Stranger, enjoy the sweet enchanting scene, The pleasing landscape, and the velvet green;
Yet tho’ the eye delighted rove, Think on better scenes above!
by John Oliver
On a recent Sunday, I went in search of legend, folklore, some fresh air and a gentle stroll. And I found them all at Highdown Hill near Worthing.
You get to Highdown Hill by car by way of Highdown Rise, a turning off the A259 / Littlehampton Road, just north of Ferring. It’s well signed and a little intriguing as you pass through a line of trees that seem to herald your arrival. There’s parking at the bottom but if you drive up the lane, you pass the striking Highdown – a pub, restaurant, and tea room built in 1820 (and ever so slightly reminiscent of the Scottish highlands) and find public parking just around the corner. You’ll also see Highdown Gardens just above the tea rooms and more of them anon.
You can also access the hill by a number of footpaths, either up from Littlehampton Road, down from the A27 or across from West Durrington. There is also a 2 km Worthing Heritage Trail that includes Highdown or alternatively, you might just want to meander about up here, soaking up its unique vantage point. In fact, many years ago, I galloped a horse all the way up to the top, but you can’t do that anymore.
The South Downs and National Trust
Highdown Hill is within the South Downs National Park and has been owned by the National Trust since 1938. It’s a hilly area of chalky grassland that is of significant archaeological interest. Evidence of Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman and Anglo Saxon occupation has been found and in particular, it’s known for being an Iron Age hill fort and Saxon burial ground.
The ditch and embankment area were first dug out and formed in the late Bronze Age and slightly more recently, 86 human burials (with spears, shields, jewellery and other items) were discovered here and dated to the fifth century, making Highdown one of the largest early Saxon cemeteries in the country. In 1937 a Roman bathhouse was also discovered on the western slope and there’s more information and some of the finds themselves in nearby Worthing Museum.
Highdown is also an area that is particularly rich in plant life and has some fantastic views. On a clear day, Cissbury Ring is easy to spot and according to the information board, Lancing Ring can also be seen (although I didn’t know Lancing had its own ring and I couldn’t make it out). But you can definitely see the sea, Sussex (for miles around) and if you look carefully, High Salvington Windmill. If you’re walking here, build it into a longer circular route, or just walk around or across it for a leisurely Sunday stroll. You can’t miss the clump of trees at the top but look out for the chalky escarpment (fenced off for safety).
Smuggling and tombstones
Across Sussex, you’ll find a number of intriguing tombstones and one of them is right here just at the entrance to the National Trust enclosure. John Oliver (also spelt Olliver) was a miller who lived from 1709 to 1793 and rumours about him abound. It’s thought he may have worked for the Customs Service when he was young. What is certainly known is that he had his own tomb built nearly 30 years before he died and allegedly climbed up to this hilly spot daily to take in the views. His windmill was nearby and legend also has it that he hid smuggling contraband in his tomb and used the sails of his windmill to send signals to smugglers (both were common practices amongst smugglers in those days). Jacqueline Simpson (author of Folklore of Sussex) was even told during her research that the tomb’s inscriptions were actually a code revealing the whereabouts of treasure.
When he died, apparently his coffin was painted white and carried by eight ladies in white robes, while over 2,000 flamboyantly dressed people turned up to watch! A 12 year old girl is supposed to have read the funeral lesson written by Oliver himself and he’d left money for food and drink for his mourners. Apparently, the after-party got pretty wild!
Yet another legend has it that a millstone from his windmill rolled down the hill and is the reason a nearby farm was called Roundstone. The windmill was blown down in a storm in 1826 and never rebuilt. You can’t miss the tombstone (as well a tree stump carved into the shape of a large chair) although the engraving has faded and was subject to vandalism some years ago. It was however nice to see flowers left on the tomb and if you know what you’re looking for you might just be able to make out the words Oliver himself wrote namely,
Why start you at that skeleton?
‘Tis your own picture that you shun:
Alive it did Resemble thee,
And thou when Dead like that Shall be
I did not put to the test the old wives’ tale that if you run around the tomb seven times, Oliver himself will jump out and chase you off. Next time maybe.
Midsummer on Highdown
On the day of my visit, Highdown was mystical, wrapped as it was in scarves of mist which completely covered the surrounding countryside only occasionally revealing tantalising glimpses of blue sky and panoramic views. I’d been there sometime when the mist suddenly completely lifted revealing almost 360-degree views and the true magic of this spot.
So it was no surprise that a Midsummer bonfire was still being lit here as late as the 1830s and it’s equally no surprise that the Sompting Village Morris Dancers have chosen this spot to dance and light a symbolic bonfire on the eve of the Summer Solstice. Highdown has its own unique spiritual presence.
Gardens, tea, coffee and wine
Highdown Gardens lie in a former chalk pit just below the hill. They are free to visit and are quite lovely. Apart from the Highdown tea rooms (just below the gardens), you may also find the Sur La Mer mobile coffee shop which brings with it pastries, cold drinks, and some outside seating to boot. Or you may want to head back down to the main road, and visit Highdown Vineyard whose vines grow on the southern slope of the hill.