above steyning crop

River and Hill

White Chalk

By Jim Hindle, Jan 26 2012 08:00AM

At first, or sometime later down the line, they thought it was formed from countless millions of skeletons of fossilized sea creatures. These days the explanation is a little more prosaic but in its way no less incredible; the chalk around us the product of actions of calcareous algae, probably passed through the guts of an unimaginable number of microscopic shrimp-like things called copepods, steadily depositing over the course of twenty or so million years, about eighty million years before our time.

And there it remained, deep on the sea bed and far from any land, accumulating silently and utterly obscure until thrust up by the same upheavals that helped form the Alps and Himalayas; one huge smooth dome of chalk stretching from here to what are now the North Downs, millennia of intervening rain and rivers breaking down the centre of it all so that now only these ridges remain at the very edges of what once was a vast upland.

Porous, unaffected by the course of rains that have molded many other hills in England where the wet remains externalized and carves its way steadily downwards, the chalk has helped retain the flow and contour of these hills, keeping with them too the sense of something almost incomprehensibly old. In past ice ages frost locked up the Downs and made them unable to soak up the snows and rains, leading to streams that worked their way down and helped form all the many coombes and their intricate and inner looking curves. When the climate thawed, the chalk resumed its filtering effect and all the water was soaked up again into the hills’ interiors. These valleys sit like riddles now, mysteriously dry and speaking of what has become an invisible history that nonetheless has left its mark.

Untouched by all but the smallest of glaciers, keeping its peace, the very earth here occasionally seems to breathe out in the dusk of summer evenings, when you can almost taste the chalk on your teeth in the stillness, the downland folding up and opening out with the views it allows. These soft stone hills and hollows hold so many memories; the echo of primeval swamps, reminders of a long gone height whose residues still stand far above the intervening gap and help inform our own internal altitudes.

Photo: Michael Lank

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