Devil's Dyke, South Downs

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A ‘legendary beauty spot’ with views over Brighton to the south and the villages of East Sussex to the north. Devil’s Dyke is part of the South Downs Way; a trail that has run adjacent to the Dyke for over 2000 years.

The undulating walkway has been well trodden, dating back to our Stone Age ancestry. The panoramic views offering security for primitive settlements. By the dawning of the Bronze Age, the area had become a hub, awash with homes, flint mines and animal enclosures. As civilisation developed, improved technologies allowed people to build sophisticated shelters. An Iron Age fortress, the remains of which can be seen today, is evidence of our ancestral progression. The Anglo-Saxon’s coined the term ‘dyke’ to describe a manipulation of earth. A movement of ground to bolster defenses and repel enemy invasion. The Devil’s Dyke of East Sussex is a natural valley that offered significant resistance. The settlers abandoned the dyke in favour of congregations in the lower river valley and coastal plain.

The early inhabitants of the dyke were remote, isolated from the remainder of the country. Forests and marshland were natural barricades for those within the weald of Sussex. This contributed to a mentality that persists in people of the region today. The isolation from the rest of the nation established a unique spirit. Historically, the region has exercised independent thought. When Christianity swept throughout the enclaves of Britain, it received an inhospitable welcome in Sussex. The Saxons, with their pagan culture, opposed the spread of Christianity in the 5th century.

Pagan lineage gave the dyke its devilish moniker. A prophecy declared that the steep valley was the work of the devil. It had been digging a trench that would cause the Weald of Sussex to flood; a slow acceptance of Christianity had invited the mischievous demon. In the devil's bid to purge Sussex of the church, he devised a wager with the people. Saint Cuthman of Steyning was a hermit and church builder from the 8th century. He was a proponent of Christianity in Sussex; the reserved man challenged the devil. In their wager, the devil claimed that he would flood the valley by sunrise. The Christians of Sussex would be drowned by the devil’s handiwork. Cuthman devised a plan to deceive the devil. As he dug his channel into the night, the apostle shone a candle onto the horizon. The beacon of light mimicked the rising sun; a weary devil, exhausted from his digging, believed morning to have come. The mounds of dirt he disturbed created the hills of the South Downs way. He flung a final mound into the sea, creating the Isle of Wight.

The Dyke’s formation, if we expel the myths of hermits and devils, is due to river erosion that took place over 14,000 years ago. The snow capped chalk hills of the South Downs were permanently frozen. In summer, the subsequent thaw would melt the layers of snow and ice. Sediment was removed, carving out the Dyke into a formation that is recognisable today.

In the 19th century, the Dyke became an important tourist attraction. A fairground, bandstands, observatory and camera obscura were built; Devil’s Dyke attracted fairgoers and thrillseekers who would revel on the attractions whilst overlooking Brighton. An interest had been established in the 18th century, when King George II had sought to have the south coast surveyed. Brighton was an escape from London, and the Dyke provided an escape from the prior. Its natural beauty was unspoiled after centuries of human interaction; the Victorian tourism industry encouraged travel to the summit. A small hut was owned by William Thacker, where refreshments were served. He hoped to attract more tourists with his sale of food and drink. It was the creation of the London to Brighton railway in 1840 that bolstered tourism to Devil’s Dyke. A railway was laid from Brighton to the Dyke in 1887, making tourism a thriving local economy for the Sussex Weald.

The railway had been planned from as early as 1872, but the first schemes were strongly opposed by landowners. When the first journey was undertaken 15 years later, the railway chairman invited an artillery band to play to the swathes of shareholders. Rail travel made journeying to Devil’s Dyke flexible and feasible.

The Victorian interest in Devil’s Dyke had been long standing. It was the creation of the railway that enabled the entrepreneur Mr H.J.Hubbard to purchase the Dyke Estate in 1892. In the years before the short railway journey, it had taken visitors over an hour to reach the summit; pulled by horse and carriage, along roads that were insufficient made for an uncomfortable ride. Hubbard conceived a plan to transform the Dyke into an adventure playground. His fairground rides attracted thousands. His fairground was an overwhelming success, due in part to the feats of Victorian engineering that climbed the steep banks of the Downs. A funicular railway clung to the hill, allowing visitors to descend into the village of Poynings for a Sussex Tea. The manufacture of Britain’s first aerial cable car in 1894, a further enhancement of the far reaching views, was a further incentive for tourists to visit.

A postcard from the 1980s, depicting the popular view over Poynings, from atop Devil's Dyke

After the turn of the century, the fairground’s popularity diminished. The steep grade railway and aerial cable car were closed by 1909; a new generation of tourists grew weary of visiting the Dyke. Rail journeys continued, the service sustained by golfers who played at the local course.

The First World War would have ceased such activities; Devil’s Dyke was requisitioned by the government in 1918. They established a munitions manufacture and testing facility, the geography of the steep valley allowing bombs to be dropped from sufficient height. Where the pylons of the cable car had once provided joy, now stood pylons dropping arms intent on killing. Now demolished, the foundations of a bomb house are a further human scar upon the landscape. Few bombs were ever tested, as WWI came to an abrupt end; building of the test facility was completed days before the Armistice. The Dyke’s wartime significance extended to those fighting abroad. Homesick soldiers fondly recounted the chalk cliffs of the South Downs, calling the dangerous beach landing sites of Gallipoli, Devil’s Dyke.

Throughout this period, trains continued to serve the Dyke and neighbouring golf course. It ran for over 51 years, closure occurred before the start of 1939. Roads had improved, and the Dyke could be visited via public and private transport. The service concluded as it had begun, passengers waved flags and a band played music. Those onboard sang, as members of the public affectionately watched on. The round trip was concluded within an hour and it signified a ‘journey’s end’.

A lack of tourism led to the Downs being reclaimed for farming. Peacetime between 1918 and 1939 was a tranquil time for the sheep farmers of East Sussex. Their flocks would roam the hills with little human disturbance; Saddlescombe Farm ewes were over 300 in number. The proclamation of the Second World War forced the government into repossessing the land for military usage. Subsequently, the flock moved along the Downs toward Eastbourne and never returned. By 1942, the 1st Canadian Army had taken control of the Devil’s Dyke hotel as their headquarters. Though an ally, the periphery surrounding the Dyke was rigorously policed. Military secrecy was upheld at all times, with the Canadian forces replacing fences with barbed wire entanglements and frequent military checkpoints. In their training for the liberation of Europe, the Canadian troops altered the landscape of Devil’s Dyke considerably. Unexploded munitions were littered in the valley and fox hole entrenchments were never filled.

Devil’s Dyke is once again a place of leisure, much like in the Victorian era. This portion of the South Downs Way attracts thousands of walkers and sightseers, who journey to the Dyke to enjoy the unspoiled views of the Sussex Weald.