Kipling’s Sussex

(by Michael Smith)

The Sussex Landscape

Kipling certainly appreciated the subtleties of the variety of landscapes to be found in his adopted county for it would have been impossible to write about them so brilliantly without that understanding. The two decades before he settled in Sussex witnessed the development of a new science – geomorphology. The area of south-eastern England was taken as a classic example of the recognition that there is a distinctive relationship between the underlying geological structure and scenery apparent at the surface. An immense span of time allowed the forces of erosion to sculpt the varied sedimentary rocks into Down and Weald and their respective coastlines. A glance at a map which shows the nature of the rocks and the scenic units will illustrate how closely interrelated the two are. The agents of erosion which sculpted the surface – rivers and streams, the sea, and the marginal influence of the ice-sheets – worked on the landscape over a period of the past 30 million years to achieve the diversity of scene we now admire.

The Geological Background

The rocks of Sussex belong to the period of geological time known as the Cretaceous, the name being derived from creta, the Latin for “chalk” because it is that pure white limestone which provides the most significant landscape feature. The Cretaceous lasted from about 140 million to about 65 million years ago, the latter coinciding with the extinction of the great saurians.

The earliest rocks of the period, known collectively as the Lower Cretaceous, were deposited in estuaries, deltas, lagoons and marshes fed by a river system draining from far to the west in what is now the south-west peninsula of Devon and Cornwall. They included clays, sands and sandstones, with some shelly limestones and occasional ironstones, and they contain fossil evidence of the presence of dinosaurs.

About 100 million years ago the area subsided to be covered by a deep, warm, sub-tropical sea into which countless billions of minute sea creatures, called coccoliths, built up a white ooze which eventually hardened in a band of chalk about a thousand feet in thickness. The chalk is classified as the Upper Cretaceous and is itself subdivided by slight differences in lithology into three main groups. The uppermost of these include the distinctive lines of flints which had solidified from a silica-gel produced by the decay of an over-abundance of sponges which thrived in the warm sea.

These flints were eventually released by the gradual erosion and solution of the chalk and have collected on the surface of the Downs and on the shoreline and have been used as an important human resource ever since the Neolithic period. Their earliest use was for the manufacture of flint tools and weapons touched upon in “The Knife and the Naked Chalk” (Rewards and Fairies). Since Roman times flints have been used as an abundant supply of building material, rough, knapped or in rounded beach-worn cobble form.

Eventually the compacted horizontal strata were lifted up by earth movements and gently folded as the outer ripples of the mountain building which raised the Alps hundreds of miles away in Europe. The resultant elongated oval dome produced an arch of chalk over the middle of what is now the Weald dipping down again beneath the present Thames estuary only to reappear on the fringes of East Anglia. Since that happened about 35 million years ago, the dome was etched by streams flowing down its flanks to north and south. More recently, only in the last 2 million years, the permafrost conditions of the Pleistocene ice-age complicated matters with the deposition of icy downwash sludge into the valley bottoms. About ten thousand years ago rising sea level from some of the melted world-wide ice broke through the former land bridge from what is now France and so separated us from the continent of Europe.

The South Downs

The overall effect was that as the top of the chalk dome was worn away, the underlying older varied rocks were revealed and they reacted very differently to the agents of erosion. Whereas chalk absorbs water and is left as a dominant rounded hill mass, the sands and clays are capable of being eroded by rivers and streams more easily. As the dome was breached the scarp faces of the chalk were worn back into the gently dipping rock as escarpments which now face each other across the Weald.

The scarp of the South Downs from
The Devil’s Dyke near Brighton


The chalk escarpment is composed of a steep scarp face and a gentle dip-slope. That characteristic is defined in the poem “Sussex”.

No tender hearted garden crowns,
No bosomed woods adorn,
Our blunt, bow-headed whale-backed Downs,
But gnarled and writhen thorn –

A slightly more resistant stratum of chalk results in a discontinuous, but clearly visible, secondary escarpment set back from the main one. The major escarpment has a crest at about or just above 800′ and the highest spots are individually named Kipling produced a charming poem The Run of the Downs, in which the whole sequence is given.

The Weald is good,. the Downs are best –
I’ll give you the run of `em East to West.

Chalk absorbs rainfall and snow melt but underneath the chalk is an impervious clay layer which acts as a barrier to any further downward percolation so that water builds up beneath a “water-table”. Where that water-table intersects the surface, water can gush out in the form of springs or intermittent streams. On the downland surface there is an absence of running water, but there are many valleys which were obviously, at one time, eroded by stream action. These now “dry valleys” were formed during the last ice-age when the sub-surface was frozen to a considerable depth and so when snow did melt during slightly warmer periods it ran downslope to erode them. Once more normal climatic conditions returned streams no longer flowed in them. One of the stanzas of Sussex begins:

We have no waters to delight
Our broad and brookless vales
Only the dewpond on the height
Unfed that never fails –

The Weald

In the Weald, between the North and South Downs, there are a succession of valleys, ridges and clay plains. At the foot of the Downs the Gault Clay has been eroded into a narrow vale. Next the misnamed Lower Greensand forms ridges of a soft sandstone, the grains being coloured cream, yellow, or pink. Further in the Weald Clay extends over an extensive, rather undistinguished, low-lying plain, synonymous with the Low Weald. Within the Weald Clay there are discontinuous layers of sandstone, the “Horsham Stone”, which have provided a very substantial roofing material for the area for centuries.

There is also a limestone of fossilized estuarine snails, which as it takes a high polish, is called, erroneously, the “Sussex Marble” which has been used by masons as a decorative material in churches and stately homes. Finally a more substantial sandstone, the resistant “Hastings Beds” forms the dominant Forest Ridge, rising to more than 900′, as the axis of the High Weald.

The attractive cream coloured, iron-stained “Ashdown Sandstone” supplied the material from which Bateman’s was built having been quarried close by. The Weald has an abundance of streams flowing through, often in quite deeply cut valleys, one of which, the River Dudwell, powered “the little mill that clacks” on the Bateman’s estate and was the water on which the Elsie and John ventured in their little canoe. The whole sequence of rocks is then repeated, as a mirror image, towards the Thames Estuary. Some of these rocks contain workable iron-ores, on which the Wealden iron industry was based and which Kipling introduced to some of his stories.

The Sussex Coast

The South Downs dip gently below the sea in the west of Sussex, to be overlain by soft later deposited rocks, but where the chalk has been cut into by the unremitting erosive force of the sea we find cliffs. Some of the early streams which flowed down the original flanks of the dome have coalesced into larger rivers, and four, the Arun, Adur, Ouse and Cuckmere reach the English Channel through distinctive gaps in the Downs.

The English Channel itself developed only some ten thousand years ago as water released by the melting ice raised sea-levels world wide and the inlet linked with the North Sea. On the low coastal plain in the west of the county, shallow drowned river valleys have fingered their way towards Bosham, Fishbourne and Chichster. Immediately to the east of those picturesque channels is a promontory called the Manhood peninsula of Selsey, from whose tip the coastline curves gently towards Brighton. A remote chapel close to the sea at Manhood End was the setting for a moving Christmas poem, Eddi ‘s Service. The area was also the location for “The Conversion of St Wilfrid” in Rewards and Fairies.

From near Brighton to Beachy Head, above Eastbourne, the chalk is seen in spectacularly beautiful white cliffs, cut by the gaps of the rivers Ouse and Cuckmere. Just east of the Cuckmere the cliffs, intersected by dry valleys, are known as the Seven Sisters.


The Seven Sisters between Cuckmere Haven and Beachy Head

Here leaps ashore the full Sou ‘west
All heavy-winged with brine,
Here lies above, the folded crest
The Channel’s leaden line;

As the grain of the strata bowed south eastward, the softer clays have resulted in marshland near Pevensey and the harder sandstones as cliffs between Hastings and Pett Level. Eastward again the river valleys of Rother, Tillingham and Brede draining the inner Weald find their way to the sea near the ancient port of Rye, now some distance from the strandline which in Saxon times felt the lap of the waves beneath its cliff.

And east till doubling Rother crawls
To find the fickle tide,
By dry and sea forgotten walls,
Our ports of stranded pride.

Romney Marsh, which features in a number of tales, backs the shingle promontory of Dungeness built by the deposition of material eroded from both the Sussex and Kent coasts. In Roman and Norman times the sea washed the low cliffs on which Pevensey Castle stands. The castle, first developed as Anderita (the Great Ford), one of the “forts of the Saxon Shore” in late Roman times, is the base from which Parnesius marches his troops north to the Great Wall.

Archaeological excavation of the castle which the Normans built within the still secure Roman walls bore out Kipling’s prediction of a well noted in “Old Men at Pevensey” – one of the Puck tales. Behind the promontory on which the fort stood an extensive shallow harbour gave shelter from Channel gales. Now silted and drained it has become the site of the Pevensey levels. During the Middle Ages the estuaries of the Arm, Adur and Ouse were navigable for sea-going vessels to sail into them, as far as Arundel, Bramber and Lewes. Now only pleasure craft can use the waterways.


These contrasting landscapes which gave him such delight Kipling used for the settings of many poems and stories. He became very familiar with the changing scene as he drove around the county, first as a pioneer motorist seeking “the very-own home”, and later as an enthusiastic, inquisitive, historian being driven in the comfort of his Rolls Royce. Whereas some of the scenery he loved has altered beyond recognition because it is now under building, other areas are still, happily, almost as he described them. Even in his time he couldn’t decide which area most attracted him.

I’m just in love with all these three,
The Weald and the Marsh and the Down countree,
Nor I don’t know which I love the most,
The Weald or the Marsh or the white Chalk coast.
(A Three Part Song)

Earlier, while at Rottingdean, he suggested that the Downs surpassed all in beauty, but on moving into the Weald conflicting claims were pressed. His prescience foresaw that the beauty of the Downs would attract an ever more mobile population and might even sow the seeds of its own destruction in “Very Many People”.

On the Downs, in the Weald, on the Marshes,
I heard the Old Gods say:
`Here come Very Many People:
“We must go away.”


“They take our land to delight in,
“But their delight destroys.
“They flay the turf from the sheep-walk.
“They load the Denes with noise.”

Kipling brings into vivid focus a less frenetic way of life in Down, Weald, marsh and coast which has changed dramatically in the intervening century, and for this we owe him much. Through his meticulous eye we meet shepherds, hedgers and ditchers, craftsmen of a variety of trades and smugglers, as well as characters who moulded the history not only of the county but of England itself.


The term “the Downs”, normally associated with the strong, rounded, chalk uplands seems paradoxically “topsy-turvey” until one realizes that the it is derived from the Saxon word “dun” meaning a “hill”. The word “dene” is from the word for “valley”. The curved parentheses of North and South Downs enfold an area which is technically “The Weald”. The name is derived from the latter portion of the Saxon name Andredesweald – “the forest of Andred – a softening of the harsher Germanic “wald”.

Most Sussex place names are derived from the Saxon, and they can be interpreted to demonstrate the gradual advance of their settlement from the coastal fringes inland. A few, as for example the Ouse, (“Us” = water) come from before even the Roman occupation. Some relate to the changes which came about in Romano-British times and a few are of direct Norman descent. Sussex dialect words, which had developed over centuries, were of particular fascination to Kipling and he larded his texts with their resonances. A glossary of them will be published later on in the New Readers’ Guide.