Devil’s Dyke

A few years ago, now, I was lucky enough to enrol to study Countryside Management at Plumpton College in the Sussex Downs. As part of the course I was required to find a suitable work placement for the first year and by a stroke of wonderful fortune I was able to get in first at probably the best such placement in Sussex: the National Trust’s Saddlescombe Farm. I have threatened to write about the farm itself on several occasions, because it’s wonderful. That day will come – but today is not that day. Today is, however, a day for writing about somewhere I’ve been intending to include in my blog for years. I suppose there are a few reasons why I’ve taken this long to get round to Devil’s Dyke on the South Downs near Brighton. Not least the fact that it is one of the best-known countryside sites in the South East and, therefore, it has been extensively written about by many authorities greater than I. Despite all that, it remains one of my favourite places and I am honoured to have spent a couple of years doing my small bit to look after it. Over those two years I came to know the Devil’s Dyke Estate – which stretches far beyond the immediate are around the Dyke itself – pretty intimately. Each discrete area deserves its own entry, but for now, here’s my two penn’orth on the mighty ditch itself.

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Newtimber Hill from Devil’s Dyke

One thing that one quickly learns about the Dyke is: never walk up the middle of it. It starts out beautifully gently, but once it’s lulled you into a false sense of security, the gradient increases rapidly, becoming an unforgiving slog to get to the top. Better by far are the paths that lead up the south side of the Dyke, or over the Downs on either side. One of my favourite ways to approach the Dyke has been to park in the lay-by on Saddlescombe Road at the top of the short hill that leads up from the farm gates. You start, therefore, on the lower slopes of Newtimber Hill, itself a wonderful place, with some of the best-preserved and most species-rich downland in England. The way down is steep and crosses a stile into what appears to be a hedge, but there is a path. “I helped put that stile in” I think to myself every time I climb over it. The path after the stile is ridiculously steep and I don’t recommend it after wet weather, because it becomes terrifyingly slippery and there’s not a lot to hang onto to stop yourself tumbling down it, or reaching the bottom by sliding down on your bum in an elegant fashion. On a dry day, though, it can be descended with care. The path at the bottom, if followed to the left, leads through the trees to the bottom of the Dyke itself.

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Path to the bottom of the Dyke
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Haws at the bottom of the Dyke valley

Here, if you notice, the walls of the Dyke fall steeply on either side to reach the flat bottom of the valley and while the walls are covered with thin, poor soils, the earth that fills the bottom of the “V” is deep and rich. Over millennia, the soils of the steep slopes have been washed down into the bottom of the valley, where they have collected in deep, easily-worked deposits. Following the last ice age, it is in places like this that the first Celtic peoples to repopulate Britain made their settlements and grew their crops. The soil was easy to plough with their primitive tools in comparison to the heavy clays of the wooded Weald below them. Very little is known of these people who clung to an existence here. Their settlements were never very big and left little impression behind them. The Downs, being made of porous chalk, do not naturally collect rainwater. Any rain that falls on them seeps quickly away into the chalk, re-emerging as a line of springs all the way along the base of the north scarp of the Downs, where the chalk meets the impervious clay. There was, therefore, always this limitation on these early farmsteads. Any water for the crops, or for people and animals to drink had either to be carried from a lower spring, or collected in the man-made dewponds that were dug and lined with Wealden clay from the earliest times to a peak in the 18th Century, when sheep-farming was at its height on the Downs. One thing these people did leave behind was their drinking vessels, made from clay and decorated with impressions made by combs, the beakers of the Beaker People have survived to show us that, in these ages before written language: art flourished on the South Downs.

If, once one has emerged from the trees into the bottom of the valley, one turns right, there is a path that leads over a stile and steeply up into the woods on Dyke Hill, which separates the Dyke from the Weald. None of the woodland here is very old, being mostly scrub that has regrown since intensive sheep-grazing stopped on the Downs between the Wars, but it is still beautiful as the path winds among the trees and crosses a bostal that leads up from Poynings, made over centuries by the feet of shepherds and their sheep and the rainwater that ran in the grooves they had made. Eventually this path meets another steep path that heads straight up the hill in a long series of steps, before emerging from the trees onto the open hillside, affording wonderful extensive views along Fulking Escarpment towards: Truleigh Hill, with its radio masts, Chanctonbury Ring with its crown of trees and, even further, to Bignor Hill and Glatting Beacon away in the far distance; another superb place to walk.

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Steps lead into the woods on Dyke Hill
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The path through the woods
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Fulking Escarpment, Truleigh Hill and Chanctonbury Ring
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Newtimber Hill

The trees that the path emerges from here are mostly coppiced hazel, planted by the shepherds of old. Hazel, when cut close to the ground will respond by sending up new, vigorous shoots that grow into straight, pliable rods, which are useful for all sorts of things. The wattle latticework to which daub was applied makes up the structure of many an old house’s walls and it was also superb for weaving baskets. The shepherds would have used much of it for making hurdles – small gate-like panels for controlling the sheep when they needed to be held in a small area for a time, such as before shearing. These days hurdles are made of light aluminium in factories, but in days gone by, coppicing and hurdle-making were essential skills for a shepherd to possess.

While sheep farming remained the defining activity of the Downs throughout the 19th Century, another, new breed of people began to arrive on the hills: tourists. Nowhere received these new visitors with more enthusiasm than Devil’s Dyke and as our path leads up to the top of the scarp, we can see evidence of those early thrill-seekers. A wide, shallow trench runs from the top to the bottom of the hill, the path crossing it near the top. In the Victorian era there was a funicular railway here that carried passengers down to the Royal Oak Hotel and Tea Gardens in Poynings. The grand Victorian pub is still operating, the humbler little cottage directly behind it being replaced as the original inn when the new hordes of tourists proved too many for its small, low rooms.

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The funicular
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Looking down the funicular track bed
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Poynings and the Weald from near the funicular track bed

At the top of the hill there stands another, modern pub. Few are those who commend it for its architecture, but on a cold and windy day it can still be a welcome sight, if not as attractive a one as the Georgian building that preceded it. Turn away from the pub, though, and look back the way you came and you will see what Constable described as the “grandest view in the world”… I mean, it’s a pretty grand view all right. You can see for sixty miles to the Hogsback hill in Oxfordshire, right across the Weald to the North Downs and the Greensand Ridge in the north west and to Ashdown Forest and the High Weald to the north east. To the south west, like a dark smudge against the silvery horizon lies the Isle of Wight and there are extensive views along the Downs as described before to the west and along to Newtimber and Wolstonbury Hills to the east. The grandest in the world, though? Perhaps Constable needed to get out a bit more – at least of this country.

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As you reach the top of the hill you could easily miss that you have crossed into one of the largest prehistoric enclosures in Britain. All around the top of the hill is a roughly rectangular chalk rampart and ditch. Incredible to think that these walls were built by people using only the antlers of deer as pickaxes: antlers being the hardest tools known at the time. The enclosure can’t have been for a settlement due to the lack of water and it’s too large for a hill fort, like the one at Chanctonbury. It is believed that it was probably used as a corral for livestock.

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The ramparts are the green lines in the long grass to the right of the path

Besides the pub, there are other scars on this hill that bear testament to the bustling place this was at its touristic 19th Century height, when trains from Brighton brought passengers in their thousands to see the Dyke and to enjoy the fairground that once stood here. A shallow, oval depression in the ground is all that remains of the bicycle railway, that allowed guests to pedal round in circles on bicycles that hung from a wooden rail above their heads and the crumbling remains of two concrete platforms mark the alighting points for the cable car that once powered back and forth high above the valley itself.

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What remains of the landing stage for the cable car

And this truly is the moment to appreciate the grandeur of Devil’s Dyke. Take the path that runs across the top of the “V”-shaped valley and look down the length of it to the hills at its end – Saddlescombe Farm nestling peacefully among them. Many suppose that this valley was carved out by some kind of glacial action, but in fact it owes its existence not so much to the glaciers themselves, but to their demise. During the last ice age, the glaciers came no further south than north London (East Finchley Tube Station, in fact). The Downs, at that time, were one enormous dome of chalk, pushed up by the same action that created the Himalayas and the Alps: the moment that the Indian subcontinent crashed into the rest of Eurasia. The chalk being highly porous, most of it was washed away when the glaciers melted, some ten thousand years ago, leaving just the very edges of the dome, now known as the North and South Downs. The Dyke, likewise, was made by a river of meltwater, mostly from the frozen tundra that made up the soils of the Downs in those days. The same action of water washing down continues to erode the dry valleys, of which Devil’s Dyke is the biggest, and the bostals deeper into the chalk.

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Devil’s Dyke
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Devil’s Dyke and Newtimber Hill

Many are the legends told of this great ditch, as people of times past tried to understand its creation. The Dyke gets its name from a legend that relates how the Devil was digging through the Downs in order to flood the Weald with seawater, but an old woman, seeing what he was up to, lit a candle to fool her cockerel into believing that the sun was rising, which crowed lustily and scared the Devil away from the approaching dawn.

From the top of the Dyke, a path runs down the length of the slope on the southern side branching to the left from the South Downs Way. Take the right hand fork where the path splits as the valley turns to the left and cross a stile into a field. Follow the path straight ahead to where a stile takes you to the edge of Saddlescombe Road, opposite the farm gates. Turn left and walk along the verge to find a path that will lead back to the lower slopes of Newtimber Hill, just below the lay-by where we parked.

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This walk can also be started at the Devil’s Dyke pub, where there is a large car park and regular buses from Brighton Pier.

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Newtimber Hill

If you drive down the A23 to Brighton, you cannot help but notice the huge, dark bulk of Newtimber Hill suddenly rising ahead of you after you pass under the bridge at the Albourne junction. It’s a sight that has cheered many a weary heart after a long drive home, because when you see it, you know you’re nearly back to Brighton and before you even get there you’ve got the option of sampling the delights of the M&S at Pyecombe Services. The hill is an unusual one on the Downs because it’s wooded and most of this part of the ridge is fairly bare of trees. Indeed only a hundred years ago there was hardly a single tree to be seen on the hills, most of them having been cut down thousands of years ago; intensive grazing ever after keeping any new trees from growing. It was only after the Great War that it became cheaper to import lamb from New Zealand than to rear our own and grazing started to stop on the Downs, leading to new growth. In general it is better to keep the grassland, rather than let scrub grow up as this grassland is rare and supports many endangered flowering herbs that would be unable to grow in shady woodland. The woodland on Newtimber Hill, though, is different.

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The remains of an old beech tree in Newtimber Holt ancient woodland

Much of the woodland on the northern flanks of the hill are ancient woodland. Some of it is regenerated woodland that regrew after the aforementioned cessation of grazing. In fact you can almost tell when looking at the hill from a distance. The newer woodland shows us an almost smooth, green covering. All the trees are about the same age and they are mostly ash, so they’re all the same height. In the older areas, there are many different species, including ash, beech and even some small-leaved lime leftover from the original forests that grew on these slopes. Because the climate is generally cooler now than when those forests first grew after the last ice age, small-leaved lime doesn’t germinate as well as it did then, so some of these trees can be very old indeed. In fact there’s one small-leaved lime tree on Newtimber Hill that may be as much as four thousand years old. It has been coppiced many times (cut down and allowed to regrow into useful poles) and now looks like a ring of large trees, the trunks all growing from the same roots – making the whole thing one single tree.

Besides this incredible tree, the woods are also home to another remarkable natural wonder, this time a beech. In 2015 a beech tree near the bottom of the hill was declared Britain’s tallest native tree at 144ft.

Newtimber Hill will always have a special place in my heart. It is owned by the National Trust and administered from Saddlescombe Farm, just the other side of the hill. I have spent many hours as a volunteer on the Devil’s Dyke Estate, of which Newtimber Hill is a part and it was here that I truly learnt the simple joy that conservation volunteering can bring. When you have spent as much of your life as I have believing yourself to be entirely useless, the effect of doing good work with good people that has palpable results at the end of the day is immeasurable. As I wander the many winding paths in the woods today I still remember places where I cleared a path, or cut some scrub, or that time I delivered crucial biscuits to the wardens working up on the top of the hill. I remember when we made a bonfire so big we could throw whole trees on it (we weren’t cutting the ancient bits down, don’t worry) and when we discovered that great crested newts had returned to a restored dew pond right on the top of the hill – miles from the nearest water. How did they get there? We can only guess.

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Dew pond near the summit of Newtimber Hill

At the foot of the hill is a narrow road called Beggar’s Lane that winds through the trees, from which steps lead up into the woods. Concrete at first, they soon give way to simple mud steps held back by wooden risers. Even after all these years I am never quite sure after the first couple of hundred yards which of the myriad paths I am on, but they are all beautiful. Sometimes winding along the contours, sometimes suddenly snaking up dozens of steps before meeting three other paths all leading off to new, secret places. In the spring there are carpets of anemones and bluebells and many other woodland flowers and you are surrounded by ash, beech, lime, hawthorn and hazel that has been coppiced and worked for thousands of years.

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Steps in Newtimber Holt ancient woodland

Eventually, inexorably, the paths always seem to lead upwards. Higher and higher through the trees until suddenly they emerge onto the bald, grassy top of the hill and when you look to the west, there in front of you is one of the best views in the South East of England. Dyke Hill, Chanctonbury Ring, Cissbury Ring, Bignor Hill and Glatting Beacon are laid out as your eye follows the Downs and then away on the horizon to the north west stands the dark, whale-backed mass of Black Down – the highest point in Sussex. On a clear day to the north you can just see the North Downs, almost beyond the horizon and even the Hog’s Back, a hill in Oxfordshire, some 60 miles away.

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Dyke Hill, wooded on the left. Truleigh Hill with the radio masts on its summit and Chanctonbury Ring visible to its right

On the western part of the hill, the steeper slopes are mostly bare of trees and here you can find some of the best chalk downland in Britain. Studded with tell-tale anthills that prove this land has never been ploughed up, the grassland is home to an incredible variety of flowering herbs and the rare butterflies and other insects that live on them. Near the bottom of this slope is a grove of another rarity: juniper bushes. Needing to drop their seeds on bare ground and then experience two harsh winters before germinating, these fussy shrubs grow in sudden profusion here in one of their few sites in the area.

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An anthill of the yellow meadow ant
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Juniper bushes on Newtimber Hill

And finally, to the south, nestled in its hollow and looking almost as naturally placed as something that has grown there lies ancient, wonderful Saddlescombe Farm, which perhaps I shall write about in greater detail in the future.

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Saddlescombe Farm
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Chalk pit on Saddlescombe Farm. Used into the 20th century as a corral for gathering sheep to be sheared

All over the hill there is evidence of man’s long relationship with it. From the ancient coppiced trees, to man-made dew ponds and chalk pits. There are strip lynchets, evidence of early arable farming around the North Laine (laine means field) and there have been hundreds of findings of worked flints, in one case a pile of knappings that showed the clear outline of a pair of legs belonging to someone who had sat on this same hill that we walk today and worked here thousands of years ago. What did that person look out and see? Perhaps they were making the axes that first cleared the forests and created this uniquely beautiful landscape.