Walking in the Downs – a lockdown odyssey

James Joughin and his dog Ringo on the South Downs, summer 2020
Author James Joughin and Ringo the dog on the South Downs, Summer 2020
(NB: all photos used in this article are c/o the author unless otherwise stated)

Confession: I’ve lived in Brighton for 10 years without taking much notice of the hills that start more or less at the back of my house. Since my youth, a perfect afternoon’s exercise required nothing more than lying on a couch in a dark room, Velvet Underground bootlegs at unhealthy volume. And, anyway, I’m a Scotsman raised on the edge of the Cairngorm plateau where there are real hills. Down here, if I looked, all I saw were manicured paths and ‘pub walks’ and National Trust notice boards instructing you to walk/not walk. And in the country there was always the danger of running into TV’s Vicar of Firle or Rachel Johnson or some other Brexitland personality in red anorak and green wellies. Or that’s what I thought. However, lockdown has made me think anew. Thanks lockdown.

I started off just getting out to stretch the legs a bit. Our dear leader Johnson seemed to be insisting we take some exercise each day, presumably to help fight off the virus. But after slouching around Preston Park a few times I was getting bored and it was then, with the startling visibility of those early lockdown weeks, that I noticed the distant peaks glistening on the horizon, and hatched a vague plan to head up there and ‘explore the South Downs Way’ as my tattered Brighton guidebook maintained I should.

“No COVID rules were broken in the making of this story – nor were any dogs inveigled into walking any further than they wanted…”

So, one day in April, my faithful canine companion, Ringo, and I hitched a ride up to Ditchling Beacon with the intention of walking home. (I should quickly add here that no COVID rules were broken in the making of this story – the ride was with a member of our household “bubble” – nor were any dogs inveigled into walking any further than they wanted). We headed off east and followed our noses in the direction of the sea, missed a few turns, got confused in some deep valleys I didn’t even realise were there, jumped one or two fences, and eventually finished up behind the Sussex University campus at Falmer, where we had to dodge through the back of some woods, before finding our way eventually to Hollingbury and relative safety. I concluded then that, were I to venture into nature again, a map and a compass might be helpful (not least to avoid the need for some wire cutters). I already had a decent pair of walking boots, and the weather at that time was great, so I started thinking about extending my horizons, and venturing off-piste. I reckoned I could cover the high ground in loops and if, say, four hours was my walking limit (and Ringo’s too) then maybe we could do 10-12 miles at a go, and then see where we’d got to.

James Joughin locates another "trig point" at the western end of the South Downs in East Sussex, Summer 2020
James Joughin locates a “trig point” on the western end of the South Downs, East Sussex, Summer 2020

I made a map to chart our progress. For nebulous environmental reasons (plus the ever-shifting Government guidelines re: COVID) I reckoned I shouldn’t motor too far from home, so I fairly arbitrarily selected Amberley to the west and Eastbourne to the east, where my map indicated the hills run out. That’s some 50 miles in all and the width of three Ordnance Survey maps (‘middle’ Englanders will appreciate that all Scots have OS map-reading pre-programmed in their DNA, allowing us to find our way around gloomy mountains everywhere).

Every few days I would walk some more. Ditchling Beacon to Black Cap. Black Cap to Lewes. Black Cap to Newmarket Hill and back to Hollingbury. Lewes to Kingston and up onto the ridge there, and later on down to Piddinghoe. Piddinghoe to Telscombe and on to Balsdean. On and on I went, as June became July. The weather was warm and sunny, just as you would expect if climate change was having the impact those vexatious experts have long been predicting. Also the visibility was still fantastic – again, just as could be expected if pollutants like vehicle emissions had sharply fallen during the first national lockdown. From the top of Mount Caburn one day, I felt I could reach out and touch Beddingham Hill right across the valley. By this time, COVID restrictions had lifted a lot and I was freely (and legally) able to head out for the old straight track, occasionally with human companions, often without, but with no Barnard Castle-type excuses necessary.

James, Ringo and some "bubble" walking companions pose for a photo at Haven Brow trig point near Seven Sisters, with the sea in the background
James, Ringo and “bubble” companions at Haven Brow trig point, near Seven Sisters & Cuckmere Haven

On my map I plotted my growing explorations, a spider’s web of twists and squiggles. Then, after a couple of months of this, my walking web expanding all the while, I realised that the souvenir photos I’d been taking of myself, together with Ringo and other erstwhile companions, at the occasional trig points I passed, were building up into something of a set. It came to me that these trig points could be a way of framing my new experiences, and capturing my little Downs adventure. Of course this connected to my dormant Munro-bagging trait, another part of every Scottish person’s DNA, don’t you know. Of course these rolling hills are hardly on the same scale but, from the perspective of just making altitude, you are starting from a lower base here. Anyway, 200 metres up is 200 metres up.

ames Joughin's "spider's web" map charting his trig points, trails and tribulations along a 50-mile stretch of the South Downs in East Sussex
James Joughin’s “spider’s web” map, charting his 50-mile stretch of trig points, trails and tribulations

As I logged my trigs: 5, 10, 20… I wondered exactly what they were, these silent lumps of concrete, standing out there alone and untended, on the highest sections of many ridges. Several times, in fact, during the minute or two it took me to set up a photo, someone approached and asked: ‘’What are those things, what are they for?” so it seems they are mysterious to quite a few people. I was tempted to tell the curious that the pillars were part of the Deep State infrastructure, something ‘they’ had long planned for the post-Brexit famine controls that were soon to be sprung on us but, actually, my cursory research had revealed that these ‘triangulation points’ as they are properly known were erected by the Ordnance Survey between 1936 and 1962 to assist in the accurate mapping of the nation. When all of the 6000 plus pillars were first erected, it was possible in clear weather to see at least two trig points from any other one, making precise measurement simple. Today, their function has largely been superseded by aerial photography and digitalisation, and some of them are overgrown or swallowed up in private developments, but even in the event of nuclear war (or an attack by space lasers?) they are likely to remain in place for quite a while yet.

Scouring my three OS maps I found a total of 30 trigs and, over the summer, started consciously seeking them out, with routes that linked one to another over the landscape, sometimes just me and Ringo, sometimes with others. Going east this involved Tarring Neville (afterwards he was completely unrecognisable), Firle Beacon (no TV vicars in sight), Norton Top, High and Over, Wilmington Hill (where the ancient chalk Long Man still stands proudly on the hillside, despite recently having briefly donned a facemask) and eventually on to Beachy Head and Eastbourne.

James Joughin and Ringo the dog reaching what they believed at the time was the "final" trig point at Bury Hill, South Downs, late Autumn 2020
James and Ringo reaching the “final” Bury Hill trig point, late Autumn 2020

By the end of October I had one big walk around Bury Hill left to finish off the 30, and to “collect” the most westerly trig on my map. That was a schlep up from Amberley, which then involved a long doubling back to avoid the flooding down on the Arun plain. I felt very satisfied as I limped home that evening. Even as I did though, I wondered whether I might have inadvertently missed any trigs. Only then did I perform the bleedingly obvious Google of the subject to find (of course) that I was not the first person to have this idea and that, furthermore, there were a bunch more trig points in my selected area, some of which I’d overlooked because they were in woods or at a lower altitude. At my best count there were actually 44 trigs in all. So I resolved to finish these before the end of the year. This would become my ‘2020 Lockdown Project’.

Long story short, the autumn weather was strikingly warm (climate model predictions again proving accurate) and the walking proceeded apace. I got the 44 pillars done by the end of the year, photo evidence lovingly assembled. Here’s the one I left for last: Ditchling Beacon on Boxing Day, in the midst of Storm Bella and the first wintery sleet, and the highest point in East Sussex at 248 metres.

The Joughin family (James, his wife and son with Ringo the dog) on Boxing Day 2020 up on Ditchling Beacon in a sleety blizzard
The Joughin family on Boxing Day 2020, in a sleety blizzard on Ditchling Beacon

But, satisfied as I was with my ‘project’, other instincts were also starting to kick in. I was noticing things. At a walking pace you have time to consider. Of course, you see the buildings and the human imprints on the land. At a simple level you start to ask, “why is this here and why is that that there?” Little things. Why are there so many barbed wire fences? Why are there places where the map indicates there should be a public right of way footpath, but there isn’t one? Why are there so many ugly, scruffy farms: derelict buildings with rusty machinery lying around? Why, like when I was trying to find the path above Piddinghoe, are there fields bursting with baby pheasants, all scuttling around like rats when you approach? And why, just around the corner, are there men with shotguns lurking behind the bushes? What’s going on?

You don’t have to look very far at this before getting pulled into the world of competing rural interests — an old, old story, going back centuries. And it’s all clearly there to see, in these few miles of the South Downs. First off, why does the landscape look like this — what Rudyard Kipling famously described in his poem Sussex as: “Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs”?

No tender-hearted garden crowns,
No bosomed woods adorn
Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs,
But gnarled and writhen thorn—
Bare slopes where chasing shadows skim,
And, through the gaps revealed,
Belt upon belt, the wooded, dim,
Blue goodness of the Weald.

— excerpted verse from the 1902 poem “Sussex” by Rudyard Kipling

This is, of course, ancient terrain. These were the first settlements in England after the ice retreated, in the last climate upheaval. The first serious populations were here and the evidence is there to be seen if you look with your head tilted at the right angle. The tumuli and barrows are obvious. These make it clear this is a prehistoric landscape. Just along the section of the Downs around Brighton there are nearly 200 barrows or burial mounds. All around there is evidence of ancient camps and settlements and enclosures of many kinds, from the Bronze Age to Roman times. There are several village sites noted in the Doomsday Book then later abandoned due to that earlier pandemic, the Black Death. If you squint into the light it is possible to see the lingering shadows. When you hike here you are literally walking on the bones of the long dead.

All through the summer of 2020 the weather continued balmy and warm, opportune for lots of blue-sky photos showing the dramatic views with their startling emptiness and wildlife-rich pastures. I started to relax into this, every day discovering more stuff that really I should have known already, most obviously (I know you’ve been waiting for this!) about the politics of the Downs, the old struggles and campaigns going way back, all the work that has shaped, protected and conserved this essential landscape.

James Joughin, Ringo and some "bubble" walking companions with blue skies views, at the Blackpatch Hill trig point, East Sussex South Downs, 2020
James, Ringo and household “bubble” walking companions at the Blackpatch Hill trig, South Downs, 2020

Suffice to say there have been huge and continuous efforts over many years, crusades that go back to earlier times – perhaps most inspirationally, to the national mass trespass movement of the 1930s, Kinderscout and all that, but then further back still, with echoes and resonances reaching out even as far as the long ago brief republic of the storied Diggers of England. And then there are the artists. Constable walked these slopes two hundred years ago. He sketched Devil’s Dyke from near the Shepherd and Dog pub in Fulking. Later there are the two Erics, the painter Ravilious and the sculptor Gill, and Stanley Thorogood, for whom I have a special affection. All were drawn to these same lights and perspectives.

Land. It is so emotive. Even though most of the hills around Brighton are publicly owned (and much of the rest is sustained through government subsidy), there are many places where I had to climb barbed wire fences to get to the trig point, and one where I had to slide under several electric wires and dodge some skittish horses, only to encounter a man with barking dog rapidly approaching with: “Oi, what you doing here? This is private land!” (To be fair to the gentleman, he calmed down when I demonstrated my essential benignity and managed hastily to explain to him my ridiculous purpose.)

The Long Man of Wilmington - watercolour by renowned Sussex painter Eric Ravilious, painted in 1939. It is currently owned by and exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum gallery, London
The Long Man of Wilmington (1939) – painting by Eric Ravilious © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These revealed connections were good for me during the prevailing lockdown disquiet. They provided some solace, some balm. For a year or two I had been active in local anti-Brexit campaigns, and I was still reeling from the terrible defeats we incurred. I’m still uncomfortable out there in Brexitland, where the uneasy mixture of Powellism, hubris, and wilful ignorance is still sustaining the heady narrative, at least in the dominant right-wing media, even as more and more previously fervent Brexiteers begin to wake up to the nightmarish reality of Brexit thanks to the hard evidence that’s now all around, from empty supermarket shelves and rapidly rising prices to the mournful sight of British fish rotting on the docks.

I don’t actually want any healing for this, but contemplating older stuff does help to lay down a bigger picture. I’m reminded that our battles are not unique to us. Different interest groups have always clashed over fundamental issues. Progress has always been two steps forward, one step back (even when things are going well). There is still hope.

The Downs we see today are the result of a very long story. They probably started to look something like they do now in the 14th and 15th centuries, after enclosure. It seems, however, that, even then, the land remained fairly accessible and it was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that encroachment really began to take a toll, with the first speculative housing development, and then fencing and modern industrial agriculture.

Sheep on the South Downs looking towards Eastbourne and the sea
Sheep on the South Downs looking towards Eastbourne and the sea – photo by Eleanor Best

There was always resistance to this ‘modernity’ and the great achievement here was the mobilising of local resources, over many years, to enable the local council to purchase various plots of Downs land to be maintained for public use. By 1945, these acquisitions totalled some 14,000 acres, later added to with further purchases by the National Trust. As might be expected, the council had trouble managing and stewarding this large, living ecosystem and, in the 1990s, as was the fashion, sought to privatise these holdings. Only steadfast grassroots campaigning over a number of years managed to stop this. Among the proud occasions many locals still remember were the five big trespasses organised in 1998, one of which, held at the aforementioned Long Man at Wilmington, attracted 170 people and received an address from the then Labour MP. This was fundamental in the wider national campaign, which culminated eventually in the Right to Roam being passed into law in 2000, even though the opaque negotiations necessary to get it passed meant that the various Downs sites were scattered around 180 different fragments, with some farmers still grumbling and resisting certain inclusions.

“These age-old pressures [are] still at work, along with the increasingly urgent paradox of wild land needing to be managed. These seemingly natural ‘whale-back’ hills are actually a product of centuries of human input. To sustain them there needs to be more of the same…”

After that, another 10 years of further campaigning led to an agreement in 2010, to designate the South Downs National Park, which looks after the land and promotes the interests of the people who live and work within it. Funded by central government, it has a board of 27 members including local authority nominees and parish council representatives. National Lottery support assists with funding too: everything from archaeological digs to local history initiatives, footpath maintenance, conservation and species reintroduction work, and local group mobilization. A dizzying number of charities and organisations are also listed as affiliated supporters of England’s newest National Park. This is what the academics call social capital. It’s built up over years and years and it’s hard to quantify, but its immeasurably powerful and you certainly know when you don’t have it, or if you lose it.

The Joughin family (James, his wife and son plus Ringo the dog) at the Kithurst Hill trig point, South Downs, late Autumn 2020
The Joughin family at Kithurst Hill trig point on the East Sussex South Downs, late Autumn 2020

And here we are now, these age-old pressures still at work, along with the increasingly urgent paradox of wild land needing to be managed. These seemingly natural ‘whale-back’ hills are actually a product of centuries of human input. To sustain them there needs to be more of the same. The terrain is delicate and dynamic and would quickly go to coarse impenetrable scrub if left untended for long. Grazing helps keeps it in shape. The other main option, commercial agriculture, risks more ploughing and more damage. The public Waterhall golf course, long running at a loss, has now been left to fallow and discussions are underway about “rewilding” and what this would entail and cost. A recent article in the Argus expressed hope for some rare species reappearing: apparently even hippopotamus, although that seems unlikely, at least in the short term, at least to this observer.

Sheep grazing on the South Downs above the Long Man of Wilmington, May 2020 - Photo by Eleanor Best
Sheep grazing on the South Downs above the Long Man of Wilmington, May 2020 – photo by Eleanor Best

Certainly, the stewardship of these remarkable hills, with their incredible variety of wildlife and habitats, their ecologies and heritage sites shaped by centuries of farming, is a never-ending responsibility that requires specialist management and resources. Without this it will quickly return to scrub, as has happened in Moulsecoomb Wild Park, where comparable photos from 80 years ago show how much of the area has succumbed to a near-impenetrable tangle of hawthorn, blackthorn, bramble and gorse.

My suggestion is simply this: if you can, whenever you can, get out there on the hills. Slow down, have a good look around; try to register what you see, tie together how one thing links with another: the geology, the history, the economics, then think about how the connections are made and maintained. These natural wonders didn’t make it here by luck, but because of all the people in the past, who worked and campaigned to protect and deliver them. We have to keep doing this. There is constant pressure and this will only increase as the climate continues to change. We all need to be vigilant. And active.

Brighton’s Downland Estate – a new vision for a “People’s Downland”

Sheep grazing in the South Downs National Park near Eastbourne, East Sussex, May 2020 - photo by Eleanor Best
Sheep grazing the hills, South Downs National Park, East Sussex, May 2020 – photo by Eleanor Best

I contacted Dave Bangs, at the Brighton Downs Alliance. Dave is a filmmaker and the author of the fantastic A Freedom to Roam Guide to the Brighton Downs, 400 pages of pretty much everything you need to know about these remarkable hills (it’s out of print now but still available in the Brighton Library). In 2017, Dave and others produced the public document Brighton’s Downland Estate – A New Vision for a People’s Downland and this is still ‘on the table’ as negotiations with the Council on the future land-use plan grind on, funding always being the bottom line constraint. The Brighton & Hove council’s first phase consultation on the City Downland Estate is currently still open and invites members of the public to attend webinars and contribute their views. The key demand is for investment in ecosystem restoration: especially improving biodiversity, opening up access, and managing the chalk grassland habitats. The BDA clearly lays out what is required, the main points being:

  • A major project of landscape ecosystem restoration to address the current broken system: improving biodiversity, opening up access, managing the chalk grassland habitats, monitoring the archaeological sites;
  • All decisions to be solidly grounded in democratic inclusion, with representation from all the main interest groups;
  • A new public governance body with the power to initiate its own proposals and be party to all new tenancy agreements; and
  • A locally employed Downland Estate Manager to be appointed to minimise the conflicts of interest between the commercial and non-commercial demands of the estate.
Sheep at sunset on the South Downs near Eastbourne, East Sussex - photo by Eleanor Best
Sunset with sheep on the South Downs near Eastbourne, East Sussex, May 2020 – photo by Eleanor Best

James Joughin works in International Development and specialises in agriculture and rural development in East Africa. His novel, In a Sorry State (Banange Press, 2015) is set in Uganda. Born and educated in Scotland, James has lived in Brighton for 10 years.

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