In Search of Sacred England – Part 1

The Sussex Downs above Wilmington

The Sussex Downs above Wilmington

I get pretty fed up with empty patriotism – the sort that allows the otherwise selfish and dim, the greedy and mediocre a sense of superiority simply through the tenuous link of having been born somewhere. You know the people I mean; the barroom bores who read endless books about the SAS or who hark back 200 years to Waterloo, or 600 years to Agincourt for something that puts them a rung or four above every Frenchman who ever lived.

Sure they may be insurance clerks or selling double glazing but they are British born and bred and damn it their passport means they can look down their noses at Voltaire or de Gaulle, Satre or Renoir just by virtue of that fact.

This is the sort of twaddle peddled by the Sun, the Mail and the Express. It’s long been an effective way of bending the will of regular people to that of their lords and masters. Look back a hundred years and the slaughter of stable boys and factory workers in the quagmire of the Somme on the orders of generals for whom the rank and file weren’t even fully human and you’ll see clearly how it works. Heaven forbid we should ever empathise with people much like us who differ mostly through where they live and the language they speak. And we know this to be true or we wouldn’t celebrate the fabled football match between the German and British lines of Christmas 1914.

But there is a sort of patriotism in which I do allow myself to indulge. It’s a simple pleasure in the traditions and history of the place in which I grew up and still live. It’s not a ‘my culture is better than yours’ sort of patriotism, let alone a flag waving, this side of the border-that side of the border, jingoism.

Indeed having just come back from Paris I again have a slight sense of regret that English is ever more widely spoken in Parisian restaurants and that by capitulating the French are becoming less French.

I got a perverse pleasure, while visiting Minerve in the Haut Languedoc, of venturing into a shop selling the output of a local vinyard and getting by more or less in halting French, eliciting a screwed up face and a ‘je ne comprend pas’ from the proprietor when, on my way out, I wish him a jolly nice afternoon.

But, as anyone who has followed this blog will know, I have a deep affection for England all whimsical English things. And so when I have a visitor I tend to show them some of what I love.

A few weeks back I had a particularly special visitor with whom I really wanted to share all of that and so I planned, if not quite a grand tour then certainly a whirlwind charge around sacred England.

Perhaps it’s a reflection of having grown up in the south but most of the sites I think define sacred England stretch across the landscape from Sussex to Bath and north to the Berkshire downs.

So here are a few photos from the first day of our trip. We got up early and I fried up a proper English breakfast before jumping in the car and heading south.

The Long Man...  ...and some rather less long sheeps

The Long Man…

Our first stop was the downs above Wilmington. The Long Man is one of three ancient hill figures carved into chalk hillsides across southern England. We trudged up the slope (trudge, trudge, trudge) and then picked our route down into Alfriston.

Tea shoppe the first - Alfriston

Tea shoppe the first – Alfriston

Alfriston is a wonderfully pretty Sussex village boasting three mediaeval pubs and a great bookshop, one of my favourites.  We stopped for tea and on our way back to the car we filled a plastic bag with sloes and damsons from the hedge by the path. It was bursting with fruit and we made a large jar of damson vodka and a couple of bottles of sloe gin (which will have to wait a few years to be worth drinking).

Then we headed off to lunch at the Cricketers in North Berwick, pretty much around the corner from Alfriston and Wilmington. The Cricketers is an almost perfect downland pub, flint-studded and red tiled. The garden was in the last flush of high summer, flowers everywhere. We probably should have eaten outside but it wasn’t as warm as the end of August, start of September should have been. But the food was good – we just shared a smoked fish platter. I vaguely remember pudding. It was probably unnecessary.

The Cricketers, North Berwick, Sussex

The Cricketers, North Berwick, Sussex

Having done that we jumped in the car, stopped briefly at Middle Farm to look at chickens, as you do, and headed up to join the A272. The A272 (along with the A303) is one of England’s legendary roads. OK, so it doesn’t quite have the same rock n roll resonance as Highway 61 or Route 66, but it does carve its way through Sussex from one end (almost – it starts in the middle of nowhere between Heathfield and Mayfield) to the other and ends up in Winchester via places like Petworth and Midhurst. Being a two-tea-room day we stopped for a cuppa in Midhurst. Tearooms seem to have become all a bit fancy with single estate teas these days when once upon a time it was a mug of builders and a nice bit of cake. The prices have become similarly chi chi too, but hey…

IMG_4676

Jane Austen’s gaff – presumably the sign advertising that she lived there was added later…

We stopped off at Chawton to wave at Jane Austen’s House, strolled around the Cathedral grounds in Winchester, dined at the Fish Tale on Eastgate where we shared another platter and ate a laksa that managed to turn a comforting noodle soup into something far too delicate, fey and lacking in heart. Then we jumped onto the A303 heading to Salisbury via a detour that took in Stonehenge, lowering in the last light of day, for our room for the night.

There we had a near disastrous mishap involving rope, a magnificent four poster bed and a yale lock, that had it not been for the Houdini-like abilities of my companion could have ended very badly. But that is a story for a log fire and a few glasses of decent whisky as the winter nights draw in. But I’ll guarantee you’d laugh.

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4 Responses to In Search of Sacred England – Part 1

  1. Andy. says:

    Hi Gerry, love this post in part because I am from the area and because it is Gods own country!
    Alfriston is such a wonderfdul village and was home each summer to Dirk Bogarde. HIs semi autobiographical books, Great Meadow and A Postillion Struck by LIghtning are set in the village and beautifully written. You are of course not far from Firle, from the haunts of the Charleston set etc.
    A Dutch Anglophile called Pieter Boogaart wrote a fascination but quirky book simply called A272 about a journey along the road. Its packed with information and is great fun.
    Thanks for stirring up some memories and reminding me its time to vist the george Alfriston, the ose Cottage, Alciston, the GUn at Gunhill, the Six bells at Chidddingly…….

  2. Teresa Fowler says:

    I share your feelings about patriotism and enjoyed the rest of the blog, having grown up in Seaford. In my late teens/early twenties, the Cricketers was a favourite haunt, though very different from today. At that time, it was just a front room ale house, in half the current premises (two separate cottages, in those days), with an upright piano in one corner and a dart board on the back of the front door, so it was advisable to knock before entering.

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