Where did we come from?
Dismayed at the random development of Peacehaven on the chalk cliffs near Brighton, a group of walkers founded the society as the “Society of Sussex Downsmen” in 1923. It was one of Britain’s earliest conservation organisations and rapidly gained members and influence in seeking to protect the whole length of the Sussex Downs. Since World War 2 the Society has been involved continuously in commenting on building proposals and other developments such as pylons and major road schemes.
Legacies help the Society
Generous legacies have enabled the Society over the years to provide financial support to projects it feels worthwhile. To the National Trust for Harting Downs and Devils Dyke, as well as to helping provide a bunkhouse at Gumber Farm, Slindon. Supporting East Sussex County Council towards converting the barn at Foxhole Farm to a Bunkhouse and improving the car park at High and Over, with Disabled access to the nearest viewing point. Small donations have also been made to projects such as the Jack and Jill Mills at Clayton, St Mary’s Church, Stoughton, the Sussex Rights of Way Group and others.
If you would like to consider remembering us in your Will please see our “Leave a Legacy” page.
Current & Recent Projects
MEND OUR WAYS
3 years ago we provided funding to refurbish a 1km badly worn part of the South Downs Way near Plumpton. This section of the SDW was in such bad condition that in winter the flooding was severe enough prevent walking altogether. The refurbished path is expected to last in good condition for a minimum of 25 years. Our contribution was matched by the South Downs National Park Trust.
MILES WITHOUT STILES
Many older walkers are now unable to climb stiles, many of which are in poor condition. Our second project was to replace styles with kissing gates on the most popular paths in and around the South Downs. An early path dealt with was the popular walk from Glynde to Lewes passing by the ancient Mount Caburn fort.
After feedback from our members about the lack of anywhere to rest or eat their lunch along the South Downs Way, we have negotiated with the National Park Authority to allow us to place benches at various points. We are working with local landowners and the National Trust to find locations. Benches will be rustic in style and made of locally sourced oak by a chain saw sculptor. Each bench is being carefully designed and sited to blend in with the surroundings and will feature a small hidden creature or plant native to the Downs.
Trees on the South Downs have been decimated by Ash Dieback. Whilst grants are available to replant in open areas, nothing is available to fund replanting in the many villages in and around the park. The society, again in conjunction with the South Downs National Park Trust, is funding replanting at several village locations.
Heritage Projects jointly funded with the aid or the National Lottery Heritage Fund
SOUTH DOWNS GENERATION
The project involves children at four primary schools in Bury, Shipley, Findon and Chesswood in Worthing.
Some of the schools have log books recording daily events going back to Victorian times. These books will be a rich source of information about those times.
In addition we will use existing oral history records at County Record offices to get more information about life in times gone by.
What we find will be brought together and published on a website so that it’s available for everyone. We also intend to organise walks and other events that will illustrate the history that we uncover.
On April 23rd 2016 – St Georges Day – singers from song workshops that were held in Littlehampton and Shoreham over the previous six months came together to record the sea shanties and sailors’ songs they had learnt.
These songs were once popular in the harbours and coastal towns of the South Downs but have not been sung for decades.
SONGS OF THE SOUTH DOWNS
This project received a grant of nearly £50,000 to teach the traditional songs of the South Downs to people living across the region.
Although the course has ended, you can enjoy all the joy and inspiration of those two years by listening to a CD on which all those who joined the project can be heard singing their hearts out.
2011 – South Downs National Park
In 1999, following a review of national parks policy the Government declared support for a National Park in the South Downs – a long wait since 1949. During the 2003-5 and 2007-8 public consultation periods, we were a major advocate for a national park being confirmed. We were also strong supporters of the case for inclusion within its borders of the Western Weald, Lewes and Ditchling, and against the ‘narrow’ option. In 2011 the SDNP finally came into existence – on the basis of the ‘broad’ option, in part as a result of our lobbying. Our role then changed from being a major advocate for the creation of the National Park to becoming, as an independent, member-based organisation, a ‘critical friend’ of the Government-appointed statutory South Downs National Park Authority. This was formalised by us being appointed the local national park society for the South Downs and becoming part of the Campaign for National Parks. A new role for us but an important one.
1994 – Heyshott Down and the Devil’s Jumps
As pressure to convert ‘unimproved’ chalk Downland to agricultural use increased, so the risk of losing rich species of flora and fauna also increased. Therefore, the Society, with great help from local landowners, established chalk land reserves at Heyshott Down and the Devil’s Jumps.
1985 – Water trough and tap near Beeding, St Botolphs
With the increasing numbers of people enjoying countryside walking, the South Downs Way was approved as a National Trail in 1963 and opened in 1972. In 1987 it was extended westwards to Winchester.
The Society has responded to the creation, and increasing popularity, of the South Downs Way by identifying opportunities to establish practical ways to help walkers at particular points along the Way. The St Botolph’s water trough and tap are an example. Located by the footbridge over the Adur, it was opened in1985. It is also a great example of the outstanding work of our volunteer District Officers – in this case Mrs Peggy Allen.
1970 – Chanctonbury Dewpond
As part of the Society’s contribution to European Conservation Year, the Dewpond at Chanctonbury, was completely cleared, giving a water depth of 5 feet at the centre and 50 feet across.
This important restoration work took a year to complete and its eye-catching appearance within 500 yards of the iconic Chanctonbury Ring resulted in us winning West Sussex County Council’s Award Scheme.
1967 – Signposting in West Sussex
We followed up the change to AONB status by successfully obtaining West Sussex County Council support for a major programme of signpost construction across the county.
This resulted in 325 such posts being erected.
1966 – Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 was a landmark in countryside protection and conservation, and led from 1951 to the creation of a number of National Parks across the UK. Unfortunately, even though the South Downs had long been proposed to become one of these National Parks, it was not then thought to meet the criteria. Nonetheless, by 1959 Government made the South Downs an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) – which took effect in 1966. Interestingly, East Hampshire had already achieved AONB status in 1962, and was in due course to become the other element in the eventual National Park.
1947 – Kingley Vale & Belle Tout Lighthouse
The Army was proposing to use as a permanent military training site 1,000 acres of land at Kingley Vale, the large area of grass Downland which includes one of Europe’s most impressive yew forests. We successfully lobbied for this proposal to be abandoned in 1947.
The Belle Tout Lighthouse had been badly damaged in the War by Canadian artillery fire – aiming at wooden tanks parked nearby! In 1947 it was returned to its former owner, Sir James Purves-Stewart (a Life Member of the Society), who handed it over to Eastbourne Corporation in the following year, so that restoration could take place.
1939 to 1945 – The War Years
In the early stages of war, the nation was encouraged to ‘dig for victory’, and we influenced the choice of new land for food production, to prevent permanent disfigurement. In 1944 we were authorised by the regional planning authorities to use our network of District Officers to survey the South Downs, identifying areas particularly worthy of conservation in the post-war world. As the war came to an end in 1945, we successfully influenced Government to have the Army restore roads metalled for training purposes to their former chalk track status.
1926 – Crowlink Valley and The Sarsen Stone
Our first great challenge was the risk of major inappropriate development in 475 acres of the beautiful Crowlink Valley. The Society responded with a public appeal supported by massive publicity, enabling the purchase of Crowlink Valley for the use and enjoyment of all. This significant success was commemorated by the erection of the Sarsen Stone Monument, Flagstaff Point, Seven Sisters.
1923 – Founding of the Society
In the aftermath of the First World War, a spate of unregulated building development in the South Downs aroused concern at local and national level. This led to a handful of energetic and committed lovers of the countryside setting up the Society. Our inaugural meeting took place in Brighton Pavilion, with the hall filled to overflowing. The name of the Society of Sussex Downsmen was chosen, and from the beginning we were concerned to encourage not only personal experience of the South Downs through organised walks, but also campaigning for action to preserve this unique landscape.