Uncertain future for Sussex’s most iconic landscape

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Sunset over Ditchling Beacon, picture courtesy of the South Downs National Park Authority

Kipling’s “blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs” form one of the best loved landscapes in the UK and have inspired generations of painters and photographers; the English Tourist Board use the cliff-edge coastguard cottages at Cuckmere Haven to promote holidays in the UK. But while its iconic vistas have been reassuringly protected since 2010 with the creation of the South Downs National Park, that protection has recently started to look less than secure, with potential threats to its integrity emerging.

The government’s revelation that it will be creating a bonfire of planning regulations has sent a chill through many hearts.

The Prime Minister introduced the recently announced White Paper on planning regulations (Planning for the Future) as representing “radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War”. In particular, new rules, which will come into effect by September, will mean full planning applications will no longer be required to demolish and rebuild unused buildings, and as part of the new laws, homeowners will be able to add up to two additional storeys to their home through a fast-track approval process.

Exactly how these changes are likely to impact on the Downs and their surrounding villages is as yet unknown – a spokesperson for the South Downs National Park Authority said, “We are currently reviewing the Planning For The Future document and the Authority will be submitting a consultation response following a meeting of the National Park Authority on October 15.”

Our ‘whale-backed’ Downs: Harting Down, picture courtesy of the South Downs National Park Authority

The South Downs has lost much to the plough and to housing in the last century: old chalk grassland accounted for 50 per cent of the eastern Downs before the second world war, with only 5 per cent surviving today. And changing farming practices may once again pose a threat, if the post-Brexit trade deal currently being negotiated between the UK and US force our farmers into a race to the bottom to compete with America’s highly intensive agriculture.

The use of some agrichemicals and of growth-promoting hormones in livestock presently banned under EU regulations might be lifted. Environmental schemes currently subsidised under the much-criticised Common Agricultural Policy may no longer be supported longer-term by the UK government. All of which risks setting back what has been a slow but steady improvement in developing environmentally-friendly farming practices in recent years.

There is always a symbiotic relationship between landscape and humans. Landscape influences our choice of where to live whilst human workings shape the environment in turn. The landscape of the South Downs that we see today has been dramatically altered over the centuries by human activity.

‘Chalky paths criss-crossing green turf’. Image: ‘Chalk Paths’ by Eric Ravilious (private collection)

The earliest people to settle the South Downs built the forts and burial mounds on the top of the chalk ridges: Cissbury Ring, Mount Caburn near Lewes, and the Lords Burghs overlooking Alfriston. They cleared the scrubland and woods that covered the hills to graze their animals, and created strip fields on the slopes of the Downs. In Medieval times isolated farm settlements grew into villages scattered around the base of the hills, and in more recent times extensive sheep grazing created the short-cropped turf land so typical of this landscape.

The Downs’ long vistas of grass undulations, the bell and bowl barrows, the fields of corn and meandering rivers, the white chalky paths criss-crossing the green turf, have inspired generations of artists. Eric Ravilious, one of the best-known artists to portray the Downs, understood that the secret of the hills is that they are ever changing, with cloud shadows racing across the turf, with the light and shade of the ridges and the sweep of the horizon.  He credited the special nature of the landscape with transforming his art, “the colour of the landscape was so lovely and the design so beautifully obvious”.  The Downs, unlike wilder and more dramatic mountain or fell terrain, somehow seem more domestic, on a more human scale. But they are also more vulnerable for that very reason, being in an over-crowded area of our island, where housing and agricultural demands place increasing pressure on the green spaces that still exist.

Rudyard Kipling, in his ‘Sussex’ poem, spoke of,  “In a fair ground – in a fair ground – Yea, Sussex by the sea!”  While Virginia Woolf wrote that the Downs were “too much for one pair of eyes, enough to float a whole population in happiness, if only they would look”.

Let’s hope that the current uncertainties threatening the Downs will pass, and all those who love and appreciate this unique landscape will continue to float in the happiness that they bring, unsullied, for many years to come.

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