Walk & Talk – 100 Years Protecting The South Downs

Jun 12, 2023 | Walk & Talk

Caroline Douglas Friends of South Downs Trustee

Walks and talks, as the name suggests, are supposed to include some physical walking. However, as time was short, my recent chat with Caroline Douglas was over lunch at Durleighmarsh Tea Barn instead of outdoors. We did nevertheless talk about walking, amongst other things, and promised we’d continue our chat on foot another time.

Perhaps that walk will be around Caroline’s beautiful home village of Stedham where she’s lived the past 22 years. It was Caroline’s passion for preserving the beauty of the village that indirectly brought her to my attention in her role as a Trustee of Friends of the South Downs (FSD). Fighting a 2011 planning application by an illegal waste processor at Stedham Sawmills taught Caroline a thing or two about the planning process and how it can be used to protect what you hold dear. With planning successfully repealed, she joined Friends of the South Downs as a District Officer for our area, scrutinising applications and raising objections with the Park where necessary. Then 5 years ago she became the only woman on their board of Trustees.

So, who are Friends of the South Downs and what is their link with walking? Well, in simple terms they are the national park’s only membership organisation. However, they are so much more than that, as without their existence we probably would not be living inside the UK’s most recent national park. In fact, FSD began fighting to preserve our unique landscape exactly 100 years ago as they have just begun their centenary celebrations.

One spring day in 1923, much like today, on the chalk cliffs overlooking the channel, two men, walking east from Brighton, were dismayed to come upon the new settlement of Peacehaven, developed on what was once Downland. There was only rudimentary town planning in the 1920s and Peacehaven had been sold in plots, with no control over the dwellings. It was no more than a shanty town.

Society walkers 1956

Their walk doubtless spoilt, Robert Hopkins and Captain Irvine Bately returned home resolved to try and prevent any further loss of the Downs. A committee was formed and late in 1923 a crowded public meeting at Brighton Pavilion enthusiastically resolved to form a society for the preservation of the Downs. That society is now known as Friends of the South Downs.

Over the past hundred years they have fought and won many battles. These have ranged from proposals to develop racetracks, tips, roads, oil drilling, sand and gravel workings, chalk quarries, through to lines of pylons marching across the Downland landscape and the masts at the Trundle. They have also campaigned to protect public rights of way and purchased land that would otherwise have been developed, including Crowlink at the Seven Sisters. Although this, together with other pieces of land, have since passed to organisations such as the National Trust, FSD has continued to contribute funds towards important purchases of Downland, including our own Harting Down.

Reading ‘One Hundred Years of Caring For Our Land’, a history of the society written for their milestone (which can be found in local libraries), it is clear the war greatly impacted our freedom to roam the Downs today. Previously described as an “unploughed sheepwalk from end to end” the Downs needed to be cultivated during the war for food production. This unfortunately meant that officious fences and hedges sprung up where once there had been open Downland. Although FSD helped remove wartime infrastructure like the military roads, light railways, and trenches, they were powerless to challenge the fences erected by farmers at that time.

Given that the society’s mission was largely met in 2011 when the South Downs National Park came into being, taking over as guardian of the landscape, I asked Caroline about FSD’s role today and whether she still feels it is relevant. Needless to say, her answer was in the affirmative. She said the society sees itself playing the vitally important role of the Park’s “critical friend”, challenging it on planning decisions where necessary. She mentioned a few  currently causing concern, which I will be watching closely, as one scheme could negatively impact somewhere close to Petersfield that I personally cherish. Could this be the start of my own road to a role with Friends of the South Downs?!

Bench on Harting Down

Technically, I do already play my part, helping spread a love of the Downs through leading walks. As the two founders had their road to Damascus moment whilst out on a walk back in 1923, it’s not surprising that an active walks programme is still at the heart of FSD today. This close connection with the landscape naturally means they are also involved in important conservation, preservation, education, and access work. In fact, one of Caroline’s projects involves rolling out a series of benches along the South Downs Way. One has been installed recently on Harting Down. Having already had a quick sit on it myself before learning of Caroline’s hand in it, I’m feeling the need to go back, perhaps with a book this time to sit for a good while. Now I know how much work goes into making a bench and siting it (sourcing the right wood, getting permission from landowners etc), I feel my quick perch didn’t really do all Caroline’s hard work justice. The next time you are up on Harting Down be sure to look out for her bench, sit for a while and thank Friends of the South Downs both for your comfy seat and all you survey. If you would like to learn more about their work/membership please visit Friends of the South Downs



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