In 1947 government adviser Sir Arthur Hobhouse drew up a list of 12 areas in England and Wales he believed should be made national parks. Sixty-two years on, the other 11 having all been designated, the South Downs has finally achieved the same status.
So why the hold up? The South Downs certainly has the “great natural beauty” Hobhouse deemed requisite. This chicken drumstick-shaped swathe of chalk upland stretching from the wooded hangers around Winchester in the west to Eastbourne, where it crashes into the Channel, typifies the rural English idyll. Soft green undulations, ancient field boundaries, scattered flinty villages, even the thwack of leather on willow (Hambledon, the village that gave the world cricket, is here) – this is the England familiar from a Hollywood-style Sunday night BBC drama.
On closer inspection, however, it’s far from twee. Many of the habitats in the South Downs – most of which were previously protected as two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) before national park designation – are unique. Lullington National Nature Reserve (NNR), for example, is the last patch of chalk heath in the country, while Kingley Vale NNR shelters one of the continent’s finest yew forests (best visited in February when the male yews release huge puffs of pollen). There’s variety in microcosm too: within a metre quadrant on the Downs you’ll typically find as many as 50 plant species. But there’s an equal abundance of people. This is one of the most populated parts of Europe – London is a short dash north, while Brighton, Portsmouth and Southampton are on its fringes. And where there are people, there are pressures.
Ironically, if it weren’t for man, the landscape as it is wouldn’t exist at all. The South Downs’ good looks are thanks to centuries of farming, coppicing of woodland, grazing of livestock and ploughing of fields, which have given rise to a bucolic environment ideal for a range of rare species. Butterflies in particular flourish here; in summer the horseshoe vetch at Cissbury Ring flutters with chalkhill blues, while the adonis blue flits about Malling Down.
But while farmers historically created the landscape of the South Downs, many of their modern counterparts opposed the creation of the national park. “This area is very different to England’s other parks; 85 percent of it is farmed,” explains local farmer Tom Tupper. “Some in the industry are worried the designation will stop them working as they currently do.” Many fear the new status will simply add another level of bureaucracy, and that it will be difficult to gain representation on the national park committee.
There’s also concern that with more people potentially taking to the Downs, drawn by the kudos of new-found national park status, the country code may be forgotten. It will be more important than ever that dog owners control their pets and that all visitors treat the landscape – both wild and farmed – with respect.
Tom’s family has been working the land around Bignor – slap-bang in the Downs, with far-ranging views and a healthy skylark population – since the 16th century, so he feels the growing pressures of conservation on agriculture. He is also the landowner of Bignor Roman Villa, an astonishing collection of 2,000-year-old mosaics unearthed by his great-great-great-great grandfather. National park status will likely increase visitor numbers to the site, and possibly government funding so he can see pros and cons to park status. With more money, Tom would like to build an interpretation centre and tempt tourists to stay longer by combining the villa with vineyard tours (grapes have been planted here – much as the Romans would have done two millennia ago) and walks along nearby Stane Street, the old Roman road that once led from Chichester to London.
Not that the Downs is short of attractions documenting its past. Nearby Fishbourne Palace provides more evidence of Roman occupation, while the Iron Age hill fort atop Mount Caburn has been settled since 3000 BC and still affords commanding views. Imposing Petworth House (complete with ‘Capability’ Brown-designed grounds) gives an inkling of upper-class 17th-century Downs living, while the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum near Singleton is made up of 50 restored buildings, dating from the 13th to 19th centuries, with daily historic demonstrations in everything from stonemasonry to Tudor gardening. From Jane Austen’s pad at Chawton to Virginia Woolf’s country retreat in Rodmell (the area around Lewes was popular with the literary Bloomsbury Group), arty types have also clamoured to the region.
Far from madding crowds
With so much going on there are some worries that the growing number of visitors to the area will mean more traffic clogging up country roads. However, offerings such as the Downlander ticket, which allows visitors to explore the South Downs for a day by train and bus from only £10, are encouraging visitors to leave their cars behind. The South Downs Joint Committee, the body overseeing the transition of the area from AONB to national park status, produces leaflets on walks accessible by bus, while the South Downs Society runs a programme of almost daily guided walks, many of which can easily be reached using public transport.
But the biggest threat to the region, according to local MP Nick Herbert, is not the visitors, but the 74,600 houses the government is planning to build in West Sussex over the next two decades, many on greenbelt land. So is the national park simply going to be swallowed up by affordable housing?
“National park designation does not provide a total block on building. This would neither be practical nor desirable in what, despite their special status, are living working landscapes,” admits a spokesperson for Natural England. However, “national park authorities (NPAs) are also planning authorities, which puts them in a strong position to influence the nature and scale of development within their boundaries. Design guidance published by NPAs demands high standards with building styles reflecting local vernacular.”
It’s the importance of that local vernacular that has caused many to fight so hard for national park status. Chris Todd of the South Downs Campaign became involved in the 1990s after Brighton Council tried to sell off a huge swathe of downland; the sale was stopped but Chris realised it was just one small victory – there would be other battles. “We needed a solution that would last,” says Chris. A national park has a power and permanence that AONBs lack.
“It was argued that the South Downs – having been dug up for arable use in the post-war drive to feed the nation – had lost much of its recreational opportunity so didn’t qualify as a national park,” explains Chris. The many walkers and horseriders who use the 2,000-plus miles of paths and bridleways, as well as the paragliders leaping off fabulously named hills such as Bo Peep might disagree. Chris confirms: “There are 39 million visitors a year – recreational opportunities are clearly there.”
Visit higher-profile sites, such as the V-shaped valley of Devil’s Dyke, the hill fort at Chanctonbury or the medieval (and pub-loaded) village of Alfriston and some of those millions of people will be in evidence. It is, however, still extremely easy to find solitude – even along the South Downs Way national trail, the 100-mile path linking Winchester and Eastbourne. Local volunteer coordinator Ian Hartle once sat amid the Bronze Age tumuli of Graffham Down for four hours on a summer’s day to count the number of passing walkers – and saw no one.
Support for the cause, adds Chris, was overwhelming – with most objections to the proposed park and its boundaries asking for more land be included, rather than less. The Western Weald, a geologically distinct swathe of woods and heathland – encompassing the towns of Petersfield and Midhurst – was originally to be excluded. However, campaigning by the likes of Natural England and Bill Bryson, president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, has ensured the Weald made the final cut. Gazing south from the summit of Black Down, at 280m (919ft) now the park’s highest point, the words of Tennyson – whose summer house, Aldworth, is at the hill’s base – seem apt: “You came, and looked and loved the view / Long-known and loved by me / Green Sussex fading into blue / With one grey glimpse of sea.”
Malcolm Emery, manager of Lullington Heath NNR, is unequivocally in favour of national park designation. There are several key wildlife areas across the park – from the Iron Age fort of Old Winchester Hill to orchid-dotted Mount Caburn – and this, says Malcolm, is one of the problems: “The South Downs is fragmented. Biodiversity hotspots are surrounded by land that’s been hammered by intensive agriculture and a lot of people. A national park authority will be able to make the area more integrated, and start serious discussions about the future.”
Those discussions, continues Malcolm, can be wide-ranging, given a national park’s more powerful status. He’s hopeful that flora and fauna can be protected, grasslands restored, local post offices saved and green tourism promoted. One scheme that’s already started, with some success, is the Eat the View campaign, selling South Downs-reared sheep under a South Downs label. “If you can get the consumer to appreciate where their food comes from, then they appreciate the landscape – you can complete the circle,” says Malcolm. “If an AONB can do that, a national park can do even better.”
The main benefit of national park status then is its permanency. Long-term conservation plans can now be made, ensuring the South Downs’ survival, looking way beyond the next 62 years. But while the future is key, the benefits of designation can be felt in such a populated area right now.