South Downs Way 2 – Steyning up to Chanctonbury Ring

Mouse Lane begins in Steyning and runs along the foot of the scarp slope of the Downs, until it climbs a little towards Chanctonbury Ring, an old hill fort. It is a delightful route, as delightful as its name; a sunken lane full of flowers and bees and butterflies (and, no doubt, mice), cool under the overhanging trees in the hot morning’s sun. It would be pleasant to follow it the whole way, but our route takes us along the ridge, and so we leave the lane to take a footpath up the steep scarp slope.

But where we leave the lane, there is a poem inscribed on a stone block. It was written in 1915 during WWI, by a British soldier poet stationed in the Somme. We pause to read it then stand for a while in silence, each of us alone with our thoughts.

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I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring

In summertime, and on the downs how larks and linnets sing

High in the sun. The wind comes off the sea, and, oh, the air!

I never knew till now that life in old days was so fair.

But now I know it in this filthy rat-infested ditch,

Where every shell must kill or spare, and God alone knows which.

And I am made a beast of prey, and this trench is my lair,

My God, I never knew till now that those days were so fair.

And we assault in half-an-hour, and it’s a silly thing:

I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring.

Chance memory – John Stanley Purvis 1890 – 1968

Our footpath, ironically, then takes us past an old rifle range. So old, in fact, that according to a walker we stopped to talk with it is still possible to dig musket balls out of the bank behind the range.

On top of the ridge, there is a slight breeze, but it is already very hot and we are clearly in for a hard day’s walking.

Robert Macfarlane, writing in The Old Ways, records sleeping in the Ring one night, and being woken at 2 a.m. by blood-chilling screams that seemed to come from above him, and then proceeded to circle the Ring for a quarter of an hour, although he could see nothing that might account for the sounds – he rules out the possibility of a screech owl – until they finally disappeared and he fell asleep again.

I would never have shut my eyes there again, if that were me.

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The Ring has a reputation as the most haunted place in Sussex, with tales of hapless benighted travellers being scared witless for centuries. In 1966, apparently, a group of bikers decided to stay the night there and were forced to flee in terror.

We’ve been to Chanctonbury Ring before and it certainly has an atmosphere. I would have liked to have lingered for a while longer, but the downside of the journey is that we had still to cover quite a few miles in the heat to get to Amberley that afternoon.

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Three years ago when we visited the Ring, the weather was gloomy and somewhat more atmospheric, although we were mercifully left alone by whatever might be lurking around there on the astral plane.

Thankfully, it seems they only come out at night.

 

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34 thoughts on “South Downs Way 2 – Steyning up to Chanctonbury Ring

  1. Gosh, now I have a hankering to visit the Ring. I am headed to West Sussex this weekend, but an excursion then is unlikely. Mouse Lane is the most gorgeous moniker! And that poem… I read it twice and had to take a few quiet moments afterwards. The power of words never ceases to amaze me. Thank you for this marvellous post, dear chap.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Lovely post, Mick. Like Lucy, I now have a hankering to walk along along the lane. And I read the poem twice – deciphering the wording on the stone before I scrolled down to see you’d posted a transcription, which I read again. And took a moment.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. West Sussex is one of my favourite parts of England. And, with regards to the poem, my grandparents were of the WWI generation. They almost never spoke about the war. That wasn’t the way of their generation, but the grief at the loss of their brothers was never far beneath the surface.

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        1. Mt grandparents were of that generation, too. I only knew one grandmother, and she never spoke of it that I’m aware. But my parents went through WWII, of course, and again it was hardly spoken of. I think most people just didn’t.

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          1. I never heard many people talking about their personal experiences in WWII either, but it didn’t seem to have traumatised a generation in the way WWI did. Mind you, I don’t think NZ’s losses were as heavy, proportionately, and the war didn’t come to our streets and towns as it did to those of Europe, Japan, and even Australia.

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            1. I would imagine that on an individual level, though, the trauma was present. My father was in Burma, and I believe quite a lot of New Zealanders were too. I think the jungle warfare left everyone scarred. He wouldn’t speak of it to me, other than chatting about his leave in India, and then the time he was stationed there after the war. Whatever he saw in Burma he wasn’t willing to tell me.

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              1. I agree. At university I had a close friend whose father had won a Military Cross in Burma; he described his father as “the only man who enjoyed the war.” I understand that jungle warfare – inevitably guerrilla-style – is a grim experience.

                My friend from university volunteered for service in Vietnam, and was killed there. (I don’t suppose that the war in Vietnam had a high profile in the UK.) When I was blogging about the English in 16th century Ireland I was surprised how disturbed I felt, frivolous as my blog is. An army fighting an often invisible enemy in a country most of the soldiers have few, if any, clues about… It struck a chord, even though I don’t believe imposing present on past.

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                1. The Vietnam war certainly had a high profile in UK. There was always the worry we might somehow get dragged in, although the government had refused a very specific request from the Americans to send troops, and there were continual demonstrations against the conflict and lots of news coverage. Inevitably, it polarised opinions, and so discussions were heated. I was at university towards the end of the conflict, and so there was plenty of debate.

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                  1. Thanks for that. Apart from the fact that our government agreed to send volunteers, the situation re demonstrations, polarised opinions, and heated discussions sounds familiar. Fortunately, the demonstrations here seem to have stopped the government from conscripting for Vietnam as Australia was doing.

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    1. Very true, Dave. I think some of the famous battlefields in Britain are supposed to be haunted – such as Culloden, in Scotland, but equally lots of others don’t seem to have those reputations. Many of the ancient hill forts such as Chanctonbury do, though. It all seems a bit random.

      Liked by 1 person

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