William Harrison Ainsworth
Albumen print 1863
Look at it and judge.
It is the rounded summit of a hill; or, to speak with greater precision, the mid-summit of a series of soft bosomy eminences, springing from a hilly ridge, that trends towards the coast, and rises and falls smoothly and gently in its course, like the waves of a slightly agitated sea. The lovely mount is covered with short elastic sward, redolent of thyme and other sweet-smelling herbs, and is crowned by an ancient bowl-shaped British barrow, on the bank of which we will seat ourselves, and look around.
How pleasing is the prospect! how fresh the air that visits us! No breeze so fine and invigorating as that of these Sussex downs; no turf so springy to the foot as their smooth greensward. A flock of larks flies past us, and a cloud of mingled rooks and starlings wheels overhead. Enough for us, the fairies are not altogether gone. A smooth, soft carpet is here spread out for Oberon and Titania and their attendant elves to dance upon by moonlight; and there is no lack of mushrooms to form tables for Puck’s banquets.
Own that no hills can be more beautiful than these South Downs. They may want height, boldness, grandeur, sublimity; they possess not forest, rock, torrent, or ravine; but they have gentleness, softness, and other endearing attributes. We will not attempt to delineate the slight but infinite varieties of form and aspect that distinguish one hill from its neighbour; for though a strong family likeness marks them all, each down has an individual character. Regarded in combination with each other, the high ranges form an exquisite picture. Contemplation of such a scene soothes rather than excites, and inspires only feelings of placid enjoyment. We are called upon for no violent emotion. We are not required to admire Nature in her wildest and most savage aspect. We have a peaceful landscape before us, of a primitive character, and possessing accompaniments of pastoral life. Yonder is the shepherd, with crook and dog, watching his flock browse on the thymy slopes—the unequalled sheep of the South Downs, remember. On the near height overlooking the sea stands a windmill, while a solitary barn forms a landmark on that distant hill. Altogether, a charming picture.
The beauteous hill, on the brow of which we are seated, has necessarily a valley on either side. On the right, and immediately beneath us, is a pretty little village, nestling amid a grove of trees, above whose tops you may discern the tower of a small, grey old church. With this village we trust to make you more intimately acquainted by-and-by. It is Ovingdean. On the left, and nearer the sea, you may discern another, and considerably larger village than Ovingdean, almost as picturesque as the latter, and possessing a grey, antique church at its northern extremity. This second village is Rottingdean.
Behind and around on every side, save towards the sea, are downs—downs with patches of purple heather or grey gorse clothing their sides—downs with small holts within their coombs, partially cultivated, or perfectly bare—everywhere downs.
Pleasant it is where we sit to watch the clouds chase each other across the valleys, up the hill-side, over the hill-top, then losing them for a while, behold them again on a more distant eminence, producing in their passage exquisite effects of light and shade. Meet emblem those fleeting clouds of our own quick passage to eternity.