Seasonal Archaeology: Chanctonbury Rings

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Chanctonbury Rings as seen from Cissbury Rings in August 2019

I first saw Chanctonbury Rings in July 1984. It was a blisteringly hot summer’s day and I had walked along the South Downs Way from nearby Cissbury Rings in inappropriate footwear (Hush Puppies), though not as inappropriate as my wife, Catherine, who was in pump ballet shoes. We were on honeymoon, and had not thought to pack any other shoes. Needless to say the walk ended with blistered feet all round and Catherine walking bare-footed.

I mention this because I was recently on holiday in Sussex (this August). We walked up to Cissbury Rings, a massive hill top enclosure on the edge of the South Downs in Findon, Sussex. It was another hot day, and late in the afternoon, so this time we just stood and stared northwards across the South Downs to Chanctonbury, which sat on the horizon like a fuzzy crown (see above). We had visited the Rings the night before the Great Storm hit southern England in 1987 (see elsewhere on this blog), bringing down tens of thousands of tress, including most of those planted within the hill fort enclosure of Chanctonbury. At least from a distance the Rings now look little changed from how they looked on that glowering evening in 1987.

Chanctonbury Rings was built as a hill fort in the late Bronze Age and abandoned in fourth century BC. Precise details of its function and use are sketchy, although there have been excavations within the bank and ditch firstly 1869, 1909 and 1977, and then again from 1988–91, as part of the restoration of the site after the Great Storm. This part of the South Downs is cover in ancient sites. Around 400 metres to the west of the hill fort is a cross-dyke measuring 274 metres. A crescent-shaped cross-dyke lies about the same distance to the east of the rings. Scattered around Chanctonbury are a number of prehistoric barrows.

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The southern side of Chanctonbury Rings in 2011 showing some of the trees that survived the Great Storm of 1987

Local legend has it that Chanctonbury Ring was created by the Devil. Apparently he can be summoned by running around the stand of trees seven times anti-clockwise. He will then appear offering you a bowl of soup in exchange for your soul. Not in need of sustenance, nor indeed keen to summon any spirits, we decided not to walk to the Rings on this occasion. We were content viewing Chanctonbury from afar, etched on the horizon of the gradually darkening day.

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