The South Downs National Park is home to many wonders of nature – ghostly white cliffs, horseshoes of hills and woods with creatures of the rarest kind to name just a few. But what made them? Their history has been uncovered in a trilogy of books. KATY RICE reports.

When you think of the South Downs National Park, what springs to mind? Beachy Head, rare butter- flies, Devil’s Dyke? Well, think again.

What about the ancient burial of a man and his dog and the bizarre reason they were both headless, the families who 6,000 years ago made their way to four concentric rings of chalk at Whitehawk and walked through”doorways” to meet in the middle for a get-together, or the formation many millennia ago of the raw materials used to sculpt chimney pieces for Petworth House?

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The answers to these questions can be found in a series of three books about the national park, the latest of which has just been published.

The Geology and Scenery of the South Downs National Park, by David Robin- son, provides a geological backbone to the more flesh-and-blood subjects covered in the first two: The Archaeology of the South Downs National Park, by John Manley, and The Natural History of the South Downs National Park, by Robin Crane and Rendel Williams, all published by The Sussex Archaeological Society.

“I was sure there was a gap in the market that deserved to be filled, ” said Robin Milner-Gulland, of the Sussex Archaeological Society.

“I thought of the idea of the South Downs series about four years ago, to produce short, well-illustrated, inexpensive books written by experts in their fields for a general readership, and started with volumes on three fundamental aspects of the South Downs area: its ‘bones’ – the landscape and geology; its wildlife and nature; and the human presence as told through its archaeological record.”

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Manley said: “The South Downs National Park is a new entity, so it is fitting that there is a new series of books to explain its natural and cultural characteristics. They are packed with new images, up-to-date research and information, and anyone reading them will find the park an even more exciting place to visit.”

While the national park, created just two years ago, is still in its infancy, the trilogy arrows backwards to ancient times, to the Cretaceous period 133 million years ago when the oldest rocks in the national park were formed, to the laying down of its chalk, to the uplifting of the land that created its distinctive dome shape and to human habitation from its first hunter-gatherers to today’s residents.

In his book, David Robinson, a Reader in Physical Geography at Sussex University and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, has brought the sheer scale of creation down to a human level.

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He explained: “While little may seem visibly to be changing, what are often considered exceptional events, associated with intense storms, exceptional rainfall or exceptionally cold weather with severe freeze-thaw activity can have dramatic newsworthy impacts.

“Within the park, large cliff falls, disruptive landslips, damaging river floods and severe soil erosion all occur several times in an average human life span - and this is a rapid frequency when considered on a geological landscape.

“All bear witness to the relatively rapid rate of continuing evolution of the landscape.”

He has exposed the raw materials that built some of Sussex’s buildings, the thin sandstone called ‘Horsham Stone’, one of the Weald Clays formed around 130 million years ago, and used to build the 12th century or early 13th century Wiggonholt Church near Pulborough.

Thin lines of limestone within the clay were used for chimney pieces in Petworth House and the font in the church at Parham Park.

Examples of the park’s geological evolution are on view.

You can see exposures of Upper Greensand, which is neither green nor sandy but instead a “pale white or dull grey calcareous siltstone known as malmstone”, in the road cutting opposite the popular Shepherd and Dog pub at Fulking, near Brighton, another near Cow Gap, west of Eastbourne, and in the footings of Amberley Castle near to a public footpath to the north of the castle.

The national park’s chalk is comprised of the remains of tiny planktonic algae that accumulated over more than 30 million years, between 100 and 65 million years ago.

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It’s fragile too – in 1999 between 100,000 and 150,000 cubic metres of chalk collapsed at Beachy Head.

The underlying rock formation of the national park dictates its over-ground features, with chalk hills having gently rounded tops, steep valley-side slopes, flat valleys and sharp scarps such as the one between Newtimber Hill and Poynings - the result of erosion caused when the chalk was exposed after the land rose up and folded.

While Robinson’s book gives a millennia-wide view of what lies beneath our feet in the national park, Manley’s Archaeology volume peoples it.

The earliest human activity in the national park was discovered at Boxgrove, near Chichester, where flint tools and animal bones place hunters and their families lived around 400,000 years ago.

But, as Manley, a former chief executive of Sussex Archaeological Society, has written: “People have lived, hunted, farmed, worshipped, gathered together and buried their dead in the area… for over 8,000 years… exploiting its natural resources and often leaving behind a legacy of their presence. “ People built special places where they could meet in larger gatherings than usual, swapping stories, continuing old rivalries, or finding partners. Places where they could joke, feast, gamble, compete and generally enjoy themselves.”

Among them was a causewayed camp at Whitehawk, where archaeological remains from 6,000 years ago show four concentric circles of chalk bank and ditch were constructed, with openings in each circle so people could negotiate their way through, almost like a maze, to a central meeting place.

They were built by some of the South Down’s first farmers, who began to ‘manage’ the landscape for cattle and sheep and to grow crops, as a hub for families to meet and for other farmers from afar to come to trade their cereals and livestock.

In the far more recent Iron Age, the hill forts dotted along the ridge chalk form were meeting places where people learnt” how to perform a proper sacrifice or how to address the Chief” but also to indulge in ”gossip, shows of affection, spiteful rumours, competitive trials of strength and fortune-telling”.

Cemeteries were important for people to hold ceremonies for their dead, one grave revealing the bodies of a man and a dog, both headless.

”Polite 1930s interpretation saw this as a man and hound punished for illicit hunting; the more explicit 1990s saw it as punishment for bestiality, ” Manley wrote.

Later the Romans would leave behind their fine residences such as the grand palace at Fishbourne and the villa at Bignor, and the Normans would build their strong, sturdy castles to protect their new territory, only for them to become obsolete by the 1600s.

While Manley digs deep into the national park’s foundations that were built by people, the third and final section of the triangle is filled in by Crane, who has produced films for the BBC Natural History Unit, and Williams in their book on its natural history.

Crane said: “The aim is to stimulate people’s interest in the wildlife and countryside of the park, not simply by highlighting some special plants and animals, but by giving a greater understanding of the evolution of wild places, the history of nature conservation and the management of habitats and species.”

The authors, who both have close links with the Sussex Wildlife Trust, said the park “has become a paradise for naturalists today” despite the human impact on the landscape and its wildlife and what they deem the”wildlife catastrophe” caused by modern farming methods.

The book is alive with photographs of the national park’s special species, among them the flower round-head rampion, otherwise known as Pride of Sussex, the stone curlew, a rare bird found in West Sussex, the chalkland butterfly Adonis Blue, and the wart-biter bush cricket, whose largest population is found at Castle Hill National Nature Reserve near Brighton.

It shows special meadows in Sussex abundant in the rest wild flowers, and woodlands on escarpments, such as the unique Rook Clift in West Sussex, on chalk dip slopes, such as West Dean Woods in West Sussex, and the wood common known as The Mens, near Fittleworth, an ancient forest so dense the Venerable Bede described it in AD 731 as “thick and impenetrable and the haunt of large herds of deer and swine”.

Ashdown Forest, with its fine heathland, was “verily the most villainously ugly spot I ever saw in England” for Cobbett in 1822.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t until later in the 1800s that naturalists began to realise how the country’s landscape and wildlife were under threat.

Modern campaigns to preserve the astonishing and unique diversity of wildlife in the national park were characterised in 1912 by Charles Rothschild, who founded the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, the first time naturalists concentrated on conserving habitats rather than specific species.

He identified Amberley Wild Brooks, Kingley Vale near Chichester, and the Lewes Downs as some of the UK’s finest wildlife sites.

His work kick-started the nation into taking a long hard look at how it managed and preserved its countryside, resulting in the creation of important conservation groups such as the RSPB and the UK’s 15 national parks, including the South Downs National Park, home to creatures such as damselflies, lizards, snakes, the Natterjack Toad, brown hares, deer, owls, Eurasian Wigeon that winter on Pulborough Brooks, even the occasional otter.

“The plant and animal populations within the South Downs National Park are in a constant state of flux, ” concluded the authors.

“Because the weather is becoming more unsettled the plants and animals of the national park face an increasingly uncertain future. Species are still disappearing at an alarming rate despite everything that is being done to protect their habitats and enhance their chances of survival.”

The Geology and Scenery of the South Downs National Park by David Robinson, priced £8.99 + £1.60 p&p; The Natural History of the South Downs National Park by Robin Crane and Rendel Williams, priced £11.99 + £2.80 p&p; The Archaeology of the South Downs National Park by John Manley, priced £8.99 + £1.60 p&p. All three titles are available for £25 + £2.80 p&p. They are all published by The Sussex Archaeological Society. Visit