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Changing Chalk - helping young people learn new skills and connect with the Downs

A group of people overlooking the South Downs on a February day
Out on a heritage walk, learning about the history of the South Downs | © Josie Jeffery

There are a lot of towns on the edge of the Downs. But, despite this beautiful landscape being on the doorstep, many people living here feel the Downs are a remote place, unconnected to their daily lives. One of the main aims of Changing Chalk is to build links that help make people feel closer to the countryside. Thanks to our project, Find Your Future, we're helping young people feel a stronger connection to the chalk grasslands while learning new skills for work and life.

Helping people to get out into nature and experience the local countryside is a great way to create a connection with the Downs on their doorstep. In finding these connections there are many other benefits too. Find your Future is a stepping stones project that allows young people to see what life is like working in countryside management by participating in a range of outdoor activities and getting involved with different Changing Chalk projects.

Already this has had a huge impact on the young people who have taken part, giving the them a whole new perspective on the outdoors and the positive effects of being in nature and, of course, learning about the chalk grasslands of the South Downs.

a group of people stands by some trees in the South Downs and talk about the wildlife there
Countryside Skills reptile hunt | © National Trust / Josie Jeffery

Find Your Future: Countryside Skills

In our Countryside Skills sessions, young people not in employment, education and training have been getting stuck in to our Changing Chalk activities and learning a wide range of new skills, including archaeological investigation, stile building, conservation work, and insect surveys. Over an eight-week programme, participants tried a different activity in each session.

A close up of hands holding an old wool comb
Hands on with historic artefacts - here an old wool comb. | © Josie Jeffery

We learned about history ...

The South Downs are rich in history from ancient times. Thanks to the local National Trust archaeology teams - Gary Webster, Changing Chalk Heritage Officer and Kayleigh Hibberd, an archaeology apprentice recruited as part of find your future - and Katherine Buckland, Heritage Engagement Officer from Heritage Eastbourne, the group learned new ways of looking at the landscape to understand our connections with the past. This was a chance to immerse themselves in the history, earthworks and monuments of the South Downs to learn what might be hidden under the lumps and bumps of the many archaeological features found here.

Our archaeologists showed photos, Lidar images and maps that we have of the area and explained the importance of visiting sites to determine what the features are. Burial mounds from 3000 year old tribal leaders? 5000 years old ritual sites? Or Roman farmsteads? There was the chance to get hands-on too with some ancient artefacts that have been found over the years in Eastbourne and we met the Beachy Head woman who is displayed at the Beachy Head Story in Eastbourne. This was rounded off with a heritage walk on the Downs to explore the history that surrounds Eastbourne as one of the oldest settlements in the South Downs.

“I learned a lot about what the landscape is, what the lumps and bumps are, lynchets and cross dykes. I feel like I understand it more.”

Stile building in the South Downs
Stile building in the South Downs | © National Trust/Josie Jeffery

We learned new skills ...

There’s nothing quite like getting stuck in to learn a skill, and so it was with our scrub bashing session with Chalk Life Ranger, Jennie Smith from the Lewes Railway Land Wildlife Trust. Everyone had a go at scrub bashing and path clearance. One week later and it was back to grafting again with Chalk Life Ranger Jenny Lindop, this time repairing and replacing fence posts to secure the field for grazing cows on Landport Bottom, one of the highest points near Lewes.

On another session, National Trust Lead Ranger, Dan Fagan, and Chalk Life Ranger, Kim Greaves, took the group out to Southwick Hill to install a stile they had decorated. Having a physical activity was a great way to keep warm, and it's good to know there is a legacy for the young people to revisit and show off to friends. Quite right too – they did wonderful work.

“I am glad to be able to make sure the fence is secure for the grazing animals."

"Thank you for our session today. I learned a lot about how the wildlife interplay with the park and how scrub bashing creates a better environment for them to navigate in."

hands holding a small newt
Wildlife from a dew pond in the South Downs | © National Trust/Josie Jeffery

We learned about nature ...

Lots of the work of Changing Chalk is about protecting and extending habitats for the creatures that live here. One of our National Trust Chalk Life Rangers, Kim Greaves shared his reptile identification skills and demonstrated how to support reptile habitats, while a session with Alice Parfitt, Conservation Officer from our Changing Chalk partner, Buglife, was all about insects: where and how they live, and how to identify and count them.

A few weeks later the team deepened their knowledge and understanding of reptiles by laying survey mats at Gayles Farm with Chalk Ranger, Thyone. Thyone also showed the group how to help create habitats for reptiles like grass snakes, slow worms and lizards. While there, the group also helped to broadcast some wildflower and herbal lay seeds too to create some wildflower strips at Gayles.

A group of people look out across the the South Downs from behind a gate
Contemplating nature | © National Trust / Josie Jeffery

We learned about ourselves ...

Being in nature is a powerful way to improve mental wellbeing so for one of our sessions the group met with Rosie Lindford - co-ordinator for the Growing New Roots project from Changing Chalk partner, the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership - to explore the woods, connect with nature, and learn about natural fire making.

This was a was a great opportunity for everyone to enjoy the company of the new friends they had made over the weeks of the course. Having a fire-making activity was a great way to focus on the small things; starting and nurturing a fire was a lovely symbol for nurturing your own internal spark.

"I sometimes find it hard getting myself out of bed and outside, but when I do I am always glad, and I realise how good it is for me."

"I feel more connected to nature and myself after this wellbeing session."

On the last day of the course, the group went on a long walk across the clifftops to Cuckmere Haven. They spotted wildlife and some of the rare Downland species they'd learned about, and enjoyed the beauty and mystery of some rare cloud formations. Walking together during the sessions was a great way to learn about chalk grassland and encourage conversations and skill sharing.

“What a great way to end the programme, wandering in the fields looking at stuff in the ground and in the sky. The birds are going crazy today! I’ve enjoyed the skylarks and finding a perfectly intact 1940s jam jar near an air raid bunker.”

a group of people sit on a hill in the South Downs and look at the view
Out on the South Downs admiring the views | © National Trust / Josie Jeffery

All this was made possible by Josie Jeffery, Project Manager of Find Your Future. Josie says:

"What an amazing programme; we met such incredible young people."

"They absolutely loved it and got so much out of it: made friends, built confidence, learned skills, and enjoyed the health and wellbeing benefits of being outside - come rain, shine, and snow!

There were some really moving moments and it is incredible how a good walk, breathing in the fresh air, listening to the birds wake up for spring, bashing in a fence post and realising how strong you are, climbing over a stile you just decorated and installed, rolling a ball of scrub down a hill, gently holding newts and bumblebees and a handful of wildflower seeds, looking at ancient bones, pots and arrow heads, nurturing a spark until it turns into a flame, stroking moss and collecting leaves, and eating biscuits together, can break down barriers and allow people to just ‘sit’ with themselves, each other and nature.

I got a lot out of it too."

We are proud of everyone who took part in the Countryside Skills. It certainly seems to have been a useful and meaningful way to help build a better future for this group of young people, and we hope their new-found knowledge and love for the Downs continues to inspire them.

Want to get involved?

These eight-week courses repeat throughout the duration of the Changing Chalk project. For more information about the next Find Your Future and Countryside Skills sessions, please contact or fill out our sign up form here

Red star thistle on the chalky grasslands of the South Downs at Southwick Hill

National Trust Chalk Life Ranger, Kim Greaves, shares his passion for the chalk grassland of Southwick Hill 

Find out what the Changing Chalk rangers and volunteer team have been doing to care for the chalk grassland of Southwick Hill.