Friday, September 30, 2016

There was a reason I went to Lewes, and that was to visit Charleston Farmhouse.

"Home to the Bloomsbury Group" announces the website, and "The Bloomsbury Home of Art and Ideas".

Let it be said that my idea of a home is a rambling house and garden somewhere in the countryside filled with art and ideas. The Telegraph suggests the Bloomsbury set were a bunch of middlebrow, sex-mad snobs, but says of Charleston that it "promotes a gloriously ramshackle aesthetic which can still be found on a domestic scale right across Britain." So maybe that's what appeals to me. Ramshackle could easily be my style.

"The rooms on show [at Charleston] form a complete example of the decorative art of the Bloomsbury artists: murals, painted furniture, ceramics, objects from the Omega Workshops, paintings and textiles. The collection includes work by Renoir, Picasso, Derain, Matthew Smith, Sickert, Tomlin and Delacroix."

It was a bit of a challenge to get to by bike, but it was worth every bit of effort and made for a lovely day out. I took the train to Berwick first, to visit the Berwick Church which has murals and paintings by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quentin Bell.

They decorated the tiny simple church during the Second World War, with rural scenes depicting the seasons, religious scenes and floral designs.

Then I followed a little map from the Tourist Office that described a route along lanes, bridle paths and part of the South Downs Way. The chalky paths, rolling downs, and neatly mown hay fields reminded me of that beloved childrens' book, The Giant Jam Sandwich, featuring Itching Down, which was not a waspish sort of town, and indeed, the town of Ditchling Beacon is not far away, and there are a few wasps about.
"One hot summer in Itching Down, Four million wasps flew into town..."

The route was rough riding and more than a bit of just pushing when the gravel was too thick and/or the slope too steep.

But in such glorious weather and across such a lovely landscape I wasn't complaining. I got to Charleston in time for lunch in the garden cafe and even though I hadn't booked ahead, I got into a guided tour of the house without having to wait too long.

Artfund is supporting the restoration of the house and garden and the accumulation of relevant art works. The property was rented by Vanessa and Clive Bell. John Maynard Keynes lived at Charleston for a time, while the Woolfs, EM Forster and Lytton Strachey were all frequent visitors. 

The route back to Lewes took me along an A-road for the last bit of the ride and that was the scariest and most difficult part of the trip. Next time I come to England I'll have both a vehicle AND the bike, so I can get to all those places that are off the cycle paths. British roads are just not wide enough for cyclists. 
Photos are not allowed inside the Farmhouse, so this is
copied from a book. The stencilling on the wall has
been redone following the techniques Vanessa used originally.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Indian summer in Sussex

Poor Peter, despite his best efforts (nice tie, crisp white shirt, cheery good morning, Australian flag on the table he'd set just for me) the breakfast at the B&B in Hastings was uninspiring. Toast made from tasteless white bread, served with an equally tasteless egg and utterly tasteless mushrooms and what happened to the bacon, baked beans, tomatoes? A greasy little tasteless sausage and an even more greasy bit of colourless hash browns failed to compensate. I had been looking forward to baked beans too. Oh well. 

I didn't bother repeating the experience on Monday morning and slipped out early for a lovely ride along the beachfront to Bexhill where I was rewarded with the best croissant and coffee this side of the Channel from an unassuming Italian bistro. The English don't get going early. The streets of Bexhill were deserted and the only other cyclists I saw were a couple of kids riding to school. (So galling, they rode past me. But then I had more of a load then them.)

So nice to be exploring the coast of Sussex during an English heatwave - in September! I was lucky to have true Indian Summer weather, with day after day of glorious sunshine and temperatures in the high twenties, even into the thirties a couple of days. Unheard of! The crowds of summer had thinned out, the kids were back at school and there was just a touch of autumn in the air, a thinness in the mornings and a drawing in in the evenings. If you are headed to the UK, after the August Bank Holiday has to be one of the best times to visit. 

From Hastings, the National Cycle Route hugs the coast for quite a while before heading across fields along quiet country lanes lined with blackberries. Happy cycling for most of the morning, but what IS that smell? Pig sties? A few days later I read in the local paper that people were complaining about the fertiliser that farmers had been spreading on the harvested paddocks. They should be ploughing it in as soon as it is spread. If I had to live around there I'd be complaining too. Whew pooh. 

I skirted around Eastbourne and followed the edge of the hills of the South Downs to Lewes which is on the VBH side (very bloody hilly). 
But charming. I would happily live here. There is an old knitting factory that hosts a bunch of craft shops. There are heaps of antique shops and the local brewery still produces a good ale. In fact, it is just nice place to shop; it is worth scrolling this website to whet the appetite.

Talking of whetting, my local pub was a charmer too. 

On the way into town I cycled past the village of Glynde, which has a purpose built opera house situated in the grounds of an English stately home. Glyndebourne. The very name conjures up visions of picnics featuring quail's eggs and foie gras, ice-buckets on the lawns, women in hats picking their way over the grass and men in black tie carrying clinking cases of wine. But the opera season was over. 

Lewes has a castle and the ruins of a priory that was founded in 1078 by the Benedictines and sacked on orders of Henry VIII during the reformation, in a mass destruction called The Dissolution of the Monastries. In its time it was one of the wealthiest and biggest priories in England. 

Lewes' high street has been pedestrianised and the local branch of Waterstones has a cafe with tables that are spread out around the many corners of the historic building that houses the shop. You can sit for hours over a coffee browsing the books at leisure. 

I stayed at Hawthorne Farm, a working farm just outside the town via a dedicated cycle path. With a farm shop and a cafe, it is pretty much heaven, and only two other tents in the field. A loaf of sourdough bread, a box of coleslaw, a local cheddar, some heritage tomatoes and a jar of farm-style yoghurt. Who needs restaurants? 

My neighbour is almost glamping
in his bespoke tipi

Call of the Wild

The bookshops in England are packed with books about the countryside and the natural environment. I guess it is not just a contemporary obsession - think of those Country Diary columns in the newspapers and magazines. First cuckoo of spring heard, bluebells in the woods, squirrels gathering nuts, puddles reflecting the clouds, weeds in the hedgerows, skylarks, cormorants and chestnut trees...

The obsession is sentimental, its nostalgic and my theory is it reflects a common craving for a life more simple, a time without motor vehicles and computers, a keen feeling of the loss of rural rhythms and knowledge of the natural world. There is so little of left so people are turning more and more to writing and art in their attempt to escape the relentlessness  of the modern world. Merry Olde England is a powerful concept, and I suspect its power is increasing rather than waning, even though people know that ideas of rural idyll are just that and it never really existed. And that we are getting further and further detached from nature all the time.

I didn't really find anywhere that was actually quiet. All over Kent and Sussex the nights were full of the noise of planes coming into and leaving Gatwick, and the roar from distant motorways and highways.

The beachfront B&B was probably the quietest place I stayed, but I was still woken by the squeals of boy racers tearing around the streets in the early hours of morning (reminding me of nights in Penang and the Mat Rempits "A Mat Rempit is a Malaysian term for "an individual who participates in immoral activities and public disturbance with a motorcycle as their main transport").

The night skies were full of the lights of planes or other man-made things up there moving across the heavens. Sure, blackberries, nettles and ragwort are trying to claim back the lanes and footpaths, but this is just another sign that human greed and neglect are effectively destroying the green and pleasant land that lives in people's hearts and minds.

A weekend in Hastings

Britain's most epic battle, the Battle of Hastings, was 950 years ago this year. I cruised downhill into Hastings past the crumbling remains of William the Conqueror's castle on a Saturday morning.

In a quiet corner of the Tourist Information Office down on the seafront I was able to plug my phone in and access WiFi. Forecast - rain. I booked into a cycle-friendly B&B at 30 pounds a night.

Hastings is attractive in places but doesn't look like how I imagined from watching Foyles War. It has a new pier and a newish art gallery, the Jerwood Gallery, which has a great collection of modern British art.

My room was up 5 flights of stairs, with my own bathroom in the corridor, a view into the street behind the waterfront and a bed of wire springs. A bit of rearranging of the bedding, and I slept 14 hours straight, completely missing the musical laser light show, iy_project, on the brand new pier; part of the 1066 Festival. Apparently they beamed out an invitation across the Channel to Normandy but I don't know if they got any responses.

Hastings still has a beach-based fishing fleet, just as there was when William the Conqueror landed and claimed England as his own.

The tall black sheds on the beach below the castle are for drying nets. They date back to the 18th century are are Grade II listed and mostly still used, although the shingle has built up and they are now a bit back from the sea.

Along the waterfront in the historic quarter there's a nice little Shipwreck Museum and a Fishermans Museum, both full of artifacts and tales that generate the spirit of the seafaring history of Hastings.

I learned that French was spoken in the courts of England for decades after the Norman Conquest.

There are plenty of fish and chip shops selling cockles, oysters, mussels and smoked haddock. And plenty of noisy Amusement Arcades, Crazy Golf, and ice-cream shops in the best British seaside tradition and best avoided.

There are also lots of weird people. I was warned about three times not to leave my bike unattended for a minute which made me feel a bit paranoid. I chained Betty up right in front of Costa Coffee, where I could keep an eye on her while I indulged in my daily habit. Here's a Costa customer busy pasting stickers into a notebook, as you do.

The beach is gravel rather than sand. Every step across the shingle is noisy. crunch, crunch; and the sound the waves make is delightful - the rolling and tumbling of hundreds of stones. A deckchair costs a quid for half a day. There are warnings that barbeques can be dangerous - hot stones may explode.
The brand new pier

Maybe Foyle is not that far away after all. 

Cycling by Train

Feeling a bit weary, I jumped on the train in Dover to visit Canterbury. I loved taking my bike on the British trains.

A few stations lack lifts, incredible as that is given the footfall. I am glad I'm not in a wheelchair. For me it means unloading the bike and carrying first panniers and then bike up and down stairs, which is seriously hard work. Not to mention stressful, given that at every station there are these regular announcements "Please do not leave luggage unattended. Any unattended luggage will be removed without warning and may be destroyed." See me run up and down those stairs...

But to get the bike into the carriage is just a small step and someone usually offers to help lift it up.

In France, it was more like three steps up to board, and my calves were black and blue with bruises from Betty-wrestling.

On the smaller UK regional trains, bikes can be taken into any carriage. Sometimes there is a designated space with restraints and fold-down seats, but often I'd just have to stand with it in the entry way, to balance the bike and make sure that people could get around it to get on and off. Sometimes there would be several bikes, requiring a bit of discussion about who would be getting off next and delicate manovouring to not block the exit.

Trains and cycles go together well and every station has cycle parking, although there are also signs warning that theft is common.

I got locked into a carriage at one point. The train divided at some station down the track and I'm sure the destinations board on the platform had said I needed to be in the last four carriages to get to where I was going. We stopped somewhere - nothing unusual in that, I was reading a book, and because there wasn't anyone else in the carriage I'd wedged the bike in behind the seat. Then there was an announcement to say this train had terminated and everyone should leave now. But I couldn't reach the button to open the doors without moving the bike. Too late, nothing happened. . I tried the door at the end of the carriage and that was locked too. No one in sight on the platform. No response from the microphone that was supposed to contact the driver. I tried the emergency button and not even that was working.  My four carriages had disconnected and the train had continued without me.  I did a mental inventory of what food I had with me - tea bags and a jar of vegemite, how long could I survive on that? Just as I was trying to work out who on earth I might phone, a conductor came through and released me. He said he was past his knock-off time but he always liked to walk through the train before he clocked off.  Thank goodness!

Not bad going, that this was the worst thing that happened to me in two weeks of cycling and camping.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Along the coast to Dover

The National Cycle Network is a series of safe, traffic-free paths and quiet on-road cycling and walking routes that connect to every major town and city.
The Network passes within a mile of half of all UK homes and now stretches over 14,000 miles across the length and breadth of the UK. Almost 5 million people use the National Cycle Network, and despite its name, the Network isn't just for cyclists, it’s also popular with walkers, joggers, wheelchair users and horse riders too.
This is from the Sustrans website - which is not the easiest site to use when you are just trying to follow a particular route. Also the network has big holes where bits don't join up just yet. Anyway, the route out from Sandwich was really easy. Out across the sand dunes on private roads to the proper seaside.

What a difference it makes when the sun is shining. 

The beaches along this bit of the coast are all gravel. These photos are taken near Deal. What came next was a BIG long hill up to the top of the White Cliffs of Dover. Then more hills to get to the campsite at Hawthorne Farm. Where I paid 15 pounds to put my tent up in a spot so close to the railway line that I thought my feet were going to run over by a train during the night. 

Still more hills in the morning before the final whoosh down into Dover, past the castle.  
Only 22 miles to France

 Who are they behind my seat where I'm watching a swimmer in training for the cross-channel epic? No, not the Queen and James Bond. She's Vera Lynn, famous for "There'll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover", and he is Ian Flemming, who lived and wrote just up on those cliffs at St Margaret's. The bus into Dover was the Number 008.
The whole of the seafront of Dover was blasted to bits in WWII.
Not by bombs, but by shells, launched from the shores of France.

 From where I took a train - backwards - to Canterbury for the day.

Rolling Right Along

After the seedy drabness of the seaside towns of Broadstairs and Ramsgate, it is with pleasure that I roll over a lifting bridge over the River Stour and under the arch of an ancient toll-gate that still has a sign saying how much the tolls are. This is Sandwich, one of the five Cinque Ports, towns formed on the basis of sea trade and fishing, now mostly separated from the sea, ports long ago silted up.

Even back in the Middle Ages there was a toll to be paid to cross this bridge, and that continued right up until 1977.

Something happened as I crossed the bridge that snapped me out of the bad mood of the past couple of days. The footpath is very narrow and the traffic lane is one way, controlled by lights. I stopped to take a photo, leaning the bike on the rail. A man with a dog walking behind me snarled at me. "That's a terrible place to stop". I responded, something along the lines of it being a lovely view, the sun just emerging from early fog, lighting the river and half-timbered buildings on the other side of the arch. I'm thinking how charming it would be if this was your regular way to town. I'm thinking, this is the prettiest place I have seen in days. My comment just gave this man room to launch vitriol over his shoulder as he walked on, and this is what he said; My dog has just had surgery, and he shouldn't be walking on the road. Man and dog had had to take maybe two steps off the kerb to get past the bike and there was no traffic in sight. It made me laugh. And it made me realise that a bad mood means you focus what's wrong and forget to see what's good, and I decided on the spot to only notice the nice things. Be positive. It is such a sorry waste of energy to be otherwise.  

Along the Stour, taken from the bridge

Lots of medieval buildings 
I visited the Salutation Gardens. Salutation House and the outline of the garden were designed by Sir Edward Lutyens in 1910. 
The home is a posh hotel and so out-of-bounds for the likes of me, but at the ticket office they were happy to let me visit the gardens for a small amount of money. I made myself a pot of tea in the appropriately-named potting shed, and sat in the shade enjoying the smell of cut dahlias that I remember from childhood. The gardners were doing last minute tidying up for the annual Dahlia Festival that weekend, so it was I got a sneak preview. 
This seemed to be the New Zealand 'room'

I love visiting gardens, it's up there next to hanging out in coffee shops. I even love dahlias.