The Long History of Highdown

The Long History of Highdown                                                                  by Ed Miller

Highdown is is an outstanding local landscape feature with a nationally-important Ancient Monument at the hill top. Originally seabed, as can be seen from the chalk just below the surface, it was part of the great arch of soft rocks stretching from northern France to north Kent created by the same folding that produced the Alps some 70 million years ago. Erosion wore away the top of the arch and the rise in sea level created the English Channel and a ‘raised beach’ from Winchester to Brighton, with cliffs behind.  Highdown is one of those cliffs – easy to imagine today when looking south from the top, across the coastal plain to the sea which has retreated a good mile since those days.

Its archaeology has not been fully explored but Stone-age tools (worked flints) were found on the lower slopes, near the top end of Hangleton Lane back in the 1920s, indicating a settlement of some kind 12,000 years ago, and the earthworks and some excavations at the top of the hill show that it was definitely settled in Bronze-age times (about 4,000 years ago) and that the Bronze-age enclosure was turned into a hill fort during the Iron Age (about 3,000 years ago). There is ony slight evidence of Roman occupation on the hill top but on the south-western slopes, just over the Ferring-Angmering boundary a Roman bath-house was excavated in 1937 and this could not have been an isolated feature.

But Highdown is best known for its Saxon Cemetery, dating from around 500 AD. Edwin Henty’s workmen, planting trees on the top of the hill in 1892 came across bones and grave goods, and Henty called in the archaeologist Charles Hercules Read, who excavated the whole site. He found 86 graves, some with very long femurs, and swords and other weapons. This, and the absence of any remains of Saxon buildings, suggested that it was the cemetery of a band of tall warlike men (but also women and children). The men may have been mercenaries, hired to fight against later invaders but some were of high status (a fine glass goblet made in Egypt in 400 AD was found in one grave). Later excavations, in 1936-39  showed the total number of graves was over 100.  It may well be that these Saxons settled on the coastal plain, and were the ‘Ferra’ clan who gave their name to Ferring, as the land was known in 765 when the first St Andrew’s Church was built, and the hilltop graveyard had gone out of use.

A certain military use was resumed in the late-1580s, when beacons were stationed at the top of the hill to pass on the warning of an expected invasion by the Spanish, The watchmen were to receive the signal from beacons on the beach at the end of what is now Sea Lane, and pass it on to beacons on Chanctonbury Ring and onward to London. Another ‘early warning system’ was installed in 1941 – a radar station to detect German naval vessels and low-flying aircraft.  It was defended by machine guns, concrete and barbed wire, and when it was removed in 1947 the archaeologists of 1939 were invited back to see what might be revealed in the digging up of the foundations. No significant Saxon remains were found but more light was shed on the construction of the Bronze-age earthworks and their modification by the Iron-age warriors, the Saxon cemetery-makers and,of course, the 1941 military.

The hilltop was also known for its windmill, one the earliest built in Sussex.  A charter of the  1190s reads, ‘I, Seffrid II Bishop of Chichester, have granted to Thomas de Ferring for his service to the Church of Chichester and myself the windmill at Ecclesdon Down which I made at my own costs, with 2 acres Scortecroft, on the north next to the road that belongs to the mill, also the breadth of an acre all round outside the outer end of the beam by which the mill is turned round, and for all who wish to do suit to the mill or go there for any other business, a right of way to the mill from every part of the town’. Note that the hill was not known as ‘Highdown’ at this time, and in the 14th Century was known as ‘Greendown’, which suggests that the southern slopes, at least, were always sheep pasture, as they remained into the early 20th Century,

The mill was a ‘post’ mill, a rotary frame hanging from a central post, with a beam at ground level enabling it to be turned to the wind, and although blown down several times in the Middle Ages, its replacements, all post mills, were working right up to the early 19th Century. It stood in the south-west corner of the old earthworks, at the highest point of the hill, 268ft above sea level. (The trigonometry pillar was on this spot but had been moved some 15 metres to the north by 1960)

The miller had a cottage and a croft of land a few hundred yards away on the Ferring-Goring boundary. Millers were often regarded as shady characters (Chaucer described the one in The Canterbury Tales as ‘a corn-stealer, who might charge three times the right fee’) and several Ferring millers were fined by the manor court for excessive charges.  One of the last millers was  said to be in league with the smugglers, setting his sails to warn of  Excise patrols and hiding contraband in his cottage.

This was John Olliver. He married Ann Tidy in 1736 and they lived in a new cottage at the top of Hangleton Lane (still there) with a smallholding, and then in what is now Holly Cottage in Church Lane. They had made some alterations to the old cottage and put a plaque above the door (still there today)  reading ‘JAO 1759’. She died in 1765 and he next appears in the Land Tax records in 1780 (and through to 1792) as the tenant of Highdown Mill. The miller’s cottage was just across the parish boundary. He lived there until his death in 1793, in preparation for which he kept a coffin under his bed and built himself an altar tomb, between his cottage and the mill, inscribed with lugubrious verses, some of which are still legible. He also had a summerhouse, near the tomb, ‘painted, with emblems of Death’, where he would sit and contemplate his mortality.

He left the mill to his nephews, who kept it going for some years but pulled it down in 1827 and auctioned off the components.  A new mill, half a mile to the west, in Angmering parish had been built the previous year and took over its trade. This was a tower mill, in which only the ‘cap’ rotates to catch the wind.  The tower of Ecclesdon Mill  still stands but the sails were removed many years ago.

Highdown, like most of Ferring, was part of the Henty estate, and was put up for auction with the rest of north Ferring in 1930. It was bought by a Scotsman who wanted to make it into a golf course but the following year he put it up for auction Days before the auction the hilltop was designated an Ancient Monument, and no one wanted to buy it. a few years later a developer applied to build houses on it but his applications were refused. In the end (October 1937) the hilltop and upper slopes were purchased jointly by Worthing Rural District Council, Worthing Borough Council and West Sussex County Council and gifted to the National Trust, in whose custody it remains, so that future generations can enjoy it as much as we do today.