Ireland was drawn to the Sussex site of Chanctonbury Ring over many years, eventually deciding to live within sight of its dominating presence. In his lifetime Chanctonbury boasted an impressive circle of beech trees planted around the ditch of an iron age camp. The ring has a rich history and is also associated with many myths. The trees were planted by Sir Charles Goring (1744–1829), starting in 1760. Goring himself lived in Wiston House at the foot of the hill, one of Sussex’s great stately homes, dating from 1573. As well as planting the trees, Goring remodelled the house, locating the main reception rooms to look out across the Sussex Weald.
Chanctonbury was a great draw for Ireland, both for the view of the hill and the extensive views from the hill, which looks out over other historic sites such as Cissbury Ring and Harrow Hill. It has many layers of history, with Iron Age and Roman remains found there. At the time of the Roman occupation there was a temple in the centre, possibly a site of worship to Mithras, and there are also three small round barrows just outside the ring. It was excavated in 1909 and again in 1977, revealing many examples of Iron Age and Roman pottery and animal bones. There are several legends associated with the place, one being that anyone who runs seven times round the trees will be offered a bowl of soup by the devil. The trees themselves have also provided local weather lore.
All of these factors – place, history, legend – coloured Ireland’s eventual decision to buy Rock Mill, overlooking Chanctonbury. In October 1987 a storm blew down many of the trees, leaving it now a more open place, yet still with the same eerieness that has been commented on many times:
‘Naturally the Ring is haunted. Even on a bright summer day there is an uncanny sense of an unseen presence, that seems to follow you about. If you enter the dark wood alone, you are conscious of something behind you. When you stop, It stops; when you go on, It follows. If you stand still and listen, even on the most tranquil day when no breath of air stirs the leaves, you can hear a whispering somewhere above you. No birds live in this sombre wood but a pair of yaffles, and occasionally the silence is broken by a loud, mocking laugh. Only once have we been so bold as to enter the Ring on a dark night. My wife and I went there alone. We shall never repeat the visit. Some things are best forgotten if they can be, and certainly not set down in a book’ (Gosse, 1936: p. 96).
Bedwin, O. ‘Excavations at Chanctonbury Ring, Wiston, West Sussex 1977’. Britannia. Vol. 11. 1980. pp. 173–222.
Gosse, P. Go to the country. London: Cassell, 1936.
Simpson, J. ‘Legends of Chanctonbury Ring’. Folklore. Vol. 80, No. 2 (Summer, 1969), pp. 122–131.
White, R. ‘Wiston House Remodelled’. Architectural History. Vol. 27. 1984. pp. 241–54.