Chanctonbury is a high spot (883 ft; 269 m) along the ridge of the South Downs, just east of the village of Washington, and its Ring was originally the name given to a small Iron Age hill-fort whose barely noticeable earthwork overlooks its steep northern face. But in 1760, at a period when landscape improvement was in fashion among the gentry, Charles Goring, the sixteen-year-old son of the family whose estate included the hill, began planting a thick clump of beeches on the site. In time, this became perhaps the best-loved Sussex landmark, and it was these trees, not the earthwork, which everyone called Chanctonbury Ring. It was a favourite goal for walkers, and a site for family picnics. The great gale of 1987 virtually destroyed it, but hopefully the young trees now planted there will one day be worthy successors.
The spot has become the focus for several brief but memorable tales – or rather, groups of tales, for each shows considerable fluidity and variation – all of which were current in the 1960s, and probably still are. They were collected by one of the present authors in the late ’60s and ’70s.
Concerning the actual planting, it is often said that whenever he climbed the hill, Charles Goring carried a bottle of water with him to water his young trees; some, more cynical, say he sent footmen up with buckets every day. Another story is that when he was a little boy his father gave him a handful of seeds to do as he liked with, so he ran round the earthworks on the hill, scattering them as he went, and so the clump of trees was made. For other storytellers, the figure of the rich young landowner has dropped out, to be replaced by that folktale favourite the Lowly Hero or Heroine; for them, it was ‘a poor village boy’, or ‘three little girls from the vicarage below the hill’, who laboured to create the Ring.
The major factor in legend-building here was the nature of the clump itself, as it was in its prime: its density, its circularity, its coolness and silence contrasting with the sunny open Downs full of lark-song and the hum of insects. To some, this made it an eerie spot, and they would tell how they, or their dogs or horses, were unwilling to go close to the trees; alongside this general feeling of unease, there were more specific claims that it was haunted by phantom horses (heard but not seen), or ‘a lady on a white horse’, or a Druid, or a white-bearded Saxon killed at Hastings who had buried treasure there before going into battle and now wanders about looking for it. Run three times round the Ring, and one or other of these ghosts will appear to you.
Running or walking round the Ring is the stable core in a whole group of assertions well known in the area. The tradition goes back at least as far as Arthur Beckett’s Spirit of the Downs (1909), where we read: ‘If on a moonless night you walk seven times round the Ring without stopping, the Devil will come out of the wood and hand you a basin of soup.’ Nowadays, there are many variations on this theme, usually making the conditions more demanding; for instance, that the circuits should be done at midnight, or on a specified date, or by walking backwards. It is also asserted that it is impossible to count the number of trees in the Ring correctly, because there is some magic in them; moreover, in the 1930s it was also said that if anyone happened to reach the correct total, the ghosts of Julius Caesar and his legions would be seen marching across the Downs – a piece of pseudo-history, for the Roman invasion did not affect this part of Sussex.