The Downs

The Downs are a roadstead or area of sea in the southern North Sea near the English Channel off the east Kent coast, between the North and the South Foreland in southern England.

The Downs served in the age of sail as a permanent base for warships patrolling the North Sea and a gathering point for refitted or newly-built ships coming out of Chatham Dockyard, such as HMS Bellerophon, and formed a safe anchorage during heavy weather, protected on the east by the Goodwin Sands and on the north and west by the coast. The Downs also lie between the Strait of Dover and the Thames Estuary, so both merchant ships awaiting an easterly wind to take them into the English Channel and those going up to London gathered there, often for quite long periods. According to the Deal Maritime Museum and other sources, there are records of as many as 800 sailing ships at anchor at one time.

From Elizabethan times, the presence of Downs helped to make Deal one of the premier ports in England, and in the 18th century, it was equipped with its own telegraph and time ball tower to enable ships to set their marine chronometers.

In 1639 the Battle of the Downs took place here, when the Dutch navy destroyed a Spanish fleet which had sought refuge in neutral English waters.

The anchorage has depths down to 12 fathoms (22 m). Even during southerly gales some shelter was afforded, though under this condition wrecks were not infrequent. Storms from any direction could also drive ships onto the shore or onto the sands, which — in spite of providing the sheltered water — were constantly shifting, and not always adequately marked.

In the present day, with the English Channel still the busiest shipping lane in the world, cross-Channel ferries and other ships still seek shelter here.

The Weald of Kent

The Weald (pronounced is the name given to a physiographic area in South East England situated between the parallel chalk escarpments of the North and the South Downs. It should be regarded as three separate parts: the sandstone “High Weald” in the centre; the clay “Low Weald” periphery; and the Greensand Ridge which stretches around the north and west of the Weald and includes the Weald’s highest points. The Weald was once a vast forest covering this area. The name, Old English in origin, signifies woodland, which still applies today: scattered farms and villages betray the Weald‘s past, often in their names.

The name “Weald” is derived from the Old English weald, meaning “forest” (cognate, German Wald). This comes from a Germanic root of the same meaning, and ultimately from Indo-European. Weald is a specifically a West Saxon form; wold is the Anglian form of the word. The Middle English form of the word is w?ld, and the modern spelling is a reintroduction of the Anglo-Saxon form attributed to its use by William Lambarde in his A Perambulation of Kent of 1576.

In the Anglo-Saxon period the area had the name Andredes weald, meaning “the forest of Andred”, the latter derived from the Roman name of Pevensey, Anderida. The area is also referred to in Anglo-Saxon texts as Andredesleage, where the second element is another Old English word for “woodland”, represented by modern Leigh.

The adjective for “weald” is “wealden”.

Geology of South-Eastern England

The High Weald is in lime green (9a); the Low Weald, darker green (9). Chalk Downs, pale green (6)

The Weald is the eroded remains of a geological structure, an anticline, a dome of layered Lower Cretaceous rocks cut through by weathering to expose the layers as sandstone ridges and clay valleys. The oldest rocks exposed at the centre of the anticline are correlated with the Purbeck Beds of the Upper Jurassic. Above these, the Cretaceous rocks, include the Wealden Group of alternating sands and clays – the Ashdown Sand, Wadhurst Clay, Tunbridge Wells Sand (collectively known as the Hastings Beds) and the Weald Clay. The Wealden Group is overlain by the Lower Greensand and the Gault Formation, consisting of the Gault Clay and the Upper Greensand.

The rocks of the central part of the anticline include hard sandstones, and these form hills now called the High Weald. The peripheral areas are mostly of softer sandstones and clays and form a gentler rolling landscape, the Low Weald. The Weald-Artois Anticline continues some 65 km (40 miles) further south-eastwards under the Straits of Dover, and includes the Boulonnais of France.

Many important fossils have been found in the sandstones and clays of the Weald, including, for example, Baryonyx. The famous scientific hoax of Piltdown Man was claimed to have come from a gravel pit at Piltdown near Uckfield. The first Iguanodon was identified by Gideon Mantell, from a fossil discovered in a pit near Cuckfield in 1819.

Prehistoric evidence suggests that, following after the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, the Neolithic inhabitants had turned to farming, with the resultant clearance of the forest. With the Iron Age came the first use of the Weald as an industrial area. Wealden sandstones contain ironstone, and with the additional presence of large amounts of timber for making charcoal for fuel, the area was the centre of the Wealden iron industry from then, through the Roman times, until the last forge was closed in 1813. The index to the Ordnance Survey Map of Roman Britain lists 33 iron mines; 67 per cent of these are in the Weald.

The entire Weald was originally heavily forested. According to the ninth century Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the Weald measured 120 mi (193 km) or longer by 30 mi (48 km) in the Saxon era, stretching from Lympne, near Romney Marsh in Kent, to the Forest of Bere or even the New Forest in Hampshire. The area was sparsely inhabited and inhospitable, being used mainly as a resource by people living on its fringes, much as in other places in Britain such as Dartmoor, the Fens and the Forest of Arden. The Weald was used for centuries, possibly since the Iron Age, for transhumance of animals along droveways in the summer months. Over the centuries deforestation for the shipbuilding, charcoal, forest glass, and brickmaking industries has left the Low Weald with only remnants of that woodland cover.

While most of the Weald was used for transhumance by communities at the edge of the Weald, several parts of the forest on the higher ridges in the interior seem to have been used for hunting by the kings of Sussex. The pattern of droveways which occurs across the rest of the Weald is absent from these areas. These areas include St Leonard’s Forest, Worth Forest, Ashdown Forest and Dallington Forest.

The forests of the Weald were often used as a place of refuge and sanctuary. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates events during the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Sussex when the native Britons (whom the Anglo-Saxons called Welsh) were driven from the coastal towns into the recesses of the forest for sanctuary, viz;

“A.D. 477. This year came Ælle to Britain, with his three sons, Cymen, and Wlenking, and Cissa, in three ships; landing at a place that is called Cymenshore. There they slew many of the Welsh; and some in flight they drove into the wood that is called Andred’sley.”

Until the Late Middle Ages the forest was a notorious hiding place for bandits, highwaymen and outlaws.

Settlements on the Weald are widely scattered. Villages evolved from small settlements in the woods typically four to five miles apart; close enough to be an easy walk but not so close as to encourage unnecessary intrusion. Few of the settlements are mentioned in the Domesday Book however Goudhurst’s church dates from the early 12th Century or before and Wadhurst was of a sufficient size by the mid thirteenth century to be granted a royal charter permitting a market to be held. Before this time, the Weald was used as summer grazing land, particularly for pannage by communities living in the surrounding areas. Many places within the Weald have retained names from this time, linking them to the original communities by the addition of the suffix “-den” – for example Tenterden was the area used by the people of Thanet. Permanent settlements in much of the Weald developed much later than in other parts of lowland Britain, although there were as many as one hundred furnaces and forges operating by the later 16th century, employing large numbers of people.

In his first published version of ‘On The Origin of Species,’ Charles Darwin used the chalk cliffs at Weald as a justification for his theory of natural selection. Charles Darwin was a follower of Lyell’s theory of uniformitarianism and decided to expand upon Lyell’s theory with a quantitative estimate to determine if there was enough time in the history of the earth to uphold his principles of evolution. He assumed that rate of erosion of the cliffs was around 1 inch per century and extrapolated the age of Weald at around 300 million years. In 1862, William Thomson (later appointed as Lord Kelvin) published a paper ‘On the age of the sun’s heat’ in which he calculated that the sun had been burning for less than a million years. Based on these estimates he denounced Darwin’s geological estimates as imprecise. Darwin saw Lord Kelvin’s calculation as one of the most serious criticisms to his theory and removed his calculations on the Weld from the third edition of On The Origin of Species.

The Weald in its entirety begins in the west to the north-east of Petersfield in Hampshire; from where it crosses the counties of Surrey and Kent in the north, and West and East Sussex in the south. The western parts in Hampshire and West Sussex, known as the Western Weald, are included in the South Downs National Park. Other protected parts of the Weald are included in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. In extent it covers about 85 miles (135 km) from west to east, and about 30 miles (50 km) from north to south, covering an area of some 1,300 km² (500 square miles). The eastern end of the High Weald, the English Channel coast, is marked in the centre by the high sandstone cliffs from Hastings to Pett Level; and by former sea cliffs now fronted by the Pevensey and Romney Marshes on either side.

Much of the High Weald, the central part, is designated as the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Its landscape is described as one of rolling hills, studded with sandstone outcrops and cut by streams to form steep-sided ravines (called gills); small irregular-shaped fields and patches of heathland, abundant woodlands; scattered farmsteads and sunken lanes and paths. Ashdown Forest, an extensive area of heathland and woodland occupying the highest sandy ridge-top at the centre of the High Weald, is a former royal deer-hunting forest created by the Normans and said to be the largest remaining part of Andredesweald.

There are centres of settlement, the largest of which are Horsham, Burgess Hill, East Grinstead, Haywards Heat, Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Crowborough; and the area along the coast from Hastings and Bexhill-on-Sea to Rye and Hythe.

The geological map shows the High Weald in lime green (9a).

The Low Weald, the periphery of the Weald, is shown as darker green on the map (9), and has an entirely different character. It is in effect the eroded outer edges of the High Weald, revealing a mixture of sandstone outcrops within the underlying clay. As a result, the landscape is of wide and low-lying clay vales with small woodlands (“shaws”) and fields. There is a great deal of surface water: ponds and many meandering streams.

Some areas, such as the flat plain around Crawley, have been utilised for urban use: here are Gatwick Airport and its related developments and the Horley-Crawley commuter settlements. Otherwise the Low Weald retains its historic settlement pattern, where the villages and small towns occupy harder outcrops of rocks. There are no large towns on the Low Weald, although Ashford and Reigate lie immediately on the northern edge. Settlements tend to be small and linear, because of its original wooded nature and heavy clay soils.

The Weald is drained by many streams radiating from it, the majority being tributaries of the surrounding major rivers: particularly of the Mole, Medway, Stour, Rother, Cuckmere, Ouse, Adur and Arun. Many of those streams provided power to watermills, blast furnaces and hammers which once operated the iron industry and cloth mills.

The Weald is especially popular with ramblers, cyclists and other recreational users; and several Long distance footpaths cross it.

The Weald has largely maintained its wooded character, with woodland still covering 23% of the overall area (one of the highest levels in England) and the proportion is considerably higher in some central parts. The sandstones of the Wealden rocks are usually acidic, often leading to the development of acidic habitats such as heathland, the largest remaining areas of which are in Ashdown Forest and near Thursley.

Although common in France, the wild boar became extinct in Great Britain and Ireland by the 17th century, but wild breeding populations have recently returned in the Weald, following escapes from boar farms.

The Weald has been associated with many writers, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Notable examples include John Evelyn (1620–1706), Vita Sackville-West (1892–1962), and Rudyard Kipling (1864–1936). The setting for A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories was inspired by Ashdown Forest, near Milne’s country home at Hartfield. In 2010, a documentary entitled “A Journey Through the Weald of Kent” was produced by Buff Films, JR Films and Cranbrook school to document the Weald’s place in modern England.

The game of cricket may have originated prior to the 13th century in the Weald (see History of English cricket to 1696). The related game Stoolball is still popular in the Weald, mostly played by ladies teams.

View south across the Weald of Kent as seen from the North Downs Way near Detling

The Pilgrims’ Way

Pilgrim’s Way is the historic route supposed to have been taken by pilgrims from Winchester in Hampshire, England, to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury in Kent. This name is somewhat misleading, as the route follows closely a pre-existing ancient trackway dated by archaeological finds to 500–450 BC, but probably in existence since the stone age, following the “natural causeway” east to west on the southern slopes of the North Downs.

The course was dictated by the natural geography: it took advantage of the contours, avoided the sticky clay of the land below but also the thinner, overlying “clay with flints” of the summits. In places a coexisting ridgeway and terrace way can be identified, where the route followed would have varied with the season. The track way ran the entire length of the North Downs, leading to and from Folkestone: the pilgrims would have had to turn away from it, north along the valley of the Great Stour near Chilham, to reach Canterbury.

The prehistoric track way extended further than the present Way, providing a link from the narrowest part of the English Channel to the important religious complex of Avebury and Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, where it is known as the Harroway. The route was still followed as an artery for through traffic in Roman times, a period of continuous use of more than 3000 years.

From Thomas Becket’s canonization in 1173 until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538 his shrine at Canterbury became the most important in the country, indeed “after Rome…the chief shrine in Christendom”, and it drew pilgrims from far and wide. Winchester, apart from being an ecclesiastical centre in its own right (the shrine of St Swithin), was an important regional focus and an aggregation point for seaports on the south coast. Travellers from Winchester to Canterbury would naturally use the ancient way as it was a direct route, but a separate (and better attested) route to Canterbury was by way of Watling Street from London, as followed by the storytellers in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Indeed, the concept of a single route called the Pilgrims’ Way seems to be no older than the Victorian Ordnance Survey map of Surrey, whose surveyor, Edward Renouard James, published a pamphlet in 1871 entitled Notes on the Pilgrims’ Way in West Surrey. Here he asserted that the route was ‘little studied’ and that ‘very many persons in the neighbourhood’ had not been aware of it. His insertion of the route name on the Ordnance map gave an official sanction to his conjecture; and writers such as Hilaire Belloc were eager to follow it up. In fact, the route as shown on modern maps is not only unsuitable for the mass movement of travellers but has also left few traces of their activity. The official history of the Ordnance Survey acknowledges the ‘enduring archaeological blunder’, blaming the enthusiasm for history of the then Director, General Sir Henry James. Together, romantically inclined authors have succeeded in creating a “a fable of…modern origin” to explain the existence of the Way.

The Pilgrims’ Way is at the centre of the Powell and Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale, with the camera panning along a map of the route at the start of the film.

In the Middle Ages the pilgrims’ route left the ancient track way to climb St Martha’s Hill

On the Pilgrims’ Way near Trottiscliffe, Kent

Anyone walking the ‘Pilgrims Way’ from Winchester would have started along the Roman road east following the route through New Alresford, Alton and Bentley to Farnham. This roughly follows the modern A31.

The ancient main streets of towns along the route from Farnham (where the old trackway converges with the pilgrims’ route) through Guildford, Dorking and Reigate (where a pilgrims’ chapel, dedicated to St Thomas, was established) — align west to east, strongly suggesting that this was the most important route that passed through them. On modern Ordnance Survey maps, part of the route is shown running east from Farnham, passing to the south of Guildford, north of the village of Gomshall, north of Dorking, Reigate, Merstham, Chaldon, Godstone, Limpsfield and Westerham, through Otford, Kemsing and Wrotham, north of Trottiscliffe, towards Cuxton (where it crossed the River Medway). Along some stretches the pilgrims’ route left the ancient trackway to encompass religious sites, an example being at Pewley Down, near Guildford, where the later way passed St Martha’s Hill and The Chantries, some 500 metres to the south.

South of Rochester, the Pilgrims’ Way travels through the villages of Burham, Boxley, Detling and continuing in a south-east direction to the north of the villages of Harrietsham and Lenham. The route continues south-east along the top of the Downs past Charing, to Wye and then turns north to follow the valley of the Great Stour through Chilham and on to Canterbury.

The North Downs Way National Trail parallels the old Pilgrims’ Way between Farnham and Canterbury. Much of the traditional route of the Pilgrims’ Way is now part of the modern road network and the Ramblers’ Association advises walkers wishing to follow it to use St. Swithuns Way between Winchester and Farnham and the North Downs Way between Farnham and Canterbury as an alternative. The route also links with the South Downs Way at Winchester.

Pilgrims’ Way near Westwell, Kent. Length: 192 kilometres (119 miles), Location South Eastern England. Hiking and cycling.

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