Roger Bannister in his autobiography The Four Minute Mile explains his love of athletics stemmed from running on the springy turf of the South Downs. Years of sheep-grazing and rabbit-browsing had produced a surface known as ‘old chalk grassland’ which could have been invented for those who like to walk, jog or run in the fresh air. In addition, the long whale-backed ridge stretching 100 miles from Eastbourne to Winchester offers a continuous long-distance walk known, not unsurprisingly, as The South Downs Way.
The term ‘Downs’ derives from the Old English ‘dun’ meaning hill and over the centuries its particular topography has played an important part in the history of England. From time immemorial the ridge offered an obvious route to avoid the marshy lowlands and surprise ambush from marauding bands of ne’er-do-wells. For the Romans it formed an initial bridgehead from which they could conquer the rest of Britain and in later years the beacons blazing along its length gave warning of potential foreign invasion.
If they start The South Downs Way from the east Marilyn collectors will find quite a flurry of separate tops on the relatively short stretch between Firle Beacon and Ditchling Beacon. The latter must be one of the easiest summits to tick as this is the point where the London/Brighton Cycle Ride crosses the Downs and is generally regarded as the crux of this challenging event. Within a few metres of the Marilyn there is a car park where (at a price) supporters can gather to offer help and refreshment. Baggers can also park and stroll the short distance to the Trig Point. There is then a 30 mile hiatus before you reach Chanctonbury Hill, the penultimate Marilyn the ridge has to offer and an even longer gap before you can set foot on Butser Hill. Both of the last two are Iron Age forts garnished with the usual tourist paraphernalia.
For those of us who have devised their own variants of Dawson’s master list, it is worth noting that Ditchling Beacon is the County Top of East Sussex and Butser Hill, though not the County Top is the highest Marilyn in Hampshire. There are other Bumps and Lumps to be negotiated but, eventually, you will wind up in Winchester which, in the shape of the Royal Oak, claims, like most other ancient cities in England, to have the oldest pub in the land.
Sussex, however, does not have a monopoly of the high land in the south-east of the country. The Surrey Hills, designated an area of outstanding beauty, has a number of sharp edges. The best known, at least to those of a literary inclination, is Box Hill which hosted the fateful picnic that took place in Jane Austen’s Emma. But the high point and County Top is Leith Hill. The ascent of the hill can take place from a base camp of a variety of car parks, but, wherever you start, all roads lead to Leith Tower. This striking edifice was built in 1765 by Richard Hill of Leith Hall Place to afford an opportunity ‘for people to enjoy the glory of the English countryside’ and indeed the view, especially of airports, is extensive. Walkers should find no difficulty in making the ascent as the whole area proved a popular Victorian picnic spot which means tracks had to be made to ensure the relevant accoutrements for such a pastime could easily and safely be transported to the summit.
A final word. In case I have accidently given the impression that my excursion to the deepest south was in any way connected with mountaineering, I should point out that on all the ascents described I was accompanied by a lady on crutches.