Sunday, 20 July 2014

Secrets of the South Downs

Two hours away from England's pustulant pit of tentacles festering with greed and injustice – generally referred to as London – a range of chalk hills runs overlooking the sea. These are the South Downs; a mysterious place. They remain undevoured by the ravenous urban monetisation of the English southeast, as though warded by some ancient invisible force in the earth.

Sheep graze on open grassland, green beneath a wide blue sky. Birds sing, the rabbits bounce through the bushes, the crickets chirp in perpetual conversation about religion and politics, and the air is fresh and at peace. Even the rumbling tractors somehow blend in, while the occasional military aircraft is reduced to the gravitas of a paper aeroplane. It is a land of secrets, of whispers older than us or any of our ancestors, which emanate from the remnants of hill forts, burial mounds, civilizations long gone by.

There is something almost sacred about it. Sacred, not in the sense of the arbitrary dogmas over which the English have spent the recent hundreds of years killing each other, but a far older, truer, profounder sanctity, preceding all the arrogances humanity has since contrived; an authentic solemnity from the breathing wind and steadfast earth themselves, and one you feel in your very bones.

Indeed, where centuries of bloodthirst, prejudice and exploitation ecological and economic have destroyed any resemblance of Britain to the 'green and pleasant land' for which its people long, the South Downs are one location where perhaps a snapshot still lingers, a hint at the potential this country once held but never realised: the potential to be a good place. A kind place. A place of respect between human and human, between human and earth; a place which leaves no-one behind, least of all the vulnerable or the different. Perhaps, after decades of struggle and self-reflection, it may find that potential at last.

In the midst of these hills there is an old, small village - Steyning - which has come to hold a certain personal significance to me during my long and troubled years in Britain. Suffice it to say that this became a place I came to many times over the years, and always to walk the same route up and along the Downs with my father.

While I have been briefly enduring London again on a visa-sorting intermission from Japan (to where I return very shortly), a walk on the Downs for the first time in numerous years transpired. It is the first time I have done it since I started this blog, so for the first time, I will share some images and reflections from it here.

The route from Steyning up to the Downs begins with Mouse Lane, which leads from the high street to a junction at the foot of the hills. There stands a noticeable stone.

I can't forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring
In summer time, and on the downs how larks and linnets sing
High in the sun. The wind comes of the sea, and, oh, the air!
I never knew till now that life in old days was so fair.
But now I know it in this filthy rat-infested ditch,
Where every shell must kill or spare, and God alone knows which,
And I am made a beast of prey, and this trench is my lair –
My God, I never knew till now that those days were so fair,
And we assault in half-an-hour, and it's a silly thing:
I can't forget the narrow lane to Chanctonbury Ring.

As the carving indicates, this poem – with a slight variation in the final line – was composed by a certain John Stanley Purvis, under the name Philip Johnson. The murderscape in lines 5 to 7 refers to the trenches of World War I, which broke out in 1914, and of which this year marks the hundredth anniversary. Chanctonbury Ring we will come to shortly.

World War I was, of course, an unpardonable bloodbath, whose horror Purvis captures so powerfully in this poem by contrasting it with the uncorrupted nature of these Downs. Much has been made in the way of centennial commemorations this year, but Britain, I believe, has yet to face up to its shared culpability in a war which was really one of the most appalling set of atrocities to which humanity has ever debased itself. It happened because Europe had chosen competition, racism and fanatical nationalist ego as the basis for its international order, fuelled by suffocating industrial fires and the pitiless exploitation of the poor, the young and the hard-working, from whom came most of the soldiers sent to meaninglessly die in the meat-grinder of the Western Front.

Britain – in no way “free” or “democratic” but an accomplished excluder and persecutor of women, foreigners, workers, children, dissidents, the sexually unconventional and about anybody who did not fit in – bore as much responsibility as any other European power in choosing and constructing this order. It then failed to learn its lessons, and participated in the punitive post-WWI settlement which – though too many continue to deny it – gleefully generated the pain, humiliation and hatred which soon produced yet another war even more horrible than the first. It was only after that war that Europe seemed finally to learn its lesson, at last chose interdependence rather than selfish conflict, and created what later became the European Union. It is in this context that we must lament the recklessness of those in Britain today who rail against the EU and threaten to take Britain out of it: the surest sign of any, apart from blaming WWI on anyone other than itself (most frequently the Germans), that British consciousness still harbours the most chilling currents of Europe's terrible history.

This, for me, is the resonance of Purvis's poem. The contrast between the nature which is the birthright of us all – the air, the sun, the sea, the birdsong on the Downs – on the one hand, and the meaningless butchery of that conflict on the other, created by the elites of Europe, including Britain, to turn their people into obedient hungering abominations with no basis in the ecological heritage of the Earth.

To tear people from nature, and force them to slaughter each other like nothing that has ever existed. You did it too, Britain. You did it too. You have no reason to celebrate on the centenary of World War I.

Mercifully J. S. Purvis survived this ordeal. He returned to England, resuming his work as a history teacher and eventually becoming Canon Purvis of York. You can read more about his story at the Steyning Museum website, here.

And here's the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring.

At this point the path reaches the top, and joins the South Downs Way which runs along the top of the Downs from Winchester to Eastbourne.

And there, where the beech trees clump together on the left, is Chanctonbury Ring. These fellows are always grazing nearby.

It is a haunting place, Chanctonbury Ring. Essentially a hill fort whose earthworks date back to the late Bronze Age (around 700 BCE), evidence has been found for its successive use by people of different eras, including as a Roman place of worship, and all manner of peculiar myths and folklore have coalesced around it. The Ring is strategically positioned with views of the sea, the surrounding weald, and other prehistoric landmarks, and nearby are many ancient tracks and round barrows, in some of which very old human remains have been found.

Robert Macfarlane, in his book The Old Ways in 2012, described a night he attempted to sleep in the Ring. 'I heard the first scream at around two o'clock in the morning', he wrote. 'A high-pitched and human cry...(which) came from the opposite side of the tree ring to where I was sleeping. My thoughts were sleep-muddled: A child in distress? A rabbit being taken by a weasel or fox? Impossible, though: the sound was coming at least from treetop height. A bird, then; an owl surely. But this was like no owl I had ever heard before...I felt a faint rasp of fear, dismissed it as ridiculous. Then another cry joined the first, different in tone: slightly deeper and more grainy, rising at the end: the shriek of a blade laid hard to a lathe...Then I realized, with a prickling in my shoulders and fingers, that the voices had split and were now coming towards me...'

He writes of later discovering the Ring to be 'one of the most haunted places of the Downs', featuring frequently in Sussex folklore as 'a portal to the otherworld'. Tales tell of the Devil appearing from the woods and offering you a bowl of soup in exchange for your soul, if you walk seven times anti-clockwise around the Ring on a moonless night; these stories vary in the number of times or manner in which the Ring is to be circumambulated, or in the identity of the supernatural characters summoned thereby. Macfarlane writes of many others who similarly sought to overnight there only to be terrorised off the hilltop by whatever lurks behind its dimensions, including a gang of motorcyclists in 1966. And he never did discover where those screams came from.

The interior of Chanctonbury Ring.
Perhaps they know?

Proceeding along the Downs, you come to the Chanctonbury Dew Pond. This is a more recent construction, protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It is abundant with interesting animals and plantlife, although the exact composition is different on every visit. On previous occasions I remember colourful algae. This time the water was low, and populated with hundreds of wiggling snails.

Chanctonbury Dew Pond.

From there our route descends down paths around farmland, with much in the way of flowers, crops and horses on the way to another major hill fort: Cissbury Ring.

Apparently England has become warm enough to grow corn. Who would have thought?
Cissbury Ring.

Cissbury Ring is a much larger hill fort than Chanctonbury; indeed it is the largest in Sussex and second-largest in England. Like Chanctonbury, it also has its share of hauntings and ghost stories, and its wide-open chalk grassland makes it a superb vantage point. On a clear day – which is rare in England, but this somehow was – you can see as far as the chalk cliffs past Brighton to the east, and the peninsulas of Dorset to the west.

The view south. The town is Worthing, upon the English Channel.
North across the Downs.
Looking up at the Ring from the other side.
Another curious inhabitant.

The way from Cissbury Ring back to Steyning is pleasant in its own right. First, a long path with a field of sheep on one side and a field of cows on the other.

Listen to the sheep conversation.

Then the path runs along a kind of natural amphitheatre. This too had experienced a bovine takeover.

Past this is a tunnel of arching trees...

...followed by a long section over farmland, with further good views towards the coast.

A memorial to a late local farmer and his wife.

Soon Steyning comes into sight again, and a short descent leads back into the village.

This would not be England and its heritage, of course, without one more horrific murder:
As the stone attests, John Launder was one of hundreds of people arrested, tortured, then brutally put to death by public burning at the stake, during the wave of terror and slaughter in the 1550s for which the reign of Mary I – whom even the British call “Bloody Mary” – is best remembered. This bloodbath was both political and religious in character. Mary's father was the paranoid and equally murderous Henry VIII, who set off the Protestant Reformation of the Christian church in England, rejecting the authority of the Pope and centralising it instead in his own person (in short because the Pope would not allow him a divorce). This became a ruthlessly violent process in which Catholics and perceived political opponents were systematically persecuted, tortured and killed; but Henry VIII's daughter, the aforementioned Mary, was herself a Catholic and turned her dynasty's unspeakable cruelties upon Protestants. In a further twist, Mary's successor and sister, the more famed and respected Elizabeth I, who was a Protestant, turned things around once more and oversaw no shortage of persecution against Catholics.

In other words, whoever you were or whatever you believed, what the heck were you supposed to do?

It is important we see this not as some distant historical curiosity, but as an example of the bloodthirst, prejudice and hysteria which remains a hideous part of humanity's story to this day, and of the atrocities we still perpetrate for their sake then try to justify by invoking the 'national interest', or religious morality, or the supposed inherent barbarousness of other peoples and groups, or the protection of 'culture' or 'the family' or whatever word games work best in the circumstances.

Steyning for its part has acknowledged the murder of John Launder, remembering him as 'The Steyning Martyr', but it falls to us all to recognise, and admit, that we were his murderers. That it was we, our societies, ourselves, who murdered those of all lands who died in the trenches of World War I. And that it is we who still murder those whom we have the greatest responsibility to protect, through the like cruelties of austerity and our inhuman economic paradigm.

When England, for its part, finally acknowledges this centuries-old failure of responsibility, and sets forth on a new path of humility and concern for others, then perhaps, at last, it may become the green and pleasant land its better members dream of: a land worthy of what blesses the lane from Steyning to the Ring.


  1. You possess an ability to articulate your thoughts with both coherence and eloquence. Despite disagreeing with you on some counts, I think you raise important questions and issues. I hope your readership grows; I dare say a great many people would benefit by reading your blog.
    As a fellow trekking enthusiast, I especially enjoyed reading some of your posts on your hikes across various mountains. You should write a short post on what the mountains mean to you and why you love climbing them. Hope you get a chance to climb some of the mountains in the Himalayas someday; unmatched in not just altitude but also diversity in landscape and geography.

    1. My thanks indeed for your sincere and encouraging words. I am so pleased to hear you particularly enjoyed the hiking articles.

      It would be a supreme delight to get the chance to explore the Himalayas one day when circumstances permit. Many have spoken to me of the unparalleled beauty of their landscapes and heritage. If that day comes, I will be sure to write of them here as well.

      Thank you again for your impressions! :)