Turning the Page: A Literary Pilgrimage through East Sussex

Turning the Page: A Literary Pilgrimage through East Sussex

Beyond the bookish Bloomsbury set, East Sussex inspires a modem cohort of artists and entrepreneurs.

“I almost felt my mind glow like hot iron – so complete & holy was the old habitual beauty of England… It feeds me, rests me, satisfies me, as nothing else does.”

Virginia Woolf

This article first appeared in Vol 32: Homegrown.



Our
lives of late have been circumscribed. Unlike Woolf and the
Bloomsbury Group of writers, artists and intellectuals – who writer
Dorothy Parker quipped “lived in squares, painted in circles and
loved in triangles” – our bubbles are not of our own choosing; they
represent not freedom, but the opposite.

When lockdown began, I stayed in London rather than fleeing to
my parents’ coastal sanctuary in East Sussex. While I don’t regret
a summer spent rediscovering the small bounds of my existence, my
imagination was habitually haunted by the humpbacked outline of the
South Downs, the shadows of clouds gliding like spectres over their
flanks.

Just an hour and a half by train from London, this corner of the
countryside has lured countless writers and artists in search of
retreat and revitalisation. For Virginia Woolf and her husband
Leonard, living part-time at Monk’s House in Rodmell from 1919, it
provided a balm for the “violent jolt of the capital”. For Woolf’s
sister Vanessa Bell and a rotating cast of “Bloomsberries”, nearby
Charleston farmhouse became a place to forge experimental ideas and
relationships, unseen and ungoverned by convention.



Thirty years later, Farleys House became the family home of the
photojournalist Lee Miller and her husband, surrealist painter
Roland Penrose, in the aftermath of the Second World War; more
recently the author Olivia Laing wrote about walking in Woolf’s
footsteps along the banks of the River Ouse, following the
breakdown of her own relationship. Today, a new generation of
artists, winemakers, chefs, writers, gallerists and entrepreneurs
have similarly abandoned the thrall of the cities to embark upon an
alternative lifestyle in Sussex’s bucolic villages and once-faded
seaside towns. As we cross the threshold between an old and new
world order, it feels appropriate to seek solace in the same
landscape that inspired these artists of the past, as well as
delving into the modern scene of the creatives who now call it
home.

Down a rutted lane overrun with jaywalking pheasants lies Tilton
House, the former residence of the economist John Maynard Keynes
and his ballerina bride, Lydia Lopokova. A long-standing, if
controversial, member of the Bloomsbury set – his biographer Robert
Skidelsky describes him as “the rich, generous, worldly, slightly
wicked uncle to the Charleston family”, who appalled their refined
intellectualism by marrying the high-spirited Lydia – Maynard took
the house in 1926 after summering at neighbouring Charleston.
Vanessa Bell was aghast, and immediately began to look for a new
house in Norfolk to get away from the woman of whom her husband
Clive Bell said: “her spiritual home is Woolworths.” However, the
Keyneses persisted and spent many holidays sunbathing naked in the
orchard and, in Maynard’s case, penning great works including The
General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

Today, this rambling farmhouse is home to another couple, Polly
Moore and Shaun Treloar, “DFLs” (in local parlance, “down from
Londons”) who decamped to escape the burnout of busy media careers
82 years to the day after the Keyneses moved in. Determined to
carve out a space where city-dwellers could find the same respite,
Polly and Shaun converted Tilton into a retreat offering wellbeing,
outdoor and yoga weekends, as well as the occasional Bloomsbury
literary edition.

Thanks to pandemic protocol, Liz and I get this jewel of a house
entirely to ourselves. I wander past a fountain with tiles
hand-painted by Duncan Grant to Maynard’s library, where I curl
into the sofa and read how he insisted that “there’s no better air
for work than here”. In the mornings, I watch the mist burn off the
hills before chasing an obstinate rooster out of the kitchen. I
tramp the two-hour circular from Tilton, past fields of sunflowers,
to Berwick’s church, inside which Vanessa, her bisexual lover
Duncan and her son Quentin painted decorative murals. On return, I
ascend the ancient Firle Beacon and gaze across the patchwork
Downs. ”Too much for one pair of eyes,” Virginia wrote in 1937,
”enough to float a whole population in happiness, if only they
would look.”

Although Sussex lacks the gnarled drama of the Scottish
Highlands or the epic proportions of the Lake District, the
landscape here carries you. You don’t need special kit, expertise
or a map to follow the curvaceous Downs or well-worn footways. Such
gentle exploration unlocks a meditative state in which to unspool
your thoughts – I’ve walked here following break-ups, breakdowns
and moments of pause. In the strange dissolution of our everyday,
it’s perhaps unsurprising that I’m compelled to revisit.



One evening, we drive to Monk’s House, from which Woolf would
embark on the two-hour trek to Charleston, making up sentences en
route. “How I should notice everything – the phrase for it coming
the moment after & fitting like a glove,” she wrote in her
diary in 1921. Almost a century later, as I amble along the
slate-grey thread of the River Ouse in which she drowned, the power
of perambulation helps me make sense of my own story – not yet a
novel, perhaps, but equally hard to pin down. Later, holed up in
Tilton’s attic bedroom, I wonder who’s slept here before me. Polly
says that the house hosts speakers during Charleston’s annual
literary festival and reading weekends – Diana Athill, David
Nicholls, Simon Schama and Naomi Alderman have all recited stories
in the library.

Continuing in Woolf’s footsteps, the next day I set out for
Charleston, the next-door country refuge, holiday home and
eventually permanent residence of the Bells and Grant. This was the
place where Bloomsbury stalwarts gathered to spar and set out new
standards for living. Woolf wrote: “We were full of experiments and
reforms… everything was going to be new; everything was going to be
different; everything was on trial.” At a time when we’re once
again questioning the validity of old systems, I feel a tremor of
recognition in her words.

Incidentally, Charleston is also one of my favourite places in
the world, and somewhere I’ve returned year after year to fill up
on the creativity that beats from its walls. Aside from the
intellectual experiments that took place here, perhaps the most
ambitious was its decoration. Its murals and patterns, quirky
colander lampshades, crisscrossed furnishings and boldly painted
fireplaces are a monument to Bell and Grant’s artistic expression
and unconventional love. The interior is also inspiration for local
set designer Tess Newall, who I meet in the paint-splashed
studio.



Much of Tess’s work is irrevocably linked to Charleston – she
collaborated with furniture retailer Ceraudo on a set of
hand-painted dining chairs inspired by the house, gives
lampshade-painting workshops here and was the on-set art director
for the 2018 film Vita & Virginia. As we nerd out on the
privilege of having this remarkable slice of history to ourselves,
I ask why she thinks the house remains so relevant. “There has been
a marked shift in the value society places on how things are made
and how long they should last,” Tess replies. “The Bloomsbury Group
were often repurposing objects. Surrounding yourself with things
that have been made personal through an artistic flourish makes you
cherish them.”

In the area’s burgeoning wine and beer-making community, it’s a
sense of place that governs. Over a punk-rock soundtrack, Mark
Tranter of Burning Sky brewery reels off previous releases
flavoured with local elderflower, gooseberries and greengages.
“Some brands taste the same anywhere, but that’s not what we’re
about,” he says. At Rathfinny Estate, a vineyard and winery outside
Alfriston, it’s a similar story. They want to make the county
synonymous with sparkling wine made distinctive by the chalky
terroir – a flavour we discover during lunch among the vines.

On Tess’s recommendation, we drive via the High and Over
viewpoint to Cuckmere Haven, where we hike a path hemmed in by
blackberries until we burst out onto the expanse of the Seven
Sisters and clamber down a set of iron steps to Hope Cove and the
twinkling grey sea. Under photographer (and experienced wild
swimmer) Liz’s direction I float on my back in the shiveringly cold
waves, basking in the pure light that has held painters in thrall
here for centuries and experiencing the delicious freedom of being
simultaneously submerged and weightless for the first time in
months.

Dried off, I follow the flicker of the coastline to Eastbourne,
the seaside town that for decades has been dismissed as a coach
stop for the blue-rinse brigade. In fact, it’s one of the only
towns in Sussex where the demographic is getting younger and is
undergoing something of a creative renaissance, thanks in no small
part to the Towner Gallery. “We want to become a catalyst for
change,” explains director Joe Hill, “bringing new people here from
outside but also galvanising local artists.” Nowhere is this
community-minded stance clearer than in the gallery’s Art Store, a
collection of 5,000 works in the building’s beating heart. As Hill
pulls out racks hung with pieces by local painter Eric Ravilious
and sketches by the Charleston set, he explains how local schools
and dementia groups are brought in for tours, and pre-Covid it was
open to the public to book. This approach is clearly bearing fruit;
the gallery had record visitors last year.

When considering the future of art and creativity in this part
of Sussex, it’s impossible to disregard Hastings. Edgier than
Eastbourne, it has that weird seaside glamour – clapboard
fish-and-chip shops, a bleeping arcade, a ferris wheel and
crazy-golf course – and despite the inequality and poverty that
persist here, it’s a place that knows how to have a good time.
Above all, it’s a space in which to pursue your vision – something
that painter Annie Mackin and her partner Fraser Carr Miles
epitomise from their ramshackle unit within the Britannia
Enterprise Centre.

Having moved from London four years ago, the couple run an
independent book bindery, darkroom and artist’s studio, as well as
hosting workshops and participating in community projects, such as
the annual Coastal Currents festival. “It’s hard to get ahead in
London,” Annie tells me. “Here, there’s a lot of possibility.” With
several of my friends in the process of leaving the capital in the
wake of lockdown-induced epiphanies, I can understand this
seductive thrall of possibility. Aside from the inspiration that
comes from working in close proximity to a fertile music scene and
pagan rituals – “Hastings doesn’t need an excuse to dress up and
drink,” Fraser laughs – its low rents and supportive landlords have
provided the space for businesses to experiment and evolve.



Another local artist playing with the charged potential of the
spaces we inhabit is Becky Beasley, who has converted an entire
terraced house in the backstreets of St Leonards into a studio,
dark room, archive and artist’s residency. “The constant reality
for artists is ‘how do you pay for where you live, and also have
creative time?'” Becky explains. Thanks to creative regeneration in
the area increasing the value of her home, she was able to buy this
additional multifunctional space, which also includes “an empty
room with no other purpose – it’s like a miracle.”

Becky’s next project, The Seaweed Shop, will take place in this
empty room. Although it will remain a private space, people will be
invited in to have conversations around difficult subjects, with
the resulting transcripts published. “The world is ready to have
conversations about things like kindness and care, negative space,
emptied-out streets, and the visible and invisible,” Becky says.
The space also gives her “total power at a moment when institutions
are in dire straits – I don’t have to answer to anybody.” The idea
reminds me of Woolf’s still-true assertion a century earlier that
“a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write
fiction”, as well as the way that domestic space was used as a
literal canvas for ideas at Charleston.

My final conversation is with Walter and Zoniel, a multimedia
artist couple who have just finished uninstalling a huge public
artwork in and around Brighton. We meet at the tip of the
Rock-a-Nore fisheries, where the land peters out and we’re
surrounded by infinite horizon. Another set of DFLs, they explain
that “being here helps you realise you can connect to people in a
way that’s non-commercial. There’s layer upon layer of
open-mindedness: everybody is creative in their own way.” When I
ask whether they miss the city, Walter replies: “We build worlds in
our work and our lives, and that’s what we’re doing here – it’s
just world-building”.

As I watch them scramble over the rocks and the sea blazes
purple and blue, I think that it’s this scope to build new worlds
that calls people here. It’s cliché to say that it’s the quality of
the light alone that lures artists to the coast, and too obvious to
state its proximity to London and cheap rents. Instead, for both
the Bloomsberries painting the walls of their refuge from society
all those years ago and for the modern artists raising families and
ideals away from the mainstream, it’s the potential to reclaim
space slightly outside of patriarchal, capitalist structures that
allows its inhabitants to breathe. So, looking out at that hazy
horizon, I breathe.

The Lowdown

Wellbeing, outdoor and Bloomsbury retreats at Tilton House start from £375
for a weekend. A self-catering midweek stay in the annexe, which
sleeps up to five and includes a writing shed in a private garden,
costs £250 per night for a minimum of three nights.

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