Research Diary

Downland walk with Simon Hurt notes

July 17th

Event info:

The walk and dig is part of the Changing Chalk project supported by National Lottery Heritage and led by the National Trust. 

Simon is currently working on a plant survey over near the Rathfinney wine estate.  

The walk covers a similar area to the one that I have identified as a space to understand, tell stories from and potentially use as a memory palace.  

The walk covers the many of the different uses and aspects of the space, the space has evidence of active use for at least 6,000 years. During the talk/walk we covered that the area is owned by Eastbourne borough council with some of the space being leased and used as farmland, in this case Chalk Farm, and the other being open space.  

The challenge specifically for Chalk Farm is that it has many access points and is directly next to a residential space with no buffer zone between it and users of the space. This means that to access the Downs many people walk through the farmland.  

We start the walk at the beehive ornamental plantation. The beehive plantation was created when the land belonged to Ratton house.  

An archaeological dig was about to begin to establish if one of the mounds was a tumulus/barrow – there are barrows all along the ridge of the downs. The barrows are from the late neolithic/bronze age.  

The neolithic causeway enclosures currently recognised as being located on Coombe hill but also Butts Brow were also a point of interest for the dig and the walk.  

We walked up towards Willingdon Hill where the Liberator bomber memorial is located. This then led to further discussions about the recent history of the space. One was about the scrub, much of the scrub that has grown up near the tracks is often an indication of WWII trenches that had been dug, this created a sheltered space for the scrub to the grow.  

Composited image to give impression of how airship might have looked. Author: MoModem, says “I`ve popped an original airship of the time, over Donkey Hollow to show how it would have looked”

In addition to this between 1915-26 there were also airships stationed in Willingdon ( with ‘Donkey Hollow’ below Combe hill being used, as one of the locations, to moor the airships. Nearby, at Hill Cottage, was also a site of an airship disaster.  

Other discussions covered looking at the various flora and fauna. Such as looking at the ‘pride of sussex’ and ‘restharrow’. We also discussed how cowslips (a common spring time flower) often flower on different months depending on the fields and historically when the animals were moved to each field.  

From the memorial we then travelled back down to Tas Coombe and looked the area along the way.  

Chalk grassland is made up of dense grassland mixed with a herb rich area. It makes up only 4% of the Downs, a considerable decline.  

With the ash dieback it was proposed that a series of ten habitat islands would be created to act as spaces between the coombe all the way to beachy head. As a note, Ash was considered a pest tree and not native to the space.  

As we moved down towards Tas Combe we discussed how the admiralty used to use the chalk pit cliff face was had to be kept clean so that it could be seen from sea and to identify where a shallow piece of water was (and still is).  


A study has shown that many of the tourists who visit the Downs do not venture more than 50 metres from their drop off location.  

In addition, most people that visit Beachy head do not contribute to the space (money).  

There is a conflict between EBC who want more tourists to use the Downs, Farmers and conservationists who view the space as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI). Yet conservation tourism and awareness of the environment is a massive growth area and one where both can support each other if used wisely.  

The idea of what constitutes conservation and what it means came up many times during the discussion. It is clear conservation means many different things to many different people and cannot be defined with a black and white definition. Much of the discussion looked at the restoration of the space to pre 19th century, however this clearly does not consider the 6000 years of human activity and massively increased population growth over this period.  

What I have called chalk lines are often evidence of cattle trails or where people have then used them, or they are ‘terracettes’.  

Interesting to note that the ‘home tree’ is well known locally. It is called ‘the lollipop tree’ by the host whilst another person on the walk said that they used it for the summer solstice and tied ribbon to it – much to the farmers frustration. It is a yew tree and, because it is poisonous, means that it is one of the only ones remaining on the farmland. Part of the reason that it still exists is because the farmer has chopped the lower branches off stopping the animals from eating it and killing themselves.  


It was really valuable to gain an overview of the space/landscape, to understand its history, ownership, and the challenges of the space.  

Should I concentrate just on the yew tree and find stories from this only? 

Whilst I am not specifically interested in the history of the space and more of the current use and how it can be used to connect people  

Further areas to look at: 

Download plan – whole estate plan (EBC?)