Sussex: a love letter to the county that's hosted the greatest romances
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During the most romantic month of the year Sussex-based journalist Jeannine Williamson describes her passion for the county and looks at some of the love affairs that have blossomed here
When I was a little I rarely ventured beyond your boundaries. Some of my happiest memories are of seemingly endless summers flying a kite at Beachy Head, playing in rock pools off Eastbourne at low tide and walking along the rollercoaster Seven Sisters; my weary legs spurred on by the promise of an ice cream at the end.
Nowadays, my work as a travel writer has taken me to some of the world’s most beautiful, exotic and far-flung destinations that at one time I could only have dreamed about, including the remote Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific and vast Patagonian glaciers and icefields at the ‘ends of the earth’. Despite this wanderlust I’ve never wanted to move away (indeed many of my school friends who did have since come back). Whenever I return from a trip, by car or train, and first glimpse the soft curve of the South Downs alongside the A27 at Firle that marks the exact point when I know I’ve arrived at the very special place I will always call home.
This stretch of road also leads to some of the more famous love affairs that have bloomed in the area, most fittingly the avant-garde Bloomsbury Group. In 1916 Vanessa Bell moved to Charleston with her lover and fellow artist Duncan Grant along with his partner David Garnett, the writer who penned the 1955 novella Aspects of Love which became an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. The title was certainly apt for the complex personal life of the free-thinking trio that ‘lived in squares and loved in triangles’ according to American satirist Dorothy Parker’s pithy description.
On the other side of the road is the village of Glynde, close to the renowned opera house that grew out of a romance. In 1926 opera fan John Christie started staging performances in a specially built room at his expansive home. When soprano Audrey Mildmay sang in Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio it struck an immediate chord and the besotted Christie wooed her. They married in 1931, returning from their honeymoon to fulfil his dream of building an opera house in his garden. No surprise that the first Glyndebourne Festival in 1934 was dedicated to the music of Mozart.
Back at base, last year’s lockdown made me appreciate you even more. When much of my work dried up, and I found myself with many idle hours to fill, I really appreciated the self-propelled travel options on my Eastbourne doorstep. I signed up for the challenge of virtual runs and headed out to the seafront at silly o’clock to be rewarded by the sight of spectacular sunrises and fuchsia skies over the pier. I also relished the chance to puff ‘good morning’ and exchange inclusive nods with joggers and dog walkers during life in the time of social distancing and spending long periods indoors. The creamy landmark Grand Hotel became a welcome beacon on the horizon to mark my red-faced return for home.
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However, it was strange to see the empty car park at a building with a guest list that reads like Who’s Who. It was here, in 1905, that Claude Debussy completed his orchestral composition La Mer, inspired by the sea. He also made waves when he checked in as Monsieur et Madame Debussy, the French equivalent of nudge nudge Mr and Mrs Smith. Although Debussy and his companion were married, they were not wedded to each other and singer Emma Bardac was expecting his child. Despite the gossip and scandal Debussy described the Grand as ‘a peaceful and charming spot’ and three years later they married.
Further afield, when I worked as a feature writer on the Brighton Argus in the 1990s, some of my favourite assignments involved visiting your wonderful castles, stately homes and historic properties. OK, I’m biased, but we are spoiled with some of the finest in the country and if only these walls could talk, the tales they would tell.
I have often returned to medieval Bodiam Castle near Robertsbridge. With its looking glass moat it could be straight out of a fairy tale. Lord Curzon bought it in 1917 and despite visiting the architectural love symbol of the Taj Mahal on many occasions during his time as the Viceroy of India it was at Bodiam that he proposed to his second wife.
I’ve been touched by your sadder tales, too. In the churchyard of St George’s Church in Brede stands an oak cross simply inscribed with the name Damaris. She was an orphan whose engagement to the wealthy Lewis Smith was frowned upon by his parents who forbade the marriage. At the age of just 22 Damaris Richardson died, supposedly of a broken heart, and in 1856 was buried in the exact spot by the churchyard wall where she had secret trysts with Lewis who would stand on the other side.
Thank you Sussex for providing a place I never tire of returning to, somewhere that still causes my heart to skip a beat and always makes me realise how lucky I am to live here.
All my love,
A hammy proposal
Not all love affairs involve grand gestures and Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh resorted to a bizarre marriage proposal when he decided it was finally time to settle down.
In 1774 the bon viveur inherited the family estate Uppark at South Harting, near Petersfield, and threw legendary parties that frequently lasted for three days with drunken guests being transported to their bedrooms in wheelbarrows. His amours included Emma Hart, also Lord Nelson’s mistress, who danced naked on the dining room table in front of Sir Harry and his friends.
When he reached 71, Sir Harry tired of bachelorhood and after hearing enchanting singing coming from the Uppark cowshed he went inside and proposed on the spot to 20-year-old dairymaid Mary Ann Bullock. He told the speechless servant: ‘Don’t answer me now. But if you will have me, cut a slice out of the leg of mutton that is coming up for my dinner today.’
When the meat duly arrived a slice was missing. Despite the unconventional courtship the marriage lasted until his death in 1846, aged 90.