East Hill dominates the Eastern side of Old Town Hastings and you are struck immediately by it’s impregnability as you walk beneath the sandstone cliffs to the south or climb the steep steps on it’s western flank. Though we were here for a day trip and hadn’t come prepared with maps or ideas of a long stroll along the cliff tops it was evident once we were up there that this hill had history. There are perceptible undulations here and there across the turf indicating possible cross dykes or cultivation strips, but these are over-run with flattened areas suggesting more recent use as a putting green. Towards the crest of the hill is a broadly rectangular enclosure that I wasn’t entirely sure about as it’s now devoted to barbecuing, but it’s in the right place and has an air of ancientness about it. Walking on Eastwards across the hill you get magnificent views of golden limestone cliffs towering defiantly over a churning English Channel and just as you begin to dip downwards you come across the biggest piece of evidence so far in the form of a huge dyke running North to the other side of the hill. It’s largely overgrown and quite difficult to make out but it seems to be a whopper and suggests that this is indeed an Iron Age promontory fort.
Further research at home also revealed that the modern beacon you pass near the top of the steps stands on what was probably a large Bronze Age barrow. This was reused for burials in Saxon times possibly by the towns earliest Saxon arrivals who gave the town its name. West Hill, which stands across the valley from Old Town Hastings, also has prehistory and was also used to build one of the original Norman Castles following the conquest.
I’m going to make a plea here for The South Downs Way to become a site in it’s own right on TMA much like The Ridgeway is. On New Years day Mrs Cane and I walked from the car park near Combe Hill enclosure along the final stretch of the SDW down to Beachy Head. Now I’ve walked this section before, but on that occasion it was dusk and though I realised there were barrows and cross dykes dotted along the escarpment overlooking Eastbourne, I didn’t quite appreciate just how many there were. In a low bright January sun you can pick out far more easily the sheer profusion of Bronze Age handiwork in the landscape as the walk progresses. I’ve divided the barrows up according to their most local names, as there is no overall place name for this area, unless you name it the ‘Eastbourne Escarpment’, or indeed, ‘The South Downs Way’. So starting in the north just south of The Combe Hill Neolithic enclosure we have Babylon Down, Bourne Hill, Foxholes Brow, Foxholes, Beachy Brow, Eastbourne Downs Golf Club (rubbish name I admit!) and Pashley. Indeed this is a regular barrow cemetery stretching about 4 miles with quite a variation in barrow type from quite large bowl barrows, disc barrows and even conjoined examples down to the barely visible ‘trampled into the track’ type. Three to four thousand years ago they must have presented quite a spectacle if you were looking up from the flood plain below at this great range of hills as it wound its way down to the sea to come to an abrupt end at Beachy Head. It’s interesting too, to speculate as to why there are so many here anyway. Perhaps because it’s a terminus to the South Downs and possibly a trading point for goods coming in and out of the country and therefore of quite high importance and with a large population? Maybe because water was sacred to our ancestors and the area beneath the escarpment was flooded for a great deal of the time? Or perhaps they were just setting a precedent, as Eastbourne in relatively modern times has been a place to retire to and die!