England’s ghostly South Downs Way
I also discovered that many people who had slept out at Chanctonbury had been forced to abandon the hilltop due to eerie events. In the 1930s, Dr Philip Gosse recorded in his book Go to the Country that ‘even on bright summer days there is an uncanny sense of some unseen presence which seems to follow you about. If you enter the dark wood you are conscious of something behind you. When you stop, it stops; when you go on it follows.’ Closest to my experience was that of a group of bikers who had spent the night at the ring in 1966. Things were quiet until after midnight, when a crackling sound started, followed by the wailing voice of a woman that appeared to move around the circumference of the ring. The motorcyclists fled, and subsequently complained of physical ailments, headaches and lassitude in the limbs. Reading that, I felt first a shock of recognition and then mild pride that I’d tolerated what had put a gang of hairy bikers to flight.
I woke to a kingfisher dawn: orange cumulus in the east and blue streaks in the cirrus cover overhead. I walked around the ring looking for any explanation of the night’s screams. None. A white chalk path spooled away east-south-east over high downs, so I followed it along Bramber Bank, a sloping shoulder of turf that dips gracefully into the upper valley of the River Adur. For half a mile of the bank, the path was littered with thousands of striped snail shells over which I crunched. A field to the north was pink with bursts of mallow, thrust up from the turf like magicians’ sprays of false flowers.
The sun was already hot by the time I reached the medieval church of Botolphs, where my friend Rod Mengham – a South Downsman by birth and upbringing, and a poet, archaeologist and writer by practice – was waiting in the shade of the tower to walk a few miles with me. I was very happy to see him.
East of the River Adur, the downs run in three long plateaux, separated by stream and river valleys. On the high point of the first, Edburton Hill, are the earthworks of a motte-and-bailey castle, which in spring and early summer are a knee-high wildflower meadow: agrimony, wild mignonette, red clover, yellow rattle, marjoram, scabious, knapweed and the odd tall bolt of fireweed, through all of which wander string-like stems of bindweed. Rod and I stopped there and lounged among the flowers, in a dry westerly wind, talking about the downland poet Edward Thomas, the downland painter Eric Ravilious, and why I should never have slept in Chanctonbury Ring.
We stumped on eastwards on tired legs, crossing B-roads, car parks and the dry valley of Devil’s Dyke, a steep-sided combe carved out of the permafrosted chalk during recent ice ages. By afternoon, high on the longest of the downs ridges – the Plumpton Plain – I looked longingly up at the buzzards, wishing for wings myself so that I could loft over miles in minutes.
At a four-way crossroads we stopped to rest and drink water. I lay on the ground by a gate, chewing on a grass stalk, too tired to worry about the nettles that sprouted thickly around the gatepost. I was delighted to be prone. I felt as though I could sleep there for a century. The turf was my couch, my divan, my ottoman. Nothing, I vowed silently to myself, would induce me to move from this position for at least an hour.
‘You know the reason there are so many nettles where you’re lying?’ asked Rod.
‘Disturbed ground?’ I ventured.
‘Of a kind,’ Rod said. ‘It’s almost certainly because so many animals have used this gateway as their toilet. Nettles love fertile soil.’
I spat out the grass stalk, scrambled to my feet and we went on our way.