“Go west, young man,” that piece of advice given to American pioneers who loaded up their wagons and headed into the vast expanses of the unexplored US has been my own mantra when it comes to the slightly less epic short holiday out of Portsmouth.
What lies west, I considered, are all the good bits in easy driving distance. Dorset, Devon, Cornwall – and further up the Welsh Borders and Wales proper.
The best, however, cannot be said of the weather. When the Anglo-Saxons pushed in from the Continent and chased the Celts into the hills, I’ve often wondered whether it was a distaste for that bloody Bank Holiday weather that left them poking their camp fires at Brighton and Lyme Regis, so that by the time they’d bred a race hardy enough to handle the dispiriting rain, all that was left to their descendants was to show off their resilience by inventing the drizzle-soaked seaside holiday.
Despite this, I had never really considered going east. I’ve made a few trips that way, but I have to admit that Brighton, with its huge hotels, infinite seafront and wrecked pier leaves me cold. Once, when going further east on business, I broke down (or more accurately my car did) in Rye, but I never saw the town, since I was struggling with driving home along a busy road sans clutch. Roundabouts were impressive.
The weather for this bank holiday, however, promised Armageddon, what with storms, thunder, lightning and possibly fireballs and / or falling fish all neatly scheduled by Notan (the ancient English God of Bank Holidays) for the entire west.
Time to follow the sun. Looking at the weather maps, sunshine was forecast for East Sussex and Kent, and so, with an acceptance that it might not be as fun as the wild west (covered wagons or no), we headed out into the eternal tailback at Chichester, which, black-hole-like, holds all south-east coast traffic circulation in its orbit, slows time, and in the crawl crushes you to a singularity, before you reappear on the other side.
We drove on, toward the rising sun (quite a bit after it had risen), past the great castle at Arundel and the dull mass of Brighton, stopping off for a bite at Lewes and then heading on again.
East. East into the green countryside and the comfortable villages of East Sussex. Noticing a real difference in architecture – clapboard houses and flint cottages, so different from the whitewashed thatched confections of the west. And something else. Flags. Flags fluttering everywhere, in red, white and blue, as if the entire country was a confused and indignant elderly relative who kept ambiguously asking: “Do you know who I am?”
Stopping briefly at Hastings for a cuppa, we were struck by the extremes. Rows of caravans stood rotting on the seafront where the poor had taken up makeshift residence. Homeless people huddled in seafront shelters in St Leonard’s, where the paint from abandoned hotels peeled like tree bark. Yet, further up the road, expensive housing and smart bars thronged with visitors, overlooked the sea.
The road diverted as we swung past the net shops – the black clapboard towers the fishermen used to store their gear. Soon we were out in the countryside again, passing attractive villages adorned with yet more flags. Union flags everywhere, run up poles, hanging from bunting in the streets. I felt a sense of unease at the instinct that leads people to want to hoist a flag of any colour, and to overlook all the terrible things done under its shadow.
We passed through bright country roads, through Winchelsea looking super picturesque, down past the low stone structure of Winchelsea Castle, where cows grazed in buttercup fields, and onwards to Rye.
I was curious about this place, having seen on the BBC’s Mapp and Lucia (a series in which two rival middle class ladies – one, a fierce Little Englander furious at having her world dislocated by the other, a sophisticated woman of foreign-sounding extraction, fought battles for influence in the social milieu of an English idyll), and we climbed up to find an ancient town atop a hill.
It was beautiful, full of half-timber mediaeval houses, with a church surrounded by nestling cottages on cobbled streets. It seemed like a little slice of historic perfection, as if someone had mocked up the quintessential English town, with bar-gates, and ruins, and pubs and shops. Walking the streets, I got a sense of the closeness and tight scale of English village life, and marvelled at the melted houses where the beams had bowed under the weight of centuries. I realised then that I knew nothing about this part of England.
That night we stayed at The Bell at Iden, just outside Rye. We pulled up in the camper and were immediately greeted by a super-friendly barmaid who welcomed us as we walked in and who told me it was no bother to park in the car park and stay overnight. Cosy. The place was cosy and friendly, and I felt surprised at the chattiness of the locals. Portsmouth, after all, can be famously terse.
So the weekend began with a warm welcome both meteorologially and figuratively. The following day, we drove out past Camber Sands on a military road, past a firing range and army training ground where mocked-up villages await trainees in urban warfare to do our flag’s killing work, and onward past the towering metal box that is Dungeness nuclear power station, which sits on the west side of the nature reserve.
There, away from the great green expanse of the countryside, we arrived at what in urban myth is known as the UK’s only desert due to its low rainfall (a story denied by the Met Office) and gazed over the great shingle headland, dotted with makeshift huts where people live and work in sparsely dotted homes, some of which were made from old railway carriages. The feeling was like a Native American reservation. We almost expected to see tumbleweed blow down the road. To add to the effect of the Wild West was a steam train, though the Old Lighthouse (next to the new one), and the fact that some of the huts contained art studios, and were overlooked by a gigantic nuclear power station somewhat lessened the impression – as did the fact that the steam train was narrow gauge and we were taller than it.
It did, however, add to the sense of an alien landscape, unmade and ill-formed, and both of us loved its eery otherworldliness.
Onward again, to Dymchurch where a classic British seaside town crammed along the coast road, and stubborn donkeys allowing small children to sit on them while they were dragged across the sandy beach made me feel like I had suddenly gone back to the 1950s.
Then out into bright and massive countryside, full of greenery, through yet more flag-fluttering clapboard houses in villages bearing Anglo-Saxon names like Lympne, Bilsington, Hamstreet and Tenterden, with each hill we climbed opening up massive vistas and views across yet more startlingly beautiful countryside.
Finally, we arrived at Bodiam, and explored the castle. It was great. A proper castle, with a moat; the sort that schoolboys might have consulted Disney and fantasy writers to make. It was built in yellow sandstone in the 14th Century by contractors working for Sir Edward Dallingridge. I’m precise about this because although the National Trust tells us Sir Edward “built it”, Dallingridge himself was far too busy terrorising peasants, and generally slaughtering and murdering the innocent as part of the Hundred Years War, to do anything so useful as lifting a trowel. “On the backs of the workers,” etc.
The story of Dallingridge seizing his opportunity when King Edward III decided on a whim that, actually, he owned France and declared war on his neighbour, is a useful one as a clue to the whole of human history.
Like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage, mediaeval businesspeople also saw disruption as an opportunity, and so Dallingridge went out in a gang run by Sir Robert Knolles, a man so cruel and ruthless, the National Trust film informed us with what seemed like misplaced pride, that French people threw themselves in the river at the sound of his name. Ha! That showed ’em. Damn Frenchies, I can imagine one of the flag-flyers saying, not realising he probably had more in common with the poor French peasants than the psychopath who was murdering them. But there it is, when we imagine history, we are selective about those with whom we identify. That is the problem of history in a nutshell.
In the same film, we were informed that, like most of his contemporaries, Dallingridge was extremely concerned about the afterlife. Which, considering all that he’d got up to in this one, will come as no surprise. This may also explain why Jacob Rees-Mogg is a staunch Catholic. Thankfully, Dallingridge died quite soon after going back to the wars, and certainly didn’t make the whole Hundred Years of it, which must have been a relief to the French. It is not recorded whether his personal chapel in the castle made any difference to outcomes thereafter. Jacob Rees-Mogg, take note.
Opposite the Castle was The Castle Inn, which some lucky landlord must have named in the hope that someone would put up a castle. What were the chances of that, eh? Here we spent another night, again, warmly welcomed. It’s a lovely pub with a long lawn leading down to a river, where children played and families congregated in the summer sunshine to eat and drink and socialise.
That night, we were woken by the most extraordinary thunderstorm. It went on for hours, the thunder rolling on and on to create a constant rumble, and the lightning striking so often it felt like we were in daylight, and I wondered if I had been perhaps a little too disrespectful of Dallingridge in my private thoughts that afternoon. Then I reckoned it was probably the ghosts of all those murdered French and English peasants, and I thought I had probably underdone it.
From Bodiam the following morning, we went to Great Dixter house – a gorgeously combined mixture of 14th century farmhouse, 16th Century Yeoman’s Hall and Lutyens-designed modern house that creates the most beautiful scene, surrounded as it is by perfect gardens, the whole being set in yet more stunningly beautiful countryside. The patriarch who bought the place and made it his project, I learned, made his money in the first flush of sophisticated Victorian advertising, in which the modern nature of publicity, branding and mass-produced consumer goods meant worldwide sales to a public grateful for the reliable and the familiar. This meant he could retire at the age of 42. Which puts a new spin on the phrase “it pays to advertise.”
From there, we headed to Battle, which was decked out in red, white and blue bunting, and there were yet more Union Flags in people’s gardens. We stayed the night at this quintessential English town and drank French Merlot at a Trattoria, looking down the High Street at this place so central to mystical English identity. It was when I realised all those Union Flags had been bought on the proceeds of businesses in a town whose whole raison d’etre was to celebrate being invaded by the French, that I profoundly thought: wtf?
On again the next morning to Cuckmere, past the Long Man at Wilmington, supposed to be either neolithic, Celto-Roman, Saxon or modern, depending on which archaeologist is talking. Like so many other villages in East Sussex, the streets were cosy and warm and picturesque.
They were also flaggy. Don’t get me wrong. I get it. You’re proud of this part of the country. It’s stunning. It’s genuinely something to be proud of. But this part of the country is not represented by a Union Flag (convenient political concoction born of debt and oppression) or a Cross of St George (dodgy myth about a Turkish knight). No, what really makes it distinctive is the hop fields and the oast houses with their white cowls used to dry the hops one tastes in English ales – hops that were originally Dutch imports. Even the word clapboard comes from the German root klappen – meaning to split. And all those flags – they are probably made in China. But hey. I get it.
Then, down to the Birling Gap via Cuckmere, to walk along the coast and see the Seven Sisters, the great white cliffs. They reminded me of the cliffs at Dover, associated with all that safe, reassuring, misty-eyed patriotism, though I thought they could just as easily stand for upheaval, seeing as they are massive uplifted seabeds dotted with flints that were once sponges, long before flags were even thought of.
Next, over to Eastbourne to meet with a friend. And then, back to the Cuckmere Inn, where we stayed in the car park and – after a bite to eat and several pints of fine English ale – we walked down to the sea, waded the river and walked up by the meandering elegance of the snaking Cuckmere.
It was there, as the sun set and the birds made such a noise in the fields and the skies, and the cows lowed, and the gulls cried, I felt such a sense of sudden quiet and eternity and such a passion stirring inside me, that I too felt proud and awed to be, though it be for only a short time, a citizen of this world.
The next day we came home. And I have to say, East Sussex is beautiful. Despite those darn flags.
“We’re proud of England, see our flags flutter!
You can just feel the history: In High Weald’s
fossil-rich chalk downs, in bells of butter-
cups, clapboard houses and hanging hopfields.
Look! That oast house dried hops brought by the Dutch;
this stronghold’s built with gold that reeks with stench
of war. That Battle street, decked in so much
colour, celebrates defeat by the French.
Yet we welcome you. We know who we are –
we Sussex English, comfy in our skins,
grew up in this place. Though you come from far –
our distant ancestors saw it all begin.”
And Seven old Sisters don’t even shrug
at fleeting flags, knights, and Union Jack mugs.