“Wimpole Street!” she cried suddenly, as she caught sight of the name on the corner; “that is the street where Maria Crawford in Mansfield Park, you know, ‘opened one of the best houses’ after she married Mr.
Rushworth. Think of seeing Wimpole Street! What fun!” – ‘What Katy Did Next’, Susan M Coolidge
This roughly sums up the way I have been reacting to various things English. It could also explain why my to-visit list is littered with several nondescript names. If you ask to visit the capital city, I’ll probably choose a village tucked away in a hollow scooped out of a hill, sometimes unknown even to the locals. Sussex seems to have done pretty well in terms of attracting popular literary figures. Virginia Woolf and Rudyard Kipling spent a few years in towns not too far from where I live. The buses on Brighton’s roads often bear the names of famous people with associations here- and I was absurdly excited the two times I took the Graham Greene bus. Stella Gibbons set her fictional village, Howling, in Sussex in her satirical novel Cold Comfort Farm. Charleston Farmhouse, home to the Bloomsbury Group which included Woolf, EM Forster and John Maynard Keynes among others, is a short train ride away. And yes, I live just an hour away from London, which has more literary connections than I can count off the top of my head. There is much to see, and time is flying faster than it has a right to.
This afternoon, I had my first experience of a proper English house in the countryside. We took the train from Falmer to Newhaven (where, to quote Coolidge again, Mrs Ashe decided to leave for France from), a lovely ride through the sun-bathed, cattle-strewn Downs, with just two stops in between- the fairly large station of Lewes, and the single rural platform of Southease, which resembled a country town forgotten in the mad rush towards civilisation, and hastily tacked on to the map later. There was something very relaxing about Southease: all that was visible through the train window was a rolling expanse of greenery, and perhaps reflected of the nature of this aptly-named town.
I have long been enchanted by Newhaven because you can take a ferry from here to Dieppe, France: the smallest thought of a new country, a distant coast and a different language is very exciting. Even if it is just political eccentricities creating the notions of borders and nations, there is something intriguing about the knowledge that the moment you cross this strip of water, you’ll be in France, in continental Europe, the setting of so many literary dalliances, crimes and much depravity. Think of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Monte Carlo or the French Riviera (whose nature I like to think Brighton matches). What’s not to love about Europe?
Our hostess met us at the station and drove us to her gorgeous house. In a shed very close to the house, several exquisite pieces of pottery were lined up on shelves; in another shed beside it was a huge kiln, which she explained was fired up once a year for three days. The windows of the shed looked out on a magnificent sloping garden to which we soon made our way, to bask in the sunshine and eat like we’d been starved for days. The picnic was very English- now I’m going to sound like Enid Blyton, bear with me- we had fruit, three kinds of cheese, biscuits, quiche, meringues, strawberries, and cake, with mango juice to wash it all down with. We later had flavoured tea in grey cups made at the kiln. I’d always wondered whether the kids in Blyton’s mysteries actually ate all those quantities of food that they seemed to carry around: I can now vouch for the fact that sitting in the English sun can give you a healthy appetite.
The house itself was wonderful, large and comfortably furnished, with a welcoming air about it. What I liked best was that the rooms were strewn with books and you could just let your nose lead you to the nooks you fancied. The house was flooded with sunlight streaming in from various windows, and the lived-in air of it made a pleasant change from the sterile, sanitary air that so many people seem intent on giving to their new, squeaky-clean shells. To add to its charms, we learnt that one of Charles Darwin’s grand-daughters had lived here till she died a couple of years ago.
The garden was strewn with comfortable little seats and statues. Two Pharaohs stood in silent stateliness by the wall, their stony gazes fixed straight ahead. Clumps of flowers grew all around, their coloured heads bobbing over long green blades of grass- the violet irises were particularly pretty. Doves called out from the branches overhead, and all that felt missing was a little gurgling brook to complete the splendid picture. We talked of Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden– the place was just so reminiscent of the stories we knew and loved so well- and I know the next time I read of the picnics my girlhood heroines went on in hidden forests, I’ll instinctively think of Newhaven. It was like being twelve again, enjoying a carefree afternoon in a green-and-gold dappled garden with hidden wells and curious doorways, the rest of the world just a distant, unreal memory.
Reality catches up with you no matter where you go- but as Anne would say, it helps to have an imagination, and that’s something that doesn’t go rusty with time if you take good care of it.