Adventures in Russell-land Part VI: Sussex

I would like to thank Alice and Merrily again for this great series of posts about their trip to England on the footsteps of Russell and Holmes.  One minor problem is that Alice has left nothing for me to post about this September when I’m there, but I’m sure I’ll think of something…

Great work, Alice, great driving, Merrily.  Glad you’re home, and glad you had such a lovely time.
(By the way, I had a post card from Alice to say that she’d seen an elderly woman swimming off of Beachy Head–is that what the people on the cliffs are watching, I wonder?)


The drive from Devon to Sussex took most of the day. We made only one stop, in Portsmouth, to see the City Museum’s newly opened exhibition of Conan Doyle memorabilia. We spent about 2 hours in the exhibit rooms and had our lunch in the little teashop attached to the museum, then returned to the car and resumed our drive. Except for the interminable roundabouts, we found it a pleasure, as the road wound along the coastline, giving us brief glimpses of the Channel waters.

from-the-downs-looking-eastbourne

If you have never negotiated a roundabout in England it will be difficult for us to convey the experience of driving on the wrong side of the road (for an American), and watching traffic from the right and left merge into one or two lanes that go in a circle, with anywhere from three to five roads simultaneously coming into, and shooting off of, the same roundabout. All the while one is trying to the read the signs for each exit, and hoping you make the right choice to get off onto the correct road for your destination. Multiply that by about 50 and that was our trip from Lewtrenchard to Sussex. At one point in the journey we were finding ourselves at a roundabout every two miles. The last hour of this was in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Needless to say it was an exhausting drive for passenger and driver alike.

After a not too comfortable night in a less than desirable hotel, we moved from a town on the east side of Hastings, to the lovely seaside resort of Eastbourne, a far better location for investigating Sussex, both East and West. A glimpse at any map of England would show that Eastbourne was by the sea, but it never really registered as a resort until we drove the wide street that separated the rocky beach from the curving expanse of Victorian buildings, formerly homes, now hotels. The ornate pier with its Victorian pavilion and large tearoom was another surprise. The view up the coast was worth the windblown walk up from our hotel and onto the long pier. In the distance we could see the beginnings of the chalk cliffs, considered finer than those commemorated in the song “The White Cliffs of Dover.”

the-eastbourn-pier

That Sunday we were to meet two friends (from the Letters of Mary group) at Haywards Heath – Yolanda, who had traveled from Scotland to stay with friends in Sussex, and Ruthie, down for the day from her home outside of London. The drive took us north near Lewes (pronounced Lewis) through winding narrow roads and beautiful country lanes. After our rendezvous, at a train station, we drove to a pub in a nearby town, and enjoyed a lovely lunch in the pub’s garden taking advantage of the unexpected sunshine. Later we explored Lewes and walked its streets window-shopping, as it was Sunday and most stores were closed. Sussex was showing us its best, charming villages, quaint towns, and some of the most beautiful countryside imaginable.

We spent 6 days in Sussex, and each was a gem of sunshine and sea breezes. The weather couldn’t have been lovelier. Exploring the land brought us to so many places mentioned in the Russell books, we had a real sense of the area, a combination of towns and rural landscape, yet compact enough you could walk it as Russell and Holmes so often do in the books.

We drove up onto the South Downs from Eastbourne and found it astonishing to be in a large bustling city one minute and 500 feet about the sea on open downs the next. The view from the cliffs is quite breathtaking, and we walked the well-trodden path taking in the channel, the Beachy Head Lighthouse, and the chalk cliffs called the Seven Sisters. Even with the stiff breeze there was still the hint of the early morning mist, but the sun was bright and warm making our walk a pleasure. Turning our backs to the sea we looked north taking in gently rolling grassland dotted with sheep and the occasional farmhouse. This is a national treasure, and knowing it has been preserved as parkland gladdened our hearts.

beachy-head-in-the-afternoon-sun

After a drive that took us along the coast, past East Dean, Friston, and finally crossing the Cuckmere toward Seaford, we circled back and returned to the coastline in bright afternoon sun, marveling at the colors of the sea and the beauty of the downs. There was such a sparkle to the light, crisp and vivid.

eastbourne-shoreline

On one of the days we drove to the town of Battle and viewed the ground where William The Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred in 1066 and forever changed England. Another day we viewed the Wilmington Long Man, that giant carved into a hillside that has such an important role in “The Language of Bees,” and then continued on the very narrow road to Alfriston, reputed to be one of the loveliest towns in England.

the-wilmington-long-man

While there we visited the bookstore Much Ado Books, and were much amused when the proprietor, an acquaintance of Ms. King’s, had to stop while totaling our purchases to check her chickens as they were making all together too much noise and she worried a fox might have gotten into the hen house. She returned telling us several of the hens were laying eggs, and the remaining hen was lonely. That made us laugh!

alfriston-book-store

We took one day to explore Eastbourne by foot. Setting out determined to find the train station, along the way we found some wonderful shopping areas, promenades lined with shops and no vehicles. The exterior of the train station is not remarkable, but we found the interior charming with its glass roof and bright airiness.

interior-eastbourn-station

Another day we rode the Bluebell railroad, a private railway run by volunteers that travels 18 miles (round trip) through the Sussex countryside by steam engine. Sitting in the car (second class – they didn’t have any first class cars on that day) one had a real sense of the pace of life where travel by steam engine was rapid transit. We were amused to find that the couple seated across from us knew all about Sabine Baring-Gould as they belonged to a church where he had been rector and where, they were proud to say, some of the manuscript pages of his songs still resided. We speculated that there would have been very few people on the train that day that would known about Baring-Gould, let alone be able to discuss him with us. The serendipity of travel is often amazing.

Our lasting impression of Sussex is that the land is open, rolling, impossibly beautiful and so quintessentially English it seems unreal. I will always picture the downs and the cliffs in bright sun, the sky seeming huge and an azure blue. I realize how very fortunate we were to have those sun-soaked days; it might just have easily been rainy, cold, and gray. But Sussex smiled on us and it was almost painful to leave. Returning to Heathrow was difficult, not because of the drive, but because we had experienced such perfection in Sussex, and well…Heathrow is its own type of hell – all noise, congestion and the realization that our amazing trip was ending. We had set out to find the England in the Russell books and we succeeded. It is all there – one just has to go looking for it.

sussex-countryside

Comments

  1. strawberry curls says:

    I would like to, again, thank Laurie for the opportunity to try my hand at writing a travel blog. I couldn’t have done it without the help of Merrily. She was my editor, offering corrections and suggestions that improved each piece. She was also the best traveling companion possible.

    Writing these blogs has been a great experience for me. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of trying to capture a bit of the wonderful trip I shared with Merrily. Here’s to 2011 when we will return to the U.K.

    As for my covering everything with these blogs, something tells me you will have plenty to write about when you travel through England in the fall, Laurie. I can’t wait to read about it.

    If you are interested in seeimg more pictures from the trip I will be uploading them to the Gallery thread on The Virtual Book Club over the next few days. The link to that site is on the tool-bar at the top of this page.

  2. LaideeMarjorie says:

    First to Laurie: I think it’s been two weeks now since you have posted here yourself. Please don’t wait so long (or until your trip to England) to post again! Let us know how GMAN is coming along and how you are doing. I know that the 15 weeks is long over, but I like it when you can keep in touch.

    Alice & Merrily, thanks again again for bringing us along with your on your tour of Russell and Holmes’ part of the world. It is a trip that most of us envy.

    –Marjorie

  3. Jessara says:

    I don’t want the trip to be over. Your posts were wonderfully descriptive, and ‘warts and all’ is the only way to get a decent feel for the countryside. Guidebooks do overlook such sins as red flocked wallpaper, and they neglect to mention the paucity of petrol stations along a route. The incredible beauty of the open land on a sunny day can never be forgotten, but oh, it was good to be reminded. Thank you so much. BTW- by the Laws of Travel, every night spent in an unsatisfactory place justifies an offsetting night spent in luxury somewhere. You may now embark to a high-end spa for awhile. You’re entitled. And I’ve just checked to make sure my passport is still good for a few more years.

  4. Merrily says:

    Laurie and all,
    It was a thrill for us to travel “Russell Country” and I am one of those folks who never tires of England (even with the roundabouts). We were so honored to be guests on Laurie’s blog and I hope Alice’s excellent commentary and pictures can put folks “there” as they read about Holmes and Russell in Sussex.
    As to the elderly lady swimming off Beachy Head, I’m quite sure that the sight of a 109 year old woman doing a crawl through the water would stop traffic, even on the cliffs. Good thing they didn’t notice her senior companion waiting on the beach!

  5. AmyLizzie says:

    Lovely : ) Well done, it was a wonderful read, I’m English, I grew up with these places and you’ve made me want to go :S I’m aware that makes no sense… 😀

  6. Strawberry Curls says:

    “Lovely : ) Well done, it was a wonderful read, I’m English, I grew up with these places and you’ve made me want to go :S I’m aware that makes no sense…”

    Thanks, AmyLizzie, not only does it make sense, I take it as a huge compliment!! 🙂

  7. AmyLizzie says:

    Yay! Good 😀

  8. Well done Alice, I’ve so enjoyed this marvellous series recording your journey and all the sights you discovered. And the photos were all so fabulous too. I hope the memories continue to delight you for the next two years, until you can come back and explore some more.

    Ruthie

  9. Thank you for posting – it was a pleasure to read. Sincerely.

  10. Pat Floyd says:

    Thank you, Alice and Merrily. Yours has been perfect travel reporting. I’ve relished every installment. The roundabouts remind me of the first time I arrived in the Boston area in the midst of their five o’clock traffic, not sure where I was going, and having my first experience with traffic circles. After a couple of roundabouts, one feels obligated to commit. I was lucky, but I was driving on the side of the road to which I was accustomed. On the other hand, I didn’t have the help of a navigator, human or digital.

  11. I echo the above – it has been a pleasure following your travels, and I too feel remiss not to have visited places so close to home 🙂 I think I spent too many years travelling overseas, but you make me want to stay home next year and have a holiday like this…

    As for roundabouts – be glad you didn’t come across the Magic Roundabout in Swindon on your way to or from Oxford! Truly mind-boggling, and I sat my driving test there!

    All the best to you both, and thank you once again for sharing with us.

    Chris

  12. Merrily says:

    All, in respect to what we called “rotaries” in New England, I do think my years of driving up there helped with the roundabouts. After all there are many parts of the U.S. in which folks have never seen a rotary, and even in New England they’re beginning to disappear.
    I think the scariest sequence of them I ever went through was coming into Poole (on another trip) in which we kept going out of one roundabout and into another – and big ones too.
    Although, then were the times I drove in and out of London at rush hour…so hard to choose!
    And yes, English friends, do enjoy the beauties of your wonderful country, we certainly do!

  13. July 17, 2009
    I have read the Russell-Holmes series several times, just finished the most recent and loved it. I am eagerly awaiting the continuation and more information about Holmes’ son. Are any other readers hoping for a movie or a television series based on the books? How perfect Alan Rickman would be as Sherlock Holmes and just about the right age.

  14. Although you have trod familiar ground to me, seeing it through your eyes with a Russell twist has been lovely. Thank you so much, it has inspired me to visit again.
    I have a comment which I hope will be taken in the correct spirit by all who love detective stories and have an eye for detail (and I do know battlegrounds were not the main purpose of the trip, but please forgive an Anglo-Saxon):
    Harold, not Alfred; Harold’s military prowess was actually amazing, but no-one remembers it, because…………he lost to a Norman upstart.

  15. Josephine says:

    Is there a blog about the to be continued aspect of the last novel, The Language of Bees? How long do we have to wait for the next one? The Downs and other photos from Sussex looked just a I imagined. I have been to England, but traveled mostly north, to the Moors of Wuthering Heights fame. Thanks for sharing your journey.

  16. Laurie King says:

    If you click on The Green Man’s category over on the right, you can see what I’ve had to say about it. There’s no definite pub date yet, but my books are generally out in April/May.

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