above steyning crop

River and Hill

By Jim Hindle, Feb 26 2012 09:00AM

Petrification; turning to stone by the weight of a few million years. The lines of flint that can so often be seen in bands along the walls of cliffs and quarries where there’s chalk speak of the process and were themselves once living, or at least formed of something more malleable; water full of sulphur from decaying matter in the burrows of sea creatures. The flints appear still in the fields like a crop of their own, so that once they were actually thought to grow from the chalk year on year, at once both the nemesis of generations of country children, forced to pick a pail’s worth on the walk towards school but also a much needed means of extra income to help keep the family shod.

Mined from the tops of populated hills where the proximity of earth and sky and sea to one another may have had as much in choosing the site as any more tangible quality, traded vast distances in the rough or worked already for weaponry and tools, flint speaks of something practical and almost bitterly dense in its memory of graft and painstaking care. Building the walls that could never be hurried always demanded a sense of the exact; a familiarity with the stones that only years of working with them could bring. That sense is probably exemplified at its most beautiful and almost surreally precise by the squared flints that can be seen at St. Michael’s and other places on the high street.

Heavy set, grinding out sparks from the ploughshares, solid with the weight of an untold number of bargeloads working up the Ouse as ballast and material for roads as well as all the walls that still remain familiar, the flints speak even now of something in the rough. Even bright and glassy like the ‘Sussex Diamonds’ of those that have been knapped, they leave the imprint with us of times when everything was a little closer to its natural state, when walls could talk of a kind of kinship with that which lay around us and beneath our feet, like all the coastal towns and downland villages were somehow cradled in this sense of home; built up of something ancient and immediate and even warm for being part of the fabric of what’s lived in.

By Jim Hindle, Feb 9 2012 08:00AM

The names stretch out archaically, footnotes to vast distances of time; the Huronian, the Cryogenian, the Andean-Saharan, even the Karoo; wordy hieroglyphics that mark out past ice ages in timescales rendered almost abstract by their length. Other - and much later - subdivisions ring out on their own; the Hoxnian, the Cromerian and the Anglian whose ice wall dammed up the waters of the Thames and the Rhine which eventually broke loose and severed the chalk ridge that once connected Dover and Calais.

We have to fast forward a bit to have much hope of making any kind of sense of it all; as may seem particularly obvious this last week we’re in an ice age now – the Quaternary glaciation – but then, technically, we have been for the last two and a half million years; a long run of advances and retreats of ice sheets on 40,000 to 100,000 year time scales in which we’re simply in the latest interglacial. The last real glaciation peaked around 18,000 years ago and was followed, after a relative mild spell, by our last real cold period – the thousand year-long Loch Lomond sub-phase about 10,800 to 10,000 years back.

Not much is known about the hunters who returned to the area of land that came to be the British Isles at the liminal period that saw the end of Loch Lomond but there are pointers here and there; like the tools and animal bones caught in the nets of the trawlers in what is now the North Sea but was once a vast basin where the water we now associate it with was locked up in distant ice. Named Doggerland, this basin was the about the size of England – a vast tundra, home to herds of horses and reindeer; and those that hunted them. This is testified by the barbed point carved from red-deer antler fished up one September day in 1931 off the Norfolk coast by a certain Captain Pilgrim Lockwood. It is testified too by the so called ‘Lyngby axe’ found in Northamptonshire – a piece of antler probably used to work leather, meat or plant matter - with bevels that could have been formed by being slung from a tent or by being rubbed against a harness or a sledge.

A picture emerges with this and other evidence like it – of drive hunts following herds and a highly mobile way of life amid the snow and slowly warming landscape before departing for higher ground and summer quarters – a brief window into another but somehow still similar world, made all the more immediate by weeks of snow and ice like the one that we’ve just had.

Photo: Ian Cairns

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

By Jim Hindle, Jan 14 2012 08:00AM

In many ways that’s how it all started; a track and a ford in the river. That’s why the castle was built here in any event; subjugation aside, at least half the idea must have been to defend the inland waterway where the then still navigable river met the trade route running east to west. But people have been travelling on the back of the Downs long before all that; finding easy going clear of the trees and the relative swamp of the Weald. So it should not be too surprising that there was a settlement at least nearby this old fording place and the town it helped bring into being; neolithic settlers digging out their causewayed camp up on the hill to the West.

The tracks today are still well used and tell in their own way a story all of their own of how people lived here and made their way through from the earliest times to today; footsore or buoyant, droving or riding on horses. And in their way the tracks on the Downs, these very literal highways, run towards and then span out from the upland, heartland inner landscape of Wiltshire and its many monuments; all of them mementos of a time when this ritualized landscape very probably formed the site of pilgrimage from all corners of the country. For a vast and what has been called a vertigo-inducing expanse of time in our so called prehistory, people have walked up or down the ridges that form the backbone of the South – South Downs, North Downs, the Berkshire Downs and Chilterns, Cotswolds, Mendips, the Ridgeway where it runs down to the sea; all of them fingers from Salisbury Plain’s palm.

And ever since, the Downs on our door have offered a promise of freedom and even escape – the track at the end of the lane lies relatively dormant now but still vivid when we’re graced by winter sun and sits as a reminder of the Spring, speaking then of days on foot and distant cities with their greens and spires and – further on – the hallows of the ancient stones and stories of both friendship and belonging. And with that, coming down the hill at the end of the day or the even the summer itself there sits the peace of coming home. Host to farms from the earliest times, stocked with a people who knew how to till the light soil and in such numbers that to be out on the tracks and the forts is still to the feel the echo of their silent press, these hills have always been as much about home and settlement as the perennial call to pull on your boots and head out.