A while now since I’ve walked on the South Downs – but here’s a memory of the downland in winter – taken from my book Wayfarer’s Dole…
On a frozen day in February I was on the South Downs again, walking up to Rackham Hill from Burpham. The village stands at the end of a lane that is a terminus for motor traffic, but continues in several directions for those on foot or horseback. Burpham’s church was begun in Saxon times, standing hard by the earthen banks of a hill fort.
Whether that was built by Saxons or Danes is subject to much dispute. In the first half of the last century its vicar was Tickner Edwardes, who wrote some delightful books on the countryside and the craft of keeping bees. Burpham is a delightful village. John Ruskin commented that he would live there if Coniston didn’t exist.
I took the lane to High Peppering, passing a herd of bison in a field as I set out. These Downs are covered in antiquities, and a tumulus known as the Burgh was the first on my route. Even in February skylarks danced almost invisibly in the heights, the great sweep of downland alive with their song.
The hillside was a gentle acclivity, just steep enough to make me warm up and breathe in the fresh air. The chalk was frozen hard and slippery, walking had to be done with care. I was following an ancient track, leading up from Burpham and the valley of the Arun the important track that followed the ridge of the higher Downs.
I find it humbling, walking the ways people have journeyed for countless millennia. These tracks, now the recreational delight of walker and rider remain functional – farmers still use them. Sheep are driven here, as they have been since man first farmed the Downs. They grazed beside me, making an occasional sound to add to the singing of the larks. I watched them as the combatants of past wars, the pedlars, the pilgrims and other travellers of times gone must have done.
There is a timelessness about so much of our countryside, as though you could glance sideways and see history relived all around. In a sense you can, for the traces of the past are everywhere. Within view of these old tracks are prehistoric flint mines, field systems and burial mounds. An hour’s wandering brought me to Rackham Banks, an immense earthwork of deep trenches and mighty ramparts. Its purpose is debatable, but as I sat there in a freezing breeze I could not help but consider how much work was involved in the construction.
The slight haze from the early frost had lifted. I could see for many miles. Amberley Wild Brooks were flooded, offering an irregular silver sheen in the plain at the foot of the hill. In another direction were the downs and borstals of Arundel Park, white with ice. A herd of Friesian cattle huddled together out of the wind on the leeward slope of Amberley Mount.
Tearing myself away I climbed on to the ridge path running over Rackham Hill, now part of the South Downs Way national trail. Despite a height of just a few hundred feet it seemed as though I was on top of the world. And in a sense I was for every trace of the stress which comes with everyday living had vanished.