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.
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.
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.
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.