The South Downs in Poetry and Prose
Article written by Mike Tristram for teaching a course at the Downs Barn
Words and songs about the Downs before the C20th
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 downland arable farming work 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
The poets of the downs who lived and worked on the land in, say, the nineteenth century, sang in their own idiom. Sometimes they made up songs for themselves, sometimes they adapted whatever was popular to their own taste and style. The landscape is sometimes mentioned incidentally in their songs, sometimes not at all, but it is there as a context 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 in their agricultural economy, or in the Nature that lived there, especially the wild flowers of chalk grassland and the birds of the Downs. Examples are:
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. Examples you might try out include:
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. Examples to look out for:
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. These writers for example:
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. Such campaigning narrators included:
Thurston Hopkins, AH Anderson, Peter Brandon.