Tuesday, October 21, 2014

In the Shade of the Downs

In almost spring-like weather, with a fast moving wind sending the rainclouds scudding across the blush of a late afternoon sky, we set off on a brisk, short walk before the October light faded. Starting at Firle, we followed the old coach road eastwards towards Selmeston, zigzagging across the thoroughfare to dodge the water-filled potholes that littered the route.

We three had not been out walking in the shade of the Downs for a few years. The last time we were together, Sussex Sedition was a fanzine containing condemnations of the political class, exhortations of an anarchist life of sufficiency and tips on punk vegetable growing. All concealed beneath benign and bucolic cover art, we would leave copies in pubs amongst the leaflets for visitor attractions, guides to local arts festivals and copies of the Friday Ad and Magnet magazine – guerrilla distribution. But then life got in the way: relocation and redeployment sent us our separate ways and the effort of print gave way to the ease of the blog.

At the foot of Firle Beacon, having left the folly of Firle Tower behind us, we encountered two walkers trying to find the most direct way down to Charleston Farmhouse. They headed off according to our directions, but we soon realised we had sent them on a longer route. Not soon enough, though: they were already out of sight when we spotted the quicker path. And, with another cloudburst breaking overhead, we took the shortcut ourselves.

Charleston was the country home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and the meeting place of the Bloomsbury group that included writers Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. Now run by a trust, the house has a permanent collection of paintings, furnishings and ceramics, the garden is home to a diversity of sculptured forms and there is a splendid tea room. It was here that we were holed-up when the walkers we had met on the road came in, dripping wet and looking puzzled at our presence. We spluttered out an unconvincing tale, by way of an excuse, and hurried on our way.

A very short walk on from Charleston is Tilton House. This was once home to one of the Bloomsbury set’s regular - but unlikely - associates, the economist John Maynard Keynes. It was Keynes who went against free market thinking in the 1930s and pioneered the theory that only state intervention could sustain employment and secure recovery from depression. Keynesian economics had been adopted as the policy choice of most western governments by the middle of the 20th century and, having fallen out of favour during the rise of 1980s’ monetarism, returned to prominence in response to the global financial crisis of 2008.

Now a yoga retreat, Tilton is not open to the public; but we ventured past the ‘PRIVATE’ sign and up the drive, anyway, so that we could get a good look. No sooner had we taken in the Georgian fa├žade, than a burly beard in a cheesecloth shirt bounded up and asked if he could help us. When we responded that we were fans of J.M. Keynes on a pilgrimage, he was immediately disarmed and shuffled back inside to his meditations. With the sun now low in the western sky, we headed back up the coach road to Firle, to contemplation of a more satisfying kind: a pint of Harveys at the Ram Inn.

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