Tootling Around In West Sussex

I have been traveling this week but only in what sounds like a pretty unadventurous “staycation” way as my trendier American friends would say.

I live in East Sussex England but I have been exploring my old county of West Sussex, a stone’s through away, no border guards, no obvious culture clashes and a very similar English climate.

So no sizzling heat, no enjoyable foreign language games, no discovery of new liver poisoning drinks and but plenty to see if you let your pleasures come quietly and let your eyes join your walking.

A field of poppies on the Sussex Downs is just such a sight.

The sun might be playing hide and seek but there is a beauty in those cloud formations that dramatise the gentlest of views and make you wonder where those classic Sussex chalk paths will take you. No not into rainfall, that never happened, just a constantly changing sky which continually alters the light so that even Monet would have been challenged.

You can take the long view and enjoy the rolling downlands and you can enjoy nature in close up too.
The procession of beautiful English wildflowers which begins in early Spring and ends about now not only dazzles you with its scarlet poppies but, in August, produces one of its masterpieces the Common Toadflax. Surely one of our most inaccurately named plants. Toadflax says nothing about the subtle beauty of this natural snapdragon with its elegant mixing of yellows.

It is tempting enough sitting there at the side of your path but when it is accompanied by the early ripened blackberries then you just have to interrupt your journey.

With the mellow sweetness of the fruit on your tongue, you can stand and look whilst those sheep graze quietly in their own docile, maybe stupid, way on the sun-yellowed pasture land
and your silence is rewarded when a pair of partridges emerge from the hedgerow for a feast on the recently harvested cornfield just over the fence from your path.

More sheep gather under an Englsih Oak with suspicious eyes as I come across some parkland attached to a stately home, Wiston House, once a Sixteenth Century manor house but now a Victorian rebuild with “Brideshead Revisited” pretensions.

The house may strive for attention but far more attractive is that oak tree with its clutches of blushing new acorns.

If the owners of the mansion didn’t mind me having an impromptu picnic on their land then the sheep most certainly did and their startled faces and pricked back ears reminded me that I was just not one of their flock even if I could have, like them, happily dawdled here all afternoon.

I knew I was never meant to be a sheep who never really recover in my affections after their transition from joyful frolicking lamb into serious, nervous and humourless adults. So I left them to their grass and headed for the nearby town of Steyning with its impressive 17th. Century streets which are only slightly tarnished by the incongruity of those traffic preventive yellow lines.

I forgive the town for fighting the car plague and accept that bright yellow is probably essential if anyone is going to notice these pieces of civic graffiti.

Two great English institutions make ample amends:

1) The tea rooms which flourish in this age of livelier cyber pleasures.

2) The country church which in this case is a 12th. Century Norman style masterpiece with an Anglo-Saxon heritage.

It was on this site that the “King of All the English,” Aethelwulf, no less, was buried in AD858 after a busy and troubled life fighting Vikings and trying to bring the warring tribes of English people together into one nation.

Now those magnificent Norman pillars support a gentle community of Church of England worshippers. Well I assume that they are gentle but you never know what they are praying for.

I left a group of cheerful elderly ladies who were sitting on a gravestone in the sunshine laughing and joking about who knows what and headed only a few miles south from the South Downs to Sussex’s other glory, the sea.

I stood on a beach, much frequented in my youth, and looked across the bay to the white cliffs of Beachy Head in the distance and decided to enjoy that mood of melancholy that often descends if I look out to sea at the end of a long and enjoyable summer’s day. Those thoughts are often entangled with Matthew Arnold’s great poem, Dover Beach:

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which waves suck back and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

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