Highdown Trail 12 - Worthing Heritage Alliance

Highdown is not really that high – 81m
(266 feet), but its unique position as the
only hill on the Sussex coastal plain, gives
it commanding views along the coast,
from Beachy Head in the east, to the Isle
of Wight in the west.
Geologically, Highdown is unique in
being the sole survivor of a series of chalk
hills that once ran to the south of the
South Downs. A combination of glacial and
inter-glacial periods, with rising and falling sea
levels, have eroded away all the other hills in
this range, leaving Highdown in glorious
Whereas all the hills of the South Downs
have a gentle ‘dip’ slope on their south face
and a steeper ‘scarp’ slope on their north face,
at Highdown the alignment is reversed, and it
is the steeper slope that faces southwards
towards the sea.
The ancient boundary between the
parishes of Goring and Ferring runs
north/south and to the east of the summit of
Highdown, dividing the modern local
government districts of Worthing Borough
and Arun.
Although there is little to substantiate the
charming claim that Highdown was ‘once the
traditional burial ground of the kings of
Sussex,’ it is a very important archaeological
site and one steeped in local folklore.
The Hillfort is in the ownership of the
National Trust
Approach on the A259 from the Worthing direction.
It is necessary to drive to Angmering on the A259 and
use the roundabout to return towards Worthing on
the eastbound carriageway. The turning to Highdown
Towers is on the left. There is a sign but motorists
should approach at a moderate speed to ensure they
indicate in sufficient time.
Duration: 2km, allow one and a half hours.
Terrain: mainly grass, occasional flint and chalk
footpath. Moderate climb to the summit and hard
going for wheelchair users and pushchairs. Please
wear appropriate footwear – boots or shoes with
strong grip. Ground may be wet and slippery.
Highdown Gardens
Highdown Gardens
Highdown Towers
The Miller’s Tomb
The Highdown Hillfort
The Lodge Houses The two dwellings on either
side of Highdown Rise entrance are the original lodge
houses of Highdown Towers. In 1907 two farm labourers
sheltering from a storm here were killed by lightning
(see Heritage Trail 8, Goring). For nearly 70 years, the
west lodge was the home of Florence Holden, who
spent her whole working life as a gardener at Highdown
Chalk Gardens. She moved into west lodge with her
parents in 1913. Her father was a farm labourer who
rented the lodge house from Sir Frederick Stern.
Highdown Towers Highdown Towers was built
in the 1830s as ‘The Dower House’ and then formed
part of the estate of the Lyon family resident at
Northbrook and later Goring Hall (see Heritage Trail 8,
Goring). It was shortly afterwards renamed Highdown
Towers and in 1909 became the home of Sir Frederick
Stern, who continued living in the house until his death
in 1967. On the death of Sir Frederick’s widow, Lady
Sybil, in 1972, the house and its contents were
bequeathed to the Borough of Worthing.
Over the next seven years various unsuccessful
attempts were made to find a use for the house. The
Institute of Choreology, a school specialising in the
teaching of dance was the first tenant. Then it became a
private sixth form college run by the Study Centre
Language School, but that too failed to pay its way.
Suggestions of turning the house into a rest home, a
museum, a theatre, arts centre or a hotel came to
nothing. Finally, in 1979, Richard Garratt took over the
property with plans to turn it into a ‘country club.’ It
actually became ‘Sterns’ nightclub. A number of high
profile police drug raids in the 1980s, made the house
notorious across the south coast. What, people
wondered, would Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil think of
their house being put to such a use?
The entrance to Highdown Rise and (inset) a Lodge House
Today Highdown Towers is a carvery and hotel and
very respectable.
Highdown Gardens Highdown Gardens has
been described as Worthing’s best kept secret. In
1909 Frederick Stern planned to build a tennis court in
the disused chalk quarry on his land and thought it
would be a pleasant idea to surround the steep banks
with flowering plants. Leading horticulturalists of the
day told him that he would never be able to grow
anything of beauty on chalk. However, undaunted, Stern
called in such specialist collectors as Reginald Farrer and
Ernest Wilson, who sent him specimens from around the
world, chiefly China and the Himalayas, many of which
were able to thrive in the alkaline chalk soil at
Highdown. Stern also benefitted from his dedicated
team of gardeners, led from 1912–1948 by his head
gardener, James Buckman. When Buckman was forced to
retire after losing his leg in an accident, his role was
taken over by John Bassindale, who remained head
gardener for another thirty years.
In 1956 Stern was knighted for his services to
horticulture. In the 1930s he had entertained royalty at
Highdown, including The Prince of Wales (later
Edward VIII) and his mother, Queen Mary who, in 1937,
planted a Chinese Hornbeam in the gardens.
After Sir Frederick’s death in 1967, aged 83, Lady Sybil
bequeathed the gardens to Worthing Council for the
enjoyment of local people and visitors in perpetuity.
John Bassindale was kept on as head gardener, and with
him Florence Holden who had worked at Highdown
since 1913. After her retirement she continued to visit
the gardens every day. In 1979 she told a local
newspaper that she would walk the gardens every
evening mentally criticising or praising the work done
during the day.
“Highdown,” she said, “belongs to me in my mind.”
Florence, John, James, and Sir Frederick himself formed a
remarkably close-knit and dedicated team that created,
over a fifty year period, the beautiful gardens we can all
enjoy today.
More information about the gardens, their history
and opening times can be found in a leaflet ‘Highdown
Gardens’ which is available from information points in
the gardens. See also www.highdowngardens.co.uk
Sir Frederick Stern
Frederick Stern was born into a wealthy banking family,
originating in Germany. He attended Eton and Christ
Church, Oxford. In his youth he earned a reputation as a
big game hunter and a successful amateur jockey. During
the First World War he served with the London
Yeomanry (Westminster Dragoons) and saw action in
Gallipoli and Palestine. He was twice mentioned in
despatches and received the Military Cross in 1917. He
rose to the rank of colonel. In
the Second World he
commanded the Worthing
Home Guard and went on to
be Group Commander of the
West Sussex Home Guard.
Stern was a lifelong Liberal
and once harboured
aspirations to stand as a
parliamentary candidate. He
attended the Versailles Peace
Conference in 1919 as a private
secretary to the prime
minster, David Lloyd George.
Apart from his love for
horticulture, Sir Frederick
should also be remembered
for his work for the disadvantaged members of the
Jewish community in England. Every year from 1920 until
his death, a group of boys from the Bernhard Baron St
George’s Jewish Settlement Club, Stepney, would be
invited by Sir Frederick to camp on his land during the
summer months.
Lady Sybil Stern
Sybil Stern was the daughter
of the portrait painter, Sir
Arthur Lucas. She married
Frederick Stern in 1919 and
together they shared a mutual
passion to create the gardens
at Highdown. In 1936 she was
appointed a Worthing
magistrate and remained in
post of the next 33 years. She
recalled one of her first
responsibilities was to inspect
the toilet facilities at local
pubs. Her first visit was to the “pub with a sinister
name" – the Nelson Shades (see Heritage Trail 9, Town
Centre Pub Trail). She recalled that in those days the
chairman and vice-chairman were two respected local
landowners, both well into their 80s, who were “rather
out of touch with everyday life.”
Lady Sybil was a great promoter of the National
Gardens Scheme. Both she and Sir Frederick regularly
opened their gardens to the public. Before her death in
1972, aged 77, she ensured that both the gardens and the
house were covenanted to the people of Worthing.
In 1966 Lady Sybil gave a talk to the Goring Parish
Fellowship in which she recalled life at Highdown in the
early years of the twentieth century. Today, when
Highdown Hill is surrounded by busy roads and modern
Highdown c.1910
(West Sussex County Council Library Service – www.westsussexpast.org.uk)
housing estates sprawl to the east, south and west, it is
astonishing to read her account of those days –
‘When Sir Frederick Stern first went to live at
Highdown in 1909, there was not a house to be
seen from the terrace [of Highdown Towers]. Two
miles of green fields stretched away to the sea,
crossed from east to west by the railway and
bordered on the south by the avenue of ilex trees.
The Littlehampton Road [A 259] at the foot of
Highdown Hill was a narrow lane sunk between
high hedges and planted with ancient elms. There
was no footpath and you walked to the pillar-box
at the end of Ferring Lane at your peril. Goring-bySea was then a small village, three miles west of
Worthing, with a population of about 500……
Make your way up Highdown Hill, heading towards the
summit. The small spinney of trees and bushes on the
right is the remains of an underground bunker built
during the Second World War.
Legend states that Miller Oliver used the sails of the
windmill to signal to smuggling vessels out at sea. There
was probably no windmill on the coast of southern
England more visible than Highdown Mill. Although
Olliver lived in a humble cottage on the northern slope
of Highdown (long since ruined), the canny miller
amassed a number of properties in the Worthing area,
including The Hollies in Tarring High Street (Heritage
Trail 7, Tarring). Olliver rented out these properties,
which added to his growing income.
On his cottage he erected a wrought iron weather
vane which depicted an Excise man with a drawn cutlass
chasing a smuggler, while the Excise man in his turn was
being pursued by an old lady with a raised broom. Most
ingeniously of all, when the wind blew, hinges on the
weather vane caused the old woman’s broom to crash
down on the head of the Excise man.
The tomb you are looking at was erected over thirty
years before the eccentric miller’s demise. To build his
tomb, Olliver would have needed the permission of the
landowner, Westbrooke Richardson of Findon Place, and
the vicar of Goring, the Rev Penfold, himself an
important landowner. Olliver clearly had friends in high
places, which may explain why no questions were ever
asked about his own considerable wealth.
A local newspaper account stated that 2000 people
attended Olliver’s funeral in 1793. He had lived to the
grand age of 84 and it seems the entire local population
from all the surrounding villages turned out to bid him
farewell. Six young women dressed in white carried his
coffin, while one of his grand-daughters read the funeral
The Miller’s Tomb Carry on up and you will see,
bearing to your right a single table-topped tomb,
the last resting place of Highdown miller and reputed
smuggler, John Olliver. Born in Lancing in 1709, Olliver
may have worked for the Customs Service as a young
man, if so it was a good apprenticeship for his later
smuggling activities. John took over as miller of
Highdown on the death of his father in 1750, who had
been miller before him. The mill stood on the top of the
hill just to the west of the present clump of trees. It was
a post mill and is believed to have stood on that spot
for centuries. It was blown down in a storm in 1826.
In 1937 a Roman bath house was discovered on the
western slope of Highdown. Plans for a further dig
were halted when vandals destroyed some of the
archaeology. It was believed that there may have been a
villa here. The war intervened and the dig at this spot
was never recommenced.
Curiously, the findings of a dig at Highdown, carried
out in 1988, following the Great Storm, have never been
Ritual and Riot.
Without written evidence, it is very easy to speculate
that Highdown was an important ritual site for
generations of local people, but not so easy to prove.
However some tantalising local newspaper stories from
the early nineteenth century suggests that even at that
comparatively late date, local people viewed this hill as
symbolically important.
As late as 1830 a Midsummer Bonfire was being lit on
Highdown. In the south of England, it was Midsummer’s
eve and not Hallowe’en that was regarded as the
auspicious time to commune with the spirit world (see
‘Midsummer Tree’, Heritage Trail 5, Broadwater) and
keeping a bonfire burning throughout that shortest
night of the year was seen as a powerful act of
communing with the unseen forces.
In 1834, during a time of much economic distress,
rural labourers gathered on Highdown to protest their
grievances and call out fellow labourers from as far away
as Yapton (some ten miles to the west). This is
reminiscent of the ‘hue and cry’ gatherings used to
The Miller’s Tomb and Summerhouse, early nineteenth
ferment medieval peasant rebellions. It strongly
suggests that Highdown had a powerful hold over
local people and may have been linked to old ideas of
magic. The labourers were forcibly dispersed by the
local yeomanry, and one of their leaders, George Ede,
was arrested and sent to the House of Correction at
Petworth for six weeks.
In Victorian times an annual cricket match was held
on Highdown at Midsummer.
In recent years Sompting Village Morris have
gathered here on the eve of the Summer Solstice, to
dance and light a symbolic bonfire. In point of fact the
solstice-eve, 21st June, is not the same as Midsummer’s
Eve, which falls on 23rd June. Just to add to the
confusion ‘Old Midsummer’, based on the pre-1752
Julian Calendar (which was eleven days behind our
current, Gregorian calendar) fell on July 5th, which was
still being observed in remote Sussex locations until
the early nineteenth century.
In Sussex, it was said that the ‘little people’, or
‘pharisees’, as they were known, could be seen dancing
on the top of Sussex hills at Midsummer. Such beliefs
certainly dated back to Saxon times or even earlier.
service. The miller had left plenty of money for the
mourners to drink and eat their fill. Indeed the day
seems to have ended in a riotous manner.
The inscriptions on the tomb were all written by
Olliver himself, and focused around his mediations on
death and redemption. Once verse refers to the skeletal
designs on the tomb –
Why start you at the skeleton,
‘Tis your own picture that you shun;
Alive it did resemble thee,
And thou, when dead, like that shall be.
Legend states that if you run around the tomb seven
times, the miller’s ghost will jump out at you.
The Highdown Hillfort Walk through the gate
in the flint wall to your left. This wall marks the
ancient boundary between Goring and Ferring parishes.
In the nineteenth century this was also the border
between land owned by the Lyon family at Goring Hall
and the Hentys at Ferring Grange.
Walk up the rising ground in front of you for about
400 metres until you come to the circular earthwork
and tree clump on top of the hill. The ditch and
embankment was first cut sometime in the late Bronze
Age (about 1000 BC) and then re-cut at a later date
before the Roman occupation in 43 AD. The question
still remains as to whether this was a fortified enclosure,
a ritual site, or simply a pound for livestock. It may, of
course, have been all three!
The real interest of Highdown from an
archaeological point of view lies in the Saxon cemetery
discovered by Mr Henty’s workmen in the 1890s. In
common with many nineteenth century landowners,
Henty wished to ape the fashion – begun by Charles
Goring of Wiston at Chanctonbury – to plant circular
clumps of trees on prominent hilltops in their
ownership. It was while digging holes to plant the
saplings at Highdown, that human remains were found,
complete with spears, shields, jewellery and other burial
goods. Later examination of the remains revealed 86
burials all dating from the fifth century, making it one of
the largest early Saxon cemeteries ever discovered in
the country.
Archaeologists digging at Highdown in 1937
Were these men and women, newly arrived from
land that today is part of modern Germany, invaders
who had seized this land by force of arms, or were they
a hired force, brought in to protect the old order?
It seems likely that it may have been the latter.
Excavations at Northbrook College, a mile away to the
east of Highdown, in 1988, revealed the existence of a
Romano-British villa that was still functioning at the
time the Saxon burials were taking place. Perhaps the
villa owner paid these people for protection? As the
years or decades passed could
there have been intermarriage
between the two communities?
It is impossible to know. But
neither the burials at Highdown nor
the occupation of the villa at
Northbrook continued into the
following century.
A beautiful late Roman period
goblet, complete with running
hare motif was discovered in
one burial. Was this a gift? Had
it been stolen or traded?
Whatever the truth,
archaeologists believe it
originated in the Middle East,
possibly Alexandria. It is now on
show, along with other remains
from the cemetery, in Worthing
Courtesy of Worthing Museum
The Worthing Heritage Trail leaflets provide information and
visual images relating to local history: those using the leaflets
and the website should ensure that they take due care and
attention when following the trails.
Please note that this trail may not always follow formal
pedestrian routes and there may be some roads to cross.
The Worthing Heritage Trails are created by the Worthing Heritage Alliance
(www.worthingheritagealliance.org.uk) and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Project Manager: Chris Hare – [email protected]
Text by Chris Hare. Photographs by Martin Snow. With thanks for information supplied by West
Sussex Geological Society (www.wsgs.org.uk).
Special thanks go to the following for information they have supplied for these trail leaflets and for
proof reading: Barbara Shaw, Debra Hillman, Dot Watson, Janet Clarke, Jean White, Martin Snow,
Pete Stafford, and Rosemary Pearson.
For details of local train and bus timetables and routes see www.westsussex.gov.uk/travelinfo
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