After securing my bike in an unassuming heritage car park in the sleepy Sussex suburb of Findon, I began a gentle ascent up to ancient Cissbury Ring. The haphazard bay is located at the end of a bland sprawl of 1970s cubic bungalows populated by conservative retirees and eager chocolate coloured spaniels. Beyond this gravel realm lay an expanse of lush valley farmland established in Victorian times and defined by a viridian grid of texture and muddy lanes.
Passing through fields still golden from late summer rays, I began to spy the looming chalky Downs rising beyond the dense woodland. Medieval coppiced trees eventually opened up to reveal gnarled roots and flint stones, cast like scattered skulls upon moss and fern. As the spidery plants slowly relented the impressive banks of Cissbury hill rose up before me, punctured by crisp chalk fissures and managed by gentle sheep. Onwards still I climbed, now in vivid sunshine and distracted by hazy views of the English channel, a distant blue swash of broken mirrors.
Finally reaching Cissbury Ring I was greeted by a succession of rolling grassy banks, this Iron Age hill fort still grimly steadfast against the innocent valley floor below. The timber fort itself has long since rotted away leaving an array of broad concentric mounds, a memory imprint of ancient violence. Once through the creases of its tired defences a spectacular view pans about, of Surrey to the north, Sussex racing off east and west and the calm channel to the south. The Downs themselves roll ever onwards, wounded occasionally by the scarred remains of Neolithic flint mines and BMW strewn commuter roads. Finally further still, I could spy the fingers of the mighty Seven Sisters, as those brutal chalk cliffs slam into the seaside bliss, confirming the luminous white remains of million year old plankton fossils which run like veins under the land. All the while above me feathered raptors glided on warm thermals.
The path to Cissubry Ring can then be considered as experiencing a linear time machine. An act of walking slices away the fabric of historical strata and we plunge backwards in time. A weary rambler rather like Alice falls back through an architectural device in order to appreciate these archaeological ribbons unfurled within the Sussex geography. There are echoes here of John Bunyan’s pious traveller ethos, of walking to comprehend a transformation outside of normal time. Think perhaps also of curious Hermes, with his ability to enter the land of the dead, marching backwards to reanimate the peasants and excavate the songs of past.
Rebecca Solnit in her essay entitled Two Arrowheads writes of the pleasures of falling within the film Vertigo. She muses about lurching vistas, of that blood rush of realisation when spying objects long considered abandoned, of the knot of tragedy as she documents her heartbreak in the desert sands. She regards the liberated view down the valley fold as critical in comprehending your history. Returning to the wild years later, climbing a mountain and reaching a lofty ridge she observes that “The world doubles in size, something like that happens when you really see someone, and if that’s so then it has something to do with why everyone in Vertigo keeps falling. There wasn’t any falling, any tragedy at the centre, just moving onto this vastness”. The Cissbury Ring artefact ultimately focuses our timely gaze upon the vast tangled past.