“A thousand charms now open on the view,
O’er which enchanted roves the wanderer’s eye
With ever-fresh delight. In stainless, blue
Immensity above extends the sky : —
Below, in richest harmony, each dye
Of varied green is blended to adorn
This solitary vale, that seems to lie
Lovely as Eden on Creation’s morn,
Ere nature knew decay — ere pain and grief were born”
Some pretty long-standing memories have been forged upon the South Downs of England. Some meaningful, some not, some spiritual, some filled with laughter, others with tears, some with sheer terror, others with joy, and one particular night’s happenings (when but a delicate 16 year old) will forever be engraved in my mind, and burned onto my retinas. It is a place very close to my heart. A place where I feel instantly at home.
From it’s iconic, and dramatic chalky white cliffs on the East Sussex coast, to the beautiful and evocative western Weald of Hampshire and West Sussex. I must say I think I had, possibly, one of the best pints of real ale at the ‘The Shepherd & Dog’, just outside the village of Fulking (not far from the Devil’s Dyke), that I have ever had in my life. That may have something to do with the fatigue and weariness from trekking across the Downs from Sun rise to Sun set. There is nothing like a great pint or two, over some pub grub and deep belly laughs, to really put the spring back in your step after a long, exhausting, but exhilarating day.
The historic village of Slindon on the Southern slopes of the South Downs, the towns of Arundel, Lewes, Winchester, and Chichester, the stretch of the Seven Sisters of the Eastern coast, the impressive Blackdown, and the Chanctonbury Hill & dew pond; are all places that have a firm hold on my heart and soul. Local legend has it that the Devil himself created the Chanctonbury Ring, and that one may summon him by running around the clump of trees seven times anti-clockwise; which links in with the place I’m going to be talking about today.
North-west of Chichester there is an ancient, magnificently dark and somber, Yew forest covering two hundred acres within a narrow coombe. The bark of the oldest trees takes on a molten-like look. Very anthropomorphic. The forms of the faces, arms and hands, parts and pieces of those who have been laid to rest beneath the shelter of their poisonous branches, can be seen in their knarled, twisting trunks. Newer trees wrap around the dead Yew inside; writhing and entangling around the original, until they are no longer distinguished as different trees, but one. Growing and dying, and living again. Together. Over and Over.
This place is hushed. An eerie silence and dimness enfold you as you walk between these ancient trees. Even on a bright sunny day, the thick canopy blocks out the Sun; dappled light hits the damp floor, died red by fallen berries. On a hot day the vapours rise from the trees, and an altered state is imminent. The toxins within the Yew are released in the heat, and if you sit meditating in this grove on such a day they can bring forth some pretty in-depth trance states; due to the mild narcotic and hallucinogenic effects these vapours produce. I take moment here to warn of the extent of the poison of this tree. Even meditating on hot days, at length, can induce an overdose. So, it’s always handy to have someone with experience to watch over you, just in case, but with care it’s a very useful and powerful place for a seer to meditate.
It’s easy to get lost within the Kingley Vale forest, even without the hallucinogenic effects. The trees arn’t where you remember them to be, and paths don’t take you where you thought they would. This site has been used for Witchcraft for many a moon, and somewhere within these woods stands a single sacrificial Oak.
“Come, Meditation! Stray awhile with me,
The scene will suit us well, for we may muse
On themes we long have cherish’d secretly,
Within yon grove of venerable yews;
Whose twilight gloom and silence may infuse
Into our dream, perchance, that pensive joy
Which philosophic Melancholy woos
Amid such scenes, whose beauties never cloy ;
But yield to Taste and Virtue bliss without alloy”
Deep beneath their sacred canopy, the atmosphere thick and grim, you can truly understand why the Yew is used in workings and ritual involving the Ancestors, communing with the spirits of the Dead, ceremonies of remembrance, Necromancy, and the Otherworld. The Yew is the Gatekeeper to the Shadow Lands. She is an Ancient Matriarch which holds many stories beneath her bark. Sitting amongst Her serpentine roots, with ears to listen, she might tell you a few. Of the inspiration of death. Of the beauty in decay. Of the power to renew and transform through total surrender. Beautifully haunting tales will bleed forth from Her, tales that will make your heart ache so bad you fear it might break. Physically break. Tales that will make your soul sing. Tales that will linger with you forever. You never return from a journey with the Yew in quite the same way as you were before you left.
According to 9th Century manuscripts, a group of Vikings invaded the countryside around what is now Chichester; however the Vikings weren’t expecting a revolt by the Anglo-Saxons. They turned on their pursuers, and a huge battle commenced, in which hundreds were killed. The wood is believed to be the location of this battle; onto the ground where the slain fell, a grove of sixty trees was planted as a memorial. The ghosts of these fallen warriors are said to wander beneath their boughs at night. They arn’t the only things that wander once the Sun sinks below the horizon, as legend has it the trees also come alive and walk the coombe. This sets cold shivers down the spine when you are amongst these trees at night. Truly lost. In the pitch blackness you look for trees you had seen earlier on in the day, that have seemed to have disappeared, or are further down the path than you expected. A very haunted and powerful place to be sure, almost threatening at times.
“Fierce was the conflict, as old legends say,
And fearfully re-echoed through the dell,
Mid the wild uproar of the battle-fray,
The Briton’s shout, the Sea-Kings’ fiendish yell, —
And of the mighty Northmen many fell,
Whose bold hearts’ blood distain’d the verdant ground ;
And few return’d the daring deeds to tell
Of Cissa’s gallant sons, who that day, crown’d
With glory’s wreaths, made hill and dale with joy resound”
The special chalk grasslands of Kingley Vale have developed over thousands of years and support a wide variety of flora and fauna. The grassland is grazed upon by fallow and roe deer, wild rabbits and sheep (in the Winter) to prevent the coarse grasses and trees from stifling the growth of wildflowers. Wildflowers such as rock rose, wild thyme and marjoram, and the rare orchids which litter these meadows, including the common spotted, frog, bee and fly orchids. The Vale is also home to blackthorn, hawthorn, ash, elder, spindle, willow, birch, gorse and juniper. It is a wonderful place that has stolen the heart of many a poet, including Tennyson and Crocker.
There are a number of ancient remains in the area; earthworks, settlements, cross dykes, scattered long barrows and a couple of Iron Age hill forts. On a ridgeway crossed by an ancient trackway above the forest and the grasslands, stand four large Bronze Age barrows called ‘The Devil’s Humps’ or ‘The King’s Graves’ on the crest of Bow Hill. These kings were leaders of the Viking invasion wiped out by the Anglo-Saxon men of Chichester. It is said that the Vikings, or at least their leaders, lie in these barrows. The Yews of the forest are believed to be the descendants of the trees planted to mark the battlefield.
This is not really a place you want to be alone at night. I speak from personal experience, and I even had a friend just within earshot. I came to Kingley Vale emboldened by stories, and entertained fancy ideas of walking/running around the mounds six or seven times, to test the claims of the Devil coming to meet you. As the darkness cloaked the land, I began my journey around the burrows. I made it around a grand total of four times (nothing jumped out after the third, as some local legends claim), but the atmosphere changed on my forth trip. Not only did the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, but my whole body. The air thick. The night seemed to close in. The sky within reaching distance. Whispers were heard on the breeze. Shadows. Movement. Chills. Fear. I was not alone. The dead do indeed walk.
I have never again sat upon those burrows alone, and I cannot fully describe what happened in the hours that came next… Maybe I should try… But that, my friends, is a story for another time…
Text – Sarah-Jayne Farrer
Images © Matt Baldwin-Ives (www.milescross.co.uk)
* The Devil’s Humps: photograph by Brannon Masters with digital manipulations by Matt Baldwin-Ives.
** Poems excerpts from ‘Kingley Vale’ by Charles Crocker
COMPLETE KINGLEY VALE GALLERY: http://inthechimehours.com/the-gallery/kingley-vale-gallery/