The Freedom of the Downs

Happy Sheep on the Sussex Downs

We set out from the top of Chantry Hill at the back of Storrington. Walking to the west we looked down towards the coast the scene bathed in an almost Provençal light. The sea’s azure blue was like a bold brush stroke defining the space between the landscape and the sky.

And as we walked a Red Kite circled over a field of grazing, happy sheep. The wild flowers bordering the chalk path were abundant and alive with insects, birds and butterflies.

It is impressive how the Angering Park Estate has been proactive over many years in balancing the need to produce food with the needs of nature and conservation. They work at scale investing in technology whilst articulating long term stewardship of the land.

They work hard to achieve a balance between maintaining the fertility of the land and producing food for the nation, with close attention to the preservation of nature. They have become increasingly sophisticated in analysing the environment in their fields and in the nature corridors of woodland and hedgerows which they are continuing to create.

As we turned to the north we walked down into the Chantry Hill Cross Dyke. We were greeted by a view I have known all my life with Storrington beneath us and the Weald and North Downs beyond. The late Bronze Age/Iron Age dyke is easily distinguishable. It is thought that these dykes were territorial markers and for defensive purposes. It is located on a north eastern promontory on the ridge of the Downs.

Robin Lenharth cycling on the South Downs

As we returned to the path to the south of the dyke we heard the cheery ping of a bicycle bell. As we turned to see who was approaching we were greeted by the smiling face of my oldest friend Robin Lenharth. We stopped and chatted reflecting how daft we were on our bikes in our youth Cycling up the downland tracks, long before mountain bikes were invented, we would delight in the cool breeze on our faces as we descended at speed, especially during the heatwave of 1976. We weren’t time poor in those days. My Dad would come home from work and have time to help me spray a ‘new’ second-hand bike blue in the evenings. We had less when I was growing up but perhaps we had more. Today I am in awe of the athleticism of Robin and my brother Ben who together cycle across the downs and the county and think that 80 miles is a decent ride! The Sussex Downs bless us all with such freedom.

The Ancient Cissbury Ring

Cissbury Ring in West Sussex

After our sojourn in the Channel Islands last week I’ve been reflecting on the extraordinary wealth of Neolithic sites in Sussex. Cissbury Ring is the largest hillfort in Sussex and its history stretches back over 5000 years. It sits high up on a chalk promontory just to the north of the coastal town of Worthing and is enclosed by a ditch and ramparts which enfold some 65 acres.

On a good day the view stretches to the Isle of Wight in the west and the chalk cliffs beyond Brighton in the east.

Centuries of uninterrupted grazing over this land has allowed rare fauna, flora, butterflies, insects and birds to flourish; species like Pride of Sussex, a rare round-headed Rampion. The site today is home to herds of wild horses too. And in autumn migratory birds pause at Cissbury – one of the first coastal landing points.

Two Sussex-found early Neolithic flint axes, one detailed in black ink ‘Cissbury, Vineyard Hill 17/1/70’, the other ‘Cissbury South 1967’

Long before the construction of the hill fort Cissbury Hill was mined for flint during the Neolithic period. Radiocarbon dating of materials from all of Britain’s flint mines show that our county’s were the earliest in the country.

It is thought that these mines were dug using deer antlers as picks and ox shoulder blades as shovels. The hollows within the Ring show where the pits and shafts would have been and archaeological excavations have revealed struck flint flakes from the making of axe heads like the two illustrated which were discovered at Cissbury in 1967 and 1970. These early Neolithic flint axes recently sold at a Tooveys specialist antiquities auction.

Cissbury Ring appears to have been a ritual burial ground in the Bronze Age. The hillfort dates from the Iron Age and was built around 400 BC. It is thought that the fortifications would have defended the settlement for some 300 years. There are also signs of agriculture within the enclosure dating from around 100 BC.

Millenia later its defensive position was also employed during the Second World War with a number of gun emplacements

The Victorians pioneered archaeological investigation. George Irvine carried out the first dig in 1857 and was followed in 1867 and 1868 by Colonel Augustus Lane Fox – better known as Pitt Rivers, whose famous museum is at Oxford -together with the Reverend Canon William Greenwell. The 30 or so pits they excavated revealed flint axes, tools, bones, teeth, charcoal, shells, and fragments of Neolithic pottery.

Toovey’s antiquities specialist, Mark Stonard, is always delighted to discuss your special finds.

Punctuation Marks in our Busy Lives

Fred Hall – ‘Morning on the Downs’, oil on board, signed recto, titled verso, 32cm x 39.5cm

Like so many of us I am in the first few days of adapting to working from home separated from the people and busy cycle of my working life.

Toovey’s auction rooms are temporarily closed in line with government policy and the team safely furloughed. I have been overwhelmed by the number of hope filled notes and emails received from clients and friends, each expressing a spirit of generosity and good wishes. And I am embracing digital technology and images to enable virtual visits and valuations – at least for now.

As I adjust, temporarily, to this new rhythm of life I am aware of the blessings of family, self-discipline and time.

The rhythm of walking in the landscape stills me but I am aware that I need to be mindful of how I do this exercise if I am to honour those working in the NHS and do my bit to beat Coronavirus COVID-19.

In more normal times I love to walk on the Downs at the back of Storrington. This thought reminds me of a beautiful landscape by Fred Hall (1860-1948) titled ‘Morning on the Downs’ which we sold at Toovey’s for £1600. The painting captures a cool, spring light as the sheep graze on ancient chalk grassland filled with wild flowers. In the distance we glimpse the sea. It’s a scene we still recognize today.

Born at Stillington in Yorkshire, Fred Hall was a Newlyn artist whose realist paintings were later characterised by the lighter touch and impressionist treatment of his landscapes which you see here. Fred Hall left Newlyn in 1897 and married Agnes Dod. A year later they moved to Dorking in Surrey and the artist took a studio in West Kensington.

In an age of social media there is sometimes a temptation to look at, or worry about, what has passed whilst our eye is firmly set on the next thing. But it seems to me that the most beautiful things in life are often to be found in the here and now. The 17th century Jesuit Priest Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751) described it as the Sacrament of the Present Moment. If we dare to shut out the white noise of our lives and seek to be truly present, to still ourselves and be attentive, these blessings reveal themselves.

Whilst I am missing that walk on the Downs we are so lucky that the streets and lanes of our towns, villages and the adjoining countryside in West Sussex are filled with blossom and spring flowers to lift our spirits.

For me the rhythm of prayer, walking and music brings me stillness and silence and allows me to be truly present. Whilst there will be challenges for us all I hope that, like me, you will be able to find punctuation marks in your lives to reflect on the blessings in each day.

Art and Lanscape Shaped by Farming

Frank Wootton’s oil on canvas ‘Chanctonbury Ring, Sussex, MkII’

The South Downs have for centuries been shaped by farming. Today the ancient chalk grasslands are once again returning to the steep downland slopes. In the valleys and open fields mixed farming ensures that the fertility of the soil is improved and maintained by the under planting of cereal crops with rich clovers and grass grazed by sheep and cattle. Some of the most balanced and sustainable farming practice in the country is to be found between the South Downs and Horsham.

The oil painting titled ‘Chanctonbury Ring, Sussex’ by the Sussex artist Frank Wooton. OBE (1911-1998) depicts a rural idyll with farmstead and grazing cattle beneath the Sussex Downs. It remains one of my favourite paintings to be sold at Toovey’s in recent years and realised £2400. The tone and palette lend this familiar scene a wonderful luminance. It is this quality of landscape which speaks into the very identity of our nation.

Frank Wootton studied at The Eastbourne College of Art under Eric Ravilious and Arthur Reeves-Fowkes. Whilst his landscapes and equestrian scenes are celebrated Wootton is perhaps most famous for his aeronautical paintings. Wootton would serve as a war artist to the RAF and even before this appointment he was painting the Battle of Britain at Biggin Hill.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries many of Britain’s leading artists were inspired to leave London, our towns and cities for the country. For some it was to escape the effects of the industrial revolution and for others the wars.

And here’s the thing, that sense of the rural idyll remains alive in popular culture and the public’s imagination. In contrast those living in our increasingly urbanised society have become more and more removed from the reality of country life and farming which is why the work of the West Grinstead & District Ploughing Match & Agricultural Society has never been more important. It brings the farming community together, promoting best practice and educating the public. The overwhelming majority of the farmers here in Sussex work constantly to achieve a balance between maintaining the fertility of the land, producing food in a sustainable way for the nation with close attention to the preservation of nature.

Our farmer’s continue to steward the landscapes which have inspired artists and musicians over the centuries and never more so than in Sussex in the 20th century. In our hearts and minds the countryside with its generous communities connected with the seasons and the abundance of the land have provided hope against the back drop and grind of urbanisation and industrialization.
I think this is why landscape paintings continue to speak to us so strongly and remain in such demand.

Toovey’s Director and specialist, Nicholas Toovey, is preparing his next curated auction of fine art which will be held on 4th December 2019 and entries are still being invited. Nicholas is always delighted to share his passion for paintings with others and offer advice. He can be contacted on 01903 891955.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

Angmering Park Estate

Angmering Park Estate from the Downs behind Storrington

The view as you look towards the sea from the Downs at the back of Storrington is remarkable. It is this quality of landscape which speaks into the very identity of our nation.

This land is stewarded by the forward looking Angmering Park Estate team who have just received two awards from the West Grinstead & District Ploughing Match & Agricultural Society for “2019 Best Farm over 500 Acres”, and “2019 Best Farm for Conservation”.

I have enormous respect for the work of Nigel Draffan, the Savills Resident Managing Agent, who has managed the estate for many years.
I ask Nigel about his views on the current debates about farming. He says “Since the war farmers have been encouraged by the government to increase yields which have almost doubled since the 1970s and this has led to a perception that food will always be plentiful with little discussion of the carbon footprint of importing food to this country.”

Nigel Draffan on the Angmering Park Estate with Dominic Gardner

Nigel explains that at Angmering Park they are working constantly to achieve a balance between maintaining the fertility of the land and producing food with close attention to the preservation of nature. He says “We have become increasingly sophisticated in analysing the environment in our fields and in the nature corridors of woodland and hedgerows which we are continuing to create.”

This becomes immediately apparent when we drive up into the estate where we meet with the farm manager Dominic Gardner. Nigel says “With the aid of GPS we can analyse where there are natural deficiencies in the soil or other problems in a part of the field. Rather than applying a blanket application of nitrogen phosphates and potash, or herbicides and pesticides to the whole estate we can be much more targeted only spraying the areas within fields that need it.” Dominic adds “We use satellite navigation which we plug into the tractor’s computer. It’s only a matter of time before the computer will be able to turn just a few nozzles on for just five yards. The spraying will become even more topical which is so important for insect life, birds and nature to flourish.”

At Angmering Park Dominic has combined minimum tillage methods with areas specifically put aside to increase worms and their activity. A rotation of grazing sheep preserves and enhances the fertility of the soil. There are positive economic consequences as well as environmental ones to reducing the use of agro-chemicals to where they are really needed as they are very expensive.
As we drive back Nigel explains “We produce food for the nation on the productive land but as you go up the higher slopes we leave it to grass, grazing sheep amongst a patchwork of forestry. And if you can’t farm it sustainably and commercially give it to nature.” Both Nigel and Dominic are keen to stress the importance of being profitable and operating from a strong base as it enables the levels of investment necessary for long-term balanced stewardship producing food whilst working with and being attentive to nature.
Central to the maintenance of the natural landscape are the resources provided by seasonal ethical shooting.

They have reversed the decline in natural flora and fauna with the return of rare species like Turtle Doves and native fritillaries whilst remaining profitable and productive.

I ask Nigel what word he would like to be used to describe the future of farming in the UK and he replies “Balance. If you look at a farm map of the UK we should be farming in a balanced and sustainable way all grade 1, 2 and the best of 3 land – and there is an argument that poor [grade] 3 or 4 land could revert to wilding.”
There is a diversity of approach at Angmering Park which balances our need for food production with the needs of the land and nature. Their long-term stewardship deserves our thanks.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.