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South Downs’ dramatic war time stories revealed in new book

Breathtaking views and tranquil, unspoilt places are two of the reasons that the South Downs was made into a National Park, receiving millions of day visits every year.

But researchers looking back just 100 years have uncovered evidence of prisoner-of-war camps; docking stations for airships the size of nine double-decker buses; abandoned unexploded bombs; and a training school where Canadian soldiers underwent an assault course under live fire.

The stories, published in a new book Secrets of the High Woods: Revealing Hidden Landscapes, have been brought to light by volunteers researching archives as part of a three-year community archaeology project.

The project investigated a 305 ha part of South Downs National Park largely hidden under, and protected by, woodland for hundreds of years. The book also tells how, by using airborne laser scanning (LiDAR) technology and volunteer archaeologists, the project has revealed extensive prehistoric field systems and a lost Roman road.

Anne Bone, who leads on cultural heritage for the South Downs National Park Authority said:
“It’s amazing how quickly our history fades and can be forgotten. Searching for clues through old newspapers, maps and letters our volunteers have re-discovered dramatic stories at the edge of living memory which shaped our landscapes and, perhaps, our grandparents’ and great grandparents’ lives.”

In the book volunteer Kate Dorkins, describes her task of reviewing local newspapers as being both ‘sleuth and spy’: “Archaeology and local historical research is a bit like detective work. You search and search, amassing details, finding a few little clues that might lead to something bigger. It’s painstaking work.”

John Manley, editor Secrets of the High Woods: Revealing Hidden Landscapes, said:
“What a privilege to hear these stories told with such enthusiasm by our volunteer archivists.
“Looking at the South Downs today it’s hard to that believe giant air-ships would have anchored here; hundreds of POWs and soldiers were felling trees to build trenches; or that as recently as 1990 around 6,000 bombs of various types were recovered from Kingley Vale.”

Secrets of the High Woods: Revealing Hidden Landscapes, edited by John Manley is available to buy for £10 from:

  • The South Downs Centre in Midhurst,
  • Wheeler’s Bookshop (Red Lion St, opposite the parish church) Midhurst,
  • Petworth Bookshop (The Old Bakery, Golden Square) and
  • Fishbourne Roman Palace (Salthill Lane, Fishbourne)
  • Barbican House, Lewes
  • One Tree Books, Petersfield
  • Kim’s Bookshop, Chichester
  • Other sales points are being organised. 

To order a copy please post a cheque for £13.50 (including postage and packaging) made out to the South Downs National Park Authority, to the South Downs Centre, North Street, Midhurst, West Sussex, GU29 9DH.

Seven curious facts uncovered in Secrets of the High Woods: Revealing Hidden Landscapes:

  1. By the end of WWI 6.5 miles of light railway ran through the Slindon estate to carry timber back to a sawmill. At the same time several miles of aerial ropeway ran across the downs from Eartham Wood to Mid-Lavant via Goodwood to carry slab wood to a factory making acetate for use in explosives.
  2. Around 200 prisoners of war were held at the Slindon camp which consisted of at least 19 huts, a cookhouse, a dining room, a bathhouse and an electricity generator.
  3. Three airships at a time could be moored at Slindon. The Sea Scout Zero class airships were 143 feet long and 44 feet high and carried out regular anti-submarine patrols.
  4. Kingley Vale was an important military training ground during WWII with as many as 2000 Canadians practising there in the run-up to D-Day.
  5. With live rounds and mortars used for training in Kingley Vale there are tales of having to remove the bodies of nine Canadians and one member of the Home Guard was killed by a stray bullet in 1942. However Kingley Vale was never sealed off from the public.
  6. A 1956 newspaper headline claimed ‘Death Lurks in this Lovely Vale’ but it wasn’t until 1990 that a proper clearance of the site was made – uncovering 6000 bombs of various types.
  7. The Canadian military training school at Stanstead Park was said to be one of the toughest in the country. This included a nineteen-stage assault course negotiated under live fire.

Secrets of the High Woods, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, was led by the South Downs National Park Authority in partnership with Chichester District Council and Historic England.