Weald & Downland

Kim on an intensive printmaking course at West Dean College near Chichester and me along for the train ride. West Dean is the former home of Edward James (1907 – 1984), the patron of surrealism in England and general lover of the arts. The estate, now a trust, retains hundreds of acres of prime farmland and the house, now West Dean College, where we are staying, is a very impressive late Georgian mansion. It’s currently enmeshed in scaffolding, getting a much needed new roof. The 100 acres of gardens and woodlands that stretch away all around us up to the South Downs are top quality and suitably awe inspiring. It’s peaceful, friendly and well run place to both relax and get truly creative. When Kim toils I set out to discover what this area of West Sussex has to offer….

On Monday I follow the main road a mile to the next village of Singleton. It’s a wee bit hairy as the pavement is half overgrown and neglected by the county council whose job it is to maintain it, and the A road traffic zips by at M way speeds. Not much chance of encouraging walking or cycling around here which is a pity because it would help bring two wonderful attractions together. I hope one day there will be a green alternative way linking West Dean Gardens with the Weald and Downland Living Museum that I’ve come to visit as the rain begins to fall…

The latter started life in 1970 as an environmental and conservation emergency, led by Dr J A Armstrong, a refuge for badly neglected or endangered historic buildings that could safely be dismantled and re-assembled here. It was Edward James, that great philanthropist, who gifted them the land, some 40 acres, part of the estate. There are some 50 buildings currently on the site. Big emphasis on education (Tudor kitchen cooking, study rooms, family spaces, indoor and outdoor creative play areas) while the making, mending, storage conservation takes place mainly in an amazing looking state of the art building using natural materials called the Downland Gridshell, but which I will call the very hungry caterpillar, as it reminds me of the picture book creature.

It’s a bit of a magical place, even on a grey and thoroughly wet day like this, taking one on a gentle dive through the centuries to reveal the continuity of the connected. The crafts, skills, occupations and needs of the people of these southern counties in village and countryside over a 1,000 year span.

Favourite spots for me included ‘Bayleaf Farmhouse’ from Chiddingstone in Kent – a prosperous late medieval hall house with its through passage & upstairs projecting privy, buttery, pantry, solar etc. The central plain hall with open windows imply but effectively furnished with reproduction pieces from the Tudor period, including hangings & triangular chairs, round a central fire pit. Also loved the watermill which was once in operation at Lurgashall in Sussex from the 17th – 20th century. The cast iron overshot wheel is fed from the site’s feature lake by the entrance. Seeing and hearing the resulting trundling transmission in wood and iron was happily mesmeric. Only wish I could have brought the flour being ground before my eyes. Attractively priced and packaged it was too. But the thought of getting anything as bulky and heavy in our bags for the train and long journey home stopped me going there.

And of course, the gardens. Five of them from different periods serving the various needs of different classes. Lots of information on herbs and their uses Wood is everywhere; coppiced from the site’s woods, used in fencing, hurdles, gates, firewood etc; fruit trees and many varieties of vegetables too. Shire horses, stabled on site, do the essential tasks they were bred for, pulling carts and hauling timber while oxen are also kept for ploughing; Southdown sheep busy grazing hedges in their small in-bye field while a flock of fine looking chickens – Sussex Whites – were pecking by the stables.

With my site specific drama hat on I fantasise about the possibilities for promenade education packages and summer evening entertainment here. Professional actors interacting not just with kids or public but with the volunteer re-enactors who work here. I see William Cobbett fact gathering on his ‘Rural Rides’ or Edward Thomas as the poet in the making observing life for his countryside books; The free spirit of Celia Fynes on her intrepid journeying; Daniel Defoe passing through as merchant/spy/reporter; Rudyard Kipling or H.V.Morton in their respective search for rural England…and so on. Would there be possibilities of adapting a Hardy novel like ‘The Woodlanders’ or ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ I wonder. R L Stevenson’s thrilling medieval tale ‘The Black Arrow’ would be just perfect. Not to mention Shakespeare of course: ‘Winter’s Tale’ or ‘As You Like It’ spring immediately to mind….Ah, if only I was younger and lived nearby!

2 thoughts on “Weald & Downland

  1. Just catching up with your posts, Steve, before heading back to the Bywell Arts Festival, where Ive curated the crafts offering this year (launched last night, open again today and tomorrow, 10-4.30). I went to the Weald & Downland Museum years ago (probably 20), with my NT department for our annual day out, very interesting. And our inter-regional Customer Services conference was at West Dean College in my first year with the Trust, too. The gardens were pretty good then, so must be looking stunning by now. Love your latest blog on the garden – blackbird song, pond life, hedgehog – all beautifully atmospheric and evocative. We know we have a visiting hog here, but have only thus far seen its poo!

    • Ah Elizabeth, that was really good of you to leave those kind comments. I still smile when thinking of what was a truly sublime cultural week away in Sussex, that corner of the county certainly has a lot to offer. A welcome bonus for this particular pensioner was the number 60 bus that got one back and forth from Chichester for free! Great to be back home of course and getting pleasure from both working on AND relaxing in the garden here. Having the swallows back and forth with their brood in the woodshed, seeing a wealth of insects feeding on a wide variety of plants, clocking the apples swelling on the branch all add to the general joy….I expect your marvellous spread is looking the picture and that the work you and Dave do in cultivation and care make it heaven for hedgehogs and every other other type of flora and fauna! (Let us know if you get a sighting of that hog).

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