I am a Sussex lad – brought up on the land that lies between the rolling chalky downlands, imaginatively called, The South Downs, and the English Channel, known in these parts as The Sea.
When I was a wee lad though, they were called The Country and The Seaside.
They were playgrounds, open and free, where the sun always shone and the days were as long as the years in the adult world.
It was only much later, when I lived a few hundred miles North, in one of those grand Industrial Revolution inland cities, that I realized that I missed the seaside with its, for some, disappointingly stony beaches, and the countryside where white chalk paths ran on for miles through golden corn fields.
I remembered too those long hot Summer days when it never rained and when you only ever came in doors for tea and bedtime.
On those rainy Northern days, well it doesn’t always rain up there but it rains more than average in the Summer, I thought of the golden South and my mind’s eye saw dry yellowy grasslands struggling to survive on the white chalky soil and flinty pebbles on the beach.
It was the flint that finally did it for me.
Flint walls, flint built houses, flint pebbles on the beaches and scattered through the fields.
So the colours of Sussex, for me the nostalgic Sussex lad, were grey, white and yellowy-green.
A few years ago, I came South for a trip to the opera, at Sussex’s miraculously improbable opera house. Glyndebourne, which puts on World class opera productions in a ludicrously rural setting. This too was a place vital to my youth, if not my childhood.
On that particular August day, the sun shone its most relentless heat, the music was Mozart, Don Giovanni, and there I was, during that traditionally long interval, champagne glass in hand, looking out over the golden cornfields, the parched downland grass with its chalky paths and, everywhere, those wonderful flint stone buildings and walls.
I guess that was when I decided to move South again.
It was probably the drink what did it.
I now live in a house with a flint stone walled garden, in a town where so many of the houses, and the castle, are built of flint, that it is easy to take it for granted.
Incidentally, Glyndebourne is just four miles away…and the new productions this year are Dvorak Russalka and Purcell’s The Faery Queen.
I think I am here because of those stones.
Flint formed in the sea with chalk, quite some time ago of course, and both rock types, married from the start, are made of thousands of small fossils. Mostly plankton and sea sponge, they are the remains of thousands of tiny skeletons that fell to the bottom of the sea to form one of man’s most civilised environments.
Thanks then to that unlamented host of plankton which ensured that flint would always be found in the chalklands – landscape formed in the sea.
Flint stones were quite literally the cutting edge of Stone Age industry – I used to find those hard stone axe heads and knives lying in the fields after ploughing and I would try to make my own stone tools in those school classes where the Stone Age was drummed into heads more familiar with the comical American cartoon characters, Fred and Wilma Flntstone and the unforgettable Barney Rubble.
Those hard building bricks of civilisation were soon seen to be perfect for building houses and walls too, the Romans used flint in their Sussex palaces and the Normans used them for their castles…and even now, in spite of the spread of concrete, Sussex, is enriched and coloured by these sturdy, no nonsense structures which are still not as highly regarded as they should be by many town planners and money-crazed building developers.
The sun, suddenly hotter again on this early Spring day, is shining on our local flints and I can return to that image, part reality, part childhood fantasy, where Stone Age Man, first picked up those stones and thought of me.
Let’s create, they thought, a world for Wolfgang – a flint-stoned garden, in a flint-stoned town with an opera house just a few miles away on a white chalky path.
They then thought of Mozart and began making those first flint-stone axes.