When an individual becomes 100 years old, they receive a birthday card from the King. But what happens when an organisation reaches that milestone? Well, in the case of our very own Friends of the South Downs, the answer is that its Centenary is celebrated by the publication of a book by Richard Reed. The author is uniquely qualified for such a task, given he has been Chair on three occasions, and a Trustee for an astonishing 59 years. So not only does he write well, but also, he himself has been a significant part of the story of triumphs in conservation. The book is available here.
A Concise Account of a Century
The book is not a long one, indeed, in the preface, Reed describes it as a ‘much shorter account’ than two previous (unpublished) histories of the FSD. However, brevity does not stop the author from describing all the key events in its hundred years. Nor does it stop him including many intriguing photographs. I particularly liked one of Captain Irvine Bately striding though a field of newly-cut hay wearing his very best 1920s walking gear.
Of course, any campaigning charity can only make change happen because of the leadership and determination of what we now call ‘social activists’, and the first example Reed gives was of our founder Robert Thurston Hopkins and his brother-in-law, the previously mentioned Irvine Bately. Although it was a very different world in which these two gentlemen lived, their action in 1923 created the then Society of Sussex Downsmen to resist untrammeled development across the unique landscape of the South Downs.
Reed does not duck difficult periods in the Friends’ history. The early optimism of 1923 was followed two years later by a membership fall of more than half. The threat of invasion in the Second World War resulted in construction of pill boxes and anti-tank obstacles all across the high ridges of the Downs. In the 1940s there were disagreements with the National Trust over wire fencing for stock grazing. And, most surprisingly, the organisation was explicitly against the growing campaign in the 1980s to establish a National Park covering the South Downs.
Triumphs in Conservation
However, Richard Reed’s book makes clear that the other side of the balance sheet was full of many successes. The battle in 1926 to protect the Seven Sisters from massive housing development triggered a major crowd-funding appeal, resulting in purchase of the contested swath of Downland at Crowlink. After the War, the Society threw itself into speeding the work of restoring the Downs, and to working with other walking groups to re-establish and map rights of way and other footpaths.
The Society’s campaigning on numerous planning issues contributed to publicising the need for active Downland conservation. In 1966, South Downs became an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 1968 saw the Seven Sisters become a Country Park, and in 1972, the South Downs Way was opened. By 2000, the Society had become an advocate for a National Park, and successfully lobbied for the Western Weald to be included when it was created in 2009.
Reed concludes by describing the FSD’s increasing emphasis in recent years on encouraging access to the South Downs, especially by young people, in addition to its continuing conservation work.
This book is a great read (pardon the pun) and is yet another service Richard Reed has given to the FSD. A story of triumphs in conservation. There could not be a better Christmas present for any member to give to their friends or family.
Paul Wilkinson, Trustee