Chanctonbury Ring: Mysteries And Histories

On April 11, 2015 by Tim Newman
Chanctonbury Ring - View From Car Park

View of Chanctonbury From The Washington Car Park

Chanctonbury Ring, part of Sussex’s magnificent South Downs, has been part of local folklore and ancient culture since time immemorial. Chanctonbury Ring sits proud on the north edge of the Downs, almost 800 feet above sea level (which is pretty high as Sussex goes). The vistas it offers have been a part of local human experience since we first roamed the county. Roman temple remains sitting on top of even earlier structures point to a long history of human interaction with the area.

As with any secluded and windswept forested region Chanctonbury ring has more than its fair share of paranormal melodrama. But first off let’s start with the facts. The history of the ring has three stages:

(Click images to enlarge)

1) Ancient Hill Fort

Chanctonbury Hill From The South Sussex

Chanctonbury Ring was the site of an Iron Age fort, probably positioned to make use of its breathtaking views across the Weald to the north. Carbon dating of pottery and animal bone suggest it was built in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Scatterings of Bronze Age pottery and neolithic flintworks (flint axe, arrowheads and scrapers) found in the vicinity of Chanctonbury Ring push its history further back still.

During a dig in 1977 a shallow pit was discovered containing early Iron Age pottery, animal and human bones, pieces of unworked dark red flint and a piece of granite which originated in Cornwall.

Chanctonbury Ring - Earthwork Ditch Facing South

Earthwork Ditch Facing South

The ring itself consists of a roughly oval earthwork about 400 ft by 550 ft. Because there are little to no signs of human habitation it’s generally considered that the site was either used as a place to escape when trouble showed up, or a place of religious significance.

2) Roman Era Temples

Walkway Approaching Chanctonbury From The East

Walkway Approaching Chanctonbury From The East

When the Romans popped over to Blighty to say “hello” they also took a shine to Chanctonbury Ring; possibly in keeping with Iron Age religious observations they decided it was a worthy site for a temple too. It’s not clear whether the earlier Pagan construction was still in existence when the Roman structure was built, or whether the Roman buildings came later.

There were two Roman temples on the site; the first was probably a polygonal design. Inside this multi-sided temple a large quantity of pig bones were found, predominantly teeth and jaw bones. These are assumed to be sacrificial offerings of some description. The second Romano-Celtic Temple was built later and boasted a towered central sanctuary and an outer ambulatory (covered walking area).

Oyster Shells Found At Chanctonbury Ring (April 2015)

Oyster Shells Found At Chanctonbury Ring (April 2015)

To the West of the main temple, a layer of rubble was found which covered another layer of oyster shells which itself lay on top of bare chalk bedrock. The oyster shells were probably part of the rituals conducted at the site. Similar deposits of oyster shells have been found at other nearby temples, like Hayling Island in neighbouring Hampshire. The shells can still be found at the site resting on the surface near the centre of the mound.

3) 18th Century Trees

Chanctonbury Ring

View From Inside The Ring Looking South

Chanctonbury Ring is now most famous for its copse of beech trees. These were, however, a much later addition. They were planted by Charles Goring in 1760 within the earth bank of the fort. Initially the locals weren’t that pleased that he’d bunged some trees up there, but it was his land so they had to deal with it.

Just 20 years old at the time Charles planted the trees for no other reason than the fact he loved trees; he and his staff watered them to maturity. The beech trees in the centre never grew quite right, probably because they were sat just a few inches above the Roman temples.

Chanctonbury Ring View From The Centre Of The Ring

Chanctonbury Ring View From The Centre Of The Ring

Here’s a section from a poem that Charles Goring wrote about the trees he so lovingly tended:

Oh! could I live to see the top,

In all its beauty dressed,

The time’s arrived; I’ve had my wish,

And lived to eighty-five.

Unfortunately the Great Storm of 1987 smashed most of Chanctonbury’s trees to bits, pleasingly the trees were replanted with help from one of Charles’ relatives – John Goring – and the copse is only now starting to return to its former glory.

The Mysteries

Chanctonbury Ring Oil Tank Near Summit

Now for the most exciting and least believable section. Any area with trees that’s windy and remote is going to spawn tales of worries and woes and Chanctonbury Ring is certainly no different.

a) The Devil & The Ring

Chanctonbury Ring Sussex Trees Devil Haunting

Ancient Woodland Surrounding Chanctonbury Ring

According to legend, if you walk or run around Chanctonbury Ring seven times on a dark or moonless night you will be in for a big surprise. The Devil himself will appear and offer you a bowl of soup (or milk, or porridge) for your mortal soul. If you accept the offer he will grant you a wish.

The origins of the myth are of course shrouded in history, one theory of the story’s origin assumes that the temple at Chanctonbury was in honour of Mithras who was a very popular deity before Christianity took the reigns. The theory goes that the Mithratic priests would would bring out food to the locals once they’d finished fasting. As Christianity spread, the Church wanted to dissuade the peasants from visiting the heathen Mithras priests so referred to them as idolaters and devils in an effort to put locals off visiting those evil Pagans on the hill.

Or, it might just be that people make stuff up at random and some of it sticks. Or something else.

Path Leading To Chanctonbury Ring

Path Leading To Chanctonbury Ring

I was considering trying out the seven laps when I last visited to see if I could get some free soup but it turns out that no one’s too sure exactly what you need to do. Some legends say you have to walk, others say you need to run. Is it backwards, anti-clockwise? We don’t know. Others still say you need to get round the ring seven times during the time it takes a clock to strike midnight. One account says you need to complete the walk/run on Midsummer Eve at 7pm, another May Day Eve. That’s too many variations to explore, I would have been knackered.

Sticking with the Devil, he is also credited with constructing the hill that Chanctonbury Ring sits on. According to legend, when he was digging out nearby Devil’s Dyke, the dirt from his spade landed in the area to produce the hill. Oh, and if a woman sleeps on Chanctonbury Ring her fertility will be improved too.

b) Fairies & Ghosts

Brick Structure Near Chanctonbury Ring

Brick Structure Near Chanctonbury Ring

According to legend it’s possible to observe fairies dancing around the ring on Midsummers Eve. I can’t categorically rule this out as I have never visited the site at the appropriate time of year. But it sounds plausible.

As for ghosts, and odd astronomer in the early 17th century named Prince Agasicles Syennesis the Carian is said to have spent a lot of time watching stars from Chanctonbury. Legend has it that he died up there after tracing on a chart in charcoal the words “Sepeli, ubi cecidi” (“Bury me where I have fallen”). Apparently he still haunts the place. And he’s among good company, there have been multiple reports of ghost horses and the figure a white-bearded old man who is reputed to be the ghost of a Druid searching for lost treasure, or perhaps a Saxon killed at the battle of Hastings.

Chanctonbury Ring From The East

Chanctonbury Ring From The East

Here’s a first hand account of ghostly goings on at Chanctonbury:

As I was walking down the path on the west side of the ring, my daughter ran on ahead. I called to her to return, and kept walking. I heard footsteps up ahead and saw a figure on the path, standing slightly to the side of the path in the shade. I began walking toward the figure, assuming it was my daughter (it was about her size, that of a ten-year old) and it dashed into the trees and brush on the side of the path. Then I started to run toward the area, remembering the profusion of nettle plants and sincerely worried for her bare legs, when she came running around the bend!
So, it wasn’t her that I saw. When I asked her why she ran off, she said that she thought I was running behind her, playing by chasing her!
I took a few pictures of that area, none of which turned out. When we returned to the car, I found that the film had somehow become unwound!

c) UFOs & Strange Goings On

View Facing North From Chanctonbury Ring

View Facing North

As with the physical history of Chanctonbury Ring, the ethereal history has also developed and morphed over time. At first the devilish and ghostly stories were rife, but as fashions and tastes changed, belief in the devil waned and new more mysterious and modern foes emerged –  UFOs.

In 1967 a group of students decided to stay all night up on the hill making recordings and taking photos. Something happened that night which sent them all packing. A year later a group of UFO investigators called Sussex Sky Watchers began an all night vigil at Chanctonbury Ring. I’ve had a cursory Google search for the Sussex Sky Watchers, but I fear they are no longer active which is a real shame, they sound great.

Most of the Sussex Sky Watchers’ night passed without incident, but in the early hours of Sunday morning it all kicked off. One of their group was walking among the trees, when suddenly he lost the use of his arms and legs and fell to the ground screaming for help. Other members, ran to his aid, only to find themselves suffering similar affects. This lasted about five minutes after which they all recovered and were completely fine.

Ooooh.. mysterious.

UFOs continued to be seen over Chanctonbury but it wasn’t for another six years that another “serious” investigation was conducted. I found an article written by one of the people present at the next all night gathering in 1974:

At approximately 11 pm, whilst walking through the centre of the Ring, one member of the group was lifted several feet off the ground. Mr. Lincoln remained suspended in mid air for several seconds, although at the time it seemed like hours. During this he was crying out ‘No More! No More!’ and was obviously in some considerable pain. He then dropped to the ground landing heavily on his back. He was very shaken by his experience, as we all were, but unlike the rest of us Mr. Lincoln refused to visit the site for further studies.

There have been multiple UFO sightings, most of which have been readily dismissed, but one stands out in UFO circles:

It sounded as though something was brushing across the top of the trees. We were all three frozen to the spot and we could not believe what we could clearly see with our own eyes. The object was making no sound what so ever, apart from when it brushed treetops. We did not attempt to move from the cover of the trees, as we felt safer under them. As the object moved further away we could see it more clearly. The top was illuminated by a blue light and there were four small square what looked like windows in the side of the object.

I always smile as I report to you mysteries of this kind, but to be quite honest with you, I think I find the real history of Chanctonbury Ring more exhilarating than the latter.

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