England’s ghostly South Downs Way
The Ring is a circle of beech trees, planted on a hilltop that had been the site of Bronze Age and Iron Age fortifications, and a Roman temple. In 1760, a young aristocrat from the scarp-foot village of Wiston named Charles Goring decided to add his own layer of history to the Chanctonbury earthworks. He planted beech saplings in a well-spaced circle and, according to one story, then carried bottles of water up the slope to irrigate his saplings daily on that arid summit. According to the other story, he got his servants to do this job for him.
Either way, the saplings took root and flourished, and eventually grew into a cathedral grove. For two centuries, Chanctonbury was the best-known landmark of the South Downs, but in 1987 the Great Storm blew in and wrecked the Ring. It is now missing most of its main trees, and its interior has reverted to a sprouting scrub of ash and bramble. Nevertheless, up there that evening it still felt surprisingly remote. Brighton glittered away to the southeast, like something far-fetched on fire. The Weald to the north was almost lightless. The sky was a tarnishing silver. I rolled my sleeping mat out between two of the remaining beech trees just as dark fell, and soon fell to sleep.
I heard the first scream at around two o’clock in the morning. A high-pitched and human cry, protracted but falling away in its closing phase. It came from the opposite side of the tree ring to where I was sleeping. My thoughts were sleepmuddled: A child in distress? A rabbit being taken by a weasel or fox? No, impossible, for the sound was coming from treetop height. A bird, then – an owl, surely? Yet this was like no owl I had ever heard before: not the furry hoot of a tawny or the screech of a barn owl. I felt a rasp of fear, then dismissed it as ridiculous.
Then another cry joined the first, different in tone: slightly deeper and more grainy, rising at its end; the shriek of a blade laid hard to a lathe. Also more human than avian, also unrecognisable to me, also coming from treetop height. I lay there for two or three minutes, listening to the screams. Then I realised, with a prickling in my shoulders and fingers, that the voices had split and were now coming towards me: still at treetop height, but circling round the tree ring, one clockwise and one anti-clockwise, converging roughly where I was lying. I felt like standing up, shouting, flashing a torch; but instead I lay still. The cries met each other almost directly above me, 20 or 30 feet up in the dark. After 15 minutes they stopped and eventually, uneasily, I fell back to sleep.
It was only later that I researched the folklore of Chanctonbury Ring. I now know it to be one of the most haunted places of the owns. Sussex folklore, mostly from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was rife with examples of it as a portal to the otherworld. Arthur Beckett, in his 1909 The Spirit of the Downs, had reported that ‘if on a moonless night you walk seven times round Chanctonbury Ring without stopping, the Devil will come out of the wood and hand you a basin of soup’ in payment for your soul, which sounds like a poor exchange.