SPRINGTIME IN THE DEANS
As well as me, who else here has incurable Peter Pan syndrome? People like us just can't grow up! Anyway, why should we? Let me quote from another sufferer – so famous that we all know him – as he revels in the new season's sights and sounds, colours and smells, the very touch and tastes of Spring:
Jumping off all his four legs at once in the joy of living, and Spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow, till he reached the further side. He rambled busily along the hedgerows, across copses, finding everywhere birds building, flowers budding, leaves thrusting.**
Whether as young as you, or as old as me – and I'm now so old I'm a listed building – can we ever find anything more evocative of Spring's birth than Mole's delight in its arrival? Please feel free to prove me wrong, but I doubt it. As the annual miracle returns, let's pretend we're kids again, following in the footsteps of Mole and his Wind in the Willows mates, looking anew at the world, with eyes of wonder and excitement: we're going down the fascinating country walk from Woodingdean to Rottingdean on a Spring adventure!. If you don't find this a banquet for your senses, I'll eat my shoes – and sweaty socks.
But to begin at the beginning; we must first get to Woodingdean; so climb aloft with me, why don't you, to the crow's nest that is the front of the number two bus; we board at its Rottingdean terminus opposite Tesco Express.
The fun starts as we squeeze northward up the narrow High Street. It originally catered for animals and farm vehicles – even the occasional stage-coach – but wasn't built for motor traffic, never mind double-deckers. Our drivers sure earn their pay – they deserve medals.
Can we spy into peoples' upstairs rooms? Cor, not 'arf!
Once past The Green and on to Falmer Road, our horizons widen out to a glorious panorama. Horses and hedges and houses and huts dot a landscape of many shades of green. This really is horse country; they're everywhere – in valleys and paddocks, across the Downs, on the skyline. Is it any wonder, when Brighton Racecourse is less than a mile away? Ignorant city-slickers like me, dwellers in the semi-suburban coastal strip, don't realise what a huge equine-based economy exists and thrives behind us, just a little inland.
Later, on foot, we can enjoy in detail the pleasures of Rottingdean, Ovingdean and Woodingdean, or at least those parts we'll walk through. Meantime, our vehicle meanders round the latter, eventually letting us jump off.
We could leave it at Warren Way shops, but it's a bit built-up there: I prefer to go one stop further, dismounting at the Downs Hotel, from where the view to the Channel – dominated by familiar friends, massed ranks of the Rampion brigade, benign triffids on parade – is so beautiful (you can even see the top of the racecourse stadium to the west). Need to pop into the Hotel's loo? Now's the time, remembering to leave a suitable tip for the staff. We can also top up our grub at the Co-op, survival rations for our epic trek – all two-and-a-half miles of it – to the sea.
** Wind in the Willows. Copyright © Kenneth Graeme 1908
From traffic lights to beach is less than three miles. We start high on the Downs and Rottingdean's at sea level, so downhill all the way except for a few flat bits and some gentle upward slopes; but if you're not used to it, you'll be surprised at the toll even this short distance takes.
Perhaps, if you live in the car, or never stroll further than the bar for the next round of drinks, you should first talk to your GP about breaking yourself in gradually. This could include short daily walks that get a bit longer each outing (the Undercliff could be ideal as long as your footwear has indestructible soles, because the pebbles ruin flimsy ones, as I discovered the hard way).
Blisters can strike any time, so lots of sticky plasters in reserve are a must.
Anyway, given that you've cranked your body – especially your feet – up to a state of readiness, let's go!
A word of caution: the road will twist, turn and bend, meaning you can't always see cars until the last second. Beware, and only cross where it's safe to do so e.g. where you can see clearly in all directions, or at designated crossings.
When is a village no longer a village? Woodingdean, like Saltdean, has outgrown its original shape: it's now more of a suburb of mighty Brighton, albeit separated by a mile or so of green belt. Thankfully we soon start to leave the built-up bits behind and start to enjoy leafier stretches. You're not far from woodland and open country as you head south. The vista becomes lush, abundant and exuberant: coppices and shrubs, bushes and trees – most stark-naked in winter – are now getting dressed. They don vivid garments of bud and berry, blossom and leaf, their livery flaunting enough finery to make a rainbow jealous. My favourite trees, horse-chestnuts, unfurl hands of young leaves so that, come September, you can expect a plentiful crop of smooth, glossy, aromatic fruit, ammunition to fuel the conker wars of a new school year.
Shaggy green carpets display tapestries of bluebells, daffodils, dandelions and daisies that entice vibrating, quivering butterflies of many an eye-catching hue. Let's enjoy the pleasure of bouncing through thick, springy alive grass; nature's trampoline.
Among nettles and other wild roadside flowers and plants, endless oceans of blackberry brambles – their barbed-wire bristling with thorny aggression – limber up, promising another summer's vast harvest of juicy purple succulence: forager heaven. Foraging tip: if you didn't already know there are nearly as many horses as humans round here, the plentiful evidence is literally under your nose, so bring a separate bucket with shovel: they say this stuff's great for your roses.
Birdsong is everywhere, but – apart from magpies – don't ask me to identify any of them: David Attenbrough I'm not.
With or without Mole, there's beguiling enchantment all around: here a stile daring you to climb over and explore its hidden hinterland, there a pony willing to nuzzle the apple from your open palm.
And, let's not ignore domestic gardens, where sleek, well-groomed, multi-coloured spring blooms seem to glow with glee at the promise of summer. Someone's mown their lawn; isn't that unique fragrance just so delightful?
Of course, we are assuming the sun always shines warmly from clear blue cloud-free sky. But what if it's raining, or – worse – the Beast from the East returns? Well. It won't, because – before we even left home – each of us prayed and sacrificed to Apollo the sun-god: we read the entrails, consulted the auguries, and in every way possible propitiated the golden deity; so it's guaranteed he will smile on us.
One mile on, at Cowley Drive, we leave Woodingdean and, though you wouldn't know it, enter Ovingdean; you discover this only when reaching Ovingdean Road. We can now stay on Falmer Road, or turn right and walk the extra half-mile via Ovingdean village. Either way is a lovely treat, so let's alternate: next time the village, but today it's straight to Rottingdean. You can still see an area of Ovingdean to our right; down in the dip are paddocks with its grazing horses; and The Vale, where my sister used to live with her first husband. Most of the village itself is unseen, as it's up, over and beyond Long Hill ridge to the west; but what does dominate the valley is the very impressive Longhill School and its athletics-field. Next door, for the even more energetic student or adult, is the Sports Centre, where you can spend a sweaty hour in its well-appointed gym.
Rabbits galore inhabit the grounds; bring your shotgun and put rabbit casserole on the table tonight (recipe on request).
You could write a whole book on Rottingdean alone (many have – see them in the library), so I am only going to briefly mention a few highlights.
For me, the village really starts at Rottingdean Place (formerly St Mary's Home), a gated community of luxury homes so large it has its own estate office. Their enormous wall encloses immaculately maintained parkland, and seems to stretch for ever down Falmer Road. From here you can just catch your first glimpse of the top of the Windmill.
My next stop would be the Cricket Club; what is more quintessentially English than to spend a sunny weekend lazily watching village-green -style play at its best?
Eventually we reach one of the glories of the village, St Margaret's church: behind it – so close to be almost its Siamese twin – is Tudor Close; my sister once lived there too. at number four. Back in the 1930's it was the exclusive Tudor Close Hotel, catering for the posh and wealthy. There's an apocryphal tale that the owner used to put on murder mystery weekends: at one of these was the chairman of Waddington's who, as a result, was inspired to invent the much-loved board-game Cluedo, originally called Murder at Tudor Close Hotel.
There are many more intriguing details at The Grange, both in the library, and also upstairs in the Gallery, where hangs a painting of the Close by one of its current residents. The Preservation Society's Mike Laslett is the most generous and entertaining of archivists.
On the other side of The Pond, at the corner of The Green and High Street, is what I think of as one of the village's best-kept secret – The Dene, an attractive sheltered-housing facility. Run by the Teachers' Housing Association originally for retired educators, it's now much less choosy and will take anyone, even me. I'm in the mile-long queue: let's hope I get to the front before it's too late. An absolute must for your diary is the August Garden Party on their beautiful lawn.
Of course, what would Rottingdean be without its Windmill? There it squats – clothed in black, like a motionless spider awaiting its prey – on the eastern flank of Beacon Hill. Its stark, sinister silhouette lurks and looms over the village. Is the mill to Rottingdean what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris? Perhaps not, but meanwhile, it also gazes out to sea at its distant, much younger cousins who ceaselessly, peacefully, silently ply their trade.
From The Grange Tea Garden to Molly's at the Beach, there are over thirty places to eat or drink or both; succumbing to malnutrition is unlikely, so let's complete the journey that will end with refreshments at the Undercliff. First we must traverse the seething metropolis that is central Rottingdean; to preserve the illusion we're in a quaint old village, avert your eyes from crass commercial examples of multiple firms: modern intruders – coffee shops, convenience stores, estate agents (even traffic lights) – should play no part in our idyll.
The final furlong: High Street South, with its free Rampion Telescope on the cliff-top. Take your fill of the wind turbines by day (and the stars by night). Then down curving steps to Molly's at the Beach for a well-earned, slap-up afternoon tea.
We made it: well done!
Copyright © Peter Black 2019