The unending mounds of the South Downs have, over centuries, absorbed the traditions and customs of the local people. James Turner explores the undulating forms of the Downs, hills that are guarded by the form of a giant: Wilmington’s ‘Long Man’.

Buried under grassy knolls and hidden by overgrown thickets, ‘sites where memory can no longer be directly accessed are such enigmatic places’(1). Held within these places, where the origin and understanding of human behaviour has been lost, is a profound sense of myth. An intangible and ethereal presence is carried by the wind.

James Turner, of the SOAR Race Team, traverses the South Downs with a deep understanding of its distance. Turner is the record holder for the South Downs Way 50k race and has also been part of a record-breaking Brighton AC team that ran up, along, over and around the Way in under 10 hours. His training leads him to the trails almost daily, as the Downs provide comfort underfoot, something not afforded by the unrelenting firm of road running.

A 100-mile network of old droveways, chalk paths and modern roads connects Winchester, Hampshire and Eastbourne, East Sussex. The South Downs is Britain’s newest national park and its ‘Way’ is one of our most well-trodden long-distance walking paths. Much of its course cuts through farmland, where the walker is resigned to a narrow corridor of delineated pathways. The ‘Right to Roam’, the freedom to wander in open countryside, is nonexistent here, activists have fought landowners for greater access.

Before the start of the Second World War it had been possible to walk from Hampshire to Beachy Head ‘over pathless, buoyant turf’. The Downs was, at one time, densely wooded, though the need for agricultural land led to the felling of its cover over 3,000 years ago. The exposed grassland of today serves as grazing pasture for sheep and cattle, punctuated by the occasional copse, of which Chanctonbury Ring is most famous.

The 50-mile section between Arundel and Eastbourne, where Chanctonbury Ring is found and the Downs are at their most impressive, served as inspiration for the likes of Elgar, Kipling and Ravilious. The hills to the east appear as waves from the channel, rolling northwards and all-consuming. The summit of the ‘bow-headed, whale-backed downs’, as recounted by Kipling, is interrupted only by the thrum of car traffic and the occasional dual-carriageway upon which they speed, or the course of a river, whether it be Adur, Arun or Ouse. This landscape, it’s clear, has had a profound effect on the mind and behaviour of its people.

Chanctonbury Ring, a prehistoric hill fort, has a well-documented history. It’s speculated that, because of the site’s imposing and windswept position, it was used only for religious ceremonies and sacrificial offerings. A steep ledge overlooking the weald to the north and gradual slope towards the sea to the south, archaeologists found the fragmented remains of multiple Roman temples. Analysis of pottery and other wares found at the site suggests that it was in constant use for over 350 years.The recession of the Romans led to the site being left to waste. It sat unoccupied, degraded and then, reclaimed by the earth.

Chanctonbury Ring sits on the estate of Wiston House, a Grade I listed manor house, whose one-time owner Charles Goring is said to be responsible for the copse of trees that makes the site one of the Downs’ most identifiable landmarks.

Its long history, as a place of spirituality, has contributed to a fearful and ghostly reputation today. One that has been added to by modern practitioners of the occult. To meander through the ring, with its narrow beech trunks, is to walk on well-trodden, consecrated ground. Voices can be heard whistling through leaves; seven anti-clockwise laps of the ring shall summon the devil.

The Sussex Downs once represented an insurmountable, and physical, barrier to the all-consuming progress of Christianity, where pagan tradition was maintained. A land whose people outwitted the devil, whose hills conceal the graves of giants. Most prominent of all, The Long Man of Wilmington is a colossus.

His white outline has, since 1874, been defined by white brick rather than chalk, as was the case in the preceding years. In this period, the exact dates of which continue to be contested, the Long Man would be cut from the turf to expose his form, before once again becoming overgrown with time. His resting place on the northern facing slope of Windover Hill, where he sits camouflaged by the frost, is also the area he once inhabited. The Long Man lies here, felled by an opposing giant that occupied the hills of neighbouring Firle, crushed by the weight of a boulder tossed in his direction.

The Long Man, with his two staffs clasped in hand, could have been a pilgrim or traveller; a person of significant stature that navigated the Downs at unfathomable speed and with divine omniscience. His story serves as inspiration for the modern traveller; a person who studies the landscape to comprehend, employing what is learnt on race day.

James ascends the scarp footslopes with ease, unperturbed by the patches of ice that make the steep climb to the summit of Windover Hill treacherous. Standing on the shoulders of a giant, he looks out over the Weald and Kent beyond. Before long, he begins his descent, each footstep placed with precision as he enters the shadowy realm within which the giant lies, dormant.


In their own words, “SOAR Running design and produce running apparel that does justice to the commitment and passion of runners globally”.

Their wares are manufactured for function; the rigours of the run, whether on road or in the depths of our wilds; accounting for the ‘real-world experiences of runners’ by providing ‘pioneering design technology’ in some of the best-looking kit in sport.

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Bibliography: (1) Overall, S. 2016. Walking Backwards: Psychogeographical Approaches to Heritage.


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