People have travelled along the route of the South Downs Way for over 8000 years, back into the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age. The high and drier chalk ridge offered much easier travelling than the wet and thickly wooded Weald below.
The earliest signs of occupation that can be readily seen today are from the Neolithic, or New Stone Age, the period from about 6000 years ago when settled farming replaced hunting and gathering as the main source of food. The dips left by old flint mines can be seen in several places. It was during the Neolithic that large scale clearance of the open woodland on the Downs took place, enlarging existing clearings to provide grazing for domestic stock and room for the first fields.
The Bronze Age peoples left more impressive monuments, especially the rounded Tumuli that dot the landscape. Although these are often called "burial mounds" many never contained any human bones, and those that did almost always held only cremated remains. The characteristic dip in the tops of the mound is usually due to the activities of Victorian antiquaries looking for treasure or skeletons; unfortunately their digging has destroyed much of the information that could have been obtained with more modern techniques.
Bronze was introduced gradually alongside flint from about 3500 years ago. Iron first appeared on the Downs around 1000 years later; the Iron Age peoples seem to have been much more warlike than their predecessors and certainly the hill forts they left behind were impressive defences. When new, the forts' gleaming white chalk ramparts must have dominated the landscape. There are many hillforts along the South Downs Way, but Old Winchester Hill is perhaps the best example. Iron Age or "Celtic" field systems are also common.
Most of the known activity during the Roman period took place on the coastal plains and in the Weald, but there are some Roman roads that cross the Downs most notably Stane Street at Bignor.
By the mediaeval period the Downs were used for a mixture of arable agriculture and sheep grazing, and this continued up until the Second World War. When corn prices were high, such as during the Napoleonic Wars of the late 1700s and early 1800s, more land was ploughed. When corn prices were low, such as in the later 19th century and again in the 1930s, land "tumbled down" back to downland as fields were abandoned. As well as economic hardships disease also took its toll and several downland Villages were abandoned following the Black Death.
During WW2 large areas of the Downs were used for military training, but the biggest changes came after the war. Mechanised agriculture, heavy subsidies, and the extensive use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers allowed larger areas to be ploughed than ever before.
Winchester to Queen Elizabeth Country Park
This section of the route has some of the best Iron Age monuments, particularly hillforts, of the whole Trail. St Catherine's Hill, Old Winchester Hill, and Butser Hill are particularly fine examples. The hill forts were built from around 500BC and probably served as a mixture of meeting place, marketplace, ceremonial ground, and military defences. They may also have been simply lived in.
Old Winchester Hill is an especially impressive hillfort. This hill, which dominates the Meon Valley, was used from the Middle Stone Age until the beginning of the Roman period. Today the Bronze Age barrows within the fort that are most visible pre Iron Age feature.
Butser Hill, in Queen Elizabeth Country Park, has an extensive Iron Age or "Celtic" field system. Although the South Downs Way crosses the ancient farmland it is best seen from further away, at the valley bottom near where the Way crosses the A3 road.
There is also an abandoned Mediaeval village at Lomer, now visible only as lumps and bumps in the grassy field next to the track. It was first mentioned in 802 AD as "Lammaeres Gate" and was probably largely abandoned in the 14th Century after the Plague. The remains are best seen from the northwest, ideally in the evening or morning when the sun shines more horizontally.
Don't miss the old treadwheel at the Milburys Pub - a great lunchtime spot walking to or from Winchester!back to top
Queen Elizabeth Country Park to Upwaltham
Many of the most prominent hilltop sites have been used again and again as it is their commanding position that is important. Beacon Hill was used from the Stone Age right into the 19th Century. An undated stone axe has been found here, as well as a human skull and bronze horse dating from about 500 BC when iron was starting to be commonly used. The track around the hill is even older than the fort - this is one of the sections of the South Downs Way where the exact line of the path can be shown to be over 3000 years old.
All along the South Downs Way it is worth watching out for the numerous Bronze Age barrows or Tumuli
"Cross Dykes" can often be seen along the South Downs Way. These ditches and banks are often built right across the chalk ridge. Cross dykes have been interpreted in various ways - the most fanciful being that they were a kind of anti tank ditch against chariots - but probably they simply marked territorial boundaries of some kind. Some of the clearest examples are at Pen Hill, just east of Beacon Hill, and here you can also see how the mediaeval route of the South Downs Way cuts through the earlier earthworks.
All along the South Downs Way it is worth watching out for the numerous Bronze Age barrows or Tumuli, visible as rounded mounds, and marked on the OS maps. Some of the best examples can be seen at the Devil's Jumps and Heyshott Down.back to top
Upwaltham to Upper Beeding
Bignor Hill, where the South Downs Way crosses Roman Stane Street, is an area of major archaeological importance. Stane Street ran from Noviomagus, Roman Chichester, to London and was a major trade route. Indeed it still is an important road - the A29 still follows the Roman line for much of the way. The Roman villa at Bignor (about 2kn northeast of the Bignor Hill car park) is well worth a visit - it is open from March to October (not Mondays).
Amberley Museum of industrial history
Amberley Museum of industrial history is also well worth a visit for a fascinating insight into the old ways of life in Sussex. It is situated in a chalk pit, a relict of the days when chalk was quarried to make lime for fertiliser and building mortar. Traditional craft skills such as blacksmithing, clay pipe making, and pottery are regularly demonstrated. For details go to www.amberleymuseum.co.uk.
Amberley Wild Brooks
As you walk over Amberley Mount and Rackham Hill look north over Amberley Wild Brooks. This was the site of a landmark victory in the battle to save Britain's last wild places. It was here, in the 1970s, that conservationists first managed to save an important wildlife area from being destroyed by the Ministry of Agriculture. Taxpayers' money was to have been used to drain and plough the area. Now government grants help Sussex Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, and local farmers to work together to maintain the area.
Chanctonbury Ring is another site with a long history. It was used intermittently from the Neolithic until the Roman occupation. It was during the Roman period that two temples, thought to be dedicated to a boar cult, were built within the old Iron Age fort. The first of the famous beech trees were planted in 1760 by Charles Goring, ancestor of the present owner, but the fame of Chanctonbury Ring didn't stop it being used for military purposes one more time. You can still see the platforms dug for a WW2 anti aircraft battery. Cissbury Ring hillfort, clearly visible about 3 km to the south, was also used by soldiers from the Iron Age up to WW2, but it is probably most famous for its network of over 270 Neolithic flint mines.
As you drop down towards the river Adur look out for Bramber Castle to the north. The oldest parts of the castle date from 1086 when William de Braose, one of William the Conqueror's Barons, built a small fortification to control what was then an important port. It was later enlarged several times before being finally abandoned during the 15th century as the river route to the sea silted up.back to top
Upper Beeding to Rodmell
People have used the Downs to earn their living since before the invention of agriculture. This section of the walk has the usual Bronze and Iron Age tumuli and hill forts, but it is the mediaeval and later landscapes that are clearest here.
The Downland Parishes are all shaped as north - south "strips", with the village at the spring line at the bottom of the chalk where there was water and the best soil for growing crops. The heavy clay further north, in the Weald, provided timber and other woodland products while the Downs provided the grazing for the villages' sheep. The crest of the hills was also the best place for the windmills that ground the corn, like the Jack and Jill mills at Clayton. The shape of the parishes gave each a fair share of these different resources.
The Downs and its flocks
The traditional way of grazing the Downs, up to about the 1920s, was for shepherds to look after huge flocks of free ranging sheep. At night the sheep would be taken off the hill and "folded" - shut up - for the night on some of the cropland near the village. Here their dung would enrich the soil ready for the corn to be planted. Fulking, Plumpton, and Poynings are some of the classic Downland villages that developed on these lines. Their churches and pubs are well worth a visit.
This part of the walk also has one of the most impressive relicts of the Ice Age - the huge dry valley of Devil's Dyke. This steep sided valley was carved out of the chalk by meltwater thousands of years ago, when the chalk was permanently frozen and so seasonal streams could run on the surface without draining away. If you walk along the valley floor you can almost see the mammoths grazing.
The legendary origin of the Devil's Dyke doesn't date back to the Ice Age, however. The story goes that the Devil was angry at the conversion of the Sussex people to Christianity, and resolved to cut through the Downs to the sea to let in the salt water and drown them all. As he dug away by night, an old woman saw what he was up to. She lit a candle and woke her rooster, so that the light and the crowing made him think daybreak was coming. The Devil fled, leaving the Dyke unfinished, and so it remains today.back to top
Rodmell to Eastbourne
From Itford Hill you can look north to The Caburn, an Iron Age Hillfort that is now a National Nature Reserve. There was a settlement here from the Bronze Age until the Roman period, and then again in Saxon times. The valley farmland either side of the Ouse river was a navigable estuary then. Today it is used by paragliders whenever the weather is suitable, its steep south facing slopes making an ideal take off area.
Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, and John Maynard Keynes were regular visitors
A little further east is Charleston Farmhouse, where Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant established the spiritual home of "The Bloomsbury Group" of writers, intellectuals and artists. Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, and John Maynard Keynes were regular visitors there. Go to www.charleston.org.uk for more information and opening times.
The village of Alfriston is well worth taking time to explore. Its old buildings include The Clergy House. Dating from the 14th Century this became the first building to be donated to the National Trust in 1896 - check with the NT for opening times. In the early 19th Century Alfriston was the haunt of a notorious gang of vicious smugglers until their leader, Stanton Collins, was caught and transported to Australia. The village is more welcoming nowadays with a fine array of pubs and teashops.back to top