At Rottingdean

When I woke up this morning to find the sun shining into my room, I knew it would be a criminal waste of clear blue skies to stay in. I had made vague plans earlier to go to Rottingdean, and such a cheerful morning only served to strengthen my resolve. I had a sort of map drawn out in my notebook, and I knew what places I wanted to visit.

One of the first things I learnt this afternoon was that KS Ranjitsinhji was associated with Sussex in some capacity; I saw his name on a Brighton bus. For the uninitiated, buses around Brighton & Hove are often named after famous personalities who have, at some point, been related to the county in some capacity. Ranjitsinhji represented Sussex in county cricket, and the knowledge gave me that immense pride characteristic to us when an “India-born” person wins the Nobel Prize or the Spelling Bee or a seat in the US Senate. I am very glad I chose to come to Sussex to study, because we also have buses named after Virginia Woolf and Graham Greene here.

The bus to Rottingdean wended its way through the streets of Kemp Town, up Elm Grove, past the racecourse, and it was soon in Woodingdean. The brilliantly blue sea, flanked by the rich green Downs, kept me company for a long while; I shall never stop envying the people who live in those lovely little houses overlooking such spectacular scenery. They wake up everyday to sunbathed hills, or to a vista of grey clouds rolling low over a grey, glassy sea.

I sat on the top deck of the bus, feeling very much as if the glorious day and its accoutrements had been manufactured for me alone, revelling in the ride to a place I didn’t know and which I was liable to get lost in. But one of the things about these little towns is that they have just one major centre, which all roads inevitably lead to. So, try as you might, you will end up on the way home sooner or later, and be safe in your own bed by nightfall (unless you choose not to).

A bank of slightly purple clouds on the horizon threatened to turn the sunshiny curtain into mere shreds of silken rays, but nothing could have dampened my enthusiasm this afternoon. We passed a cricket ground where a match was in progress- men in white on a placid green field bathed in natural light, with horses grazing on the picturesque hills not too far away- and I had a wild urge to jump off the bus right there and join the two other spectators. However, sanity prevailed and I decided to stick to my itinerary, quite sure that the match would still be in progress a few hours later.

The bus stopped at the White Horse, the last stop on the route, and I looked at my homemade map to find the street I had to take to get to my first stop, the Beacon Mill. I walked a bit, didn’t find it, and succumbed immediately to the allure of the sea, walking across the street- with all the cars on either side stopped just for my benefit- to a bench on the chalk cliffs. I sat down and wrote a diary entry, the sun burning my brow. I listened to the murmur of the shimmering sea, holding its own against the roar of the traffic. Turning to my right, I saw the black windmill on a low hill, mocking my ineptitude. Of course I wasn’t going to let my day go waste! Consulting my map again, I retraced my steps and realised that I had missed the street only because the signboard was conveniently tucked away where nobody would see it (or so I thought). From there, it was smooth sailing as I walked past the delightfully English tea-rooms and houses with manicured lawns. Little girls in uniforms rolled by on their skateboards and were treated to ice cream by indulgent grandparents. If ever a village seemed to have emerged straight out of an Enid Blyton book, this was it.

Rottingdean seems extremely proud of its windmill, which stands out like a beacon and is visible from just about every part of the village. Built in 1802, it is said to have been in use till 1881. It stands by a golf course in a natural reserve, the Downs rolling away in three directions, the sea lapping the beach by the chalk cliffs in the fourth. Rottingdean has one of the oldest cricket clubs around, established in 1758, and a plaque by the windmill explains that the pitch was once located right on the hill; however, in those days when there were no boundaries, a shot that sent the ball rolling down the hill resulted in 67 runs being scored before it was retrieved. The cricket ground is now in a different part of town.

The black-painted, much renovated windmill has a charm about it not matched by the gargantuan structures of today. I like windmills of every kind, though, and I was delighted to have been able to look at one at close quarters. I walked back to the High Street, from where I went on in the direction the bus had come down from; my map told me I had quite a distance to go before I arrived at my next stop. However, not two minutes later, I suddenly turned to see an archway wreathed in green: I was at Kipling Gardens.

Rudyard Kipling had spent a few years at Rottingdean, living at The Elms from 1897 to 1903. This is when he is supposed to have written Kim, Stalky & Co and some of the Just So Stories. A labyrinthine garden with stone walls is attached to the house, and one section of it consists entirely of rose bushes. The sunlight fell in smooth strands through various cunning crannies, and I wandered around the lawns feeling quite like Mary Lennox when she discovered the Secret Garden. A croquet lawn and a little plot of trees were tucked away at the back. What a beautiful place to dream in! I could just imagine Kipling stealing into this garden at dawn, to write of Kim’s fantastic adventures in the faraway Himalayas with the birds making music in the background- but did he ever imagine, while he wrote of the White Man’s Burden, that some day an Indian girl would sit on a bench by his rose bushes, hearing church bells toll and scribbling away in his own language?

Exiting the garden, I finally made my way to the cricket ground. It had a little pavilion and the rest of the batting eleven sat on a couple of benches outside it. The electronic scoreboard- which I own I was quite surprised to see- seemed to have a mind of its own. A dog lazed inside the boundary rope, having its ears scratched periodically and not even bothering to turn around to face the pitch. There were a couple of nets on one side, to which two players presently repaired for some practice.

The teams had an interesting composition- some of the players were corpulent and grey-haired, the others rather young and fresh. There seemed to be quite a few South Asians in the teams as well- we do have a knack for smelling cricket out. The ground sloped quite a bit on on one side, which meant that the ball always stopped well short of the boundary rope. The game was quite interesting, and played with a good deal of fervour- two wickets fell in the four overs that I watched, and singles were taken steadily, interspersed with a couple of fours. It was a pleasant sight- no capering men in coloured clothes, no floodlights or raucous spectators with obnoxious whistles, just a quiet day of elegant cricket on a village green.

I rose reluctantly as I began to get hungry, waited a bit for the bus on the other side of the road (though I thought I’d timed my departure perfectly), then decided to walk on to another bus stop to kill time, and finally watched the bus sail by as I was a few yards short of it. So I made my way back where I’d started to catch a bus that hugged the coast as it drove back to town, making me glad I’d missed the other one.

I adore grey skies and I don’t mind traipsing around town in the rain as long as the wind stays away, but it is quite nice to be able to have a few sunshiny days so I can tramp on the Downs, explore new villages and, importantly, watch some cricket. Here’s to a happy summer!

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