Tradition and Culture
A shepherd of the Sompting Downs area who was famous for his traditional folk songs in the late 19th century, was Michael Blann. He was written about by the great Worthing writer on downland shepherding traditions, Barclay Wills.
Traditional songs were part of the life of the village of Sompting as of other downland villages. Harriet Finlay-Johnson, the Sompting schoolteacher who revolutionised teaching methods in the early 1900s, changing it from learning-by-rote to learning-with-play, wrote in her book 'The Dramatic Method of Teaching'(1912): "The mothers of the village ... practised the Morris dance and dramatized folk songs ... in the latter art they excelled, for they had a good store of the Sussex folk songs." As, too, did the menfolk and, thanks to Harriet, all of the children. Pam Boakes (nee Bunn) writes of her memories of her childhood Christmases in Sompting in the 1950s:
In the evening the Home Made Wine would appear: Orange, Parsnip, or Dandelion and others. It wasn’t long before the older family members got how shall we say rather merry! This resulted in Uncle Walter playing the squeeze-box, with Grandad playing the tambourine! And they would both sing old Sussex songs and dance, What wonderful happy memories.
Mrs Emma Blackman wrote in the West Sussex Gazette on Sept17th 1903, from Yew Tree Cottage Sompting, that her grandfather had sung the following version of Young Collins on Christmas Eve 1865, when she would have been about 8 years old. (Thanks to Colin Andrews for finding this.) This song has only been collected from a few singers in the oral tradition in Sussex and Hampshire.
Young Collins early in the morn
Goes whistling through the fields of corn
A young milkmaid both neat and clean
To milk her cow tripped over the plain
Young Collins saw her as she passed
He said my sweet and pretty lass
Will you along with me now go
Her answer was Oh Collins no!
He says fair maid I mean no harm
I'll make you mistress of my farm
Of ewes and lambs and poultry too
Can you love me? Says he, or no?
Then quickly she did turn and say
The mistress of your farm I'll be
To church they went, the knot was tied
So now she is Young Collins' bride
Mrs Emma Blackman had been born to John and Harriett Barnett in 1857 in Goring. In 1876 she married William Blackman who was born in Rottingdean about 1854 - where he may as a young man have sung in the pub with the Copper family and friends. He had been a gardener there and came to work as a cowman on the Sompting Estate.
On the East Sussex downs near Rottingdean, the Copper family also worked on the land in the nineteenth century, and sang songs from the same tradition. In fact they are still singing them 'unto the eighth generation'. In the Sussex tradition there's a strong vein of lyrical songs reflecting the life of the countryside and romance - though we are not without our tragic ballads on the one hand, or, our comic songs on the other.
In the 1920s-30s, the Boxgrove Tipteers revived traditional folk singing in the Anglesey Arms in Halnaker. Some folk clubs, such as the Elephant & Castle and the Royal Oak in Lewes, are good places to hear and enjoy traditional songs.
A group of friends now meets to sing traditional Sussex songs (especially Copper family and Boxgrove Tipteers repertoire) and other songs in the Murrell Arms Barnham . If you would like to join in the singing, email email@example.com for details.
In 2012 the South Downs Society hosted a series of workshops run by Chris and Ann Hare and Emily Longhurst across Sussex and Hampshire to help people begin to learn about and to enjoy singing traditional songs that were popular in the region 100 years and more ago, and some singing groups will continue this, contact the South Downs Society for details.
A local story - the Ghost of Lychpole Manor
The northernmost of the Sompting Estate's former 'manors', and our largest farm, is called Lychpole (or sometimes Leechpool). In about 1939 local historian (and co-founder of the South Downs Society) R. Thurston Hopkins wrote in his book "Sussex Rendezvous":
The manor of Leechpool, which nestles under Cissbury Ring, has a ghost, which is only what might be expected of a solitary spot bearing a name with a shudder in it. Some people say that the name indicates a pool overstocked with leeches, but I am rather of the opinion that it is the debased rendering of lich-pole, meaning a gallows-tree.
The ghost of Leechpool Manor is a highwayman who was hanged by the side of the old Downland coach-road, running between Lancing and Steyning. When he walked to the gallows he vowed that he would never sleep in his grave, which had been dug in the centre of the road, so that all the coaches would rattle and bump over his bones. Of all speculative theories, that of Dr John Dee, the sixteenth-century alchemist, sends the most thrills up one's spine. He said that none of the dead ever come back, but some of them refuse to leave. The highwayman of Leechpool was one of the kind who overstayed his welcome. He was lowered into his grave and the earth piled on top, but on the next morning his body had lifted the soil away and his head had sprung up like a dreaful jack-in-the-box. Several times was the body replaced, with the same result. Tradition does not disclose how many times the highwayman popped up before he settled in his grave. However, his ghostly counterpart, mounted on a ghostly horse, ever afterwards haunted this Downland trackway.
An old Downland farmer named Parkyn, in whose family the tradition of the phantom highwayman has lingered for a hundred years or so, told me that a driver of a coach near the spot was held up by what he imagined to be a real highwayman, and, making up his mind to 'run the fellow down', he whipped up his horses to a full gallop, with the result that horses and coach passed clean through the intruder.
Sinister tales were told by farm labourers who passed over the haunted road at nightfall; they declared that their wagons bumped over something stretched athwart the road, and when they looked for the obstruction there was nothing to be seen at all.
Drama and Dance in the South Downs
The folk play traditionally acted around Christmas time in this area is the Sussex Mummers (locally 'Tipteers' or 'Tipteerers') Play of St George and the Turkish Knight. The play was carried on through oral tradition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in, for example, Sompting, Steyning, Washington, Duncton, East Preston, Chithurst and Iping.
Like the Turkish Knight who gets brought back to life every time he's killed, this tradition won't lie down! In Rottingdean the Copper family (see Songs above) still perform their local version of the Mummers Play, sing, and play carols on handbells.
In the early 20th century the tradition of the East Preston and Chithurst Tipteers was carried on by the Boxgrove Tipteers, who combined it with traditional folk song and dancing. In the early 21st century the Boxgrove Tipteers play and songs can be found in the Murrell Arms in Barnham (see Songs above).
Also in the early 20th century Sompting schoolchildren carried on the dramatic and folk dancing tradition; in the late 20th century the play version collected from a Sompting boy in 1882, and the dancing, was taken up and developed by the Sompting Village Morris who are shown performing their play at the June Sompting Festival, above. If you would like to learn to dance with the Sompting Village Morris, look on their website for details.
The South Downs in Poetry and Prose
Words and songs about the Downs in the C19th & earlier
Writing or singing in praise of the Downs is new. If you go back more than 100 years or so, writers didn’t romanticise the Downs as such. Instead they enthused about fashionably rugged, rocky, dramatic, gothic landscapes. The Downs were seen as a more plain and homely, functional landscape – a place for farm work or, at times, for the sport of hunting.
Literary people who wrote about the Downs before the 20th century mostly wrote technically about their agriculture, or else, if they were botanists such as Gilbert White, about their natural history especially the chalk grassland flora. It was close-up farming, fur & feathers, and flowers , rather than general landscape or sense of place. The few more general observations were rather mixed, as summed up in a history of the South Downs Society by ?Coverley:
“The South Downs are hilly and unpleasant” wrote S. Neville in his Diary in 1771, “and fit, for greater part at least, only for sheep walks." For Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), however, they were “the pleasantest and most delightful of their kind in the world.”
Gilbert White (1720-1793) [wrote of] "their gentle swellings and smooth fungus-like protuberances, their fluted sides and regular hollows and slopes.... that chain of majestic mountains."
William Cobbett (1763- 1835) ... wrote that a ride amongst the clouds of the South Downs cured a whooping cough that had harassed him for many months.
The people’s poetry
From the C19th and earlier we also have many songs from the oral tradition in which everybody took a share, especially the downland shepherding and farming community. We call them folk songs now but of course that is a modern word, in the old days they were just the songs that people knew and sang.
The songs weren’t fixed by being written down, so people sometimes changed old songs to suit local circumstances, or made up new songs as they worked or rested. If a new song or version of a song was liked when you sang it in your family, or at the pub, or at a fair, sheep-shearing feast or harvest supper, then it would be taken up by other singers and become part of the tradition.
Most traditional songs started their lives long before it became fashionable to eulogise the Downs as a special landscape. So, the Downs as a whole entity, as viewed from a distance, are not celebrated in old songs. The Downs weren’t a designated area or a campaign, they were a place where people live and work and things happen.
So what we find in the songs is a lively reflection and celebration of all the things that make the Downs live. In the songs are the downland area’s hills, fields, woods, meadows, bushes, streams, wildlife, farms, labours, sports, people, loves crimes and stories. The Downs were then mostly known as ‘mountains’ (before people defined mountains as a set minimum height), ‘hills and valleys’, rather than as downs.
Words and Songs about the Downs in the 20th Century
Writers pictured the Downs more and more as a kind of remote arcadia, birds and flowers and sweeping views and all. Kipling and Belloc lived around the downs and loved the land but didn’t work on it themselves: their writings encouraged people to think of the Downs in a new, almost spiritual way. The imagination of archaeologists and antiquarians such as Wolseley, Gosse, Pull and Curwen was caught by new discoveries of lives on the Downs in prehistoric times, and this added to their (perceived) mystique.
A prolific early 20th century writer on the Downs was Arthur Beckett, who embraced and promoted the new romantic approach to them without losing touch with reality. He wanted townsmen and countrymen alike to fall in love with the downs and protect them. Already in 1909 he wrote of falling in love with the Downs in apparently wildly poetic terms – but then explained that this mystical union with the Spirit of the Downs consisted in seeing beauty in the commonplace, and went on to write very readably about the commonplace things of the downs. He gave much of his life’s work to editing the Sussex County Magazine in which many writers on the Downs found a great encouragement and outlet.
Writers and singers noticed different things about the Downs.
The arcadian quality and ancient history of the Downs landscape were real, but many 20th-century writers tended to ignore some equally important workaday realities of the region.
For instance writers often ignored new roads, new houses, mechanisation of farming for cheaper food, and everything else that characterized their actual downland experience. They tended to studiously ignore the ploughed arable lands.
The traditional singers had their blind spots too but they did celebrate the downland ploughing alongside the shepherding. They knew that each downland farm had to have its arable as well as pasture and meadow lands. They worked them together on a daily basis, for instance folding the sheep, which had fed on the open pastures, on the arable land to dung it. Experience taught them to value each kind of land use, and their experience was reflected in their songs.
Songs and stories of downland farming
Before the 20th Century, the poets of the downs were those who lived and worked on the land. They sang in their own idiom. The Downs weren’t personified or idealized. They were the setting of the bread and butter of life and of poetry - daily and seasonal work, lovemaking, sport, crime and death. The downland setting is sometimes mentioned incidentally, sometimes not at all, but it is there all the same just as if it was spelt out.
Chief among local writers who loved to tell the story of downland farming, and especially sheep farming, just exactly as it was, was Barclay Wills, author of Shepherds of Sussex, Bypaths in Downland, Downland Treasures. He lived just outside the Sompting parish boundary in East Worthing, at 57 Ham Road; and often walked around the Downs Barn (Coombe Barn) area.
Natural history and Country sports
Early writers’ interest in the Downs was not so much in the general landscape of the Downs, as in their agricultural economy, or in the Nature that lived there, especially the wild flowers of chalk grassland and the birds of the Downs.
Gilbert White, Richard Jefferies, W H Hudson, Adelaide Gosset, Tickner Edwardes, Frederick Wood
In the people’s poetry of traditional song, Nature is not viewed scientifically from the outside; we share the same space and experience the same impulses and pressures as the animals. This traditional song verse was collected in Sussex (Bdwd137, Faithul Emma):
The lambs they skip with pleasure, and the meadows are so green,
One of the finest mountains that ever eyes have seen.
There’s fine hunting, fine fishing, and fine fowling also,
On the top of yonder mountain where the finest flowers grow.
Closeness with nature, hunting for sport or food, and raising livestock to eat are all part of the traditional countryman’s way of life. It’s the same farmers and countrymen that look after and enjoy the semi-natural flower-topped downs, the productive fields, and the country sports.
Literary poetry, fiction, drama and song
The beginning of the 20th century brought poets and prose writers crowding to praise the Downs in literary form.
Belloc, Kipling, Robert Bloomfield, Goring, Swinburne, Habberton Lulham
EVLucas, Watson, Orde Warde, Noyes, Galsworthy, Bell, Cooke.
This new trend was not halted by WWI nor by WW2: if anything it was strengthened as the romance of Empire gave way to the romance of a secure homeland in England.
In prose, novelists such as Sheila Kaye-Smith, Ainsworth, Blackmore, Disraeli, Farjeon presented the Downs in a more mixed light, featuring the struggles of agriculture and of development as well as the mystique and traditions taken up by the poets.
The traditional singers of the downland countryside have always been willing to accept songs written by ‘men of letters’, if they suited their taste, as well as verses made up within their own part of the community.
Writing the land’s history
The 20th century ‘discovery’ of the Downs by literary writers was not just a love affair by the poetically minded. It was every bit as much an exploration of the factual knowledge – geography, archaeology, history – that could be published for the rising number of tourists, now coming not so much by horse and coach or cart, as by car or by bus-train-bike-and-foot. It met a growing public appetite for rediscovery of English roots.
Beckett, Blaker, Mais, Maxwell, Lucas, Wymer
Traditional downland songs also included historical and cultural references beyond the core themes of farming, love, life and death and so on.. Ballads told stories of all aspects of life (and death) that caught the imagination and caught on locally.
What we don’t find in the songs, but we do find in many books and poems, is a creative re-imagining of the growing archaeological and historical knowledge of the Downs country.
Barclay Wills, Wolseley, Pull, Allcroft, Gosse, Toms, Massingham.
Increasingly the tellers of the story of the Downs were caught up in new campaigns to protect the Downs landscape for future generations, and wrote with that end in mind.
Thurston Hopkins, AH Anderson, Peter Brandon.
There have always been close communities in the downland farming villages and towns. These were cemented by growing up together and the need to work together as well as by sharing song and story and companionship.
New communities are now forming across the downs, including the community of those interested in the Downs either because they live and/or work there in non-traditional professions, or because they have a strong leisure interest in the area.
The concept (and so the community) of the South Downs was extended westwards, with the designation of the South Downs National Park, to include the Hampshire as well as the Sussex Downs. Community contacts are already beginning to develop which make that more of a reality. For example the South Downs Land Management Group (www.southdownsland.com).
The closeness of the traditional communities is celebrated beautifully in Bob Copper’s books, as also are the songs that he learned in his own downland farming family, and those that he later learned from other singers across Sussex and Hampshire. Let’s hope that it may survive and even thrive under the pressures that will be present in the future of the South Downs National Park.
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