Christmas 2020 was ‘locked down’. We, like so many, couldn’t see our family. All plans had to be dropped in favour of our new friend, “Zoom”, who joined us all first thing on Christmas morning, welcomed into our different living rooms, connecting us across the tiers, miles, and oceans.
But we did have a tremendous gift – a beautifully sunny, clear winters day. And we are so very lucky to live where we do, in easy reach of the South Downs, where we spent the day. Four and a half hours walking, on Chanctonbury Ring. A prehistoric hill fort atop the Downs, with the most amazingly beautiful, far reaching views stretching out all around us.
The 360′ panorama and relative lack of surrounding woodland and towns means that the views are truly amazing. On Christmas Day, we could make out Leith Tower, 30 miles away, from the top of the Ring, (without the help of binoculars!). In the opposite direction, the South Coast, boasting clear lines of wind farms breaking the huge, open horizon, stretching as far as we could see East and West.
With very few people around the vast landscape, and wintry rays of the sun brightening the stunningly blue expanse of sky, it felt truly magical. Chanctonbury Ring has long been associated with magic: it is said that on a midsummer’s night, the Devil can be summoned by running around the ring six times. Reportedly, Satan will then appear and offer the tired rambler a delicious bowl of soup in exchange for their soul… I’m not sure what evidence there is for that, and would have thought that most would prefer a long drink after such exhaustion, rather than a bowl of hot soup – but it’s a quirky tale.
A more evidence backed tale relates to the cluster of beech trees that crowns the ring. Just over the hill is the 18th Century estate of the Goring Family, landowners and active Parliamentarians. Growing up as he did in the valley of the Downs, young Charles Gorning would look up to the hill every day, and, inexplicably, longed to see it capped with beech trees. In 1760, he planted young trees at the top of the hill, and walked up to water them every day until they were established.
He continued, resolute, despite objections from many about the changed appearance that a crown of trees would bring to the hill. Some 26 years after planting, a new landowner laid claim to the ground, but Charles’ horticultural aspirations were as resolute as ever, and he fought on defiantly.
59 years later, Charles’ trees had matured, and, on his 85th birthday, he wrote this poem to celebrate their existence:
Charles Goring’s Poem to the trees:
How oft around thy Ring, sweet hill
A boy, I used to play
And form my plans to plant thy top
On some auspicious day…
… And then an almost hopeless wish
Would creep within my breast,
Oh! could I live to see thy top
In all it’s beauty dress’d
That time’s arrived; I’ve had my wish
And lived to eighty-five;
I’ll thank my God who gave such grace
As long as ere I live.
However, the trees had not fully taken root. Like many others on this particular site, they suffered greatly during the great storm of 1987. This largely stripped the hilltop of it’s trees, exposing their shallow root systems.
Investigations uncovered human and animal remains; believed to be sacrificial offerings, and the remains of what is to believed to be a roman temple have been found in the centre of the ring. The outer edge marks the site of an Iron Age fort, and discoveries of Neolithic flint work and Bronze Age pottery indicate that the site is older than previously thought. Archeologists now believe that Chanctonbury is the site of an ancient ritual centre.
The South Downs is Britain’s newest National Park, connecting Winchester to the Beachy Head coast. It’s varied environment is home to a rich range of biodiversity. Visiting in Winter, expect to return with chalky white splashes highlighting the usual muddy brown trousers, Picasso – style! The chalk heathland, grasslands, flood meadows, ancient woodlands and flood meadows will burst with wild flowers in summer, and offer fantastic opportunities for off road cyclists, hikers, and photographers and nature lovers.
Find the route for this magnificent circular walk by following this link.
Best enjoyed on a clear day!
Albert Einstein:“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better”