“Is this a typically English day?” I ask a classmate of mine who has lived in Brighton most of his life. The quest for the perfect example of proper English weather has apparently come to an end, for he replies in the affirmative, and tells me that the weather will probably continue to remain so till March. Splendid, isn’t it, to think of cold, windy days when you can barely manage a decent handshake and your fingers are so numb they constantly long for the comforting contours of a cup of hot coffee, never mind drinking it? The rain begins as I let myself into my room, and dead leaves are being blown off the trees outside my window. They whirl madly on the road before gathering in little heaps. Soon they’ll all be gone (and I can’t help thinking of The Last Leaf, but that’s just me being morbid), and I can imagine the stripped trees now, stark and skeletal on moonlit winter nights. All I ask for now is a bit of snow in December. Could I be living a more enchanted life than this?
On sunshiny days- which are merely bright, but not hot, because the rays rarely manage to make their way down to earth unmolested by cold winds- we walk on the green, verdant slopes around Falmer. It is a Saturday afternoon, and hordes of people, some in blue-and-white striped tees, are walking from Falmer Station to the Amex Stadium for the game between Hull City and Brighton & Hove Albion. We leave ‘civilisation’ behind for the vast, open spaces that are just a short walk away. The grass is thick and manicured (a friend of mine asks if it grows that way- I need to find out if it does), criss-crossed by cobwebs that shimmer brightly as they catch the rays of the sun. In the distance, the hills arc gently against bright, cloudless blue skies, dotted by plump (or traditionally-built, as Alexander McCall Smith might say?) sheep and cattle. Roads cut through the hillsides, not in the rough, autocratic manner that they do back home, searing deep gashes into them and making them bleed, but ribboning smoothly through only where necessary. The occasional glint of glass reveals a car driving into oblivion. Are there any mysteries in these hills? They look harmless: soft, quiet and friendly. Will we stumble upon a hidden spring or a haunted Victorian mansion? The only thing of interest we do find is a memorial pushed back into the woods, dedicated in 1775 to the memory of Frederick Frankland, Esq., by his son and daughter. (The word daughter here probably means daughter-in-law: the inscription bears the names of the son and his wife, and presumably follows pre-Victorian traditions.) Groups of picnickers watch their kids play football; the shadows are beginning to lengthen and some of them are already stowing bikes and prams away into their cars.
Aimless walking brings us to the village of Stanmer. Through a line of trees, we catch a glimpse of a large building; on closer inspection, it turns out to be Stanmer House, once a proper house, now used for functions and open to the public only once a week. We save our investigation for later and move towards the imposing church that has caught our eye. It looks very English, made of grey stone, with a majestic spire spiking into the sky. We have to walk through a graveyard to reach the door of the church, and the inscriptions on the gravestones bear the names of Earls of Chichester and other ‘distinguished’ people. The area around the church is heavily shaded by trees; what would it be like on a rainy day, with the wind howling through the branches and the fragrance of damp earth pervading the air? (I wish I’d brought my MR James along; of course, there’s always Project Gutenberg to fall back on, but without the musty odour of mottled old paper.)
We walk further into the village, past some stables and a bit of pasture-land. One of the horses grazing there approaches the fence, cropping grass eagerly and ignoring his feeding-trough; he looks up momentarily as we pass, then his beautiful brown head dips back earthwards, business beckoning. We pass a tea-room- and now I’m really and truly in Storybook England, where men in tweed suits and women in printed dresses sit at high tea, red brick houses with little white gates and smoking chimneys in the background, their village the nucleus of a wide world that may not even exist for all they care. I think back to Enid Blyton and Peterswood, where my love affair with England began, later kept alive and flourishing with the abetment of the Bronte sisters, PG Wodehouse and George Eliot.
The journey has just begun, and there is plenty to look forward to. I live in a state of eternal anticipation, thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.