors walk and cycle today, has its origins in an ancient track that has been used by humans for more than 2,000 years.


Recently, as part of a three-year Heritage Lottery Funded project by the South Downs National Park, with support from Chichester District Council and English Heritage, vast field networks, found to date back to at least the Bronze Age were uncovered by a scanning technique called LiDAR -a remote sensing technique that allows the collection of topographic information over large areas of landscape using a sensor mounted on a plane or helicopter.


Open areas of treeless downland were created, as woodland was cleared for grazing and agriculture, as settlements developed in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. It suggested the area’s pre-Roman civilisation could have been on a par with that of the ancient Egyptians or Greeks.


The lighter soils of the chalk were easier to settle on and to work, but cereal crops grew better on the fertile loam (a soil of clay, sand and silt) soils. The land with lighter soils tended to be used for grazing.


By the Iron Age, farming was more settled and ploughing heavier soils more usual. Defensive hill forts, such as The Trundle, located to the north of Chichester were also established in the Iron Age.


The most impressive Iron Age hill fort was that at Cissbury. It is thought possible that Cissbury and the Trundle forts were embryonic market towns providing services to the surrounding Downland areas.


For the Romans, the Downs, as well as the coastal plain, were of military and economic importance. The first Roman villas in Sussex were among the earliest in Britain dating from the few decades after the invasion. These strung out along the coastal plain from Fishbourne to Eastbourne.


These varied from fairly humble cottages of just a few rooms and a few acres of land, to the most extravagant establishments that must have been the centre of extensive farming estates.


Medieval settlements on the South Downs comprised of mainly nucleated settlements set within common arable land. Deer parks were also one of the dominant features of the landscape of eastern Hampshire and western Sussex between the 12th and 16th centuries. These comprised of enclosed areas of wooded pasture bounded by earthwork banks and ditches.


Sheep-corn systems of agriculture dominated parts of the South Downs from the medieval period to the 19th century. In this style of farming, the sheep grazing the open downs provided a valuable source of manure supporting the production of corn.


Major changes took place in the post medieval period. The communal aspects of medieval agriculture began to be replaced by farms run by individuals. The 16th and 17th centuries saw the enclosure of large expanses of common woodland and large areas of arable land begin to form a distinctive landscape of small irregular fields enclosed by hedgerows.


The agricultural depression of the late 1800s saw a decline in the importance of sheep farming on the downland areas of the Downs. However, World War One saw an increased need for home-grown food to replace foreign imports that were no longer maintainable.


A further depression was experienced in the interwar period before the land was again reclaimed for agricultural activities during the Second World War. By 1942, the military required use of parts of the South Downs for training purposes. Some settlements such as Stanmer in East Sussex were even abandoned to be used for battle training.


After the Second World War, developments in machinery, artificial pesticides and fertilisers and subsidies allowed for increased cultivation of the land. With this came the extensive destruction of the chalk downland as well as of archaeological features.


Recognition of the importance of the landscape was finally marked in 2011 by the establishment of the South Downs Park Authority (SDNPA), now responsible for some 1,600 km2 of landscape.


In May, 2016, SDNPA became the newest International Dark Sky Reserve.


By Pat Saunders, Volunteer and Amy Roberts, Collections officer at The Novium Museum

Posted in Lifestyle.