1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Downs
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DOWNS, the name of a system of chalk hills in the south-east of England. For the etymology of the word and its meaning see Down. It is most familiar in its application to the two ranges of the North and South Downs. Of these the North Downs are confined chiefly to the counties of Surrey and Kent, and the South to Sussex. Each forms a well-defined long range springing from the chalk area of Dorsetshire and Hampshire, to which, though broken up into a great number of short ranges and groups of hills, the general name of the Western Downs is given. The Downs enclose the rich district of the Weald (q.v.).
The North Downs, extending from a point near Farnham to the English Channel between Dover and Folkestone, have a length along the crest line, measured directly, of 95 m. The crest, however, is not continuous, as the hills are breached by a succession of valleys, forming gaps through which high-roads and railways converge upon London. The rivers flowing through these gaps run northward, and, except in the extreme east, are members of the Thames basin. These breaching valleys, which are characteristic of the South Downs also, “carry us back to a time when the greensand and chalk were continued across, or almost across, the Weald in a great dome.” The rivers “then ran down the slopes of the dome, and as the chalk and greensand gradually weathered back ... deepened and deepened their valleys, and thus were enabled to keep their original course.” The western termination of the North Downs is the Hog’s Back, a narrow ridge, little more than a quarter of a mile broad at the summit, sloping sharply north and south, and reaching 489 ft. in height. At the west end a depression occurs where the rivers Wey and Blackwater closely approach each other; and it is thought that the Wey has beheaded the Blackwater, which formerly flowed through the gap. In this depression lies Farnham, the first of a series of towns which have grown up at these natural gateways through the hills. The Wey, flowing south of the Hog’s Back, breaches the Downs at its eastern extremity, the town of Guildford standing at this point. The next gap is that of the Mole, in which Dorking lies. Between Guildford and Dorking the main line of the Downs reaches a height of 712 ft., but a lateral depression, followed by the railway between these towns, marks off on the south a loftier range of lower greensand, in which Leith Hill, famous as a view-point, is 965 ft. in height. East of the Mole the northward slope of the Downs is deeply cut by narrow valleys, and the depression above Redhill may have been traversed by a stream subsequently beheaded by the Mole. A height of 868 ft. is attained east of Caterham. The next river to break through the main line is the Darent, but here another lateral depression, watered by the headstreams of that river, marks off the Ragstone Ridge, south of Sevenoaks, reaching 800 ft. The lateral depression is continued along the valleys of streams tributary to the Medway, so that nearly as far as Ashford the Downs consist of two parallel ranges; but the Medway itself breaches both, Maidstone lying in the gap. The elevation now begins to decrease, and 682 ft. is the extreme height east of the Medway. The direction, hitherto E. by N., trends E.S.E. The final complete breach is made by the Great Stour, between Ashford and Canterbury, east of which a height of 600 ft. is rarely reached. The valley of the Little Stour, however, offers a well-marked pass followed by the Folkestone-Canterbury railway, and the North Downs finally fall to the sea in the grand white cliffs between Dover and Folkestone.
The South Downs present similar characteristics on a minor scale. Springing from the main mass of the chalk to the south of Petersfield they have their greatest elevation (889 ft. in Butser Hill) at that point, and extend E. by S. for 65 m. to the English Channel at the cliffs of Beachy Head. As in the case of the North Downs a succession of rivers breach the hills, and a succession of towns mark the gaps. These are, from east to west, the Arun, with the town of Arundel, the Adur, with Shoreham, the Ouse, with Lewes and Newhaven, and the Cuckmere, with no considerable town. The steep slope of the South Downs is northward towards the Weald. The southern slopes reach the coast east of Brighton, but west of this town a flat coastal belt intervenes, widening westward. Apart from the complete breaches mentioned, the South Downs, scored on the south with many deep vales, are generally more easily penetrable than the North Downs, and the coast is less continuous.
Smooth convex curves are characteristic of the Downs; their graceful and striking outline gives them an importance in the landscape in excess of their actual height; their flanks are well wooded, their summits covered with close springy turf.
“The Downs” is also the name of a roadstead in the English Channel off Deal between the North and the South Foreland. It forms a favourite anchorage during heavy weather, protected on the east by the Goodwin Sands and on the north and west by the coast. It has depths down to 12 fathoms. Even during southerly gales some shelter is afforded, though under this condition wrecks are not infrequent.
- Avebury, The Scenery of England, ch. xi.