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The history, myths and legends of Devil's Dyke

View from the east at Devil's Dyke, West Sussex, in August
View from the east at Devil's Dyke | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Devil's Dyke has been the subject of myth and legend for thousands of years. Early settlers on the South Downs told tales of Satan’s mischief to try and explain how Devil’s Dyke was formed. Today it is a chequerboard of ancient and contemporary remains, showing many centuries of use for work and leisure. Keep your eyes peeled as you walk around this ancient landscape and see what you can spot.

The legend of how the Dyke was formed

Legend has it that the Devil dug the valley to drown the Christian parishioners of the Weald. Scientists, however, believe it was formed in the last Ice Age. If you walk to the bottom of the Dyke valley you will find two humps of earth.

It's said that the Devil and his wife are buried here. Another connected legend is that if you run backwards seven times around these humps, while holding your breath, the Devil will appear.

Early settlements at Devil's Dyke

Devil’s Dyke was an early attraction for humans living in the Stone Age. Settlements sprang up across the country’s longest, widest and deepest valley which was overseen by an Iron Age hillfort.

Stone Age ancestors spotted the benefits of settling on the undulating landscape of Devil’s Dyke. Indeed ‘dyke’ is a Saxon word for a fence or entrenchment built from earth, stone or wood.

Early history at Devil's Dyke

Early settlers built simple enclosures, long barrows and flint mines. By the Bronze Age more and more larger communities were living around the valley.

The high ground of Devil’s Dyke provided an excellent site for an Iron Age hillfort and remnants of ramparts and round barrows have survived.

However, the Anglo-Saxons abandoned the settlements that had congregated at the top of the South Downs to move to the lower river valleys, coastal plain and Weald.

There are remains of an Iron Age/Romano-British field system in evidence. When you visit, see if you can spot darker horizontal lines and a flatter strip of land on the hill opposite Perching Hill.

Devil's Dyke, West Sussex, winter view
Devil's Dyke winter view | © National Trust Images/Gary Cosham

Castle remains

A pronounced mound to the west of the Dyke is the motte of Edburton motte and bailey castle, another Scheduled Ancient Monument.

You can walk around the circular ditch which surrounds the motte. This castle is believed to date from immediately after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and is ideally placed to command access along the downs, and between the Weald and the sea, and is protected to its north side by the scarp slope.

Medieval settlement

These depressions mark the site of hut platforms of the deserted medieval village of Perching, now a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

The South Downs used to be more heavily populated than they are now. This site would have been favourable, being tucked away in a dry valley at a slight bend but also having access to water (there are remains of a well in the neighbouring field, not National Trust property) and being near a track going from the Weald to the sea.

We cannot be sure if the village was a permanent settlement or more like a summer farm.

Saddlescombe Farm

Devil's Dyke is still home to an ancient farmstead, Saddlescombe Farm. A hidden hamlet in the South Downs, the farm has over 1,000 years of stories to tell and was once home to the Knights Templar.

The farm, set amid trees, at Saddlescombe Farm and Newtimber Hill, West Sussex
The farm, set amid trees, at Saddlescombe Farm and Newtimber Hill, West Sussex | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Victorian days out

With its proximity to the fashionable resort of Brighton, its unparalleled views and the lure of the legend of its creation, Devil’s Dyke began to attract tourists from all walks of life.

The heyday was during the Victorian era, becoming even more popular when a new railway link was built in 1887 to Devil's Dyke's summit to transport sightseers out from Brighton to enjoy the landscape, fresh air and many funfair attractions that had been built there.

Creating an adventure park

Game hunter and traveller Mr H.J. Hubbard bought the Dyke Estate in 1892 and set about turning Devil’s Dyke into a pioneering adventure park.

The marvels of modern engineering were intermingled with a multitude of games and funfair rides. Merry-go-rounds, bicycle railways, coconut shies and fortune tellers festooned the hill in the late 19th century.

Tales spread of King William IV and Queen Adelaide driving a carriage up to Devil’s Dyke and Queen Victoria is said to have ridden out on horseback while staying at the Brighton Pavilion just before her marriage to Prince Albert.

Today, the park's remains are dotted around the area to pick out and imagine what it would have been like with the buzz and activity of day trippers enjoying some family time together.

Engineering feats

Perhaps the greatest mechanical feat achieved during Mr Hubbard’s tenure was the opening of Britain’s first aerial cable car in 1894. This ran across the 328yd (300m) wide valley and presented a view of the magnificent panoramas never seen before.

When descending into Devil's Dyke, look out for the concrete footings of the two pylons on the top of the slopes to the left and right. Mr Hubbard was also responsible for the funicular railway which operated on the steep scarp slope on the north side of Dyke Hill.

The Steep Grade Railway opened in 1897 and gave visitors to the Dyke the opportunity to descend to the village of Poynings for a Sussex Tea without the arduous and time-consuming climb back up from the village.

On the north-facing side of the Dyke, looking out over Poynings, look carefully at the ground, and you will see a wide gulley crossing this path and running vertically down the hill side. This is all that is now left of the funicular railway.

Taking the train

The new railway opened on 1 September 1887. It left the south coast railway to the west of present-day Hove station and curved inland passing through Hangleton whilst climbing at a 1 in 40 gradient for most of its journey. It arrived at its terminus over 3 miles later at an elevation of 501ft above sea level.

The new service was immediately popular with the public particularly on Sundays. Previously travel to the Dyke from Brighton had been undertaken by horse-drawn wagonette.

A round-trip was a fixed 3 hours with the journey taking over an hour each way leaving less than an hour to enjoy the views and amusements. The train took less than half an hour, cost only 5d third class, and visitors could return whenever they wished. However, by the 1930s, road travel was more affordable, and visitors preferred to travel to Devil’s Dyke by bus or car.

Numbers had been falling for years, particularly in the winter, and the railway was no longer economically viable.

The Brighton-Dyke railway ran for 51 years and closed on 31 December 1938. Today, the site of the line is a popular walking and cycle route up to Devil's Dyke.

Fulking Grange Isolation Hospital

Brighton Corporation established the isolation hospital at Fulking Grange in 1901 to keep patients suffering from infectious diseases, most notably smallpox and tuberculosis, away from the healthy folk of Brighton.

All that now remains of the Fulking Isolation Hospital is a flat wide platform. It was in use from around 1902 to September 1940 when it was requisitioned for military use, later falling into ruin.

Bomb testing in the First World War

By 1918, the Government had requisitioned Devil’s Dyke and transformed it from an adventure park into a munitions research and testing ground.

Researchers found the remnants of a small, concrete building on Devil’s Dyke estate that was identified as a ‘bomb house’ and possibly used to make and store detonators.

The geography of Devil’s Dyke provided an ideal bomb testing site. Bombs were suspended from cables that were hung from a framework of pylons and trolley tracks built on each side of the valley.

They could then be dropped from a height of up to 250 feet (76 metres) to ensure they were fully armed before impact.

However, few bombs were detonated. Construction work was only completed in early November of 1918, just days before the Armistice and the end of the First World War.

Chalk path ascends at Devil's Dyke, South Downs, West Sussex in September

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