Our earliest ancestors
“The Long Man of Wilmington looks naked towards the shires” wrote Kipling of the enigmatic hill figure on the Downs. In the area around the Long Man are many monuments to our early, pre-Roman ancestors – their homes, fields, temples and burial places. Many of these can be seen (if not always understood) from this walk of outstanding views.
LENGTH – 12 miles
TIME – 6.5 hours
START – Friston Church, Crowlink Lane, Friston, Eastbourne, BN20 0AU (O.S. Explorer 16 – NGR 552982)
PARKING – Crowlink National Trust car park, Friston Lane to side of church off A259. (BN20 0BA). Pay and display.
TOILETS – No public toilets available.
REFRESHMENTS – Pubs at East Dean (½ mile off route), Jevington, Wilmington.
CAUTION – This walk includes two crossings of the A259 road.
This walk contains stiles.
How did our ancestors obtain drinking water on the waterless Downs? The pond adjacent to the church provides the answer. This was once a “dew pond” – its bottom lined with successive layers of clay and straw endlessly trampled (often by herding cattle around in circles) to form a waterproof lining. This then trapped rainwater and dew (by condensation) to form a pond. Friston pond has recently been restored
Combe Hill illustrates a site of continuing importance to our ancestors over thousands of years. Around the top of the hill, two rings of interrupted banks and ditches form a “causewayed camp”, which was constructed around 3000BC by Neolithic people equipped only with animal bones, antler picks and wood spades to make what? It cannot be defensive as the banks are not continuous. A space for use as a temple or an arena/trading area seem the most likely uses. Guarding each end of the approach to the hilltop are the spirits of the Bronze Age people, buried perhaps 800 years later, clutching their possessions and facing the sunrise under what is now a grassy mound but which was once a gleaming white, chalk barrow. Causewayed camps are rare in Sussex, so the recent discovery of another, single-ringed example (albeit damaged by later activities), only ½ mile away under what is now Butts Brow car park, provides a new mystery to ponder.
Ploughing in pre-Roman Sussex was a tiring activity. The primitive ploughs had to be used twice – up and down then across and back over the same piece of land to break the soil. The resulting square fields gradually became terraced into the hillside separated by banks of soil called lynchetts. On the steeper parts of the Downs these have been preserved by the absence of later ploughing, with a very fine example clearly visible on the descent to Jevington and other examples appearing throughout this walk as seasonal soil marks after modern ploughing.
Whilst Jevington Church post-dates the theme of this walk, the re-use of Roman bricks to form the heads of some of the arches in the tower, gives firm evidence for the presence of a substantial Roman building nearby. Inside the church, a stone tablet shows a figure of Christ thrusting a sword into twin beasts of evil at his feet, which may represent the triumph of Christianity over the nearby pagan sites.
Approaching Wilmington, a glance to the South Downs reveals various mounds silhouetted on the top of the hills. On both Windover and Wilmington Hills are Neolithic long barrows dating from around 3500BC. The former is some 220 feet (68 metres) long and about 40 feet (12 metres) wide. Based on excavated examples elsewhere, a wooden chamber may have occupied a fraction of this huge length at one end. This was used to contain bones of selected people from the area, which may have occasionally been removed from the chamber and used for ancestor worship. The barrows are “false-crested” on the edge of the steep slope, not the crest of the hill, so they can see and be seen from below.
The enigmatic Long Man of Wilmington attracts many theories but provides little evidence to back them up. Now outlined in stone, he was formerly carved in the chalk of the hill. His first definite mention was as late as 1710, but the monument was old then. Various early origins have been suggested such as a commemoration of the Saxon conquest of Pevensey, a Roman god (based on figures on many coins) or even a Neolithic god opening the gates of dawn. However, the most recent excavations suggest a more recent early 16th century date.
At the top of Windover Hill the footpath winds through the filled in pits and waste heaps of the oldest industry in Sussex. Here the Neolithic people dug deep shafts with bone and antler picks and wood shovels to prise from the earth the precious, unweathered flint they needed for their tools. As each shaft was dug, the material was used to backfill the worked-out one adjacent. The flint was used to provide a range of practical tools such as axes, knives and scrapers or polished with sand to produce gifts for trading.
The South Downs Way, which this part of the walk follows, is one of the oldest routes in the country and probably dates back to Neolithic times. Goods, especially fine polished axes of various types of stone, were traded around the country by routes which favoured the dry and relatively vegetation-free downland over the wetter routes below.
Approaching Lullington Heath, two heavily eroded monuments can just be glimpsed to the west alongside another fine dew pond – Winchester’s Pond. The older is one of the Bronze Age round barrows found all over the Downs. Rejecting the communal burials in long barrows of their Neolithic ancestors, the Bronze Age people of around 2000BC, constructed round mounds over single people, usually buried as if asleep, curled up on their side, facing the sunrise and often clutching their possessions. The more “recent” monument is an Iron Age cross dyke of around 500 BC and consisting of a single bank and ditch running up and over the hill top. This may represent a territorial marker reflecting a rising population and greater competition for land.
Whilst we have taken reasonable endeavours to ensure the information is up to date and correct, you will be using the information strictly at your own risk. If you come across any inaccuracies whilst you are on your walk, please contact Wealden District Council’s Community and Regeneration team.
The self-guided walk descriptions are provided to help you navigate your way, however we recommend that you plan your route prior to walking the route and that you carry an Ordnance Survey map of the area being walked and follow your position on the map as you proceed.
Please note, we cannot be responsible for the conditions of the footpaths and land and you are responsible for your own safety.