I have had a deep fondness for the Sussex Downs ever since my honeymoon in 1984. My wife and I stayed at a small holiday cottage at farm called Coldharbour, nestled in a fold of the South Downs. Our local pub was the White Horse in nearby Sutton village (seemingly full of timber-framed Wealden farmhouses and flint-built cottages) and the Bignor Roman villa lay just beyond. The sense of deep history, the vistas along the ridges of the Downs and an intensely personal connection borne from 1984 have drawn me back regularly ever since. Yet in all the subsequent years that I have been exploring the archaeology and landscape of the South Downs, one trip stands out for its beauty and drama; October 1984.
Beauty because, as I remember, the week before the Great Storm of 1987 ravaged the South Downs was warm, the trees colourful, and the air clear. The day before the storm we walked from Cissbury Rings hillfort along wide chalky paths to Chanctonbury Rings, a leisurely stroll that took all afternoon, and brought me my first site of the hillfort ramparts of Chanctonbury, defined by a dense thicket of trees sitting on the northern edge of the downs. The vistas northwards to the Weald were impressive as was the edge of the Downs’ escarpment; at times soft and rounded at others a white line of cliffs. Walking back we approached the hillfort at Cissbury in the growing dusk. It was a clear evening and before descending into the sunken routeway that led to our car park at Findon Valley the horizon was lit with a growing number of orange street lights of Littlehampton, Bognor and Chichester along the coast, the reddish glow of the setting sun and a large grey-black bank of cloud that increasingly crowded out the sun set. This was the Great Storm, though at the time we didn’t know it.
That night we were woken around 2am by the sound of howling winds and the skittering, smashing, sound of clay tiles falling from the roof above our attic bedroom. It was a genuinely scary moment and when we turned on the lights they flickered and eventually went out. Fortunately there was a battery radio and we put this on – initially just to help us get back to sleep. The creaking of branches and the continuing smashing sound of what we thought were tiles awoke us again later in the night and this time we tuned the radio to a local station and only then began to realise that this storm was across southern England.
By 6am the winds were easing and as dawn broken around 7.30am on the 16th we ventured out to see the results. Trees were down all around the curved driveway and on the other side the large Georgian farmhouse had lost a gable-end chimney. The small garage we had parked our car in had much of its roofs in front of the garage doors. All week we had parked outside the garage but the previous night I had parked in the garage and packed ready to leave. Just as well since the car would have been ruined otherwise. Saying goodbye to our hard-pressed hosts at New Hall Farm in Small Dole we inched out into Hall Lane. At the end of the road a house had lost all of its gable end wall. The main roads were covered in branches, though passable. Cutting across to the A23 we drove round fallen branches and around trees already chain-sawn to clear a path. Hedges were shredded and trees sagged or lay at strange angles on either side of the road. The rain had brought flash floods and we had to drive gingerly over a stone bridge inches deep in river water before we could escape through the green and woody debris to the safety of relatives in Farnham. As we caught up with the news during the day, and the number of dead rose, we were just glad to have escaped the storm zone. We had been going to finish the holiday with a day trip to France, but our SeaLink Ferry was now beached on a stoney Sussex beach. The Jack and Jill Windmills we had visited earlier in the holiday were badly damaged; Jack had part of its roof blown off and Jill had caught fire though was saved by volunteers who braved the winds that night.
I’ve returned to Sussex and Cissbury Rings regularly over the last 30 years. The first time was in the mid-1990s when I was shocked how few trees were left at the Cissbury hillfort, and how empty parts of the edges of the South Downs felt. Since then buildings have been repaired (such as the windmills), the landscape scars of the Great Storm have softened, the gaps in the woods have filled. It’s a reminder that such a storm is a natural event and that the landscape always recovers, though is never quite the same. My respect for the ancient communities who farmed this seemingly gentle landscape before the era of phones, the combustion engine, and railways has been permanently increased. The thought of facing such a natural event without warning and without the possibility of swift help and rescue, remains a scary one.