They enlisted the help of Rudyard Kipling to save the iconic Seven Sisters and South Downs but as The Friends of the South Downs celebrate their centenary, they insist they still have plenty more of work to do  

It’s one of the country’s most iconic landmarks, starring in Hollywood blockbusters Atonement, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald as well as countless TV shows such as Foyle’s War and Poirot.   

But the Seven Sisters would look very different today if it hadn’t been for one dynamic conservation group, backed by famous and influential Sussex residents including Rudyard Kipling and flying circus and aeroplane pioneer Sir Alan Cobham, making their presence known in 1926.  

Great British Life: Solar Eclipse at the Chattri, South DownsSolar Eclipse at the Chattri, South Downs (Image: Michael Harris)

The Friends of the Sussex Downs, as they are known today, took drastic action to stop property developers building a new town on top of the famous cliffs, almost a century ago, preserving the stunning landmark and dramatic coastline for all of us to enjoy. 

Now the conservation society is celebrating its centenary this year and as well as hosting themed walks, writing a book on the history of the Friends, and arranging talks with prominent personalities – which are all hush hush at the moment – they’re still hard at work ensuring the Downs remains the jewel in our county’s crown.  

‘For 100 years the Friends have worked to preserve one of the most wonderful areas in the country,’ the society’s chairman David Sawyer says. ‘Our projects aiming to encourage young people, especially from deprived areas, to appreciate the Downs will introduce a new generation to the national park.’ 

No doubt the history of how this society came to be will be as fascinating as the stunning scenery, and the younger generation will appreciate just how much the original group, a band of walking enthusiasts known as the Society of Sussex Downsmen has achieved.  

The Downsmen were formed in 1923 and went largely unnoticed until property developers bought the land on top of the famed Seven Sisters beauty spot in East Sussex three years later.  

The developers wanted to create a new town called Southdown Bay, based on nearby Peacehaven which had been recently built and was steadily expanding. As well as a rail link to Eastbourne, they planned to build a seaside pier and offer a range of public facilities.  

The plan horrified the Downsmen, who decided to oppose it, calling on famous residents, including Rudyard Kipling, to help them as he lived in nearby Burwash.  

The group’s founder Robert Thurston Hopkins wrote to the local and leading newspapers, objecting to the scheme and was stunned at the response. ‘Letters arrived, newspaper reporters tracked me down, people from far corners of Sussex called on me – caterers, builders of club pavilions, sports outfitters, furniture dealers, cranks – hundreds of letters all full of questions, all clamorously demanding early replies. I found myself wildly struggling in a seething whirlpool of complexities,’ he admitted.   

Great British Life: South Downs National Park heathland - Stedham CommonSouth Downs National Park heathland - Stedham Common (Image: Sam Moore)

The Downsmen’s president, Arthur Beckett, launched The Sussex County Magazine, the forerunner of Sussex Life, and as editor, put the Seven Sisters on the front cover of the first issue in December, 1926. Over the next few years, the magazine regularly featured articles headed ‘SOS’ standing for ‘Save Our Sussex,’ which focused on conservation issues and frequently mentioned the activities of the Downsmen.  

In January 1927, having rallied the London press to help save the Seven Sisters, Thurston Hopkins wrote: ‘The biggest scheme that the Society has set its hand to is one which has for its object the preservation of the whole range of the South Downs.’  

In the meantime, plans for Southdown Bay stalled when the railway company pulled out, and the backers put the land up for sale for £17,000 - much more than they had paid for it – ‘for one month only’, hoping for a quick sale.  

The Downsmen were determined to raise enough money to buy the site and enlisted everyone they could to help. World speed record challenger Sir Alan Cobham, who had recently flown from England to Australia and flew his flying circus out of Sussex, landed his Moth biplane on the cliffs to publicise the fund-raising campaign. He then auctioned one of Kipling’s books to aid the funds.  

Money came from several wealthy sponsors, and, touchingly, the mother of a soldier killed in the First World War donated a golden sovereign that he’d owned. By the final day, with just hours to go, £5,000 was still needed, but a last-minute loan secured the deal.                                             

The redevelopment plans were completely abandoned and the land was passed on to the National Trust, who declared it inalienable - not transferable - and for free public use indefinitely.  

Great British Life: The Society of Sussex Downsmen badge The Society of Sussex Downsmen badge (Image: supplied)


Buoyed by this, the Downsmen were determined to protect their beloved Downs and hired a number of district officers to check local planning applications to check for anything that would be detrimental. They also instigated a thorough inventory of existing footpaths, ensuring they were fully accessible.                                     

All kinds of projects came under their scrutiny including plans, in 1937, for a pleasure beach at Cuckmere Haven (‘the one and only coastal opening in East Sussex remaining unspoilt’), a large new, housing estate at Landport, north of Lewes, a scheme to bore for oil in several Sussex locations, constructing an underground reservoir on Chanctonbury Ring, plus a sudden proposal to build on Highdown Hill, north of Worthing.  Most, fortunately, came to nothing.  

The Downsmen were constantly in touch with both East and West Sussex County Councils, as well as the smaller local councils, to be far more robust about planning applications and reminded them what an asset the Downs were to the county.   

Great British Life: The society used The Sussex County Magazine to campaign to save the Downs and Seven SistersThe society used The Sussex County Magazine to campaign to save the Downs and Seven Sisters (Image: supplied)                                                                                                                          

Slowly but surely over the years, Thurston Hopkins’ idea of preserving the South Downs seemed a plausible prospect and in 1959 the Downs was formally acknowledged as an area of outstanding natural beauty.                                                                                        

In 1970, to mark European Conservation Year, the group cleared Chanctonbury Ring’s famous dew-pond, saving it from being lost. The same year, the National Trust launched their South Downs Appeal with the aim of buying up areas of threatened Downland and setting up funds for their ongoing management. Most of the purchases made were grant-aided due to the work of the Downsmen.                                


As areas were acquired, they realised the safeguarding of  the Downs could be best achieved by having the whole area declared a National Park, as had happened with the Peak District, Dartmoor, the Yorkshire Dales and the Brecon Beacons.             

And in 2005, the group finally changed its name to The South Downs Society, acknowledging that it hadn’t been a mens-only group for years and years.  

The South Downs National Park was finally approved in 2009, with the opening ceremony taking place in Hampshire, where the Downs start, at Petersfield, on 1st April 2011. After the unfurling of the SDNP flag from St Peter’s church tower above the market square, Margaret Paren, Chair of the park authority, rang a hand bell, starting a mass peal of bells from some 20 churches across the area.                       

The park was the tenth to open in England. It covers 628 square miles of land, stretches 87 miles from St Catherine’s Hill, near Winchester, to Beachy Head, near Eastbourne, incorporating numerous cities, towns and villages, plus all manner of landscapes and geographical features of which 660 are protected sites. There are a huge number of historical locations, including two chalk hill figures: the White Horse at Litlington and, of course, the Long Man of Wilmington. It soon became the most popular National Park in the UK, with visitor numbers even surpassing those to the Lake District.             

Great British Life: The Long Man of WilmingtonThe Long Man of Wilmington (Image: Getty)

In 2017, the Society was re-branded again, as Friends of the Sussex Downs, mainly so the public would know they were not the same group as the National Park and to give some idea of the role they would now play - campaigning for improvements and monitoring what’s happening on a day-to-day basis.  

The Friends of the South Downs now has 1,500 members, and they see themselves as ‘critical friends,’ actively involving themselves with issues affecting the park, both large and small. Their aims are to protect the Downs from damaging changes and to promote enjoyment and appreciation of them through improvements and education.   

They have a comprehensive program of activities in this their 100th year and are busy changing stiles to kissing gates, refurbishing damaged parts of the South Downs Way, fitting oak seats at regular intervals along the SDW, and, as chairman David says: ‘encouraging ever more people to love the South Downs as we do.’    

Arthur Becket was so passionate about the Downs he wrote a song back in January 1927 which he published in his magazine:   

You may sing me of the World of Kent,                                                                                                      

Of Devonshire lanes, and their sweet content,                                                                               

Naught know I of these to their detriment,                                                                                        

Nor of Surrey’s greeneree;   

You may praise, if you will, your Yorkshire Dales,                                                                         

Your Cotswold Hills, or your peaks of Wales;       

But give me the land of the Channel gales,                                                                                             

The Sussex Downs for me! 

He and Thurston Hopkins didn’t see the creation of the National Park. Beckett died in 1943, Thurston Hopkins in 1958. But they would have been astounded at what was achieved during their group’s first 100 years and proud that the society still host walks over the entire Downs, including the Seven Sisters they saved all those years ago.