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Rewilding the Downs

Friends of the South Downs have been asked for our view on rewilding, especially in relation to the sensitive landscape of the South Downs. Glynn Jones has approached this controversial subject.

Photo by Richard Reed: Coombe Hill Scarp, July

Rewilding the Downs is a complex issue, mainly because the Downs as we know and love them are entirely unnatural and a product of human interference.  We also need to consider our reasons for rewilding. What outcome are we seeking?

The “climax vegetation” of most of the British Isles is woodland. Put simply, if you take an area of land and do absolutely nothing to it, it will turn into woodland. That’s what would have covered the Downs when Neolithic people visited in the warmer months to hunt. But then as the climate improved, they decided to settle there. There would have been a few places where the geology, geomorphology, grazing and aspect prevented the development of forest, areas sometimes referred to as “Refugia”.  These areas harboured some of the plants that had colonised the area as the “Tundra” of the last ice age retreated.

The downland forest was sitting on deep “Forest Brown Earth” soils that had developed over thousands of years from the insoluble impurities in the chalk that had slowly dissolved away. During the Neolithic period, the first farmers started to clear the woodland on the best drained, lighter and shallower soils (the Downs) using “Slash and Burn” technology.

As time passed the newly exposed soils would have lost their fertility and been eroded away on the slopes. Those early farmers just moved on and cleared more forest. They left behind wild animals  and their own, domesticated animals to graze the vegetation now spreading across these abandoned cultivations. Many of these colonising plants came from the “Refugia” and eventually they were selected to form the vegetation we think of as Chalk Downland. This was selection, not evolution, as the plants themselves did not change.

This persisted for thousands of years until the two World Wars, when the need to feed the nation led to the development of artificial fertilisers and the spread of arable farming. The reduction of sheep farming and finally the introduction of Myxomatosis in 1953 removed the grazing pressure and coarser vegetation developed, including woody plants. Most of the current population of the south of England now know and accept the downland as a partially or fully wooded landscape. Today’s woodland is a very different and less diverse type when compared with that which our early ancestors found. Most importantly, the Forest Brown Earth soils have gone. It would take thousands of years of tree cover for them to redevelop to the point where they could support the type of woodland our forebears destroyed.

To a degree, it could be argued that we have been practising “rewilding” on the steep slopes of the Downs for some time. Most of the scarp slope pasture has been abandoned and the once scattered “open-armed” spreading yew trees are now absorbed into a, largely, pioneering ash woodland with trees thrusting upward in the competition for light. The primary grazing animals are now Roe, Fallow and Muntjac deer together with Brown Hare. The new ash woodland is itself now threatened by the spread of “Ash Die Back” and we do not really know what will replace it. Whatever comes next, even if it’s Rewilding the Downs, it will lack the diversity of the Ancient Woodland cover and will not support more than a fraction of the wildlife interest of the ancient woodland or succeeding grassland.

Glynn Jones, Trustee

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Dark Satanic Mills

A Weald circular walk taking in Milland and Coombe Ponds and the history of the area

The cannons that sunk the Spanish Armada in 1588 were probably forged in the Weald. For over 300 years the ancient forest (the “Wald”— named by the invading German tribes) was cut down to fuel the furnaces that made the “Cold Iron” of Kipling’s poem. Now “The tranquil beauty of the South Downs National Park…its rolling green pastures and ancient woodlands” hide a nightmare past.

Milland Furnace Pond

The Weald runs from the English Channel near Hastings to Harting Coombe where it narrows and butts into a steep greensand ridge at Rake. From about 1350 the Coombe, like the rest of the Weald, began to fill with fire, smoke, noise and human activity.

Iron production usually required a furnace and a forge. The Harting Coombe furnace was partnered by the West Harting hammer mill or forge several miles away. (The names suggest their interdependency.)

The furnace and forge required huge quantities of charcoal sourced from the surrounding forest and ship builders also needed “hearts of oak” for building the Tudor navy. There are well-documented disputes in the 1580s between the two industries. The forest never recovered from the clearances but villagers were able to graze cattle on the new commons.

Before steam power, industry depended on fast-flowing water to power waterwheels to drive machinery. The headwater for the Coombe furnace was held in Coombe pond and sluices controlled the flow. Ironstone was dug from pits in the clay and each pit was backfilled as the next pit was dug. Big lumps were broken down by an initial heating, then the stone was packed into the furnace with the charcoal, heated and blasted by the draught from the bellows. Eventually the molten iron ran out at the bottom of the furnace into sand moulds shaped like a sow with piglets– as pig or cast iron.

Coombe Pond

Ox carts hauled the cast iron out of the steep-sided Coombe possibly using tracks, now footpaths 1164-1 then 1165, to Bull Hill and then “Furnace Lane”, now North Street, Rogate. From there, it was taken to the hammer mill close to where the later railway bridge crossed the Crundall stream, near Nyewood.

Nyewood supplied the wood for charcoal and Crundall stream fed the Harting Ponds, which powered the forge bellows and the waterwheel that drove the huge hammer. The noise was continuous and deafening. Impurities were beaten out of the iron resulting in wrought iron, ready for processing into nails, horseshoes, cannon balls and cannons.

About 1700, Abraham Darby of Coalbrookedale invented coke which produced far more heat than charcoal, or even coal. The Wealden industry could not compete and gradually shut down after more than 300 years, leaving the peaceful countryside we know today.

The Harting Furnace Pond was dismantled in around 1632 but Coombe Pond remains as a private fishing lake. A footpath runs along one side of it, which can be visited using the walk below as can the Milland Pond, which was also connected to a furnace. Across the Weald names like “pond field” “hammer wood” or “hammer pond” are all that remains of the “dark satanic mills” that once dominated our peaceful countryside.

Words: Mairi Rennie

Photos and Map: Caroline and Tony Douglas

Map of Milland Loop

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The Great South Downs Sit Down

View from the newly-installed Saddlescombe Bench

Many walkers tell Friends of the South Downs that there is very little provision to sit down and rest along the South Downs Way, which runs from Winchester to Eastbourne. Today, 19 May 2021, marks the day we proudly reveal the first bench in our ongoing project to provide seats at intervals along the entire length of the iconic route.

The first bench has been installed at East Hill above Saddlescombe Farm on National Trust land. FOSD Patron Lord Egremont cut the ribbon to launch the campaign. Vice-Chairman Andrew Lovett addressed the assembled group of representatives from the NT, South Downs National Park Authority and Trustees of FOSD, at a small, Covid safe, celebration.

Chainsaw sculptor Chris Bain / Photo by Dan Fagan – National Trust

After first gaining permission from the South Downs National Park Authority, we turned to the National Trust, as a major landowner along the route, to provide the initial sites. The first benches are being carved by local chainsaw sculptor Chris Bain. Each bench will be made of sustainable, locally sourced oak and feature a small hidden downland creature. Benches will be individually designed to blend into and enhance the setting in a sympathetic way.

Caroline Douglas, the FOSD Trustee leading The Great South Downs Sit Down project, said, “we are so grateful to Jane Cecil, the NT General Manager and the NT Rangers for all their help and enthusiasm in getting this project off the ground and to Chris Bain for producing such a beautiful bench. More progress has been made with finding sites, so watch out for other benches appearing over the coming months.”

When you visit one of our benches, please share pictures onto our Facebook or our Twitter page! If you find any spots along the South Downs Way that might be a perfect place for one of our benches, please contact us.

Bench dedication ceremony, 19 May 2021. Photo credit: National Trust
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Design Consultation: new development of 226 homes at Old Malling Farm Lewes

Local Lewes councillors and the Friends of the South Downs (South Downs Society) called on the developer to reduce the over provision of parking for each property on the site but called for on street parking restrictions to prevent commuter parking causing problems for the new householders. There is already local concern as nearby is the HQ for both the Police and Fire Services.  The Society also called for

  • Improved cycling and walking links to Lewes town which is only a short distance away.
  • A better design to compensate for the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services at thid greenfield site.
  • A pedestrian crossing on Old Malling Way –  via a ‘Grampian-style’ condition (meaning it would happen before the wider development begins).
  • Provision of zero carbon houses, – the design brief layout must cover the type of heating to be used. If solar panels are to be used, the layout needs to addressed from the outset

Consultation on the design brief has now closed, but more details of the proposal can be found by searching for the reference SDNP/DBC/SD76 on the South Downs National Park planning portal. Consultation on the wider outline application is still active, however, with more details available by searching for the reference SDNP/18/06103/OUT. For more information go to:

The Society’s response was prepared by our Lewes Town volunteer District Officers – Liz Thomas and Dr Jennifer Chibnall – click below to read the document:

SDS Response to SDNP Design Brief Consultation March 2020


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Threat to the Landscape Setting of Historic Buildings

Society DOs from R to L: Brian Davies, Derek Read, Chris Baines-Holmes, Liz Thomas and Rosalyn St Pierre. Policy Officer Vic Ient is on the left.

In November last year our East Sussex district officer team visited Swanborough Manor in East Sussex. We all agreed it was very interesting to look around and inside this unique historical building which started life in the 11thC as the grange to the nearby Cluniac  (St Pancras) Priory in Lewes. But that wasn’t our main purpose. We were reviewing the threat to the landscape setting of such historic building caused by nearby developments.


The team take stock of the adjacent building works

Our Society believe the area around a listed building should be treated with special regard especially when it comes to constructing anything nearby. Anybody applying for planning permission to alter or construct a new building in the vicinity of a listed building should demonstrate how they are protecting the ‘setting’ of a listed building. This applies to Grade II listed buildings and moreover to Grade I buildings.


Please read on….


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Celebrate the 70th anniversary of National Parks

In 2019 we’re celebrating the 70th anniversary of our National Parks.

It’s 70 years since the 1949 Act of Parliament that established the family of National Parks in England and Wales. Known as Britain’s breathing spaces, National Parks are areas of spectacular landscape which are given the highest level of protection so that everyone can visit and enjoy them.


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A27 Arundel Bypass further consultation: Have your say!

In preparation for a busy autumn season in planning and highways the Friends of the South Downs and the Campaign for National Parks

R to L: Emma Tristram of MAVES, Ruth Bradshaw of the Campaign for National Parks, David Johnson of CPRE Sussex and Vic Ient, Policy Officer of the Friends of the South Downs during their visit to Binstead Wood.

undertook a review of critical planning & highways issues in the South Downs National Park. This included a visit to the possible routes for the proposed Highways England A27 by-pass. Click here for our report on this visit. The promised further consultation has now been announced:

Highways England are holding a further public consultation about the A27 Arundel Bypass scheme between Friday 30 August and Thursday 24 October 2019.  The consultation will open with a special exhibition preview on Friday 30 August at the Cathedral Centre in Arundel showing the proposals and asking for views on the new information. If you are unable to come, you may wish to visit one of the public consultation events listed below.

Here is a copy of the notification our Society has received: Arundel A27 Highways England Fri 16 Aug 2019

Friends of the South Downs will:

We think it is important to study the documents and attend the consultation before commenting. See:

We are interested in your views. Please email us at:

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Consultation & Climate Change are key issues at National Park’s planning meeting on housing development in Petersfield

At the South Downs National Park’s planning committee meeting on 8th August, the Friends of the South Downs (South Downs Society) challenged the National Park in five key areas over a planning application for a large commercial and housing development North of Buckmore Farm, Beckham Lane, Petersfield consisting of a just under a 5,000sqm  business site and a residential site for up to 85 residential houses*.

This is what the Society’s Policy Officer, Vic Ient, said to the committee on Thurs 8th August: Click here to see the SDNPA Video recording   Also using this link you will be able to see the full debate and presentation.


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Review of Critical Planning & Highways Issues in the South Downs National Park

Ruth Bradshaw of the Campaign for National Parks and Vic Ient of the Friends of the South Downs reviewing planning issues in the SDNP

The Campaign for National Parks and the Friends of the South Downs (South Downs Society) joined forces this month in a review of some of the critical planning and highways issues in and near the South Downs National Park.  Ruth Bradshaw, the Policy and Research Manager of Campaign for National Parks  met up with Vic Ient, the Policy & Planning Officer of the Friends of the South Downs, last week and undertook a tour of the ‘hot spots’ of the eastern and central area of the South Downs National Park.

The review encompassed:

Lewes area – Arundel A27 by-pass plans, – Shoreham Cement Works – Super-store & 600 home development near Shoreham Airport – 800 homes development at Toad’s Hole Valley near the National Park on the edge of Brighton & Hove City Council area  – A 10,000 home new town development proposal north of the downland villages Poyning and Fulking. The field trip finished of by visiting the site of the commercial and 3200 homes development going ahead at Burgess Hill. Our report of the field trip are:


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News from Campaign for National Parks

Bill Bryson, Carol Vorderman and others call to increase school visits to National Parks

17 celebrities including award winning writer Bill Bryson, Gordon Buchanan, Carol Vorderman and Caroline Quentin have come together to call for urgent action to get more school children into the National Parks.
The well-known names signed an open letter organised by Campaign for National Parks, Campaign to Protect Rural England, Open Spaces Society, Ramblers and the YHA.

The Westminster Government has an explicit goal to double the number of young people experiencing National Parks. On the 70th anniversary of National Parks the celebrities and organisations feel it is urgent that government keeps this promise.