A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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5 - Farthing Down - a Celtic and Saxon past, Folly beeches and strewn carnations

This common, Farthing Down, covering around 120 acres, is largely open grassland. It follows a ridge with valleys on both sides. One old-looking Corporation of London noticeboard, entitled 'Surrey Commons - Farthing Down Horse Rides', informs me of the old bye laws. Prohibited activities include: 'turning out uncommonable or unmarked animals'; 'applying for hire without a license'; 'using unauthorised portion of Coulsdon Commons as standing places', 'bringing horses on or over footpaths or lands set apart for exercise sports or games'; 'riding to the danger of the public or injury of commoners' cattle'; and 'racing or training horses or dogs'. A much newer and grander sign signals that the Corporation of London is still well-funded and actively promoting its open spaces policy. It gives me some basic information about the Corporation of London and the four Coulsdon Commons, of which Farthing Down is one. The Coulsdon Commons were purchased by the Corporation in 1883 after much haggling with a local landowner, Edmund Byron. The purchase was made possible by two acts of Parliament - the Epping Forest Act and the Open Spaces Act - adopted in 1878 as a result of concern about building development. The legislation enabled the Corporation of London to acquire open spaces within 25 miles of the City for the 'recreation and enjoyment' of the public. Like Happy Valley, Farthing Down is an SSSI; but it is also classed as an Ancient Monument.

As a consequence of the building of anti-aircraft trenches in 1939, a Celtic field system was discovered on the down, with a central track along the ridge and small fields running down the sides of the shallow hill at rights angles. Banks, known as positive lynchets, mark the lower edges of these fields, with negative lynchets marking the upper edges. The fields were dated as from the iron age by pottery fragments. Later, in 1948 and 1949, a Saxon cemetery was discovered on the down. It dates from the late 6th and 7th centuries. Some 20 burial barrows, used only for royalty or leaders, were found, along many other flat graves. One contained what is called a 'live burial' where the female skeleton lies in an unusual position, suggestive of the fact that she may have been buried alive, perhaps in punishment for witchcraft. Archaeologists blame looting and careless excavations in the 19th century for the lack of grave goods which would have helped to identify the barrows' occupants.

The area is not devoid of ancient artefacts. Downs Road runs along the west side of Farthing Down (also once called Fairdean Down); and one street further to the West is Fairdene Road. Two inhabitants of this latter, in the 1960s, Mr Airey at 41 and Mr Scott at 22, discovered very old axes in their back gardens. Mr Airey's was neolithic and polished, and Mr Scott's was Acheulian (according to information collected by the Bourne Society). I doubt these near neighbours ever fought with their axes, but, if they had of done, the more sophisticated neolithic tool might have had a slight advantage.

There are few trees on the down. A small dense copse of holly and the seven (or is it six) beaches at the high point, known as The Folly. I find a narrow entrance to the holly copse, and inside, strewn on the earth, are a dozen fresh carnations, white, pink and yellow. Why are they there? Has a lover's tryst gone wrong, or have they been laid carefully to mark some event - an old romance, the scattering of someone's ashes, a buried pet - and then been roughed around by an animal or the wind? Of the seven beech trees planted by MP Edward Bangham in 1783, only two remain, although one is but a stump having been killed by lightning many years ago. Five new trees have been planted to make up the numbers. In the middle of the circle of new beeches, a signpost points four ways, to Coulsdon in the north, Purley in the east, Hooley in the west, and Chaldon in the south.

Also, near The Folly, there's a Millennium Cairn with a metal plate giving pointers to various places of interest. Thus I know there are Saxon tumuli 0.28km to the north and 0.18km to the south. The BT tower is 23.9km northish, and the iron railway was 1km westish. A number of dark chocolate brown cows graze nearby. These cattle have been reintroduced by the Corporation of London since grazing appears to be the most efficient way to maintain the land as traditional chalk grassland, the way it's been for 2,000 years or more. Without grazing or other types of land management (like grass-cutting which is too harsh for some of the traditional plants), grasses and strong plants take over quickly. Thanks to the care and attention given to Farthing Down, it's still possible to find the rare greater yellow-rattle. This wild flower gets its name because the ripe seeds rattle in the pods when the wind blows. In the uncut grass near the folly, among the anthills, an enthusiast might be able to find dropwort, round-headed rampion or the common spotted orchid.

As for the ants, I know about these thanks to the four-sided information board at the entrance to Farthing Down. It says: 'These busy creatures can make nests three feet tall, with a basement underground. Like iron age people these ants are farmers, keeping herds of aphids. They milk them for their sugary honeydew. In return the ants keep the aphids eggs warm in winter and herd them from plant to plant.' I like the way ants are likened to iron age people, because I have my own comparison to make. As I continue north towards Coulsdon, the surrounding valleys and hills are now much more urban than they were only half a mile ago. One very visible wide road (Mead Way) which climbs up a neighbouring hill in a southeasterly direction towards Old Coulsdon (which must be over the hill) has houses backed on both sides by a thick band of grey winter woodland. The house plots - set at right angles to the road - form a regular pattern. Perhaps some future society will find traces of it in the landscape.


 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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