Page last updated at 16:46 GMT, Tuesday, 31 March 2009 17:46 UK

Downs 'preserved for centuries'

By Tanya Gupta
BBC News, Sussex

John Copper's great-grandfather James "Brasser" Copper
Mr Copper's great-grandfather was known for his booming voice

In the hills above the city of Brighton are thousands of acres of deserted countryside that have not changed for hundreds of years.

John Copper, whose family have lived and farmed in the South Downs since the 16th Century, knows the history of the landscape dating back to Saxon times.

His family has not only documented the area's folk history in writing - it has also preserved its agricultural heritage in music and song.

He said: "I know the old field names.

"Those fields have been tilled by my forefathers since 1593.

"A continuous line of people tilled these fields - I walk on the same ground."

Agricultural community

At the height of his family's agricultural past, the Copper family farmed 3,000 acres of land which is part of an area stretching from Sussex to Hampshire that has been designated a new national park.

Two thousand acres were given to sheep farming, and the other thousand were under the plough.

From 1897, the family had 60 full-time employees, hiring practically the whole village of Rottingdean, which was then a purely agricultural community.

John Copper's grandfather James "Jim" Copper

Mr Copper said his great-grandfather used to instruct the farm workers with a booming, loud voice each morning - so loud that all the women were said to have heard each day where their menfolk would be working.

Songs that were sung by the farm workers were handed down from generation to generation and are still kept alive by the Copper family.

The songs refer to old methods of farm work, such as sheep shearing before mechanical shears were invented, and describe the back breaking nature of the work, the gangs of sheep-shearers and the beer that was handed out at the end of the day.

And they also tell the story of people's lives.

The oldest song, The Shepherd of the Downs, which dates back to 1784 and was sung by Mr Copper's great-grandfather, is a love story.

Mr Copper said: "The songs were gathered in this area for generations.

"They were in the family all that time. They came to life in the downlands."

'Best-kept secret'

In 1926, the farm saw the first parcels of land being sold off.

The family no longer farms in the triangle between Brighton, Newhaven and Lewes, which is on the edge of the new national park.

But 60-year-old Mr Copper, who now lives in Peacehaven, walks there at all times of the year.

Many of the place names are derived from old Saxon words.

Index page of a pre-war song book by the Copper family
Songs describing the area's agricultural heritage were kept alive by the family

There are the looes - which are natural shelters where flocks can take refuge from the driving coastal winds.

And there are the slonks, which refer to historic places of battle and slaughter.

Mr Copper said: "It's a beautiful area.

"It's so close to very large conurbations.

"People are unaware of it. They don't go up there. It's Sussex's best kept secret.

"Very few people are aware that you can get to a landscape unchanged in appearance for hundreds of years.

"In 10 minutes, you can be out of the town and in uspoilt downland.

"It's the jewel in the crown of Sussex."

He added: "It's so underused people don't think of it.

"I've brought people from Scotland and London and they have been amazed because you don't see it from the road or railway.

"It really opens their eyes."

South Downs National Park agreed
31 Mar 09 |  England

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