West Sussex Unwrapped II: Month 5 – South Downs National Park

Oh! the Downs high to the cool sky;
And the feel of the sun-warmed moss;
And each Cardoon, like a full moon,
Fairy-spun of the thistle floss;
And the beech grove, and a wood-dove,
And the trail where the shepherds pass;
And the lark’s song, and the wind-song,
And the scent of the parching grass!

By John Galsworthy

" "
Linseed mowing at Strood, August 1933, Garland N7772

South Downs on Film

Snippet from a film by Screen Archive South East, part of the series for West Sussex Unwrapped.

Images should not be reproduced without permission from West Sussex Record Office.

South Downs in the Archives

Appreciating the view

Uppark Ms 868: Humphrey Repton’s ‘Red Book’ of Uppark, 1810

Monochrome drawing of Humphrey Repton in his middle age

West Sussex Record Office holds the archive of the Uppark estate (nestled in the South Downs near South Harting), which includes a wonderful illustrated volume of the estate grounds. This volume – one of the famous Repton Red Books – was created by the leading landscape designer of the 18th century, Humphry Repton.

Humphry Repton by Henry Bryan Hall, published by Longman & Co, after Samuel Shelley, 1839, NPG D5801, © National Portrait Gallery, London

A page from Humphry Repton's Red Book which shows his skill in drawing and explaining his landscaping plans.

Repton pioneered the use of flaps to show ‘before and after views’ to his clients and the books take their name from their red Morocco bindings. He was commissioned in 1810 by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, the owner of Uppark, to design a new layout of the estate. The images above are taken from the Repton Red Book and depict just one of many original and proposed views of the grounds, as imagined by Repton. This particular view looks out over Uppark’s cattle and deer, and the hills of the South Downs. It is clear from Repton’s vision for the estate that he desired to make the very most of the beautiful surroundings. As you can see from the second illustration, he proposed stripping a tree of its middle branches, which were interrupting the view. He also intended to highlight the view with an extensive balustrade, rather like an enormous picture frame.

Lib 13778: A Descriptive Souvenir of the South Downs, early 20th century

Traversing the landscape

Be it a hike, stomp or stroll, the National Park has attracted centuries of pleasure-walkers. The South Downs National Trail (otherwise known as the South Downs Way) opened in 1972 and has since proven to be an extremely popular footpath. The trail stretches over 100 miles of downland and guides walkers through ancient woodland, along chalk rivers, over grassland, and by five different nature reserves! And, if that wasn’t enough, the Downs’ high vantage point allows for breath-taking views of the coastline.

From our photograph collections

John Smith 10/51 ‘Jack’ riding down Bury hill on a bicycle, June 1914 – Garland N6899 Hiking on the South Downs, 2 April 1933 – PH 14426 Nurse Wake in South Harting, c1925 – John Smith 5/29 the River Rother in 1895.

AM 991/1: Miss Lilian Ash’s Walking Journals, 1930-1932

Lilian Ash was born in 1908 and baptised in Eastney, Hampshire. Her father was a Corporal in the Royal Marine Artillery who was killed during the First World War. Lilian worked at the dockyard in Portsmouth as a clerical assistant. Outside of work, Lilian liked to traverse the South Downs with her friends, touring across the countryside and recording her escapades in diaries entitled ‘Rambles’. As you can see from the image on the right, she illustrated her diaries with beautiful drawings of local landmarks. These diaries, of which we hold two, are filled with accounts of places visited and sights seen, and plenty of photographs. She passed away in Portsmouth in 1995.

This diary was featured in a previous blog, click here to read.

Page from Lilian’s walking journal

MP 1138: Map of Uncontrolled Trekkers Feedings Centres, 1942

Map of uncontrolled trekkers feeding centres on the South Downs, MP 1138

This rather scrappy but detailed hand-drawn map shows various sites of unregulated ‘feeding centres’ – canteens – set up for hikers. We’re unsure why this map was drawn up in the first place; it may have been used in the management of the area or perhaps in surveying available tourist facilities.

Environmental wonders

MP 809 – Geological map of the chalk in Sussex downs, 1937

MP 809, Geological Map of the Chalk in the West Central Area of the Sussex Downs, 1937, by C. T. A. Gaster.

If you have ever sat down to take a rest on the Downs, chances are that you’ve come away with a chalky bum! The South Downs were formed from a huge deposit of chalk over 60 million years ago. As well as chalk, the Downs boast greensand (a type of sandstone) and clay. Together, these materials contribute to a geologically diverse landscape. The above map was drawn by Christopher T. A. Gaster for the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association. Gaster wrote extensively on South Down chalk between the 1920s and 1950s.

Close up of left hand corner of MP 809

An International Dark Sky

The South Downs National Park is one of eight designated International Dark Sky Places (IDSPs) in England, committed to protecting their dark skies from over-illumination. In total, there are 130 IDSPs across the globe (as of February 2020). The expansive skies of the South Downs are unobscured by light pollution and therefore provide an excellent environment for observing the celestial bodies. For more on the work of the International Dark Sky Association, visit their website.

The introductory page of the publication Voyages of Discovery which includes a lengthy message of support from Patrick Moore

Although the Park was awarded IDSP status in May 2016, the area has a much longer history of star gazing and astronomical research. The South Downs Planetarium and Science Centre, one of the largest planetariums in the country, was opened in 2001 by a team of volunteers who began work on the project back in 1993.

These volunteers, many of whom belonged to the South Downs Astronomical Society, set up the South Downs Planetarium Trust to fund the project. Part of the fundraising scheme was to sell science publications such as Voyages of Discovery… footprints on Mars? [see above] which included a personal endorsement of the planetarium from the renowned astronomer Sir Patrick Moore. Moore himself lived and worked in Selsey for many decades, and was closely affiliated to the Society. The Record Office is lucky to have been given the opportunity to create and keep scanned copies of Moore’s workbooks. The originals are held by the Science Museum in London.

Pages from Sir Patrick Moore’s star colour observation book, 1939-1945, SPM 1/8/1.

Preservation and conservation

WOC/CM35/1/1: Wild Birds Committee Minutes, 1898 to 1899

Double page spread of the Wild Bird Committee minute book which includes notetaking and a printed report for the County Council.
A page from the Wild Birds Committee minute book showing the date, committee members present, and the first two minuted points

West Sussex County Council (WSCC) formed the Wild Birds Committee in 1897 to offer advice on the terms and implementation of the Wild Birds Protection Acts. The committee members met on a regular basis to agree measures for the preservation and conservation of safeguarded bird populations. Measures included prohibiting the theft or damage of wild bird eggs and banning the shooting of certain species on certain days. The Committee merged into the Nature Conservation Committee in 1963. Over the past several decades, WSCC has seen many manifestations of conservancy interest groups, all committed to improving and protecting the landscape and wildlife of the South Downs by advising local authorities.

Nancy Price’s campaigning

Page from the scrapbook of Nancy Price’s work for the South Downs, 1937-1952, Nancy Price 12.
A photograph of Nancy Price taken from her scrapbook of work for the South Downs. Shows Nancy posing with her hands in her jacket pockets, standing in front of her wooden bench in High Salvington.

Originally hailing from Staffordshire, the famed stage-and-screen actress Nancy Price moved to High Salvington with her husband and infant daughters in the early 1910s, and settled in a cottage called Arcana. Nancy lived in High Salvington until her death in 1970.

During the 70-odd years that she lived in the county, the South Downs had a profound impact upon Nancy’s life. She dedicated a considerable amount of time observing local wildlife, especially birds, and campaigning to protect the landscape that she’d grown to love. Nancy kept a scrapbook specifically for recording her conservation work, a page from which can be seen above.

Her campaign work included supporting the abolition of vivisection; preserving or restoring areas of Downland; protesting against the destruction of birds’ nests; and abolishing steel animal traps. She was a frequent writer to the editor of the Worthing Gazette and Worthing Herald, through which she voiced her opinions on these topics; the scrapbook includes quite a number of cuttings from these newspapers.

The South Downs scrapbook is just one item from Nancy’s substantial archive which provides an account of her wide-ranging interests; not least, the numerous folders she kept on various topics such as ‘Adventure’, ‘Birds’ and ‘Flowers’, which testify to her passion for the natural world. It seems, therefore, that Nancy’s home in the South Downs could not have provided her with a better setting for pursuing her passion for natural conservation.

A page from Nancy's scrapbook of South Downs work showing a clipping of the Worthing Herald regarding her plea for South Downs preservation
A stack of papers taken from Nancy's collection of folders on various topics

MP 6614: Protest pamphlets, 1970-80s

Like Nancy Price, generations of residents of the South Downs have long had the best interests of the park in mind. The archive holds several campaigning leaflets, such as the examples below, which attest to the community’s interest in conserving the landscape. The first, concerning the Pylon Protest, was published in the 1970s and aimed to drum up awareness of the erection of high-power pylons in the Downs. The second, about Hurstpierpoint, was published in the 1980s and aimed to unify the community of Hurstpierpoint through a shared love for their village. This also entailed contesting projects.

Archaeological discoveries

Lastly, and certainly not least, is the South Downs’ reputation for archaeological discoveries. The Park has no fewer than 616 scheduled monuments – which are protected by law – and there are many, many more unscheduled ones! Just some of the most renowned sites include the Trundle, Cissbury Ring, Bignor Roman Villa, and Weald and Downland. Sussex has had a long history of archaeological interest; the Sussex Archaeological Society is one of the oldest county-based archaeological societies, having been established in 1846. The Society is now a charity and strives to protect these sites whilst encouraging us to learn more about them and why they are significant.

The Record Office holds hundreds of archaeological reports and surveys which are digitised and can be viewed in the Searchroom.

Three people working in a trench on an archaeological dig in Pitlands Farm in Up Marden
Archaeologists at Pitlands Farm in Up Marden, Griggs 145

Next month, we’ll be looking at the Ancient Fairs and Fetes of West Sussex.

Look out for Episode 6 on Tuesday 13th of July!


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