Sussex has always been home to outsiders. Folk here were self-sufficient. London was a vague concept to them and old maps looked towards the sea rather than the capital. The heavy clays of the High Weald made travel to Sussex impossible and isolated communities developed their own traditions and folklore. Then the railways came and slowly Sussex began to reveal itself to the world. Artists and writers flocked here and established bases for themselves. At their rural retreats, they were able to express themselves more freely, in a way they never could in London. The great and the good also saw the attraction of Sussex and established beautiful country homes in the county.
These are the people I wanted to meet. Great historical figures who crop up in the most unassuming village. Artists who changed the way we see the world and who took inspiration from the essentially medieval landscape of the Weald and the Downs. Touching on Surrey and Kent, neighbouring counties, here are some of the people and places I encountered.
First stop coming out of London was Polesden Lacey, Surrey home of Mrs Greville. Maggie Greville is the patron saint of social climbers. Born out of wedlock, she inherited her fortune from her father, an Edinburgh brewer, and launched into London Society through an expedient marriage. She courted the royals and found favour with King Edward VII and facilitated his affairs with his many mistresses at the fashionable parties she threw at her London home. Looking for a rural base, she came across this magnificent mansion and turned it into the most glamorous party house in England, employing the same firm used by the Ritz Hotel in London to fit out the rooms.
I had a little pilgrimage to make while I was in Surrey. Guildford was for many years the home of Edward Carpenter, 19th century social activist, poet, philosopher and gay rights campaigner. He lived with his partner George Merrill openly in a quaint suburban house at a time when homosexuality was both illegal and taboo. Edward was grief-struck when George passed away in 1928 and died the following year. I wanted to say thank you to the guy who helped set in motion a social, intellectual and moral revolution which culminated in the modern gay rights movement.
In fact, Guildford is surprisingly strong on queer history. According to Historic England, King Edward II met his lover Piers Gaveston at Guildford Castle – a union which threatened to overthrow the political establishment at the time – and Guildford is also the home of Alan Turing, the mathematician who helped crack the German Enigma Code during World War Two. His statue in Guildford shows Turing confident, striding, with papers tucked under his arm. It’s a much more uplifting memorial than the other statue of him in Manchester, which shows him seated and forlorn, clutching the poisoned apple with which he killed himself.
Of all the famous people I met on this trip, none are quite so well known as Sir Winston Churchill. In the UK and across the world, his legend lives on. Despite a long political career, he is remembered for his role as Prime Minister during World War Two. I had already been to the Churchill War Rooms in London and now I wanted to learn about his private life at Chartwell. It’s a very revealing place and the personality of the great man is everywhere, from the uniforms to his painting studio. I was glad to see the National Trust remember the life of his wife, Clementine Churchill. Her bedroom is preserved as she would have known it, perhaps sometime in the 1950s.
Deep in countryside lies the village of Hambledon. The tiny Oakhurst Cottage is one of the most charming National Trust properties. I was shown around by a lovely husband and wife team. At one point it looked like I was going to be the only person on the tour, but then some ladies showed up and joined us inside the cottage. I think a place like this, which documents social history and the lives of every day people, is best experienced with other visitors. Many of the objects in the house, which date from the mid-19th century, were still familiar to people who had grown up in the 1960s! This is an important museum as all too often the lives of ordinary people are written out of history.
I am a big fan of looking at buildings and was riding a wave following my Oakhurst Cottage visit. I was ready for full vernacular architecture immersion. The Weald and Downland Living Museum did not disappoint. This is an open-air museum that brings together a series of carefully re-constructed village and farm buildings that have been saved from demolition and which typify the traditional architecture of Sussex. You can just run around all day here pretending one moment to be a medieval peasant, the next a Tudor yeoman, or why not a Victorian railway worker or 18th century turnpike operator? This place is my Disneyland!
I had read about the Chattri ages ago. I was determined to see it. It is a unique piece of Britain’s heritage and poignant reminder of the tragedies of war and empire. At the outbreak of World War One, the British Empire was at its height and many men from the colonies volunteered to fight for Britain in Europe, including from the Indian subcontinent. When these soldiers were injured, they were sent to Brighton Pavilion, which had been turned into a hospital, to convalesce. Many, of course, did not survive their injuries and the Sikh and Hindu soldiers who died were cremated at this spot on the Downs, in accordance with their religious practice. Muslim soldiers were buried at a specially-built mosque near Woking.
The writer Vita Sackville-West created the famous gardens at Sissinghurst with her husband Harold Nicolson. The gardens are said to be a symbol of their union, combining Vita’s Romanticism with Harold’s Classicism. I think the gardens represent more than just the personalities of their creators. Vita was an aristocrat who, being a woman, was unable to inherit her ancestral home, a place which she loved dearly. Establishing herself at Sissinghurst, she was able to create a realm of her own. The couple both pursued same-sex extra-marital affairs throughout their lives, Vita most notably with Virginia Woolf, who dedicated her novel Orlando to her.
Virginia Woolf also had a base in Sussex, at Monk’s House. She was at the heart of the Bloomsbury Group, which largely centred around Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell and her friend and soulmate, Duncan Grant. Vanessa and Duncan installed themselves at Charleston Farmhouse in 1916 and set about decorating the house in their inimitable style. Charleston became the rural epicentre of the Bloomsbury Group, frequented by the likes of E M Forster and John Maynard Keynes. The friends’ “experiments in living” have left just as important a legacy as their art, bestowing on society a tradition of open-mindedness, tolerance and free expression in love and relationships.
The English Martyrs Catholic Church is a good example of what we like to call a “hidden gem”. On the outside, this church is the drabbest and most unprepossessing building. Inside, it’s a different story. One of the brethren, a local artist, was so inspired by his trip to Rome where he saw the Sistine Chapel that he decided to recreate it back home. Working evenings for five years, the project was complete by 1993. The ceiling at the Church of the English Martyrs is approximately two thirds in scale of the original Sistine Chapel. The best thing about it though is that you’ll probably be the only person in there, meaning you can appreciate the artistic vision of Michelangelo in complete serenity and linger for as long as you like.
Smallhythe Place was purchased by Ellen Terry as a country retreat to escape from the hubbub of London. A Shakespearean actress, she was the second-highest paid woman in the country and donated much of her money to charitable causes. At the time of the women’s suffrage movement, Ellen devised a tour based on Shakespeare’s women characters and offered her own thoughts on the characters and women’s role in modern society. Her little cottage is packed to the rafters with memorabilia from her years in the theatre – an exceptional collection. One of the highlights is seeing Ellen’s stage costumes, including the Lady Macbeth dress which was covered in beetle wings to look like both chain mail and the scales of a serpent!
The Watts Cemetery Chapel is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. It is a building everyone must experience in their lives. Designed by the artist-potter Mary Watts and built close to the artists colony established by her husband, the portraitist John Watts, (which is also worth a visit), this building is unique in combining elements of both Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts styles. More than that, the chapel references many cultures including Scandinavian folklore. In fact, the general layout of the chapel was inspired by the Buddhist stupa at Sanchi, India. Mary also took inspiration from Buddhism and other world religions when designing her own home. A really relevant building, this is a place to come not only for the aesthetics but also to reflect on how different cultures interact and connect, both in the past and in today’s world.