Archive for the Sussex Category

The Wilmington Giant, Eric Ravilious

Posted in Art, Sussex with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2015 by mysearchformagic

This week I visited an exhibition dedicated to the short life of mid twentieth-century artist Eric Ravilious at the rather lovely Dulwich Picture Gallery. Ravilious spent much of his life in Sussex, and many of his best works are views of the South Downs and the charming countryside that lies around them. Images of winding country lanes, travellers’ caravans and rolling hills recall a magical rural England, reminders of a time now long past.

, Eric Ravilious

I particularly loved his painting of the Wilmington Giant, which can be found on Windover Hill just outside the village of Alfriston.  While many things may have changed since Ravilious painted this scene in 1939, the Wilmington Giant, also known as the Long Man, remains steadfastly the same. He’s been there since time immemorial, and will not doubt still be there for centuries to come; huge, silent and mysteriously magical.

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The Spink, Charleston Farmhouse

Posted in Art, Gardens, History, House, Sussex with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2014 by mysearchformagic

Following my climb up Windover Hill, I made the short journey west to Charleston Farmhouse. This beautiful place was once home to artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and played host to their circle of bohemian friends, now better known as the Bloomsbury Group.

The interior of the house, with its murals, painted furniture and fascinating collection of art and objects, is definitely magical. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside, so I wasn’t able to capture that magic for this blog.

The house and garden at Charleston Farm

The house and garden at Charleston Farm

However, the perfect English cottage gardens more than made up for that loss. A riot of colourful and perfume, the gardens of Charleston Farmhouse are an oasis of peace and quiet. It was while wandering through those gardens that I came across a small orchard. Hiding in the shadows of the surrounding trees, I found a strange, rather magical sculpture.

The Spink in the garden of Charleston Farmhouse

The Spink in the garden of Charleston Farmhouse

Further research has revealed that this sphinx-like beast, which is carved out of a large stack of bricks, was created by Vanessa’s son Clive Bell in 1931 and is known as the Spink. Just like the mythical beast that it is named after, the Charleson spink is a bit of an enigma, loitering silently in a quiet corner of the garden.

What is it thinking? Your guess is as good as mine…

Windover Hill, Sussex

Posted in History, Landscape, Sussex with tags , , , , , , on June 8, 2014 by mysearchformagic

I was lucky enough to enjoy a rare day of sunshine on a recent visit to one of my favourite magical places, the South Downs. A long range of hills which run along the foot of England, the South Downs offer some beautiful stretches of unspoilt countryside, as well as some incredible views across the rolling plains to the north and the sea to the south.

I began my walk in the pretty village of Alfriston, which is filled with charming thatched cottages and old timbered houses. The chalky path was shady and tree-lined to start with, but soon emerged onto open hillside. The sun was hot, and skylarks chirped and twittered above me in the clear blue sky.

The chalk path up to Windover Hill, Sussex

The chalk path up to Windover Hill, Sussex

As I climbed the steep path, I caught sight of the mysterious Longman of Wilmington, a huge chalk figure cut into the hillside. Once thought to be prehistoric, this carving is now dated to more recent times, and was probably created in the 16th or 17th centuries. The Longman, also known as the Wilmington Giant, carries two staves, and although there are various theories about who or what he represents, the truth behind his creation will probably never be known. Today, pagan ceremonies are conducted next to him on important days of the year, and morris men celebrate the dawn of every May Day by dancing at his feet.

The Longman of Wilmington, Sussex

The Longman of Wilmington, Sussex

I finally made it to the top of Windover Hill, and found there, just above the Longman, a large ancient tumulus, known as Windover-Wilmington Barrow. This ancient burial mound is surrounded by a ditch, and is of the type known called a ‘bowl’ barrow.

The Wilmington-Windover Barrow, Sussex

The Wilmington-Windover Barrow, Sussex

The views from here are incredible, with historic Wilmington Priory not far below, the soft ridge of the Downs stretching into the distance and green fields as far as the eye can see. The top of this ridge is dotted with burial sites and prehistoric remains, suggesting that our ancestors thought of it as somewhere special, magical even. Standing there, with the lark song cutting through the warm summer breeze and the world spread out at my feet, I could definitely see why.

The stunning views from Windover Hill, Sussex

The stunning views from Windover Hill, Sussex

The Tale of an Empty House and Other Ghost Stories, E.F. Benson

Posted in Books, Ghosts, Superstition, Sussex with tags , , , , , , , on December 3, 2013 by mysearchformagic

I always think it is strange that Christmas time is now so closely linked with ghost stories. Recently it seems like the tales of M.R. James have become a festive perennial, and hardly a year goes by that they don’t appear somewhere, be it in print or on TV or radio. Much as I love James’s creepy stories, this year I fancied something a little bit different. And so it was I delved into my library and came out with a well-thumbed copy of The Tale of an Empty House and Other Ghost Stories by E.F. Benson.

The Tale of an Empty House, E.F. Benson

The Tale of an Empty House, E.F. Benson

Born in 1867, Benson is perhaps best known for his Mapp and Lucia books, which were successfully recreated for TV in the mid 1980s. Anyone familiar with these light, comic tales of high society in rural 1920s Tilling may be surprised to find out that Benson was also a master of the supernatural yarn, with the stories in this book a world away from the curtain twitching and idle gossip of the Tillingites.

Having said that, most of his ghostly tales are set in a world long gone, an country inhabited by dapper bachelors who rent country houses for the summer and frequent polite garden parties. Benson writes about an early 20th Century England, a place of good manners and good breeding, in the human protagonists at least. The author himself believed in the supernatural, and claimed to have experienced a couple of ghostly visitations himself, including one at his charming Georgian home, Lamb’s House in Rye.

E.F. Benson

E.F. Benson

Some of the stories in this collection are rather traditional, featuring hauntings in places where terrible things have happened and spirits that need to be appeased. Vampires make an appearance too, with one of the respectable inhabitants of a village turning out to be not so respectable after all. A couple of the tales are just downright weird, particularly the one entitled And No Birds Sing; quite what that strange thing lurking in the woods was is never quite explained, which inevitably adds to the scariness of it all. How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery was apparently the author’s favourite, and in fact is a rather touching tale of contact from beyond the grave.

So next time you fancy settling down in front of a roaring fire on a dark, chilly evening, the ghost stories of E.F. Benson come highly recommended. While the characters and settings of the stories are very much of their time, the narrative thrills that they provide are never old fashioned. I guess terror is timeless!

Bonfire Night, Hastings

Posted in Hastings, Sussex with tags , , on October 17, 2012 by mysearchformagic

With its steep, winding lanes, ruined castle and rickety old houses, Hastings is an atmospheric, if rather sleepy town every day of the year. But for one night every October the residents of the ancient  fishing port and many of the other towns nearby get together to celebrate bonfire night in an orgy of noise and flame. The resulting torch-lit parade, beach bonfire and firework display are loud, smoky, colourful and most definitely magical.

The Hastings Guy

The best place to catch the long parade is on one of the narrow streets in Hastings Old Town. All Saints’ Street has the benefit of a raised pavement which gives a great view over the passing revellers. At the head of the procession stands the huge, rather spooky Guy, followed by a long shambling line of locals,  most in fancy dress of some strange sort or another. Many also carry burning torches and some let off terrifying fire crackers and flares that burn with a hot pink glow.The  noise of marching drummers is almost deafening. The stink of burning torches mingles with the town’s normal aromas of sea breeze and chip shop grease, and burning embers and smoke fill the chill night air. The crowds cheer on the procession from the pavement and from packed windows above, gasping at the theatrical antics of a tattooed fire eater or waving at passing friends.

Burning Flares in the Hastings Bonfire Night Procession

Down by the seafront the crowds are even larger, filling the wide promenade as the procession reaches its destination on the pebbly beach. The huge pyre has taken days to build, and despite a few hours of intermittent rain during the afternoon, it doesn’t take long for it to catch light as the torch-bearers pitch their burning sticks onto it. Within minutes it has grown into the largest, hottest, and most scary inferno I have ever seen, the long flames leaping high into the night sky.

The Bonfire, Hastings Beach

An impressive fire works display is a spectacular end to a truly magical evening. If you are wondering why the people of Hastings can’t wait until the 5th November along with the rest of us, the answer is that the celebrations also mark the anniversary of the famous battle which took place nearby on the 14th October 1066. With its pagan imagery and wild atmosphere, the Hastings bonfire night is an event like no other. And while many of my previous posts have featured my solitary search for magic in quiet places which lie forgotten and off the beaten track, this weekend I discovered it in a town filled with noise and people.

Magic, it seems, can take many forms and be found in diverse, often surprising locations.