The Sussex Downs – Firle and Charleston

It all started with a business contact of John’s who invited him to dinner in Lewes one Friday evening.  It seemed a long way to go just for dinner and if he drove there and back he wouldn’t be able to drink wine.  If I had been him I would have suggested a lunch meeting during the day in London or Lewes – and if Lewes, a little time to explore the town.  But I am not him!  Then I forgot all about it.

One evening, sometime later, we watched a television programme on the Sussex Downs, presented by an eccentric and enthusiastic vicar called Peter Owen-Jones.  He loved looking after his three small parishes and we saw him striding purposefully  over the Downs with wonderful views either side, saying he had found his spiritual home.  I was intrigued- he looked so footloose and fancy free –  I wanted to be like that.  So we ended up for the weekend, staying in a beautiful house called Old Whyly, recommended by the ever reliable Alastair Sawday, with the intent of exploring the East Sussex Downs.

The South Downs at Firle Beacon …

Dinner was duly had in Lewes that evening at a tiny but exquisite Thai restaurant, only a short distance away by car from our comfortable and rather grand hostelry.  Without this invitation we certainly wouldn’t have been here and I was excited at the thought of the weekend ahead.

Well rested, we had the treat of breakfast eggs, laid by hens, who were clucking around contentedly in the woodland garden.  Here are two having a stand off with each other  –  their colouring is softly mottled grey and black and their eggs are scramblingly delicious. Helped by Sarah’s culinary skills!


It was dry and sunny  –  we do need rain but next day was perfect weather for walking.  We set out for Firle Beacon via the village. See photo above of the ‘trig’ point + ‘walker’.

The ‘olde worlde’ of Firle

The church at Firle,  Sussex

Church window at Firle, Sussex

The ribbon tree in Firle churchyard … I added two to say thank you for our weekend away … many small pleasures are recorded here.

Church kneelers at Firle, Sussex

Through the looking glass … just like Alice

Now famished by fresh air, we made for the local inn, which promised good things –  and delivered!

At ‘The Ram’ inn, where we had a very satisfactory lunch – the soup is especially good.

Firle is at the end of the road and a path leads on upward to the Downs.

Looking towards Firle from the South Downs

The village is nestled below the escarpment, silent except for the people buzzing about the inn.  Someone had left their bicycle and seemingly never returned for it. It was as if we had gone back in time. I expected my phone to melt away like a mirage.

Bike in aspic

An old tithe barn where the road petered out – East Sussex

The Long Man of Wilmington who we passed on our travels …

Friends had encouraged us to go to Charleston  – the farmhouse  where the Bloomsbury Group used to spend many weekends.  The house has been left as it was when they were there.  No photos allowed inside.  It must have been freezing in winter, when guests were advised to bring blankets and a hot water bottle!  Our guide seemed to know everything about Vanessa Bell et al  –  and some of the stories were really salacious, their ‘partnerships’ being quite ‘fluid’.

I particularly liked the round dining table, designed and painted by Vanessa, with a bowl in the middle that echoed the yellow tones, made by Duncan Grant.

The Spring garden was at its best, the stone heads and statues handsome, even sexy, (except for one).  The pond was roiling with greedy fish.

Charleston – Spring blossom

Charleston – rhubarb, rhubarb …

… and a bottom

Charleston narcissi

Statuesque heads adorn the high walls and handsome torsos are to be found in green shade – and there’s a particularly sinister chap, lurking in the shrubbery!

A Virginia Woolf lookalike …

A handsome gladiator

A Greek hero … heroine  –  in any case, handsome …

Very unfavoured, lurking in the shrubbery …

and a very handsome fellow in the undergrowth, looking rather more splendid!

The lily pond bordered by trees is idyllic but the odd statue made me think of Virginia Woolf filling her pockets with stones and drowning in the River Ouse.

A surreal statue overlooking the lily pond, lending a melancholic air …

while under the water, the fish were rampant and voracious.

The lily pond at Charleston, teeming with fish …

Where’s my dinner?

Red and blue impressions …

It was time to go.  On the way back we took a small road which reminded me of David Hockney landscapes at The Royal Academy  –  what a fabulous exhibition that was!

A Hockneyesque landscape in Sussex

The weather had been kind to us and on our return to our home from home we enjoyed a stroll around the garden followed by a  happy hour chatting over elderflower champagne and a communal dinner, sitting at the large round table.  Complete rest and relaxation …

Tall trees and exquisite cherry blossom

Sunbeams – this photo reminds me of Ravilious, who also had a cottage in Sussex, quite near to Charleston.  It is worth looking him up  –  he was very talented.

A contemplative spaniel …

I’m rather fixated by this beautiful blue bowl capturing the sunlight!

… and the wallpaper makes a good backdrop …

After breakfast we reluctantly had to say our goodbyes to Sarah, our delightful châtelaine, her impressive and staunch Romanian housekeeper and our charming weekend companions, who hailed from Woodbridge in Suffolk.  The others, Scottish folk from Lanarkshire, were already on their long drive home.

This morning we have breakfasted together at the round table, a disparate group of strangers from many places and now we are all leaving, blown to different parts of the universe, maybe never to meet again.  White cherry blossom petals float down onto the grass. Our memories hold these transient images.  We are our memories.  And I’d like some more like this!

Instead of going home the same way, we meandered westwards towards the Iron Age hill forts of Cissbury and Chanctonbury Rings. We pass many vintage cars on the roads in Sussex.

Back on the road …

The weather is holding and we find the way up to Chanctonbury Ring along a one way country lane.  It’s quite a hike up through the woods on to the Downs but very well worth the effort.

Panorama of Sussex from Chanctonbury Ring

This place is thought to be haunted with a portal to the otherworld.  I am not a believer in ghosts but there is something I would call ‘spirit of place’.  In ‘The Old Ways’ by Robert Macfarlane he tells the story of staying the night up here. I would trust him completely and his story is chilling.  It has been backed up by several others who have tried to spend the night at Chanctonbury Ring and fled.

At Chanctonbury Ring – note the figure amongst the trees …

I would like to recommend Robert Macfarlane’s books.  I have read ‘Mountains of the Mind’, ‘The Wild Places’ and am now dipping into ‘The Old Ways’. I quote from the back cover   ‘Following the tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles and beyond, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world – a landscape of the feet and the mind, of pilgrimage and ritual, of stories and ghosts;  above all, of the places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations’.

John Carey of ‘The Sunday Times’ writes: ‘The Old Ways’ sets the imagination tingling …  it is like reading a prose Odyssey sprinkled with imagist poems.

Trees at Chanctonbury Ring

Soon after we were back on the A27 via Dorking home. A good drive with less traffic than we had thought  –  it was Boat Race Day and Barnes was busy – and it was good to be part of it all.


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