Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Chalk Balls and Other Discoveries

First Chalky Ball at Duncton

Following our successful foray along the Kennet and Avon Canal we were keen to keep the momentum going with our walks.  With another fine day of weather and summer seemingly finally arrived we were anxious to make the most of it and so picked out a Downland walk to occupy our Sunday afternoon.  Back in 2002 the natural environment artist Andy Goldsworthy placed 13 chalk balls along a walk to the north of Chichester as an art installation.  At the time he expected them to last 3-5 years before natural processes broke them apart.  The balls were quarried from nearby Duncton Quarry and putting them out must have been quite an undertaking for they are in fairly secluded positions well away from roads.

Last of the Bluebells
Anyhow, we took a picnic and headed out on the bus from our parking spot.  After a lively bus journey in which we seemed to feel every bump in the road we headed up on to the Downs along the South Downs Way at Duncton.  Having a very heavy rucsac I was keen to unload our picnic as soon as was practically possible and we stopped only half a mile or so in.  I was pretty relieved as the weight in the rucsac was substantial!  
Deer Skull
We had to wait until we got to the top of the hill to find the first of the chalk balls.  The funny thing is that I feel fairly sure I have walked past this a number of times without giving it a second look! Although weathered it was quite clearly mostly intact.  A more recent estimate has suggested that the balls will last anything up to 200 years – a rather different proposition to the original estimate!  The girls immediately wanted to climb aboard, something that they did for every single ball that we found.
Ruined House
Our route took us away from the crest of the Downs and down through the woods back towards West Dean.  Despite the modest length of the walk (5 miles) the balls were surprisingly not that close together.  The second was quite weathered and was significantly cracked, I imagine by the frost.  Away from the crest of the Downs and we headed into the woods and it’s fair to say that most of the route is through woodland.  On the fringes of the woods bluebells were still clinging on, almost unheard of in any other June!
Finding the Long Barrow
At the next crossroads the next chalk ball was almost hidden in the undergrowth but the kids found it with their eagle eyes.  We found a deer’s skull, which may have come home with us if it weren’t found so early on!  The woods now seemed to become deeper and darker and through the next stretch of the woods we found the remains of a ruined house, maybe a shepherd’s cottage?  It was now overgrown with trees but proved an interesting place to wander around.  Most of what was left were a few mossy covered walls but we found some pottery and discarded machinery nearby – it was almost like an archaeological hunt!  Stories were exchanged between the kids as to who would have lived there and how life must have been.  I suspect the woods weren’t quite so thick back then for it would have been a tough place to access in the depths of winter.
Fields Near West Dean
Evidence of human habitation of a different kind was found further on in the shape of a long barrow.  It was rather a strange shape, almost like a disused dewpond.  Apparently though it is a burial ground, dating from the Bronze Age.  We speculated that it might have been excavated and left in that state.  The rest of our walk was downhill, which was rather a relief.  All along the way we delighted in the early summer flora and fauna now looking at its most lush.   While I delighted in finding new wildflower species along the way the kids were content to tell stories to each other and find the next ball!
Early Purple Orchid
As we descended the Downs the woodland gave way to fields and for awhile the path followed a road, which wasn’t so much fun.  At this point the girls started to tire too which wasn’t a good mixture.  We were relieved to finally leave the road behind and cross through some woods to the final destination of West Dean, where the path comes out opposite the Gardens.  The last chalk ball was placed by the bridge of the former railway line and proved to be the unlucky thirteenth – it was the only one that the kids didn’t manage to climb on to!  The bridge was almost overgrown too – a far cry from the line that was massively over-engineered to bring the crowds to nearby Goodwood races.  It never really fulfilled its purpose, being too far away from the course to be really useful.  The line closed in 1935 long before Dr Beeching or even nationalisation!

Old Railway at West Dean
This was rather a fun walk and exceeded our expectations.  The Long Barrow and ruined cottage were a bonus and the children liked finding the balls even if they were less interesting than hunting for Olympic Mascots!

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