Saturday, December 31, 2011

Brando in Sussex

The last time I walked the ten mile round trip from my house to the village of Penhurst, high up on the ridge above Battle, I wandered along footpaths skirting golden fields and deep green hedgerows. Under an endless azure canvass, with only a touch of high-blown cirrus clouds, I was lost in the heat of a summer’s day; but that was two years ago. Today, with a light drizzle on a refreshingly chilly morning amidst this year’s unseasonal mildness, it is a different story.

The interregnum between Christmas and New Year is a strange time: joyous idleness easily becomes listlessness; the days are short and the light fades quickly; days of the week become indistinct. After a glut of booze, meat and pickle, a blast of cold air, a cooling rain and some open country are required to restore equilibrium; but after negotiating the public footpath through the fields around Cowden Farm, the ground is so sodden after the recent downpours, that I have to abandon the cross country route and make this a walk along the lanes. The amount of detritus that has been washed onto the road, still lying undisturbed, testifies to the scarcity of vehicles on this route and, as I come out of Prinkle Lane and enter the tunnel of trees that is Bray’s Hill, I have not seen a soul, let alone a car.

At this lowest point of the year, the trees are spectral figures without a sign of life and the landscape is at its most bare and pared back. It is only as I near Brownbread Street and pass the horse sanctuary that I am reminded that this is a Friday and a working day. Brownbread Horse Rescue is a charity that rehabilitates neglected and mistreated horses. There are approximately fifty horses in their care and help from volunteers and donations of old tack are always welcomed; they also have two open days a year - in May and September – when their charges and work can be seen at first hand. That the Ash Tree Inn in Brownbread Street itself is not yet open is a mixed blessing: a pint of Harvey’s would be welcome but this walk is supposed to be clearing away the fug of the festive season. Anyhow, it will be open on the way back.

Making the long climb down the hill from Ponts Green to Ashburnham Forge as the rain develops, I cannot help but think how testing this steep gradient will be on the way home. Ashburnham was the last location in Sussex to have a working blast furnace. When it ceased production in 1813, this saw the end of the Wealden iron industry that dated back to before the Roman invasion but was at its height in the 16th century, supplying much of England’s wrought iron and most of its cannon. When the industrial revolution arrived, the Weald could not compete with the new Ironmasters of the Midlands and the North.

Penhurst too, has its associations with the iron industry: William Relph, a Wealden Ironmaster, built the Elizabethan manor house here. It is a small village and the only other significant building, the 14th century church of St. Michael the Archangel, is the final resting place of the English Marlon Brando. It is hard to see much of that epithet in the actor who played Harold, a Shepherd’s Bush rag and bone man, on the small screen in the sixties and seventies; but Harry H. Corbett’s brooding performances at Joan Littlewoood’s Theatre Workshop at Stratford in the 1950s, in Shakespearean and other classical dramas, drew critical acclaim and comparisons to the American method actor. However, the lure of the small and B-screens eventually led to a Galton and Simpson pilot, The Offer, that became Steptoe and Son, a programme I remember guffawing along to as a child but was too young to really know why at the time. Steptoe and Son ran for twelve glorious years from 1962, during which time Corbett tried to go back to Shakespeare; but by then, his talent for serious drama was unable to transcend his sitcom catchphrase of “you dirty old man!”

Frustrated and disappointed that he had not fulfilled his early promise, when the sitcom ended things got worse: he drifted into cameo roles in bawdy seventies’ films and pantomime appearances. Three years before his death, he suffered a heart attack whilst in panto in Bromley; in 1982, a second attack in Hastings saw his burial in the churchyard here at the ridiculous age of 57. Standing amongst the graves in the now driving rain, I find I have neither the heart nor the legs for the walk back. I need a lift - in more than one sense of the word.

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