20 October 2014

England: Heavenly history in Alfriston

For a non-religious person I visit a lot of churches. But how could I not visit this one? It was a lovely walk to get there. It sits on an ancient Saxon religious site and has a barrow in the churchyard. The building dates from the 12th century and is a Grade I listed building of national importance, because it’s the only church in the world to have murals by painters from the Bloomsbury set adorning its walls. St Michael and All Angels Church in Berwick is simply gorgeous!  

The barrow in the churchyard
We drove to the little town of Alfriston then walked a footpath, part of the Vanguard Way, to get there – it seemed an appropriate way to reach such an ancient place and it was easy to imagine ancient man walking that same trackway to reach their sacred site on the hilltop.

Inside, the church has some interesting features – the Saxon font may pre-date the church, there are grooves in one wall which are thought to have been made in the 14th century by men sharpening their arrow heads, and the clear glass windows in the north and south aisles are unusual and distinctive. But it’s the 20th-century murals that draw most visitors to this place and they are quite simply outstanding.

Painted during the Second World War by Bloomsbury artists Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and her son Quentin Bell, the murals continued, or perhaps revived a long tradition of painted interiors in Sussex churches. Inspired by the frescoes of Renaissance Italy and modelled on the painters themselves, their friends and local people, the murals are a refreshing change from the gloom of many small church interiors. Indeed, one Professor Reilly, who visited soon after the paintings were finished, said he felt like he was: ‘stepping out of a foggy England into Italy. I felt such a happy heavenly feeling as I sat there.’ 

With our spirits thus enlightened with happy and heavenly feelings, we walked back to Alfriston via a rather muddy path through the huge rolling farmlands of the South Downs, and sat down to tea and rather delicious cakes at the Badger Café. Refreshed and replete, we explored the town, coming after a short time to the green and the Church of St Andrew.

This is another ancient church, founded around 1360 and built in a massive cruciform shape on a raised mound on the village green known as the Tye. It made me think that this church also sits on an ancient Saxon site but the church’s construction is a bit of a mystery, as there are no records to explain who commissioned and financed such a grand edifice in such a small village. 

Next to the church sits the Chapel House, the first house ever to be taken under the wing of the National Trust, bought from Michelham Priory for £10 in 1896. The oldest parts were built around 1350 and are typical of a timber-framed ‘Wealden Hall’ house. But, like so many old buildings, this one has evolved over time: there’s a parlour dating from the mid-16th century; a hall, built shortly after the Black Death of 1348 by a yeoman farmer; the corridor was added in the 18th century; and the reading room is part of the original house. I was particularly impressed by the long-wheat-straw-thatched roof, as I suppose I should be given it cost £100,000 to be re-thatched back in 2005, and the gardens, laid out in the 1920s by Sir Robert Witt, were delightful.

A wander along Alfriston’s main street revealed more interesting historic buildings. Wingrove House, according to the plaque on the wall, is ‘a colonial style building from 1870, used as accommodation by trainer Harry Batho, racing manager to Horatio Bottomley’ (an interesting character indeed). The house is now a ‘restaurant and rooms’, and looks like rather a nice spot for a weekend treat.  

Left, Wingrove House; centre, right, the Old Farmhouse; right, the Star Inn

The Old Farmhouse is a 17th-century rebuild of the southern wing of a 14th century hall house, one of the oldest ranges of buildings in the village. The Steamer Inn dates from the 15th century and was an inn during the 19th century, though lost its licence in 1920.

Alfriston still has several characterful public houses to chose from, however. The Star Inn is my favourite, if only for its external decoration. It was rebuilt in the early 16th century, possibly on the site of an earlier rest house for pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St Richard in Chichester. The Red Lion figurehead comes from a warship that probably sank at the Battle of Beachy Head in 1690.

The George Inn also has a long history, having first received its liquor licence in 1397, and the Smugglers Inn was the home of Stanton Collins, leader of the Alfriston gang of smugglers in the early 19th century. It boasts 21 rooms, 48 doors and 6 staircases. Its sign tells: ‘The front bay was successfully restored, revealing its late 16th century origins, after near destruction by a car in 2005.’

Obviously, with a very small village and three pubs serving drinks, drunk-driving destruction could well be a problem. But don’t let that put you off a visit. It’s a charming wee place, with history on display, churches to be admired, Downs to be walked and beer to be drunk!

18 October 2014

England: A stroll with Seven Sisters

Let’s go for a stroll … a rather long stroll that might take all day so bring a hat, sunscreen, water and a picnic lunch. You may sweat a little but the effort will be worth it because the countryside is stunning and the panoramic views sublime.

We’ll park the car at Birling Gap, where serious erosion threatens and frequently causes huge sections of the cliff to fall into the sea. 

Now, let’s walk up to the top of the hill on our left to check out that lighthouse and the view from the top. This is part of the South Downs Way

Looking inland, we have wonderful views over the South Downs.

At the top, we could stop for a coffee at Belle Tout lighthouse, now a café and very luxurious B&B, but no, let’s check out the view along the coast. That’s the Beachy Head lighthouse way down below – it’s been warning seafarers about the dangerous coastline here since 1902. 

As we do an about turn, fighting to keep upright in the teeth of a fierce southerly wind, we can see quite a long way along the coast in the other direction. They’re the Seven Sisters, the seven peaks of the white chalk cliffs that stretch between Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven. We’ll be heading to the Haven next.

Let’s live dangerously and walk out onto that viewing platform before we get back in the car for the short drive along the coast.

What a stunning sight as the car rounds the bend! You can instantly see why this is called the Cuckmere Meanders

We’ll leave the car at the Seven Sisters Country Park, check out the visitor centre there, walk up the hill behind for another view over the Meanders (where the kayakers are enjoying the waters), then head off along one of the tracks leading down to the sea (see the map).

The Cuckmere River flows into the English Channel here and we get our first close-up glimpse of the famous chalk cliffs called the Seven Sisters.

These are the coastguard cottages we could see far in the distance from Birling Gap. Let’s have our picnic lunch and sit a while enjoying the fresh sea air.

We’ll follow the South Downs Way up past the cottages a short distance towards Seaford Head.

And then we can enjoy spectacular views like these. But don’t go too close to the cliff edge!

If we zoom that camera lens in, we can see Birling Gap and the Belle Tout Lighthouse in the distance.

As we head back to the road, this time walking along part of the Vanguard Way, it’s easy to see which way the prevailing wind blows.

The car’s parked near those buildings in the distance. Are your feet sore yet?

No? Then let’s go down to the sea again, along a different track on the other side of the Cuckmere River.

Getting closer. There’s plenty of bird life hereabouts and lots of sheep grazing in the fields.

Here on the beach, it’s easy to see the gleaming white chalk that formed millions of years ago under the sea from tiny marine organisms and, if the tide’s right, there are plenty of rock pools to explore.

Seeing people at the bottom of the cliffs helps get an idea of their height.

Heading back inland again, the Second World War defences are a bit of a surprise. Dragon’s teeth tank obstacles and pillboxes dot the landscape as this place would have been an ideal invasion point. 

Let’s take one last look back towards the coast before we farewell this amazing countryside and head home for a hot shower. I hope you’ve enjoyed our stroll as much as I have (and my photos have inspired you to visit in person).

17 October 2014

England: Bexhill and Eastbourne

I hadn’t been to any of England’s south coast seaside towns before but certainly enjoyed dipping my toes in during this trip. I showed you a little of Devon’s Budleigh Salterton and Sidmouth in a recent blog – now here’s a little of what East Sussex has to offer. I didn’t spend much time exploring these places so this blog will be mostly photos. I hope you enjoy your day at the seaside as much as I did.

It wasn’t exactly beach going weather the day we went to Bexhill, with occasional heavy showers of rain and strong gusty winds from the remnants of Hurricane Bertha making walking along the prom a bit of a chore but very exhilarating. We had lunch and saw an exhibition of the work of designer Ivan Chermayeff in the local De La Warr Pavilion, and rounded off the afternoon with a cider at a pub that had been a smugglerss haunt in centuries past. I loved the diversity!

A picturesque row of beach huts along the pebble beach

Love the Victorian bathing machine on the right: it would have been wheeled into the water so that women could step down directly into the water

On the right is the De La Warr Pavilion

Eastbourne has recovered well from the Second World War when it was the most bombed town on the south coast. Sadly though, when I visited it had very recently suffered another piece of bad luck – part of its famous pier had been destroyed by fire so we weren’t able to walk along it.

Eastbourne became a popular seaside resort in Victorian times so the front is lined almost exclusively with hotels and boarding houses with typically Victorian architecture. As well as having its own attractions for holidaymakers, Eastbourne is also one of the gateways for visitors to the South Downs National Park, dedicated walkers can easily access the South Downs Way to enjoy some of England’s finest footpaths and countryside, and it’s a short hop, skip and a jump to the stunning cliffs of Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters – more on those in my next blog.  

Redoubt Fortress Military Museum, built in 1805 as part of Britain's defences against the threat of invasion by the army
of Napoleon Bonaparte

A closer shot of the damage caused by the recent fire on Eastbourne Pier
One of Eastbourne's many attractions is the gorgeous flower display along the front every summer

Eastbourne Bandstand where we enjoyed the annual 1812 Fireworks concert