Kingley Vale is one of the most important archaeological sites in southern England and has 14 scheduled ancient monuments, including Bronze Age burial mounds at the top of Bow Hill, from where there are stunning panoramic views.
Location and access
The Reserve is 5 km north west of Chichester.
To reach the Reserve by car, leave the A286 at Mid Lavant and continue west, to the car park near the village of West Stoke. The Reserve is signposted from there and is about 15 minutes walk along a footpath leading to the main entrance. Here, there is a small information centre with permanent displays and more information about the Reserve.
There is easy access to the Reserve from the car park to the visitor centre, but beyond this the terrain becomes more difficult.
The Reserve is near the Cycle Chichester route of the Sustrans National Cycle Network.
There is a Nature Trail which follows numbered posts around the Reserve. An information leaflet can be downloaded from the website link at http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/ourwork/conservation/designatedareas/nnr/1006085.aspx
Visitors are most welcome. We ask you only to keep to paths and rights of way within the Reserve and to follow the Countryside Code. In particular, please keep dogs under close control, leave no litter and fasten gates after you. Neither camping nor fires are allowed. Mountain bikes and horses can cause severe damage to the turf and riders must keep to bridleways.
The largest yew trees occur at the foot of the valley. This species is very long-lived and research suggests that these trees may have become established here in pre-Christian times. Their shapes are weird and fantastic, contorted by time and centuries of storms. From some of the huge limbs, partially severed and thrown to the ground by the force of the wind, new root systems have developed. The natural 'layering' of the yews, coupled with the smooth texture of the old bark, gives some trees the appearance of giant, motionless serpents. Certainly the yew grove at twilight is no place for the faint-hearted and it is little wonder that legends of hauntings abound!
From here, the yews have progressively colonised the valley slopes. The Reserve's woods also contain many other shrub and tree species, including ash, privet, blackthorn, hawthorn, dogwood and holly. Their berries and seeds provide food for winter flocks of thrushes - among which are visitors from mainland Europe like redwings and fieldfares - and for small mammals. Yew leaves and seeds can be highly poisonous but birds and shrews can eat the pulpy red fruits without ill effect.
Kingley Vale is a Special Area of Conservation under European wildlife legislation. This reflects its great importance in an international context and gives it the highest level of protection from development of any kind.
Chalk downland & chalk heath
The downs of lowland England were used for thousands of years for raising sheep. This continuous pattern of grazing meant that a huge variety of low-growing, chalk loving plants could flourish, free from competition from more vigorous species which the sheep kept back. During and after the last war, most of this very rich and ancient turf was ploughed up and converted to growing crops. A few fragments escaped this process, those at Kingley Vale among them. Here, grazing still provides ideal conditions for plants like eyebright, wild thyme, rock rose and many species of orchid, including common spotted, bee, fragrant, frog and twayblade.
Associated with the herbs and fine grasses is a huge number of invertebrates, including butterflies like marbled white, brown argus and chalkhill blue. None of these can survive on grassland which has been 'improved' for agriculture.
The plateau at the top of Bow Hill has a capping of clay overlying the chalk. This enables not just typical chalk downland plants to flourish but also species normally associated only with acid conditions, such as heathers and tormentil. This extremely uncommon soil type, which allows two plant communities, normally distinct and separate, to grow side by side, is called chalk heath.
A wealth of wildlife
Of the 58 species of butterfly that breed in England, 39 have been recorded at Kingley Vale. Breeding birds have included nightingale, grasshopper warbler, blackcap, marsh tit and green woodpecker, though the first two of these are now only occasionally seen. The plaintive mewing of buzzards is sometimes heard over the Reserve. This species has certainly become more frequently encountered over the last 10 years. Other birds of prey to be observed are kestrel, sparrowhawk, hobby (in summer) and tawny owl. Of the mammals, the most significant in terms of their effect on the reserve's vegetation are rabbits and the herds of roe and fallow deer. Their grazing and browsing help to restrict invading tall grasses and scrub.
On the negative side, the deer chew the bark of young yew trees and check their growth. Among other mammals found here are stoats, weasels, foxes, dormice and badgers.
Past, present & future
People have been associated with Kingley Vale since far beyond recorded history. On the summit of Bow Hill are the tombs of ancient chieftains of the tribes who lived here around 1000 BC. These 'barrows' are known locally as the Devil's humps. Elsewhere on the Reserve, there are signs of Roman, Celtic and mediaeval settlements and cultivation. Canadian troops used the area for training during World War Two.
Kingley Vale was one of the first NNRs in England, with different sections being formally 'declared' between 1952 and 1956.
It was acquired for the nation through the efforts of Sir Arthur Tansley, the first Chairman of the Nature Conservancy. His memorial stone stands at the head of the Vale. The Reserve was further extended in 1968. Most of the countryside around the NNR is now managed intensively for agriculture and so is very hostile to most forms of wildlife. Thanks to the care of Natural England and its predecessor bodies, the value of Kingley Vale has increased over the years, both as a wildlife oasis and as a relief for the human spirit from the uninspiring monocultures that surround it.
The yew wood needs no management other than for public safety. The grassland is either grazed or mown to keep back the scrub and to allow the more delicate plants to thrive. Natural England staff also monitor the breeding birds and butterflies as part of national recording schemes and to help management decisions.
This site is one of the Reserves featured in Land Marks
, a colour 140-page softback book detailing the fascinating and often complex history of 21 English NNRs (available from Natural England). Contemporary photographs, historic paintings and illustrations complement detailed descriptions of these reserves, the historic personalities associated with them, and their wildlife interest.