Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Sussex Signposts

Have you ever gone to a place for the first time, and then, for inexplicable and unconnected reasons, kept being drawn back to it? Three years ago I had time on my hands before meeting a 'plane at Gatwick, and decided to try and find a church that I had espied the year before in the failing light somewhere in the Ouse Valley between Newhaven and Lewes in East Sussex. The first person I described the church to was looking after the National Trust counter that sits in Leonard Woolf's garage at Monks House in Rodmell, half way down on the opposite bank of the River Ouse where his wife Virginia loaded up the pockets of her coat with stones and walked into its waters. I described how the church sat to the left of the road, seemingly alone but towered over by a group of Scotch firs. He thought for some time until telling me he had absolutely no idea. Monks House gripped my imagination, as did the next village down the road, Southease. And then, returning up from Newhaven on the A26 I rounded a bend in the chalk hills and there it was. Beddingham. Complete with firs and backed by a round-topped section of the South Downs I now know to be Mount Caburn. Here it is in the photograph above and something that day happened very deep within me, something I still haven't fathomed out. But the signposts keep on rising up into my consciousness.
    At home I poured over the maps, noticing with pleasure that Southease was served by a little station from where a field path led via a bridge over the Ouse to the village, and looking in a Southern Railway timetable for 1947, as one does, I noticed that a train took just four minutes to get to Newhaven Harbour or six to Lewes. So of course I started to imagine myself here, four minutes to Eric Ravilious's harbour lighthouse, six minutes to Harvey's Brewery Shop in Lewes, a few minutes more to Brighton Rock.
    Not long afterwards I picked up Eleanor Farjeon's Book and read about Elsie Piddock's constant skipping taking place on, of course, Mount Caburn. That's it in the background of Ardizzone's lovely cover for the Puffin:
    The signposts continued, a map reference here, a paragraph in a book there. All now accidental, uncalled for but very pleasurably received. I started to see myself as an even more eccentric Other Man, the alter ego that dogged Edward Thomas on his travels throughout In Pursuit of Spring and who told him "There is no weathercock" at Kilve. Well there is at Southease, or at least a vane:
I saw myself walking across the Ouse floodplain to catch trains up to London, returning in the dusk and on the path home turning to see the carriage lights receding down to Newhaven.
    Other things then took up my time. Until a couple of weeks ago when I quickly scoured my bookshelves for something light but good to take down into Essex for three days. Ripple dissolve, as they say, to a school class room in 1959 on a Friday afternoon. We'd filled in our diaries for the week (like the passing of Buddy Holly) and settled down to hear the first chapter of a book read to us by Pop Widdowson. I was so entranced by The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett that I ran excitedly home to tell my mum all about it. At the weekend she went out and bought me a copy of the Puffin book for myself and I devoured it over a couple of evenings; almost certainly the first time I had read a book from cover to cover. So of course the next Friday afternoon I sat there smugly whilst Pop read the next chapter as I grinned and nodded at my fellow pupils.
The light faded over Colchester and I found myself immersed in the adventures of the Ruggles family in Otwell-on-the-Ouse. Oh no. Wait a minute. But yes, as the pages unfolded after all those years, it became clear that Otwell was Lewes (almost), Seahaven was Newhaven and Brightwell, of course, Brighton. Further delving found that Eve Garnett was indeed from Lewes. I felt as though someone had come up behind me and pointed to another signpost. Naturally I have to return, but what will I find? My hopelessly erratic imagination puts forward all sorts of possibilities, some of which I'm sure you're making up for me now. But, I have to say, it's with a certain amount of trepidation. I must just make sure nobody quietly ladens my coat pockets with pebbles.