A downland writer

26 April 2018

It was as I reached double figures of age that I first began to notice the Downs. As a younger child I had crossed the Downs often to visit family in Brighton, and for coastal or countryside days out with my parents. I suppose it would be a feasible argument to say that the South Downs and I were connected far longer ago, as my direct ancestors on my mother’s side are recorded living in the vicinity of the Sussex Downs, labouring on the land and drinking the chalk-filtered waters since at least the 18th century.

Realistically however, it was only when we made our home within sight of the South Downs in West Sussex, and I was old enough to begin to form my own ideas based on the world beyond my back garden, that the landscape began to capture my imagination.

I was strong minded, independent, and determined to save the world. The companionship of trees, birds and animals fired my young imagination, and this has evolved into nature and landscape being my key source of inspiration.

My primary school teachers might wonder who I am and what I have done with their student. I was very familiar with comments in red pen on my school work that often said something along the lines of ‘must write more’. Perhaps the message sunk in eventually. It was inevitable that in the end I would turn to words and to writing, both as a way of expressing my passion for the nature and the landscape of the place I live and love, and to encourage others to seek out a similar connection within their own lives.

Every landscape, whether it is an expansive vista or a field edge alongside the end of a housing estate, has a story to tell. I am intrinsically curious, and unpicking these layers of history and narrative provides endless feed for an inquisitive soul. I guess I’m just a romantic at heart. These stories are often complex and convoluted, resulting from years of adaptation and influence, trade offs between nature and the needs of people, the tenaciousness of land, and changes in perceived values within society. Land, people and wildlife are three corners of a triangle that are irrevocably connected.

History is always very near the surface in the South Downs. It is said by some that the Downs were the last place in England that fairies dwelled, and ghost stories populate the hills and villages nearly as densely as living folk. It is hard to walk the well-trodden lanes and trails without thinking of those that have passed that way before, whether just days or centuries ago. The rattle of the gate-chain in the hilltop wind is the clink-clanking of sheep bells. The bonfire smoke curling skywards from a wooded garden marks the charcoal burner’s camp. Barrows slumber, dreaming of sword and sacrifice on the green ward; shadows march in the mist.

The South Downs are not locked in the past however as the newest and the most populated National Park in the UK, this is still a living, working landscape; a playground, an office, a home. Many of the sheep on the hills may have been replaced by modern machinery that can cope with navigating the steep slopes, but there are still some Downland flanks where even tractors do not dare to venture and here, sheep and cattle graze the turf and vary their browsing with fragrant marjoram and thyme, scabious, thistle, eyebright, orchid, blackthorn and gorse.

I have a weakness for second-hand books, and my shelves hold numerous copies of works inspired by the South Downs and my home county of Sussex. It seems that many a writer before me has felt the lure of this landscape.

From lost little shepherds’ churches, the winding banks of our slow rivers, protected fragments of lowland heathlands, to the Wealden woods where the echoes of the iron industry still ring through the trees, and the chalk ribbon paths that delineate Kipling’s whale-backed hills, and all the wildlife that inhabits these places, the South Downs National Park could inspire a writer for a full lifetime, if not more.

Sophie May Lewis is a blogger and author, read her work here.

I blog at sussexfieldnotes.wordpress.com